Prescient moments....this year has been full of them.
I'm on the phone with a friend who is in Southern California to see a collection of America's greatest bluesmen together onstage. The bluesmen are a part of a documentary film in progress, a piece entitled, Once and For All, and it's got plenty of star power from a band made up of Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Sugar Blue, Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, and Bob Stroger. It may well end up being the next Last Waltz.
My friend tells me she's having a chat with the film's director - she thinks I should talk to him. I think she's right, but the time is wrong. I think to myself that it's not quite time to write about the documentary as there's too much left to be seen, such as, will Keith Richards make a cameo at some point? But I do know my friend is right.
To be honest, about the last thing in the world I want to watch is a movie about rock, rock bands, or rock stars. There just haven't been many worth watching, and the film industry at large hasn't been blowing my skirt up of late, so I'm kind of cringing when my friend suggests I see the film and write a review. My gut is telling me to follow this trail that leads to Rosenbaum, but I hadn't known the movie was what it was. So, I cringe, and I wonder what the hell I'd gotten myself into this time.
Let me cut to the chase here, and say, this is one hell of a movie. It rang so true that I wondered if Rosenbaum had been down some of the same roads I'd traveled. I had feared a cliche ridden drama, but instead got a very realistic portrayal of the betrayals that all too often lie at the heart of the dream. Sure there are some broadstroke moves, but that's because they ring true. The too long in the tooth road manager, the two timing rock moll, the ego'd out lead singer, a crooked record exec, and a rhythm section that is so pedestrian that it's almost transparent. These are cliches because they exist. And they exist here.
Kevin Zegers plays Spyder, a burnt out shell of an ex-superstar who walked across the soul of his best friend to make his dream come true. He made it, but it was all built on the songs written by his childhood friend Eric Gensen (played by an excellent Jason Ritter). Spyder had taken his friend's songs, claimed them for himself, and become a star as his friend toiled in anonymity as a school teacher back in their hometown, embittered by his punk-rock legend father's death, and his own fears of grabbing for the brass ring.
After a failed attempt to replicate the success of his pilfered debut, Spyder returns to his childhood home to rouse his old friend from a nasty pill addiction, a suburban existence, and the pain of teaching school children musical rudiments. He's accompanied by an aggressive female manager (Taryn Manning) who is desperate to return to the top at whatever cost is necessary. She's balanced by a grizzly old road manager (Peter Fonda), who is her seeming opposite, being concerned with the legacy of Gensen's father (his old boss), and genuinely caring about the music and the musicians. It turns out that they're really not so far apart, they just come from different genders and generations.
Under the direction of a less knowledgeable, less skillful artisan this could lead to the movie being just another standard cut drama, but I'm thinking that screenwriters Jasin Cadic and Rosenbaum have seen their share of broken bands and maybe even the deaths of a few rock dreams in their own travels. It rings so true I was a little unnerved at times, having either been in or around so many nearly identical situations. I've had the honor and pleasure of working with or for a great collection of musicians, including Iggy Pop, Bobby Womack, Michael Schenker, and Robert Pollard - I know a bit about the minds, actions, and spirits of great musicians and tortured souls, and this movie shows the gritty underside brilliantly.
Rosenbaum even manages to place the band in the age old situation of joining a blues band for a jam while driving through the Delta. And he does it in a way that had me shaking my head and saying, "I've actually done that, and he pretty much nailed it."
Movie cliches and generalizations are a lot like the licks that make up rock and roll and the blues. There is only a slight difference between the great and the mediocre, but it may as well be a million miles. Scott Rosenbaum is the Muddy Waters of the music movie set. He's taken what could easily have been a terribly hackneyed story, and infused it with the soul and reality of greatness.
There are a couple of performances here, namely Zeger's, Fonda's, and Ritter's that could be beckoned for Oscar duty. Luke Haas is also excellent in a brief role as a journalist from Revolver magazine. This is an awesome debut for a filmmaker, and while this movie hasn't yet been released, I can't wait to see where Rosenbaum goes next. The best directorial debut since Liev Scheiber's Everything is Illuminated.
I knew when my friend called me from the lobby of that Santa Ana theater that something was happening, and it turns out again that I have been honored to preview a great piece of work before its general release. I'd like to thank Scott Rosenbaum for having the nerve to send a copy of a rock and roll film to a guy who hates rock and roll films, and Libby Sokolowski for the phone call, the invitation, and the introductions. I gotta tell ya, I was sweating, hoping that I wouldn't hate this guy's film. Thank goodness it's a brilliant movie, and I can again say, this is great art - support it.