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by Bill Gibron

10 Aug 2008

He was Black Moses, creator of some stellar Hot Buttered Soul. He gave Shaft his Oscar winning authority, and broke down color barriers in the highly conservative - and Caucasian - film composer’s club. He was a member of the famous Stax Records team, ushering in hits as writer, producer, arranger, and artist. He earned an Academy Award, three Grammys, and a well deserved place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Class of 2002). And now, sadly, at age 65, legitimate legend Isaac Hayes is gone, found dead in his home by his fourth wife, Adjowa. It’s a depressing end for a man who overcame so many obstacles and inspired so much devotion, even among those who didn’t understand his own personal philosophy.

He was born Issac Lee Hayes Jr. in Covington, Tennessee. After his parents’ death, he was raised by his grandparents, and the young boy spent his early years picking cotton. After dropping out of high school, he headed to Memphis. There, his self-taught skills on the piano and organ earned him a slot in the famous Stax factory backing band. Soon, he was stepping from behind the mic to write such classic songs as “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man” (along with partner David Porter). At age 25, he released his first album, the mostly improvised Presenting Isaac Hayes. It was not well received. But it would be his fantastic follow-up, Hot Buttered Soul, that would finally announce his rising star.

With its combination of long form covers (Hayes was notorious for turning tracks like “Walk On By” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” into extended jams and spoken word epics) and stunning originals, it helped a lagging label that had just lost Otis Redding to a plane crash. It reestablished its prominence in the process. Hayes would parlay that success into a pair of 1969 hits - The Issac Hayes Movement and To Be Continued. Again, he explored the classic catalog of Burt Bacharach and Hal David for a take on “The Look of Love” and “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”. But it would be the opportunity to score a seemingly unimportant blaxploitation film that would change Hayes, and the face of Hollywood, forever.

1971’s Shaft remains significant for many important reasons. First, it was one of the first mostly minority films to take the groundwork laid by Melvin Van Pebbles with his indie masterpiece Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and turn it into a mainstream mandate. Second, it established the viability of the genre to those outside the urban setting - especially among the critical counterculture. Finally, it gave a soundtrack voice to the growing influence of R&B and soul. Hayes’ now classic wah-wah peddle tinged theme, containing lyrics that today are just as outrageous in their considered cool, became an instant smash. It earned the then 29 year old a much coveted gold statue, the first ever awarded to an African American outside of the AMPAS acting category.

This is monumental for reasons that reach beyond Hayes’ own career. It opened the door for musicians of color, paving the way for Stevie Wonder’s win in 1984, Prince’s score prize the same year, Lionel Richie’s award the year after, and perhaps most remarkably, the Three 6 Mafia’s stunning upset in 2005 (Hayes actually appeared in Hustle and Flow). His reward was not without controversy, though. When Hayes agreed to appear at the 1972 Wattstax concert, MGM refused to allow his performance of “Shaft” to be included in the resulting documentary. Claiming outright ownership of the theme, as well as the soundtrack song “Soulville”, it was an issue that wouldn’t be resolved until the film’s 2004 DVD release.

It was just the beginning of troubles for the talented troubadour. By 1974, Stax was in ruins, and Hayes sued his studio for several million dollars. Unable to pay, they agreed on a settlement which saw the formation of HBS Records. While he continued to release albums - Chocolate Chip, Disco Connection, Juicy Fruit - he was no longer a guaranteed chart topper. In 1976, he filed for bankruptcy, claiming nearly $6 million in debt. He lost most of his publishing royalties in the process. It was indeed darker times for the performer. While his albums maintained good critical buzz, the changing face of the industry - and music itself - meant more than a few years in entertainment exile.

He supplemented his music by well received turns as an actor. He got his start in another exploitation classic, Truck Turner (where he starred and also wrote the score) and had a recurring role on the Jim Garner hit TV series The Rockford Files. He got another major break from fan John Carpenter, who traded on Hayes gold chain and bald headed badass-ness to feature him as The Duke in the post-apocalyptic classic Escape from New York. Throughout the ‘80s he took minor roles here and there, working on making a comeback as a musician. Virgin signed him in 1995, and his subsequent albums Branded and Raw and Refined reintroduced him to a whole new fanbase.

