[1 November 2006]
One would think that a tour documentary about J.J. Cale couldn’t possibly fail to be enlightening. After all, Cale is a low-profile cult figure at best, and one possible answer to a lame rock trivia question at worst: “What do ‘After Midnight’, ‘Call Me the Breeze’, and ‘Cocaine’ all have in common?” (The other answer, of course, is “They’re overplayed on classic rock radio.”) And yet To Tulsa and Back, despite its perfectly healthy 90-minute running time and bonus features that nearly double the length of the DVD, doesn’t illuminate the man himself, at least not for anyone who’d be inclined to watch the film in the first place. Instead, it merely reinforces the common perception that J.J. Cale is laid-back and uninterested with stardom.
On the one hand, it’s pretty reassuring to see that all the fuss about Cale being a basically ordinary guy is warranted. After all, it’s frustrating to find out that musicians who, intentionally or not, project a working-class image have gone out and done something ridiculous, like installing solid gold faucets in their bathroom or having a stuffed albino gorilla set up in their pool room. Seeing Cale and company travelling by bus, dressing like average old folks—Cale himself is 65—and generally being agreeable human beings offers at the very least a ray of hope that there are still people who can’t be easily corrupted. But on the other hand, this is an awful lot of footage to simply back up what everyone’s been saying about Cale for years. Revelations are few and far between. Among them:
1. J.J. Cale is a stage name, suggested by a promoter who didn’t want the guitarist to be confused with proto-punk luminary John Cale.
2. Eric Clapton’s comeback album, 461 Ocean Boulevard, was, in his own words, an “homage” to Cale. (This is a revelation only because most Clapton fans wouldn’t detect Cale’s influence on 461 like they would on, say, Backless or Slowhand.)
3. Cale turned down an appearance on a Dick Clark program on the grounds that he wouldn’t lip-sync.
But that’s about all. Sure, there are interviews (although we never hear the questions), performance clips from onstage and off, and lots of shots of the open road and the not-so-picturesque Tulsa cityscape. The film itself consists of basically nothing but this stuff, presented in an almost-but-not-quite-linear biographical format. The extras, while numerous on the surface, are hardly worth watching all the way through. There are some slide shows with instrumental musical accompaniment, and some interview clips, but what’s supposed to be the real draw—and what’s ultimately a real disappointment—is the series of musical performances. A hefty chunk of them are clips that were cut (sometimes just barely) for inclusion in the proper film. Since they come from a variety of appearances, they don’t hold together all that well. An unedited concert film would’ve been far superior to the hodgepodge the filmmakers favored. That would allow us to see the musicians—many of whom Cale worked with as far back as the late ‘50s—really interacting with one another, and for such an organic musician as Cale, the presentation of the clips here seems less than ideal.
Although the DVD case mentions that “Mark Knopfler, Neil Young, Bryan Ferry and Santana make no secret of the fact that they admire J.J. Cale”, none of these folks appears in the film. In fact, other than Clapton, not one of Cale’s many disciples shows up onscreen. This is a shame. Knopfler is especially missed, as his presence might have brought the focus, at least temporarily, onto Cale’s guitar technique. Like Knopfler’s, it places an emphasis on fingerpicking—not once do we see Cale play with a pick—which is rather unusual for electric rock guitarists. Cale’s guitar playing is, in fact, barely mentioned at all, and the viewer would have to focus on the guy’s hands during the film or completely miss out on what is arguably Cale’s most unique musical trait. It seems the people most likely to stare at Cale’s fingers would be guitarists themselves, as viewers typically are more drawn to faces and mouths since those are the parts that deliver the vocals. The filmmakers do little to encourage the audience to watch Cale’s hands, both in their refusal to make Cale’s playing a part of the narrative thread and in the scarcity of shots of his hands. Not to flog a dead horse, but ignoring Cale’s guitar technique is a major, major oversight.
Back to the blurb on the case concerning J.J. Cale’s famous fans. Santana covered “Sensitive Kind”, but it’s a little tricky to trace Cale’s influence—if he had any—on Young or Ferry. I guess they don’t say he influenced them, just that they admire him, but how is that relevant? What does mere admiration prove? I suspect it proves more about the filmmakers than anything else. Ultimately, To Tulsa and Back is a safe documentary, the kind produced by admirers, rather than anyone interested in a deep, critical reading of the subject. As a result, it’s also a wasted opportunity.