Normally we don’t review rock docs in this column. However Mad Dogs & Englishmen feels like cinema to me. It watches more like a movie than a documentary. There are good guys and bad guys, a beginning, middle and end. The story has a heroic arc that finds our protagonist, Sheffield born R&B singer Joe Cocker, embarking on a long and dangerous journey across country with a band of friends and strangers to find the origin of his musical soul. Sounds dramatic right? Well it really is. This was probably the 4th or 5th time I’d watched Mad Dogs & Englishmen and I’d always found it very compelling, but I didn’t quite “get it” if you know what I mean. This time I got it. Fully! The reason it doesn’t feel like a bunch of concert footage is because it isn’t. It is a fully realized movie about a huge undertaking involving over 40 musicians and fellow travelers careening around North America creating something unique and special every single night. Along the way, we get a primer on the highs and lows of the music business circa 1970.
For the most part Joe Cocker comes off a genuinely talented, nice, inarticulate guy who is just kind of going with the flow. He has a tour of America booked after his triumphant performance at Woodstock with The Grease Band. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter The Grease Band went their separate ways and Cocker was left with his name on the dotted line and a North American Tour to mount. He called his friend, Leon Russell and within a day or two Leon had assembled a huge band that included the cream of the L.A./Oklahoma axis of musicians. Names like Rita Coolidge, Jim Keltner, Bobby Keys, Don Preston, Carl Radle and at the center of it all Leon and Joe battling for supremacy. For at the center of this movie is the subtle, dark, controlling, svengali-like personality of Leon Russell. Russell is the obvious musical director of this huge and supremely talented assemblage, as well as the social director and spiritual center of the whole affair. His image and musical fingerprints are everywhere. As stated Joe seems somewhat inarticulate which is never better illustrated than the scenes where he is taken around to radio stations to promote himself. Most painful is a stilted meeting with Bay Area legend Big Daddy Tom Donahue who comes across as overbearing and out of touch as Cocker does timid and hung-over. It becomes clear almost immediately that Cocker himself is like a wind blown leaf in hurricane gale wind, burned out from a couple of intense years of touring and a rocket ship to fame, he is hollow-eyed and lost. Until he gets on stage that is. After all, the reputation of this movie rests on the electrifying performances. And they are. Cocker becomes possessed by the music and delivers a series of electrifying performances. The band is unbelievably funky and tight, yet the arrangements of the familiar material are open-ended and loose allowing for breathtaking improvised ensemble moments. That looseness and amazing arranging can be laid at Leon’s feet. His musical contribution is as important as his emotional impact on the proceedings.
As the tour winds from coast to coast all the excess of the late 60’s is on full display; you got your sex (groupies everywhere including a weirdly dated encounter with “the butter queen,)” drugs (everything, all the time, non-stop) and of course Joe’s form of soul revue Rock and Roll. Interestingly, with over 40 years hindsight we can almost see the misguided idealism of the Woodstock experience unwind before our eyes. As the tour builds momentum the performances get better and better, the party gets longer and stranger and the entire proceeding looks to be heading for some kind of psychic cliff. Then...there is a moment of calm as the touring party lands in Oklahoma on someone’s farm for a down home picnic. All the schizophrenic impulses of the 1960’s are in full effect; the pastoral vs. the city, the family unit vs. rugged individualism, the traditional vs. the avant garde. It is all there as a large bunch of hippie musicians slowly unwind into the sunny grass fields of the American heartland. You can see the yearning for it to last forever, cut with the reality that this fragile ecosystem had to eventually crumble. Before it does though, it produces one hell of a great musical ride.
- Paul Epstein