[10 January 2007]
Career retrospectives of long deceased bands usually fall into one of two categories. They are either celebratory offerings, where various members overcome old enmities to wallow in feel-good nostalgia, making clear that hatchets have, by-and-large, been buried. Or they are rancorous, needling, bickering affairs in which it becomes clear that old wounds are still very much open. This DVD retrospective of ‘60s Supergroup/ Power-Trio Cream falls firmly in the later category; if there were any hatchet burying to be done it would probably be by Ginger Baker right into Jack Bruce’s head. Such is the sheer quantity of bile and bitterness in these interviews it’s a wonder the DVD doesn’t come with a Government health warning. There is no reconciliation to be found here whatsoever. Using the band’s 2005 money-spinning Albert Hall and Madison Square Garden reunion concerts as a springboard for an overview of their brief career (that had ended at the Albert Hall 37 years earlier), this is as grim and dispiriting a documentary as one could possibly imagine. Were you to pitch it as a story to a Hollywood producer it would go something like: “Three hugely talented musicians form group, realize they all loathe each other and split up; many years later and still loathing each other they reform for a few gigs to make mountains of cash. The End.”
There is no doubt about the quality of the band’s oeuvre. Despite a tendency towards interminable blues workouts in their live shows, many of their recordings (“Sunshine of Your Love”, “Badge”, “White Room”) stand alongside the best the ‘60s has to offer. Unfortunately we get to see precious little of this in the documentary which instead treats us to a wearisome display of recorded interviews with the three band members and numerous producers, road-managers, journalists and musicians. Eric Clapton is as genial as ever (unlike his two band mates), though not one of the most charismatic interviewees it must be said. The band’s various aqquantainces recount, with brain-crushing dullness, the lineages of various forgotten blues ensembles in which each member of Cream played a part. It all becomes horribly reminiscent of those scenes in Spinal Tap in which the group recount their various incarnations: “Well first we were the Originals, and then we became the New Originals” etc. It’s all as dry and uninteresting as a month-old loaf, guaranteed to be of interest only to the most insanely obsessive fan. It works like a ghastly parody of a ‘rock-umentary’ except that everyone involved is deadly serious, acting as though they are disclosing information of major importance as they detail the line-up changes in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. It’s not helped by an Alan Partridge-style narrator who constantly SHOUTS his links between the interviews, and clearly hasn’t looked up the word ‘Hyperbole’ in the dictionary: liberally sprinkling his sentences with words such as ‘godlike’ and ‘legendary’.
Worst of all, though, are the almost nuclear levels of acrimony and vitriol displayed by cadaverous drummer, Ginger Baker. Clearly seizing the opportunity of having a rolling camera, and unchallenged by the (off-camera) interviewer he launches into tirade after mad tirade. His most furious invective is reserved for bassist Jack Bruce who, he feels, deprived him of writing credits on many of the band’s biggest hits. Maybe he’s got a point, but the courtroom would seem to be the most sensible place to plead it. At one stage, whilst nearly choking on his own rage, with his eyeballs almost popping out on stalks, he recounts how, but for the interjection of a nightclub ‘heavy’, he would have actually killed the bassist on the spot. He is without doubt the most charmless and self-regarding interviewee I have ever seen, which is a shame as, along with Keith Moon and John Bonham, he is at the front rank of rock drummers. Though if you were to make this assertion in his presence he’d probably drone on about how he taught the other two everything they knew, as well as inventing the wheel and piloting the first trans-Atlantic flight, such is his bottomless self regard. The thought occurs that if this is the footage they left in what on earth did they cut out? The extras section answers this question with extended sessions of his rambling nitpicking, if you haven’t already lost the will to live.
For his part Jack Bruce plays the innocent, dismissing Baker’s shrieking allegations as though he’s heard them a million times. He contests that the reason he, and lyricist Pete Brown, wrote and received credit for so many of the songs was to begin with neither Baker or Clapton was particularly up to the task. Who knows? Such matters are lost now in the mists of distant rock history. Occasionally the film offers a glimmer of hope such as when the narrator portentously intones that a young Jimi Hendrix was invited on stage to jam with his idol Clapton. Will we get to see footage of such a momentous occasion? Of course not. We simply see a black and white photograph of the great man and cut back to the interview of present-day Clapton saying what an immense talent he was…well DUH!?
Leaving aside the lack of good archival footage of the band actually ‘playing’, the interviews themselves are awful. The fact that each one was clearly conducted in a single, relatively recent, session (save for one snippet of Clapton in the late ‘70s) gives no indication of how the attitudes of the trio have hardened or softened over the years. The repetition of each interviewee in the same pose / outfit / environment has a profoundly numbing effect on the viewer. Worse still is the fact that so many accusations and allegations go unchallenged even when they are wildly contentious. In the end you are left with a flimsy and unpleasant documentary about an undeniably great band that is full of sound and fury (in Baker’s case underline the word fury repeatedly) signifying nothing. The extras section includes a few shaky pieces of live footage and some TV appearances, as well as extra interviews and picture galleries. The DVD is also packaged with a reasonable audio CD of live songs. None of which really goes any way towards salvaging this ill-conceived and badly executed project.