- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

I was stumped by “Only the Strong Survive,” the latest music documentary by the renowned D.A. Pennebaker and his wife, Chris Hegedus. Mr. Pennebaker has captured musicians at their peaks (Bob Dylan in “Don’t Look Back” and David Bowie in “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”) or during late-career rebirths (the bluegrass musicians who performed on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, in “Down From the Mountain”).

“Only the Strong Survive,” filmed in 1999 and 2000, is a different animal altogether. It’s a where-are-they-now look at the once-great soul singers who migrated to Memphis, Tenn., and the Stax-Volt record label in the 1960s and early ‘70s: Wilson Pickett, Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame), the late Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas and Ann Peebles.

It also blends Chicago-based Jerry Butler and ex-Supreme Mary Wilson into the mix, in what seems like a scattershot attempt to round up the “best of who’s left” of the soul genre.

The late Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, of course, weren’t available, and James Brown has never really departed from the limelight. Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Solomon Burke, coming off a Grammy-winning album, are also no-shows.

There is a definite road company air to the artists that Mr. Pennebaker and Miss Hegedus did succeed in rounding up. Nearly all 12 of the singers documented here are shadows of their former selves. At their worst, they seem like self-parodies, and at times “Survive” plays like a Christopher Guest-penned “mockumentary.”

For that reason, it is quite funny in parts. But, was it meant to be? Were the documentarians winking at us, with a mix of irony and reverence for diminished greatness?

My hunch is no, not if we’re to take Roger Friedman at face value. The Fox News rock journalist who received production and editing credits for “Survive” is so fawning in interviewing these singers that he makes Rosie look like Mike Wallace. Flattering Miss Wilson, one of the second-banana Supremes, Mr. Friedman says he’s baffled that anyone ever doubted her potential as a lead singer.

I’m sorry, but based on the evidence of Miss Wilson’s performance at what might as well have been an off-Strip Vegas venue, I would like to tip my hat to Diana Ross for breaking up that trio.

Then there’s Mr. Pickett, who’s so full of himself and assured of his legendary status that not even Mr. Friedman’s barrage of plaudits can compete with his own self-puffery.

A sadly funny lowlight: Watch Mr. Pickett dirty-dance with — or better say “sock it to” — an unlucky overweight lady whom his roadies drag onstage during “In the Midnight Hour.”

The Chi-Lites. Lord have mercy, the Chi-Lites. Were they ever cool? I’m not old enough to remember, but these cheesily-uniformed crooners, just one step above the rubber-chicken circuit, are an embarrassment today.

On the bright side, Mr. Moore and his pal, the great Isaac Hayes, still have some dignity left. In a tribute concert to Mr. Hayes, Mr. Moore pulled off a beautifully rendered performance of the ballad “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” and a fun, if a bit wheezy, “Soul Man,” both written by Mr. Hayes and David Porter.

Mr. Pennebaker takes care to capture the odd relationship between Mr. Moore and his wife, Joyce. In a poignant discussion, Mr. Moore recounts his days as a drug dealer and without hesitation credits his recovery to Joyce, which might explain the Yoko Ono-like control she now exerts over him.

Also stubbornly dignified is Mr. Thomas, who died shortly after the movie was completed. The singer who scored hits with “Walking the Dog” and “Night Time is the Right Time,” Mr. Thomas is found co-hosting a radio show in Memphis with Jay Michael Davis. Their naughty repartee provides some intentionally hilarious moments.

It was nice to find out what happened to Mr. Thomas’ daughter, Carla Thomas, who disappeared from the Memphis scene after recording a few teenage hits such as “Gee Whiz.” Apparently, she went off to college. But she’s still singing today, and not very well, alas.

As someone who has always preferred Memphis soul as a bluesier counterpoint to the more pop-oriented Motown sound, I was slightly dismayed by “Only the Strong Survive.”

Yes, Memphis’ soul singers are surviving — barely.

I wish the filmmakers had made something more along the lines of the recent tribute to the unsung heroes of Motown, the Funk Brothers (“Standing in the Shadows of Motown”), which highlighted the musicians’ accomplishments without patronizing them.

Maybe Mr. Pennebaker and Miss Hegedus should be credited for telling the unvarnished truth, even if it was a little cruel to do so. Still, it would’ve been nice to know whether to laugh or cry at this documentary.

**1/2

TITLE: “Only the Strong Survive,” playing exclusively at AFI Silver Spring and AFI Kennedy Center theaters

RATING: PG-13 (mild profanity; discussion of drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. Produced by Roger Friedman and Frazer Pennebaker. Edited by Miss Hegedus, Erez Laufer and Mr. Pennebaker.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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