J.J. Cale - To Tulsa And Back: On Tour With JJ Cale

To Tulsa and Back merely reinforces the common perception that J.J. Cale is laid-back and uninterested with stardom. As a result, it's also a wasted opportunity.

J.J. Cale

To Tulsa and Back

MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: On Tour with J.J. Cale
Label: Time Life
UK Release Date: 2006-06-13
US Release Date: 2006-06-13
Artist website

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.