The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark (DVD Review)
Legendary singer and songwriter Gene Clark’s life is revisited in the long awaited documentary film “The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark.” Clark can be heard in archival interviews throughout the movie along with family and friends. “Triumphs and Tragedy” is set in a similar pattern to previous documentaries that have been released of unsung heroes (see Docs on Nilsson, Phil Oches, Gram Parsons etc) or obscure artists and performers or films that recreate the life, such as “Inside Llewyn Davis” – Directors Jack and Paul Kendall document the life of a man that appeared to have it all – but never quite maintained the status and notoriety that was achieved while part of The Byrds – a band comprised of complex, creative, and diverse musical personalities. His solo career would meet a similar fate…missed timed projects and lost confidence. Only during Gene Clark’s passing is the legend of the man and what he represented in popular Americana music come to fruition.
The Kendalls’ highlight three major aspects of their documentary on Gene Clark – the life and career of the man with insightful audio interviews meshed within the film that were recorded well after his departure from the Byrds during the 1970s and 1980s; The people behind the man that knew him best or could see his spiral up the ladder of success as well as his fall from grace, his siblings and closest friends, and surviving band members of the Byrds David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Roger McGuinn, and the last band and artists that he would perform with the Cinegrill and Carla Olson of the Textones before his untimely death, and last and foremost the music.
The documentary chronologically begins with Clark’s humble beginnings in Kansas City, Missouri and his first taste of success in high school that would take him away from his Midwestern roots to the limelight with the folk ensemble New Christy Minstrels at the ripe age of 20 years old. After a brief stint with the Minstrels, Clark ventured to Los Angeles, stumbling upon the famous Troubadour venue. Rock ‘n’ Roll history would soon follow after members of what would ultimately become the Byrds begin to collaborate. Instantaneously, Crosby and McGuinn were drawn by his presence and his rock star swagger, sound, and prolific poetic qualities. It was the height of Beatlemania and the newly formed trio were looking for a move away from the basic folk acoustic sound -plugging in their electric guitars attempting to emulate their version of Lennon and McCartney. The addition of a drummer Michael Clark and bassist Chris Hillman would round out the original line-up. In 1965 the Byrds were flying high with their first three LP releases – until the surprise and unexpected revelation by Clark – he could no longer tour and fly with the band. Soon after the release of “Eight Miles High”, Clark departed and pursued a solo career. The documentary does a good job balancing Clark’s life after the Byrds and his attempt as a solo artist that appeared fulfilling in the beginning and one with much potential. As rock and roll legends go, Clark was once again appeared a casualty – the prodigal son that had all the ingredients: great talented songwriter and a distinct and recognizable vocal style. With all his natural musical abilities, he never caught on as a household name in part to his excessive involvement in the California- Laurel Canyon rock and roll lifestyle – which he lived and breathed. This is well documented and retold from his eldest sister, younger brother, his sons Kelly & Kai, and the numerous musicians/friends that he worked with throughout his career – on and off stage.
The real treat with “The Byrds Who Flew Alone” – are the stories told specifically by fellow Byrds – Crosby, Hillman, and McGuinn – the music was the foundation that kept Clark grounded despite the missteps in his personal life. Record producers and companies put enough faith in Gene Clark’s talents to sign him to multiple record deals throughout his career. In the end Clark released many noteworthy compositions and albums outside of the Byrds and have no doubt left a lasting impression – although not during his lifetime but after his passing. One of the most poignant scenes in the documentary is at the end, footage of Gene singing around a kitchen table and recording on a boom box, a simple acoustic rendering with just guitar and vocals of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” That scene says it all and who the man was.
The Film Is Released and available on DVD via Four Suns Productions:
THE BYRDS “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” (1965)
GENE CLARK WITH THE GOSDIN BROTHERS “Is Yours Is Mine” (1966)
MCGUINN, CLARK, & HILLMEN “Backstage Pass” (1979)