The long time Pittsburgh icon gets his due, but the documentary is mostly a one-note song. Fortunately, it lets the music do the talking.
A Good Life: The Joe Grushecky StoryDirector: Steve Caniff, Joe Justice
Cast: Joe Grushecky, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Cropper, Art Nardini
Distributor: Virgil Films & Entertainment
Studio: Flat Broke Productions
Release Date: 2009-10-13
As the sayings go: Good things happen to good people / Don't give up on your dreams / If you follow your heart, others will follow you. Go ahead, pick a moral – any might apply in this heartwarming tale of a blue collar rocker who might never have grabbed the brass ring but has won the love and respect of his peers, both personally and professionally. And while the film itself might belabor that theme without much additional drama, the real deal-closer in this package is the performance footage and the accompanying audio CD (recorded in 1995 at Nick's Fat City in Pittsburgh).
Joe Grushecky has been making quality rock 'n' roll records for over 30 years, but fame came fleetingly and early. The son of a coal miner, Grushecky formed his first band ("the world's worst cover band", he says) and banged around the '70s club scene in Pittsburgh. But unlike many of his fellow musicians, Grushecky had another career in place as a special education teacher, focusing on handicapped, mentally challenged and emotionally imbalanced students. (People quit crappy jobs in a heartbeat to take a shot at en entertainment career; imagine the pressure if you ask for a few days off from a job like his to tour with Bruce Springsteen…and an administrator says you'll be fired if you do.)
While not quite a rags-to-riches story, we learn how the band followed the usual path of becoming the big fish in the small pond, friends in a rock 'n' roll brotherhood with huge dreams. How "Heroes are Hard to Find" caught the ear of Cleveland International's Steve Popovich, who believed in Joe and financed some sessions that led to the first album getting released. How the lengthy process of working the record one town and one AOR station at a time led to five-star reviews for Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive and what looked like the start of a lifelong ride at the top…only to be derailed by a changing industry, an imploding label (MCA) and a few poor and impatient personal decisions.
But the interviews with club owners, musicians, family and peers tell all – here's a good guy who got a shot and stayed humble, deciding to continue to make music on his own terms even if that meant playing the hometown bars for the rest of his life. The ironic analogy here is that as an "emotional support teacher" for kids he has to have the passion, dedication and persistence to help them succeed.
His career has survived and blossomed thanks to those very same qualities. And while his career did spark again with the release of American Babylon and the Springsteen connection in the mid-'90s, the buzz dwindled and life soon returned to normal. Back to teaching, back to the love and support of his family and friends and band brothers, back to making albums from his heart regardless of whether they charted or not. Back, as the title states, to a good life.
Perhaps as a fan of his, I expected a bit more from the film itself. Certainly the subject is dynamic enough – a truly good guy who loves his family and friends, is loyal to his band mates, has artistic integrity and (if that wasn't enough) touches the hearts of children in need and changes their lives. But while those points are clearly established, the pace of the interviews and the static camera work seemed to work against the emotions they were attempting to capture. This was far from a big-budget production (hence the name of the studio) but more judicious editing might have quickened the pulse of the presentation. I'm already interested in the man, so I watched without reservation, but I could see viewers bailing out of the film before the end to jump to the music.
But ahhh, the music. Call it AOR, call it rock 'n' roll, call it whatever; Joe Grushecky is cut from the same cloth as his famous guest star Bruce Springsteen. Watching him perform – and especially hearing the nine-track live CD included herein – it's immediately apparent that he is a performer and songwriter deserving far better notoriety than he received over the years. Like peers and friends Bruce Springsteen, Little Steven and Southside Johnny, Grushecky's music is urban barroom rock at its molten core, perhaps best captured on the rollicking "Rebel Music" and the blistering nine-minute "Pumping Iron". Unless you're familiar with Joe Grushecky – and if most people were, there wouldn't be a film – you'll walk away wondering how someone this good managed to escape your attention all this time.
And with that thought in mind you arrive at the heart of the story – you are learning about a man who is humble, not bitter, about how the cards played out. Joe Grushecky is an easy guy to root for, and as you'll find out, a damned good songwriter, as well.