I love movies, but there’s something about music, how its vibrations and rhythms can affect people, which is universal. Each filmmaker on this panel, in one way or another, sought to explore and understand people who channel music. What is it that makes some people able to access this sort of parallel universe and bring back to share with the rest of us truly wonder-full experiences? Well, for starters, according to these films anyway, such people seem to be unusually sensitive souls and, for them to go back and forth between there and here, they also need to be very strong.
Charles Bradley for example, the singer at the heart of Poull Brien’s film, put out his first album – a Rolling Stones Top 50 of 2011 – at the unlikely age of 62, after decades of devotion to his art and despite a life of extreme hardship. He had been abandoned at 8 months old, and was raised by his grandmother until his mother returned seven years later to rip him away from the only mother he’d ever known. In his early teens he ran away and was homeless, hanging out in the streets of Brooklyn, NY, he had a brush with death, his brother was murdered… Despite ongoing upheaval, the constant in Bradley’s life was music, to which he hung on for dear life. He loved James Brown and sang covers a handful of times. When Poull Brien encountered him, Bradley had begun performing his own songs, and the filmmaker was an instant fan. Bradley’s soulful sound resonated with Brien and, upon meeting the singer and learning he was putting out his first album at 62, he knew he wanted to make a film about him. What impressed Brien most was how a person who had suffered so much hardship had managed to stick it out for so many decades. He wanted to know where that kind of drive comes from. In addition to being an inspired, soulful singer, the person Brien came to know was almost incomprehensively loving and generous, especially given life experiences that might have embittered someone else. Brien characterized his film as one “made with hugs” he received from Bradley. His film is more about the singer than the music, but Brien confesses he would have liked to explore more where his Bradley’s drive, his spark, come from.
Like Brien’s film, Ramona Diaz’s documentary, Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, is more about the performer than the music itself. Diaz followed Arnel Pineda’s rags-to-riches story, plucked from being a cover band singer in the Philippines, through his first year as front man for the American rock band Journey. In contrast to Brien’s character however, Pineda is part of a band – a big band – and still she focused on just him, which didn’t always sit well with the rest of the band. She felt it was a better story though (and she’s right), and was only possible in this case because, for one thing this was Pineda’s first year – now he has “people” – and for another, with Diaz also being from the Philippines, it was often easier, even comforting, for Pineda to hang out with her, and speak a familiar language, than be with the rest of the band (he soon became fluent in English). This was great for access, she says, but could also be a challenge; Pineda would always want to talk to her backstage so, in order to get moments of introspection or to capture the singer interacting with other people, she had to send her crew in while she stayed back, only monitoring events with headphones. Through that first year, she saw Pineda, an obviously talented and powerful singer, become more self-assured, but he always remained, as she calls him, “golden.” He has that magic, that charisma; you can’t take your eyes off him.
Mandy Stein’s film is about a band, a kind of underground phenomenon that, despite having been together for over 30 years and having influenced such famous bands as the Beastie Boys and Nirvana, has itself yet to really break out. Stein looks into the band’s history and evolution. Bad Brains is a DC-based band that melds punk and reggae but whose musicians, contrary to your average punk band whose members pride themselves on limited musical ability, have backgrounds in jazz-fusion. They all have strong personalities, and believe that music should always have a message, but their front man, especially, is volatile. The subject is such a hot-button issue for the band that it is taboo among the members. Stein’s co-director, as they toured with the band, even got thrown off the bus, literally, for bringing it up. Given Bad Brain’s longevity however, she knew there was something to the God-like status they enjoy among their fans, and explores their music, their philosophy and the idiosyncrasies that both propel them and hold them back. With a lot of rare archival, along with interviews, this film goes in search of answers with this band that straddles the fence between genius and …
There is no such “straddling” or ambiguity in Jay Bulger’s film about legendary drummer Ginger Baker. Half jokingly, Bulger says he wanted to figure out how Baker had managed to survive for so long. As one of the film’s interviewees puts it: “The Devil takes care of its own.” Apparently. Bulger first enticed the cantankerous Baker by convincing him he was writing an article about him for Rolling Stone magazine; he did write and publish an article, but ended up with a film, too. It wasn’t easy. Baker, whom many assumed was dead, wanted nothing to do with Bulger (or anyone else, it seems), but the filmmaker says he earned his trust “by being a persistent c*nt,” not giving up even when the drummer hit him in the face with his cane and broke his nose. Throughout his career – indistinguishable from his life – the drummer was after perfection, greatness, and to get it, he went where most mortals dare not. But Bulger plunged right in, as though he needed to learn something vital there. For him to have sustained such a close rapport with Baker (he lived with him for months at a time) must have taken a kind of fortitude unlike that of a war correspondent. Either that, or Bulger might have had a taste of what it’s like on the other side of reality, where Baker seems to live, but, unlike the drummer, Bulger was able to come back. Baker flew so close to the sun that he shines – and burns – with the same intensity. And Bulger shows us what it’s like there.
All filmmakers on the panel agreed: their films aren’t really about the music, but about the story, the person. There’s something about them. Maybe we all see our potential in them: wonderful and frightening, at the same time.
On a more particle level, the filmmakers shared some thoughts and tips for other filmmakers wishing to make films featuring bands or musicians.
They all struggled with money so, when asked how more money would have helped or in what way would it have changed their project, Diaz said she would have shot on film instead of digital video, and Stein said music clearances would have felt less scary had she had more funds. On that topic, Brien exclaimed that he had gotten his last music clearances just two days ago! Bulger agreed that music clearances for films about bands or musicians/singers are a huge expense. His own clearances were the most complicated his lawyers had ever seen, because Baker is a drummer and, as such, has no rights to any of his music (music rights go to the people who wrote the melody and the lyrics). All panelists strongly encouraged filmmakers to hire a music supervisor as early as possible to deal with all musical rights (label, musicians, publishers, performance, inheritance…). A lawyer can also be necessary, and to remember that insurance requires releases.
Before pouring too much work in a project about a person, they all urge filmmakers to also obtain an exclusive agreement with their subject(s).