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Rock of ages

Recent documentaries revisit the era when music got all ‘ooh-aahh’

By David Wilson

Elvis Presley released his first single record in July 1954, three months before I was born. You might say rock ’n’ roll and I were babies together. By the time the Beatles conquered our shores a decade later, I was a rock ’n’ roll adolescent, hooked on its signature backbeat — that suggestive ooh-aahh-ooh-aahh rhythm borrowed from the blues and gospel music. I was too young to understand what the rhythm really signified. All I knew was that it felt good. The fact that grown-ups generally hated it only added to the attraction.

Rock ’n’ roll seemed to have been invented for no other purpose than to urge young people like me to have as much fun as we possibly could. And we did. The music crackled with energy, goodwill and boundless optimism. It became the soundtrack for our young lives, the little transistor radios we carried our connection to some beneficent Source favouring us with a bountiful stream of jaunty two-minute-and-40-second epiphanies. We studied the top-40 pop charts as if they were holy scriptures: each week they offered fresh evidence we were a chosen generation.

Or so it seemed. Toward the end of the 1960s, the music began to change. It wasn’t just about fun anymore. It started to get serious about itself. The backbeat grew fainter; in a few short years, it was overwhelmed altogether by the four-on-the-floor banality of disco and the pounding extremes of stadium rock. The good-natured suggestiveness in the songs gave way to the crude decadence of music videos. Rock ’n’ roll’s playful heart stopped beating.

Maybe we never allowed ourselves to mourn the way we should have. How else to explain the recent wave of documentaries exploring the stories behind the music that shone so briefly but brilliantly? There’s no question films like Muscle Shoals, AKA Doc Pomus, 20 Feet from Stardom and The Wrecking Crew make commercial sense — the music they spotlight still means something to the millions who grew up listening to it. There are good cinematic reasons too — rock ’n’ roll was photogenic as well as rhythmic. But maybe there are deeper, less tangible reasons: perhaps these films and others in the same vein address a collective need to process the music’s demise. As a genre, they eulogize music that wasn’t supposed to die but did. And, perhaps, youth that wasn’t supposed to end but always does.

A sense of loss hangs over the genre, yet individually the films are hugely engaging, at times exhilarating. These are mostly stories of people with a gift for hearing sounds no one else heard and the ambition to make them real. Often they’re stories of salvation, of how music opened doors to a better life. Dirt-poor sharecropper’s son Rick Hall starts a small recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., hires some local musicians and helps invent soul music. Polio victim Doc Pomus grows up Jewish in Brooklyn, makes a name for himself as a blues singer in Harlem and goes on to write or co-write some of the most memorable songs in rock ’n’ roll.

These are also cautionary tales. Rags that turn to riches often become rags again. The hits dry up; Doc Pomus runs afoul of the IRS and spends a decade at the poker table, trying to make ends meet. Legendary backup singer Darlene Love, the central character in 20 Feet from Stardom and the voice behind hits like He’s a Rebel and Today I Met the Boy I’m Going to Marry, angers producer Phil Spector by going solo and winds up toiling as a housemaid in Beverly Hills, hearing her songs on the radio as she scrubs bathrooms. Then there’s the story of Tommy Tedesco, perhaps the most recorded guitarist in history, who flees a dead end in Niagara Falls, N.Y., moves to Los Angeles and becomes a core member of the hit-making studio ensemble nicknamed the Wrecking Crew. By the late 1970s, his phone stops ringing and he’s reduced to dressing up as a 250-pound guitar-strumming ballerina on The Gong Show.

The films themselves have had varying fortunes. Released in 2013, 20 Feet from Stardom won last year’s Academy Award for best documentary feature and has enjoyed a successful commercial run. Muscle Shoals and AKA Doc Pomus have been mostly limited to film festivals but are now available in DVD or online. After languishing on the shelf for several years due to licensing problems with the soundtrack, The Wrecking Crew is slated for worldwide theatrical release this year.

As poignant as the stories may be, audiences may find themselves feeling a little like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when she discovers that the great and powerful wizard is really an ordinary man pulling levers behind a curtain. Most of us who grew up with rock ’n’ roll only heard the music and felt its irrepressible rhythms; we didn’t concern ourselves with the nuts and bolts behind it. Figuring out how things work is something you do when you’re older and trying to make sense of yourself. In effect, these documentaries pull back the curtain on rock ’n’ roll to reveal the working parts inside. The message is that the music was as mortal as the people who made it.

Now that I’ve been offered some closure by these films, I’m not sure I want it. I want to believe that rock ’n’ roll was greater than the sum of its parts — a miracle. I want to believe that rock ’n’ roll will always be about youth, and I want to believe that those who love it will always be made young by it. Saying goodbye to rock ’n’ roll seems too much like saying goodbye to youth. On the other hand, maybe these films just caught me at a weak moment. I recently turned 60. Given the choice, I’d be a rock ’n’ roll baby forever.  

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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