So did his accidental casting in Comedy Central’s anarchic South Park. After debuting in 1997, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s crude cartoon cavalcade became an almost instant classic, with Hayes’ Chef the show’s voice of recognizable reason (and the occasional sex-based song). Over the course of 10 seasons and one sensational film, Park provided a wonderful outlet for the aging icon. It made him instantly cool among the younger crowd, while confirming that he still had the authority and command that made him a talent and trendsetter decades before.

All seemed fine with the Park partnership until Parker and Stone decided to take on Scientology. As they had with Christianity, Judaism, and Catholicism before, the show scalded L. Ron’s revisionist faith in an episode which also tweaked Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Hayes had joined the ersatz religion in 1995, and did not appreciate the series satirizing his beliefs. He argued that his newfound conviction had helped reestablish and center his success, and unless Parker and Stone abandoned the idea, he would be forced to leave. He did just that in 2006, and the split remained acrimonious up and until his death.

While there are many sides to the story (for their part, Parker and Stone stand by their decision), what’s clear is that, once outside the limelight again, Hayes’ fortunes failed. In 2006, he suffered a stroke, though many inside his camp denied it initially. This past April, his appearance on Adam Corolla’s radio show suggested that he was losing some of his faculties. He found it hard to answer questions and blamed his blankness on aphasia, a disorder driven by his diminished capacity. Some four months later, he was discovered motionless alongside his treadmill. He was pronounced dead upon arriving at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis.

As with any loss, the tragedy tends to temper the particulars of the past. Eulogy wipes out the bad while amplifying the already known good. In the case of Isaac Hayes, we need both sides of the story. For everything he did right in his benchmark career, he made mistakes that added even more mystery to his outsized enigma. He could be suave and smooth. He could also be cold and very calculated. Combined together, they explain how Hayes could break down the color barriers of Hollywood. They also clarify his late in life conversions and out of character choices. The good thing is that Isaac Hayes will always be remembered as the prophet of soul. The bad thing is that the very things that made him an indisputable icon will probably be lost to legend - and maybe that’s where they belong.

by Bill Gibron

9 Aug 2008

When we think of classic comedy, especially from the era before sound, slapstick stands as the main significant form. Sure, there were works with witty rejoinders and filmed plays piled high with clever dialogue, but sans the title cards, the power of pantomime and the purity of physical shtick argued for its viability in a wholly visual medium. Naturally, within such subsets lie the considered kings - Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd - but among their cinematic court were jesters of equal aplomb, if not fame. Thanks to the archivists at All Day Entertainment, and digital distributors Facets, we are treated to a wonderful second volume of forgotten figures and farces, shorts and features that prove there was more to onscreen pratfalls than little tramps and great stone faces.

Compiled over three loaded DVDs, American Slapstick Vol. 2 is then divided into sections. On Disc 1, we are treated to a look at Harold Lloyd, his brother Gaylord and the latter’s brief career, including his take on his sibling’s ‘Luke” character. Next up is an overview of Hal Roach’s remarkable studios and several of its b-players. Finally, we witness the birth of Educational Pictures, a brand that had very little to do with learning and everything to do with lunacy. Disc 2 offers the sole feature film, a look at Charlie Chaplin’s brother Syd and his turn in the classic satire Charlie’s Aunt. A few of his ‘Gussie’ shorts are offered as well. Equally interesting here is a chance to see Chaplin imitator Billy West. The final DVD presents a true piece of history as famous ladies of slapstick are discussed. Their importance is accented by takes on Billy Bevin as well as the talkies attempt to incorporate the ideas of old with the technology of the new.

