THE BYRD WHO FLEW ALONE is a full-length documentary exploring the life and music of former Byrd, Gene Clark. It is subtitled ‘The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark’ and is an exploration of the successes, misfortunes and adversities suffered by of one of the most influential singer/songwriters of his generation. Clark was considered one of the brightest stars amongst his peers in the country rock genre but died at the premature age of 46 after years of drug and alcohol abuse.
The documentary, produced/directed by Paul Kendall and his filmmaker sons Dan and Jack, was some two and a half years in the making. Kendall Snr felt that Clark’s legacy had not been given the attention it rightly deserved and this film is an attempt to redress that. Previous approaches (by other filmmakers) to Clark’s family to make a documentary had come to nothing but Kendall managed to secure the agreement of Clark’s estate for the go-ahead and pretty early on got one of the original Byrds, Chris Hillman, on board. With Hillman’s participation it was not difficult to persuade others to contribute.
From Clark’s poor beginnings alongside a dozen siblings, to his early success when in his teens as a member of the New Christy Minstrels to major triumphs with the Byrds and subsequent failure to succeed as a commercial solo artist, the documentary is an honest and sometimes agonising tale of what happens when someone is lauded for their talents at an early age but cannot cope with the demands of the resultant fame. It is also a tale of jealousy and rivalry; as the principal writer of many of the Byrd’s original hits, Clark’s earnings far outweighed those of the other band members and this led to much resentment and squabbling in the group. Clark left the Byrds in 1966 to forge a solo career. He never repeated the level of success seen with the Byrds.
The documentary features contributions from all three of the surviving former Byrds - David Crosby, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman as well as family and friends. It is a portrayal of a flawed genius. Filmed by balancing interviews with photographs and video clips (some of which haven’t been seen before) it is on the one hand a skilful tribute to Clark’s achievements and on the other an unflinching tale of lost chances.
Although solo commercial success eluded him, Clark made some well received albums in the late 1960’s one with the Godsin Brothers and two with Doug Dillard (who is interviewed in the documentary) and his 1974 album ‘No Other’ has come to be regarded as a masterpiece. Further success followed when Tom Petty recorded a cover of Clark’s I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better in 1989 and the 2009 Grammy Award winning album RAISING SAND by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss featured two of Clark’s songs.
It is a tragic and heart-breaking story; there is an underlying sense of sadness throughout the film. You do not need to know a great deal about Clark to enjoy the documentary and to appreciate the cautionary tale it tells. The DVD contains extended interviews, performance footage and directors’ commentary. It is available in region free format from www.foursunsproductions.com. Jela Webb
This review appears in the March/April 2014 issue of 'Maverick' magazine. www.maverick-country.com