"People said, 'Pinetop, it looks like you ought to have plenty of money.' How you gonna have plenty of money when you a sideman? No way!" ~ Pinetop Perkins (July 7, 1913 - March 21, 2011)
SIDEMEN: Long Road To Glory opened this past week to unanimous rave reviews and acclaim at the SXSW Film festival, and while it is a great film, likely as good a musical documentary as you'll see released this year, it's also a movie that has a great story of its own.
In his 97 years on earth, Pinetop Perkins never made himself a rich man by playing the piano, but he still went out of this life a rich man, celebrated by fans, friends, getting some of the acclaim due an artist of his stature by way of his third Grammy Award in 2011, and now having his tale told in this passionate documentary.
Photo by Sandro Miller
Hubert Sumlin is as influential a blues guitarist as ever lived, revered by the likes of Joe Bonamassa, Derek Trucks, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Perry, Warren Haynes, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Robben Ford, Eric Gales, and these are just the great guitarists who appear in the film to sing his praises - the list of Sumlin lovers goes on and on. Hubert Sumlin never had a million dollars in the bank, but the love he felt from the musical community at the end of his days was most likely all the payment he ever desired.
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith was best known as Muddy Waters's drummer, and was named Best Drummer twelve times by The Blues Foundation Awards, and again, his was never a name known by mainstream music fans, and he never got wealthy, except by measure of the the love he felt at the end of his career and life by token of a Grammy Award in 2011 for Best Traditional Blues Album for Joined At The Hip, an album he made with Pinetop Perkins. He died in 2011, just after winning his Grammy, and during the making of this film.
SIDEMEN: Long Road To Glory is a beautiful film - it often resembles high art as we get fantastic glimpses into the souls of these great musicians by way of glistening eyes, squinted glances, and humble commentary by its subjects. Its look is pristine, its soundtrack is just right, and the film flows like a mighty river.
This is even more impressive when you find out that this is not the film that director Scott Rosenbaum and co-writer/producer Jasin Cadic set out to make. I first met the director by way of an introduction made in the middle of a concert he was filming in San Francisco in 2010 that was intended to be part of a documentary of the final tour of a group of legendary bluesmen, perhaps not unlike a road show version of Scorsese and The Band's famous The Last Waltz. But this was not to be.
Just a bit more than a month after winning his third Grammy Award, Pinetop Perkins left us. He died on March 21, 2011. Five months later, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith left this earth on September 16, 2011. Less than three months later, Hubert Sumlin passed away on December 4, 2011. The world blues community had lost three of its greatest, and Scott Rosenbaum was left with a half finished concert film.
Rosenbaum went back to the drawing board, re-tooled his basic premise, and it's quite telling that what he finally delivered has been welcomed with such enthusiasm at SXSW Film in Austin, Texas, a town in which none of these men were strangers.
The movie that finally did get made is an excellent telling of the lives and careers of Perkins, Sumlin, and Smith, but it is also a compelling look at the role of sidemen in the world of music, the history of the blues, the blues and the movie's subjects migration out of the rural south, and it features a long, long list of rock and blues icons anxious to tell their takes on these subjects. Gregg Allman, Johnny Winter, Brad Whitford, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Bernard Purdie, and many others speak little of themselves, instead opting to pay tribute to these men, their standing in the music community, and their professions. It's hard to imagine a more accurate or loving tribute.
"The very term itself - 'sideman' - is just a goddamn put down. Hell, everybody knows who Muddy Waters is. Everybody knows who Howling' Wolf is... and they should. But damn, not enough people know who Hubert Sumlin is. Not enough people know who Pinetop Perkins is... The players - they don't even get a dance book. They don't even get to go to the dance." ~ Levon Helm
The story of the sidemen is becoming well known, having been laid out previously in such great docs as Standing In The Shadow Of Motown, The Wrecking Crew, Twenty Feet From Stardom, and these great films are now joined by SIDEMEN: Long Road To Glory. Director Rosenbaum surrounded himself with a stellar crew, and they took what was left, and they have made it into a great documentary. Getting to sing the blues often meant surviving and escaping harrowing circumstances, and perhaps their lessons were not lost on this filmmaker, and he partakes to pass these lessons on to any audience that will listen and watch. For all of these documentaries have gallantly told the tales of their subjects, but this may be the first to impart a lesson along with the tale. As expressed by Sirius XM DJ Michael Des Barres (Little Steven's Underground Garage), who has lived the life of a rock 'n' roll survivor himself, "The importance of this movie cannot be overstated." He adds, "It's good to see a music documentary that doesn't end with anyone jumping off a roof!"
"There was a reason, a lesson, and a story behind their passing" ~ Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith, drummer, and son of Willie "Big Eyes" Smith.
Appropriately enough, Rosenbaum chooses to take the high road at the movie's end, and he shows some of new blues acolytes such as Derex B. Williams, Six String Andrew, Austin Young, and Christone "Kingfish" Ingram at The Pinetop Perkins Foundation's blues masterclass that is held each year at Hopson's Plantation in Clarksdale, MS. When you see Young and Ingram jamming in a cotton field on a couple of unamplified electric guitars, you'll get a sense that the blues will truly never die, and there are more documentaries to come down many long and glorious roads. This documentary is not about the end, it's about the road, and the road keeps on keeping on.
Being a skilled musician himself, the director's pacing and rhythm throughout the film are masterful. It's a great blend of interviews, live shots, photographs and images, and as you can well imagine, there are scenes that simply cannot be shown due to there being a lack of cameras in some of the story's earlier days, and in the absence of film or photo, there are some very, very cool artistic renditions of scenes (stylishly illustrated by Chuck "DragonBlack" Collins) that narrator Marc Maron, of the acclaimed podcast WTF with Marc Maron, expounds upon. The soundtrack Rosenbaum has compiled is one that will sound instantly and always familiar, but never pandering. The rock references ring true, and require no false embellishment. The blues did have a baby, and they did call that baby rock 'n' roll.
This film is a winner, and perhaps its greatest lesson is in the fact that it is a miniature reflection of the men whose story it tells. It comes from humble beginnings, doesn't give up when the going gets rough, and it all ends up with some of the love and acclaim we all seek and deserve.
The cast & crew, early on...