All in all, it’s over seven hours of silent silliness and casual insights. Each section is introduced by a pleasant female voice, the information she passes along instrumental in understanding the context of each area. In addition, a handy insert outlines the stars being surveyed as well as the films on each DVD. Granted, much of this material is incomplete. As a matter of fact, historians argue that as much as 85% of pre-World War II cinema is lost forever. So the fact that we have access to any of these rarities is really special. Naturally, video purists will balk at the condition and visual variables, but if that’s all they care about, they are missing the bigger picture. Physical comedy didn’t begin with Moe, Larry, and Curly, and there was much more to the genre than Chaplin’s sentimentality and Keaton’s technical advances. The more we know about slapstick, the more we come to truly appreciate it as an art.

In a compendium loaded with intriguing elements, three items stick out specifically. The first deals with Chaplin and his mystique (the focus of Disc 2). Learning that his popularity created a series of imitators and impersonators is nothing surprising. Yet watching as West tries to emulate the Little Tramp, or seeing how brother Syd strived to create his own classic character is worth the price of admission alone. “The Hobo” is hilarious, West really doing a dandy bit of buffoonery. The snippets from animated takes on the Chaplin mystique are also excellent. But it’s Syd who steals the show. His work as Gussie, a haughty halfwit whose main attribute appears to be a rather ample rump is quite compelling and - dare it be said - equal to his brother’s subtlety and skill. “Caught in the Park” and “Gussie’s Wayward Path” stand as ready to be rediscovered gems, and thanks to American Slapstick Vol. 2, modern generations get a chance to witness the other Chaplin’s brilliance and personality acumen.

The second most significant contribution this collection makes is in the feminine side of show business. We always here about the men, both celebrated and infamous, but when was the last time you heard scholars reference Louise Fazenda, Anne Cornwall, or most importantly, Alice Howell. These three remarkable women are the focus of Disc 3, and their short films and sequences are absolutely fantastic. Beyond that, they are eye opening. We are used to seeing silent screen actresses as damsels in distress, clumsy dowagers, or sad, slightly soiled ladies. Here, our trio introduces us to amazing moments from “Cinderalla Cinders”, “Hold Still”, “A Hash House Fraud”, and “Faro Nell” and in each one they more than hold their own. It’s just too bad we can’t see more of these incredibly important individuals. A set of female slapstick stars is probably long overdue.

Finally, even though it’s part of the Syd Chaplin section, seeing Charlie’s Aunt here is quite stunning. Granted, the performances and the storyline are major selling points, but the chance to see a full fledged costumed comedy, complete with elaborate sets, faked locations, and other classic Hollywood hullabaloo is too good to pass up. Representing a near perfect time capsule of the industry of the era, we see that oversized ambitions, overacting, and larger than life spectacle are not a contemporary fault. This is also true of forlorn funnyman Billy Bevins. His almost epic “Be Respectable” goes from a clever character piece to a full blown citywide chase, complete with more Keystone style cops than modern day Los Angeles has policemen. It makes for a wonderfully thrilling addition.

Indeed, everything about American Slapstick Vol. 2 is spellbinding, even if some of it is in minor, mere footnote ways only. We enjoy the reckless ethnic stereotyping, as it provides insights into the social structure of the past. We champion those brave gals who orchestrated their onscreen gags with the precision of their far more renowned (and better paid) male counterparts. We wonder why certain names are no longer remembered while realizing that some actors were mere fading fads in a consumer driven entertainment marketplace. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this anthology, aside from the wealth of historical context and pure performance bliss, is how accurately it preserves the truth. While we may never see the likes of this style of humor ever again, the ability to revisit it in such a significant, substantive manner is a joy to behold. American Slapstick Vol. 2 is mandatory viewing for any functioning film fan. 

by Bill Gibron

8 Aug 2008

According to the reports, it was a rather surreal Comic-con for the members of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mythos. With almost everyone involved in the show participating in a panel discussion in association with the show’s 20th anniversary (and upcoming DVD releases from new distributor Shout! Factory), hope sprang eternal (and internal) that some major announcement would be made - perhaps a fan-mandated and prayed for coming together of the so-far divergent Cinematic Titanic/RiffTrax crews. On the one side is Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy, larger than life talents who carried on the in-theater mockery motif long after others gave up on the concept. On the opposite end sits the CT crew - Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl, flush with success from their own self-promoted releases and collective critical acceptance.

