Friday, August 8, 2008

Struck By the Sounds

I watched three profoundly moving documentaries this week on three highly disparate individuals, but all three knocked me out and left me with lasting impressions.

Pete Seeger - The Power of Song
An intimate and eye-opening portrayal of a true American hero. Not only was Seeger an integral part of the “folk scare” of the 50’s and 60’s, but he was an extremely important figure in the political and social upheavals of the 40’s 50’s 60’s and beyond. A true lifestyle pioneer, Seeger lived back to nature, and near communally long before it was fashionable to do so, and his lifestyle choices were intertwined with his musicality in such a beautiful way. Unlike many cultural icons - he lived what he sang - it wasn’t and isn’t a pose. The film moves quickly and purposefully, encompassing an awful lot of cultural history and musical highlights. At the end, one has a gigantic lump in the throat over this man of tremendous principle and gigantic talent. A true American hero.

Joe Strummer - The Future is Unwritten
I watched this movie shortly after watching Pete Seeger-The Power Of Song and although Strummer and Seeger had very little in common musically (although Strummer went by “Woody” as a young man) their stories have a very similar effect on the viewer. They both were part of cultural and musical movements that helped define the personalities of an entire generation of listeners. Strummer seemed to have less predetermination about his activities - he just fell in love with rock music and went for it. His group, The Clash, were the seminal politico/punk group with great songs and the power of their convictions pushing them toward the vanguard of an important social movement. While not as articulate as Seeger in his ideology, there is clearly a desire burning in his soul and belly, and it comes out in a series of rock anthems that just bowl you over with their sincerity and sonic power. Strummer’s early work was informed by his refusal to “sell-out” above all else. Once The Clash became the biggest band in the world, his discomfort with that schism is one of the central themes of the film. He struggled with his message being diluted by the music industry as they marched the Clash to the top of the charts, and his relationships with the other band members suffered as a result of his confusion.
Ultimately, one is left with the portrait of a hard-working, sincere man who, by sticking to his ideological guns, was able to create some of the most vital rock music ever. His unexpected death is terribly sad, but one is left with the clear impression that at the end of his life he was at peace with his accomplishments and the fact that he never did sell out - not at all.

Love - Love Story
The story of the ill-fated Arthur Lee and his group Love is a classic of also-ran, almost-made-it, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God tales. One of the most naturally gifted and mysterious of the 60’s legends, Lee created some of the most sublime and ironically least-known masterpieces of the era. The fabulous Forever Changes is now widely recognized as one of the great albums of 60’s avant-rock, and Love’s first three albums in total represent a lost treasure of stylistically unique music. A low-budget affair, the movie relies too much on rambling, drunken discourses by Lee himself, but when it goes to archival footage and interviews with heavyweights like Elektra records founder Jac Holzman or Doors drummer John Densmore it is as compelling a history as I’ve seen. Sadly, Love managed to just miss each opportunity to become the next big thing, either by Lee’s eccentricities or the industry’s inability to market this multi-racial, willfully arty ensemble. Either way, one is left with a depressing view of a brilliant Black man who was ultimately just too weird and ahead of his time for straight White society. The last part of the movie focuses on Lee’s later life where he tried to resurrect Love, was unfairly thrown in jail for 5 years and then seemed like he might finally get his due, but was sadly taken by illness before that could come to fruition. Throughout, guitarist Johnny Echols comes off as insightful, generous and a true gentleman, co-writer Bryan Maclean comes off as criminally under-appreciated and the extra feature of original drummer Snoopy being weird in his treehouse in Washington state is almost hallucinogenic. This is a sad and compelling chapter in rock history, and one you will not soon forget.

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