[11 February 2009]
For me there may be no artist more directly associated with making out than Al Green. Not that I’ve ever made out to (or with) Mr. Green. But I’ve always imagined that if I had to soundtrack a makeout session with one of the classic makeout artists, it’d have to be Al Green.
The thick baritones of Isaac Hayes and Barry White seem to make promises of a masculinity I can hardly match, and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” takes its medical metaphor to places I’d rather avoid. But Green’s mix of the suggestive and the romantic strike that perfect “nice-but-sly” balance, a combination of naiveté and knowledge, delivered with a seductive lightness.
Maybe that’s why it’s a little creepy watching Al Green find the Lord in The Gospel According to Al Green. Originally aired as a PBS documentary, the film consists of an interview with the musician, some performance clips and a long clip of Green’s preaching to a Memphis congregation and attempts to chart Green’s rise in the music industry and subsequent return to the church in the singer’s own words, but ends up preaching mostly to the converted.
The interview with Green is engaging and entertaining, showcasing Green’s infectious grin and ability to render a story with wit and charm. Holding his guitar through most of the interview, Green occasionally breaks into wonderfully illustrative bits of his hits, songs he had long-since stopped playing by the time the film was shot. Green’s reminisces of his early career, augmented by information from his producer and collaborator, Willie Mitchell, are fondly delivered, but have the gauzy feeling of childhood memories, although they cover events only a few years gone.
Mitchell provides concrete details, like the collection of neighborhood winos the pair dragged into the studio as an audience for the hastily recorded “Let’s Stay Together”, but for Green, the incidents of his career seem like scenes from another life. Most notably detached is his recounting of the incident that led to his decision to abandon his secular career: a married woman Green was involved with threw a pot of hot grits at the singer and then shot herself in the head. Green claims to be unconvinced the incident even happened, despite police reports, press coverage and the scars the singer received from the incident.
The result is that the conversion story falls a little flat. Crucial to a tale of temptation overcome is the sense of struggle, of the temptation being tempting. Green speaks of his secular success and the comforts it afforded with dismissal, and this attitude gives his decision to give it all up a casual feeling, not just inevitable but mundane, even though it’s the moment the entire narrative hinges upon. Likewise, Green’s description of his epiphany has all the drama of finding an extra twenty in your coat pocket; indeed it’s just that kind of lucky chance that facilitates his purchase of the church he comes to preach at.
The performance footage, shot mostly at an Air Force officer’s ball in Washington, DC also lacks intensity, although the small venue at has a convivial feel. With a sparse backing band and singers behind him, Green never seems to hit stride, coming off at times like a particularly skilled lounge singer, trapped under bright lights.
The most compelling piece of footage here is a long clip of Reverend Green preaching at the church he purchased after his conversion. Speaking on the same Bible story brilliantly summed up by Sam Cooke in “The Hem of His Garment”, Green weaves back and forth between the biblical and the personal in a blend of speaking and ex tempore singing that evolves into a congregation-backed spiritual that builds to a fever-pitch. In these closing moments of the film, Green finally comes across as a passionate performer.
The extras included are mostly extended audio takes of each of the film’s components, but the reflections by director Robert Mugge shed light on the choices made in the film. Mugge, whose work includes documentaries on Sonny Rollins, Gil Scott Heron and New Orleans musicians post-Katrina, is less interested in Green’s work, particularly his commercial work, than in the “a guy who flew too close to the sun, got his eyeballs burned and has been singing ever since with fire coming out of his mouth.” In his pursuit of the myth, Mugge skews the balance of Green’s career too much towards gospel and risks losing the music that defines Green for most listeners.