Yet aside from Patton Oswalt’s genuine geekdom and some rather uncomfortable stares, it was clear that, at least for the time being, the geniuses behind the classic cowtown puppet show won’t be having a meeting of the minds anytime soon. Nelson seem content to add their smart alecky attacks to recent releases (via their audio only offerings) while Hodgson and his cohorts crank out original DVD titles in the old, silhouettes against the screen format. Prior to attending the notorious nerd herding in San Diego, the group even offered up a salvo for those desperate for more Cinematic Titanic goodness. Unlike the release of The Doomsday Machine, which took almost six months to materialize, their next effort, the Roger Corman retardation from 1959, The Wasp Woman, would be out in a matter of weeks. Sure enough, 8 August saw the release of the downloadable version of the project, and as usual, it’s another dose of daffy satiric goodness.

For those unfamiliar with the ultimate ‘b’ movie, Susan Cabot plays Janice Starling, the aging magnate of a major cosmetics firm. Where once she was the spry and youthful face of her product, her advancing years (she’s all of 38!) have meant a significant lag in sales. When a weirdly accented doctor named “Mr.” Eric Zintrop writes to her, explaining his rejuvenation techniques using the royal jelly from wasps, she’s instantly intrigued. She sets up a lab for the potential madman, and allows him to experiment on her. After nearly a month of no results, Janice takes matters into her own hands. She shoots up a significant amount of the bug enzyme, and sure enough, she becomes instantly younger. Of course, Zinthrop fails to fully inform his patient of the side effects. Apparently, along with headaches and occasional moodiness, Janice will intermittently turn into a giant insect - one that craves human flesh and plenty of it!

While previous Cinematic Titanic wonders like The Oozing Skull really delivered on the new series’ promise, Wasp Woman finally feels like home. As a matter of fact, if one closed their eyes, they could easily envision a late night rerun of a first year Comedy Channel episode of the old MST. With its barely there cast and certified Corman corner cutting, what starts out schlocky turns tacky in a matter of minutes. Cabot, whose career was cut short when her dwarf of a son bludgeoned her to death (no, we are not making this up), has to play dour and depressed for most of the movie, her fading beauty an evidently painful subject for the high powered and excessively rich CEO. Of course, since this is the ‘50s, our heroine must be surrounded by piggish chauvinists who smirk at her concern with crowsfeet over constantly puffing pipes and liquor laced breath.

Clearly influenced by the massive success of 1958’s The Fly, one has to give Wasp Woman credit for attempted ingenuity. Corman could have easily gone for the “man mutates” formula that made the Al Hedison horror show a hit. Instead, this narrative goes gaga for entomology, providing us with a precursory prologue where the benefits of royal jelly and all other bug butt extracts are explored. Zintrop even gives a little speech about respecting nature - of course, he’s addressing the insects he apparently confides in on a regular basis. As the story moves along to its standard spookshow sequences, we also see some patented Filmgroup falderal. Two obvious typing pool ‘broads’, whose names could be Mavis and Trixie for all their Brooklyn bar maid mannerisms, discuss their lagging love lives in a way that would make even the most desperate gent run in easy pickings paranoia.

Of course, all of this is prime material for the CT staff, and they come up with one of their most satisfying slam dunks yet. Thematically, it’s all heroin and insect riffs, the quintet taking every opportunity to mock anthropods and ridicule those who ride the white horse. The quips get so intense that J. Elvis begins a kind of comedy withdraw, arguing that if he doesn’t come up with another smack joke soon, he’ll die. It’s brilliant stuff, as is the pun-demonium over the word “bee” (sadly, no shout out to everyone’s favorite ambiguously asexual music sprite fro years past). Frank even references the unusual way in which Cabot died, starting everything off with a strikingly off comment that had this critic running to Google for confirmation. Of course, finding the origin of a Joel or Trace take is part and parcel of the overall MST/CT experience.

