SxSW 2016 Interview: SIDEMEN: LONG ROAD TO GLORY director Scott Rosenbaum
"SIDEMEN is the incredible but true stories of Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, three legendary musicians from the Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters bands. They were some of our last links to the roots of blues music and played a significant role in shaping rock 'n' roll. The film captures some of their last performances, interviews triumphs and tragedies that unfolded right on up to their deaths in 2011." Director Scott Rosenbaum on SIDEMEN: LONG ROAD TO GLORY which screens at the 2016 edition of South By Southwest Film.
Welcome to SxSW with SIDEMEN! Are you planning to attend your screenings?
Although this is my first time with a film in SXSW, it is not the first time I was in Austin. Sadly my first visit was for Pinetop's memorial service following his death in 2011. I'm thrilled to be coming back now with a film I hope does justice to his great legacy as well as the legacies of Hubert and Willie too.
Talk to me a bit about how you got your start in the industry and your previous work!
I was always passionate about all the different elements of filmmaking. I loved and played music, always loved writing and I had a camera in hand seemingly forever. As a kid I would edit films that I shot, on two VCR's that I connected together. However, I never thought it was possible for me to do it as a career. After graduating college with a degree in journalism I had several day jobs while I studied directing and screenwriting in various new York City workshops. This culminated in the writing of my first feature film, THE PERFECT AGE OF ROCK 'N ROLL which in the process brought me in contact with my writing/producing partner Jasin Cadic.
So with your great personal connection to the material, how did the documentary come together from your perspective?
I had always revered the blues after discovering the fact that it was the root of all the rock music I loved growing up, like Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Cream, The Rolling Stones and more. The influence narrative is the underpinning of PERFECT AGE. As a result, I wanted to cast the great sidemen of the Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf bands once we went into production. We were thrilled when Pinetop, Willie, Hubert along with Sugar Blue and Robert Stroger all agreed to participate in the film's juke joint scene Jason and I had written. After spending the day with them on set and falling instantly in love with these incredible musicians, I wanted to do something to capture who they were and honor their legacies as creators of the great blues music that influenced all the rock n roll I loved so much.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
This film took seven years to make and as filmmakers we endured the standard filmmaker roller coaster ride, but the incalculable loss of our three subjects within months of each other. The experience became more than just the making of a movie, it took on a whole other level of significance for us. As a result the long hours and personal heartache we experienced certainly required many forms of many forms of motivation and consolation. However, Pine, Willie and Hubert were really all the motivation we needed. The experiences we shared with those guys and the desire to do justice to their stories was motivation enough to see this film through to completion.
With a progress like this and such a connection to the material, what was your biggest challenge with making this movie, and the moment that was the most special to you?
We always knew we had something special in that we were capturing such a fleeting part of not only music history, but American history as well. Pinetop was 95 years old when we started shooting. I knew he wasn't going to be with us forever. But when all three men passed away in 2011, again, this experience became so much more than a filmmaking process. I really lived in fear that even if we did manage to finish the film, that it wouldn't be worthy of the men and the experience we had been through. It wasn't until we had a fairly finished cut of the film and started to see the reactions of people we were showing, that I knew we captured the incredible personalities and stories of Pinetop, Willie and Hubert.
I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie and its intended look.
There are several elements to the film, not the least of which are the live performance sequences. In that case I was very clear that I wanted to have the cameras close up to give the audiences a sense that they were close to the music, if not on stage with the musicians themselves. For anyone who plays music, they know and experience the unspoken interaction that occurs between musicians during a live performance. Scorsese captured these moments beautifully in THE LAST WALTZ and I always felt that seeing the interaction between the musicians on stage added to the sense of tragedy that underlies that whole film. I wanted to capture the same intimacy so I made a reference guide for the cinematographers who shot the performances and we went over it before each show. As far as the other elements of the film which were largely the interview sequences, we were all over the place in terms of gear and photographers. The film's producer, Joe White, had relationships with several incredible cinematographers and we were fortunate that they showed up when we had booked many of our interviews. Declan Quinn, Robby Baumgartner, Brian McAward, Dan Marracino, Joseph Quirk and Greg Wilson were incredibly generous with their time and talent.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?
There is no better city for us to have the film's World Premiere than Austin. The city played a significant role in the lives of Pinetop, Willie and Hubert. Clifford Antone created Antone's largely as Texas oasis for the wayward Chicago blues musicians. And later, he provided additional help to Hubert and Pinetop by providing not only steady gigs, but also places to stay. Pinetop eventually made Austin his his permanent home and is well known around town for rolling himself in his wheelchair down to Antone's to either play or just set up shop and sell his autographed CD's. In March 2011, Pine died in Austin at the age of 97, the month after having won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album, an honor he shared with Willie. That Grammy award made Pine the oldest ever recipient of the award. Though he had previously been given a lifetime achievement Grammy this was his first Grammy honoring a specific work of music. After eight-decades playing music, it was a long road to glory to be sure.
After the film shows at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?
While there has been a tremendous amount of interest and requests to screen the film after SXSW, we have just recently finished the film. Once we have the SXSW experience we will regroup and see what's next for the film.
If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?
I'm looking forward to showing the film in Clarksdale, Mississippi for the Pinetop Perkins Foundation. Clarksdale is the home of the Delta Blues Museum and so much of the music's history runs through Clarksdale. While the mythical "crossroads" may or may not be in Clarksdale, it's certainly an epicenter for the roots of this great music.
What would you say to someone who was talking or texting through a movie?
It's infuriating when I go to a multi-plex and someone's phone is constantly glowing in the dark. If you can't detach and allow yourself to get lost in the story then don't go to the theater to watch the film.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business as a piece of advice?
There is no single magic bullet answer and no two paths are the same. If you're passionate about the prospect of making a film, then just go out and do it. It really is that simple at this point in time. The technology available in your pocket and on your desktop is more than enough to get you started. Plus, you can do all the research imaginable if there is a technical or artistic question you want to investigate. In the end, the only one who will stop you from doing it is you. But that's with anything in life, isnt it?
And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen?
If you put a gun to my head, no pun intended, APOCALYPSE NOW is my favorite film. Not only for the epic filmmaking, storytelling and the use of music within the film, but Coppola's story of perseverance and how far he was willing to go to see his vision through sets the bar and informs as to how dedicated you have to be to make your film.
Be sure to follow the progress of SIDEMEN by visiting www.sidemenfilm.com!
We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our interview series for our site. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!
This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 11-19. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte