Get yer X-Ray Shaver for a Buck Cash!
The musical bio-documentary is a form so often cookie-cutter and predictable now that suspicion of thanklessness sets in easily enough. The “Behind The Music” recipe — life screw-up and alleged redemption, with little attention to the actual music or its context — hasn’t lessened the reasons to be dubious lately. So it’s a relief to see a strong batch of new bio DVDs that have their own style and leave a lasting impression — whether of artists very familiar or a lot less so.
The Portrait Of Billy Joe, produced by Robert Duvall and directed by Luciana Pedraza, is a touching, hour-long intimate visit with Billy Joe Shaver. We hang with him as he shaves in the morning, gets through his day, heads off to a show, and shares memorabilia of his family and friends, so many of whom are now gone. Here’s this sweet giant of a man, strikingly and touchingly alone in his house, sizing up what it’s all meant and felt like, looking back and addressing his current situation with his usual extraordinary honesty and humility. The specific context of his music today is revealed beautifully, without hitting us over the head with commentary. (The DVD is available at the www.compadrerecords.com website and in some indie record stores).
Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music (Sanctuary) brings back into circulation this 1970 documentary of Cash at the height of his powers, and it’s the best filmed portrait of the man that there’s been to this day. It will be enough for some to know that it includes a large chunk of the San Quentin prison concert and a Nashville Skyline-era duet with Dylan, but other highlight sequences are as memorable — Johnny and June visiting the town and people, even the house, where he grew up; a rendition of “Ira Hayes” at the then-embattled Lakota Sioux Wounded Knee reservation; Johnny at home, casually introducing songs such as “Blistered” and “Flesh And Blood”. One caution: Unless there are late changes, this edition of the film, as edited in the U.K., deletes several sequences from the original, including one with ex-convict songwriter Glen Sherley, and another with Johnny singing to a crow he’s wounded while out hunting. Some may argue that it’s a better cut without them, but I miss the Carter Family’s version of “The Last Thing On My Mind” at San Quentin and Cash’s empathetic auditioning of a young singer-songwriter.
The DVD release of X: The Unheard Music (Image Entertainment) sets free the long tough-to-see 1985 chronicle of the punk band that has had such a strong influence on the louder end of alt-country. The film explores the world of the band and the Los Angeles scene that birthed it via archival footage, still collages, visits with the band members, a brand new gothic silent movie, and a video of a live show that captures “Johnny Hit And Run Paulene” and other memorable screamers. For those wondering, no, there’s not Knitters footage or Dave Alvin appearances, but you do get John Doe and Exene toying with Hank’s “Honky Tonk Blues”.
Filmmaker Chris Sautter’s So Glad I Made It (www.sogladimadeit.com) empathetically chronicles the ups and downs of a wildly more obscure performer, Indiana and Massachusetts-based roots and pop singer-songwriter Roger Salloom, whose life, determination and minor big-time musical career is reasonably representative of so many who have plowed these fields with fleeting or near-miss moments of recognition, but “made it” only if that means made some fine music, not a career bonanza. In the 1960s, Salloom opened for Santana at the Fillmore and was signed with his band Mother Bear to Chess/Cadet; he was hanging with Rodney Crowell and semi-legend Skinny Dennis in Nashville in the ’70s, but has never managed to sustain a career for lovable if unenviable personal and industry reasons that make for a fine video ride.
An influential, gently dramatic, romantic singer with career problems of his own is presented in the bio and concert film Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew (Rhino Home Video). “Little Jimmy” is a jazz and R&B legend, something of a cult figure now, with an unforgettable, uniquely high, ethereal voice that’s made him a model, especially, for female singers. (Scott has lived for close to 80 years with a hormonal disorder, Kallmann’s syndrome, that interferes with normal sexual maturation.) This is a terrific introduction to a unique talent.
One man who did appreciate Scott and worked to help him through the years, the late Ray Charles, is properly saluted this year not just with the Oscar-contending feature film, but with O-Genio: Ray Charles Live In Brazil 1963 (Rhino), a long-lost television broadcast featuring precisely the great band and original Raylettes portrayed in the movie. If you only saw Brother Ray in later years, here is the cooler-than-hell height of his career, captured in the months right after he first turned to country music — with slamming R&B and jazz (even his own sax solo) and country, in a Brazilian broadcast and a full rehearsal session that largely focused on different numbers. Everything from his great all-time take on “You Don’t Know Me” to “Hit The Road Jack” and “What’d I Say” is here. Charles himself only discovered that this 105 minutes of footage had survived in the months before his death; it arrives now as a lasting document of a great, great moment in American music.
And then there’s the limited-edition DVD of The Buck Owens Ranch Show, Vols. 1-3, offered only by Buck himself and the folks at his Bakersfield Crystal Palace (www.buckowens.com). These are programs (three each disc) from the syndicated, full-color shows out of Oklahoma of Buck and the original Buckaroos captured between 1966 and 1971, in all of their electric, twanging, rhinestone-flash honky-tonk glory, Buck’s close harmony singing with alter ego Don Rich and ace guitar interplay included. When you see the guys rip into “Tiger By The Tail” or bring tears on “Together Again”, you’ll realize you probably need all three of these, sooner or later. There’s not that much to go for one volume over another, though the first has more hits and the bonus of seeing Rich on fiddle, and the third includes a guest appearance by Wynn Stewart. The higher production value, big-cast “sideburns and bell bottoms” shows of the early ’70s have somewhat less pizzazz (and Buck!) than the earlier classics, but there’s a mix of both on all three DVDs, and cohorts Tommy Collins, Kay Adams, Susan Raye and the Hagers appear on all three as well. Bottom line, these are musts for any twang video collection.
Less vital, but fun, is Soundstage Presents: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Live In Concert (Koch Vision), a 2-DVD set built around a recent Chicago show. There’s a concerted effort not just to repeat hits from previous filmed shows (though key ones are here). Instead, Petty and company take the Chicago part to heart and deliver versions of blues classics as filtered through ’60s rock bands — “Red Rooster” and “Carol” via the Stones, “Born In Chicago” via Paul Butterfield, “I’m Cryin'” via the Animals — and “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” Leon Russell-style, for a country change-up. I can’t say that blues are this band’s long suit, but fans will enjoy the change of pace material, nicely taped.
Quick takes on other recent DVDs worth noting:
Neal Casal’s Leaving Traces: Songs 1994-2004 (www.fargorecords.com) CD includes a second disc with a documentary and 1995 session video of the singer-songwriter at work.
The long-lived, freewheeling Cajun band headed by Michael Doucet is nightly captured circa 2002 on Beausoleil Live From The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Shout! Factory). Fans of Cajun country will not be able to resist the likes of “Poison Love” and “Grand Mamou” in these adept hands. The partying at the New Orleans festival can continue, from another end of the gumbo pot, in the Art Neville-fronted The Funky Meters Live from the same festival (and label); “Cissy Strut” and a take on Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry” are included.
Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival (Reprise) brings together on two discs guitarists from Doyle Bramhall II to Jerry Douglas, Hubert Sumlin to Vince Gill, John McLaughlin to the men of ZZ Top and Robert Randolph. That’s a lot of guitar; sometimes it’s exciting, and sometimes, well, they haven’t played together much before.
Lastly, 4-Cylinder 400 is a documentary on DVD about an annual upstate New York car race for $300 cars; it’s goofy and low-budget, but there is an alt-country sensibility about it all, including music from the Disciples Of Agriculture and Big Barn Burning.