Elsewhere, the series is really coming into its own, concept wise. The time tube, explained in more depth last time, gets its status reaffirmed again, while the notion of a backstory (living pods? plasma beds?) also receives a mention. As for skit or scripted material, Wasp Woman doesn’t really lend itself to easy associations. Still, Mary Jo grinds things to a halt so she can get a boardroom power fix, while Frank brings back his ‘controversial’ variety spot so he can showcase an abusive and belligerent Buddy Rich. One of the things that fans have argued over here is the lack of the old Mystery Science sketch comedy. Even the Rifftrax offshoot, The Film Crew, were less than successful in recapturing that retro humor magic. Part of the problem is that everyone involved in these new projects are playing themselves - not characters trapped in space or working in an underground lab. And second, budget restrictions limit the amount of material they can generate. No funds = no additional funny business. 

Still, with a schedule that promises a more robust release strategy, and a growing appreciation for their efforts (EZTakes, who provides the downloadable versions of the CT discs, typically find their website swamped with retail requests) it looks like this latest attempt to recapture the old Mystery magic will finally get the mainstream acceptance the TV show failed to find. Of course, everything could change tomorrow, what with Shout! Factory promising an aggressive model for their upcoming DVD releases of the original series. And with three viable reminders of all the talent pooled for these projects, only the most cynical fan would complain. Cinematic Titanic continues to put out the amazing attractions, and The Wasp Woman truly lives up to their standards.

by Bill Gibron

7 Aug 2008

There is is a big difference between legitimate cool and faked cool. The real thing is hard to define and rather ephemeral. It exudes off the subject - film, album, individual - in ways that literally defy description. The counterfeit version is easy to spot. It announces itself like an overly tan lounge lizard in tacky gold chains, and demands that you respect its forced bravado. The latest attempt at recapturing the exploitation vibe from three decades ago, Hell Ride, has a decent pedigree. Executive produced by Quentin Tarantino and created by old school drive-in vet Larry Bishop (Wild in the Streets, The Savage Seven), this is yet another contemporary tap into the original post-modern movie ideal. Unfortunately, the few things this grindhouse wannabe gets right can’t compensate for a distinct aura of unnatural swagger.

Back in ‘76, biker Pistolero promised the soon-to-be-murdered Cherokee Kisum that he would protect a key to a safety deposit box. The contents - supposedly untold amounts of drug money - were for her son, Comanche. Now, over four decades later, an older Pistoler leads the vagabond gang known as the Victors, along with his right hand man The Gent. When member St. Louie is killed by the rogue renegade 666’ers, led by the notoriously unsane Billy Wings and The Deuce, he vows vengeance. He also hopes to locate the last two keys so that Comanche (now part of his crew) can earn his birthright and satisfy the age old vendetta. Of course, any action against the 666’ers will upset the status quo, and that means an end to beer and babes and the beginning of an all out motorcycle holocaust.

Right from the very first image, Hell Ride comes off as a Devil’s Rejects reject. Unfortunately, you quickly realize that Rob Zombie was much more in tune with the exploitation ethic than wannabe Mahon Larry Bishop. Soon, the Tarantino nods start pouring in, staid amalgamations of spaghetti westerns, Asian crime dramas, and overworked schlock motifs. About 40 minutes in you’ve had enough. You can’t stand the back and forth posing, the hopscotching homages, the lack of anything remotely looking like a linear narrative or dimensional character. It’s at this moment when cast and crew make their stand, demanding that you accept them, or simply ignore their over-earnest motion picture pastiche outright and move along. If you can handle such a head on aesthetic collision, you just might enjoy the last act.

But if you don’t, Hell Ride will seem like a literal journey into Satan’s gaping maw. It will test your bare breasting faculties and push the very limits of your need for unnecessary posturing. There is no acting here, just useless channeling of personas past, and when he can’t think of anything clever to convey, writer/director Bishop simply tosses out a few Leone riffs and calls it a day. There are so many mock meaningful close-ups, uses of zoom and soft focus falderal that you swear Guy Madden had discovered the ‘60s and was updating his canon of D.W. Griffith-inspired artiness. Processed to purgatory and back in post-production, the movie tries to super saturate some depth into what is, in essence, a nostalgia borne out of boredom. This is about as ‘grindhouse’ as the similarly styled (and named) films released by QT and his buddy Robert Rodriguez early last year.

Still, if you can stomach Bishop’s bravado, if you can get behind his cut and paste imagination, you may cotton to this Ride. There are definitely scenes that spark with untapped potential. Michael Madsen’s Gent takes on Eric Balfour’s Comanche in a one on one bar fight that discovers some heretofore untapped humor. There is another hilarious moment when a sheepish Dennis Hopper asks a biker babe for a joint (his face is classic). Sure, for every segment that gets you smiling, there’s one like Bishop’s “fire” based stand-off with his ‘old lady’, the lovely Cassandra Hepburn. The duo tosses so many conflagration entendres at each other that you can actually count the ones that ‘burn’, and the many that merely irritate. Some of this film feels like it would read better on the page. Besides, trying to mimic the crudity of the past is no longer clever.   

Indeed, this is Hell Ride‘s biggest problem. Very few filmmakers can accurately recreate the look and feel of ancient b-grade drive-in fare. Zombie is one. The Manson Family‘s Jim Van Bebber is another. Not only do they capture the visuals, they understand the off the cuff, on the run nature of how many of these movies were shot. To suggest that this can be done in some geek’s laptop is ludicrous. Besides, Bishop should know better. He was around when this kind of cinema ruled the subculture, and even acted in a few famous examples. Here, he seems to be looking through digital rose colored glasses. Everything plays like a flashback - albeit one told in a terrific, flashy style that tries desperately to hide how cornball the motoring and machismo really are.

All one can do is submit to Hell Ride‘s ridiculousness and simply allow the movie to make up its own creative logic. You might actually find that you like Bishop’s Birdman of Razzmatazz personality (he’s all grumbles and Van Dykes). If you don’t mind wallowing in excess that never achieves the T&A bounty the narrative suggests (here’s hoping the Unrated DVD solves this problem, pronto), you could find yourself fooled. Had he simply made a standard biker flick, a post-modern update of an old fashioned raincoat crowder, Larry Bishop’s ambition might be more acceptable. But combining 2008 with 1968 (or ‘78) just won’t work, and by the time you’ve surrendered to Hell Ride‘s chopper chic surrealism, you’ll realize what a true waste of time it’s been.

by Bill Gibron

6 Aug 2008

It sounds beautifully naïve - the notion that if one man could get everyone in the world to sing together, there’d be a lot less war and animosity among the citizens. Even more foolhardy is the belief that anyone would be willing to try it. But Pete Seeger is not just ‘anyone’. As the founding father of the modern folk movement, as instrumental as Woody Guthrie in bringing the muse of the people to the supposedly sophisticated city streets, he suffered for both his art and his politics. In his time he was both pop star and pariah, a Billboard chart topper who saw his early fascination with Communism cost him dearly. Still, he never apologizes for the roads he’s taken. To Pete Seeger, they’re all paths to one thing - getting people to sing.

From the time he was very young, Seeger was influenced by his musically inclined parents. During a tour of rural regions (where the family tried to bring classical composers to the “masses”), elder Seeger was introduced to traditional folk music. It would soon become a passion he would share with his gifted son. Over the years, Pete grew into a student of sound, working with famed archivists and attending Harvard. But his true calling was performance, and when he began celebrating and recording the pro-union tunes of the Depression era, he instantly found his calling. Over the next 50 years, he would change the way the world looked at folk, arguing for the value in local artists and sound social principles. Of course, his conviction would cost him. No one can stand on their morals for long without being knocked down. But the great thing about Pete Seeger is that he kept getting back up, and at almost 90, he’s still fighting for the inherent force in music. 

In a category that is growing in greatness exponentially, the stunning documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company and their Miriam Collection label) brilliantly immortalizes an already living legend. For many decades removed from the fascinating folk movement of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, this activist artist is perhaps a Dylan-descended footnote, a name they recognize but fail to fully understand the import of. But thanks to director Jim Brown, who previously captured Seeger as part of the equally amazing The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time, allows the man his proper place in history. One cannot walk away from this spellbinding narrative and not feel both proud to live in a country that offers such talents and freedoms and sad for the government policies and blinkered politicians who twisted those tenets into something sordid and evil.

One of the most striking elements of Seeger’s story is his 17 year banishment from the commercial airwaves. Accused of being a Communist by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (and he had been a card carrying member in the past), the “red” stain resulted in an equally shocking color - black (as in ‘list’). While still a viable concert draw, Seeger also added to his troubles by being an outspoken supporter of civil rights. His hatred of segregation and the South’s disgusting Jim Crow laws led to appearances and protests, as well as confrontations with agitators and threats against his life. Yet all the while, Seeger still believed in the command of music. He was certain that if people heard the message and understood the tradition, they’d give up on outdated notions of hate and prejudice.

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is definitely a summarization of the man’s amazing career. Before we know it, he’s working for the Library of Congress, serving in World War II, and turning “We Shall Overcome” into an anthem for Dr. Martin Luther King. As to the latter claim, the now nearly 90 year old is rather sheepish. It’s how he’s been most of his life. Seeger has been at the forefront of many significant changes in our culture, and yet when it seems like time to canonize the participants, his beatification is left for another, not so contentious day. There are moments in Power of Song that show us such late in life reverence. President Bill Clinton (who awarded Seeger the Kennedy Center honor in 1994) speaks of him in sacred terms, while the musician is approached by an older woman in Washington Square Park, her praise of his influence on her life and children almost overwhelming in its sincerity.

With its talking head approach and archival nostalgia, Power of Song paints a authoritative portrait. Everyone from Dylan to Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary to Bruce Springsteen step up to put the man in perspective, and ever the hero, Seeger takes it all in humble stride. We only seem him worked up when discussing his infamous return to TV in 1967. Scheduled to sing his latest anti-war anthem “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, it marked a major return for him. After performing the song (among several), he was shocked to see it edited out of the final airing. Turns out CBS, bowing to White House pressure, removed the segment, the lyrical phrase “and the big fool says push on” viewed as a slam against then President Johnson.

During this material, Seeger seems tense, mortified at a media that, even today, will succumb to censorship for the sake of some ambiguous political goals. He’s saddened to see that his beloved country is still making the same mistakes, and takes small pleasures in providing the impetus to support the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the clean up of the Hudson River Valley. Because of its inability to be totally in-depth, it would have been nice for this DVD to include more contextual bonuses. Seeger’s story is that important. Instead, we get three somewhat preachy ‘deleted’ scenes, and five short films his family made focusing on skill like how to play the banjo and how to make a steel drum. It’s not that these extras have no value, it’s just that with a life as compelling as his, Power of Song could have added several hours of intriguing supplements.

We’ll just have to be satisfied with the film at hand, and in a category that’s seen lots of amazing artist biographies, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is simply one of the best. It takes it subject and his importance seriously while never sugarcoating the complications that brought on many of his misfortunes. Watching him perform “Guatanamera” with his grandson and Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall, voice wispy and faded after 80+ years of singing, we’re reminded of how important and influential he really was/is. Without Pete Seeger, modern music would be missing many of its most important components. And as long as he’s around, there’s hope for a brighter tomorrow. That’s the power of Pete Seeger. That’s the power of Power of Song

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