Only The Strong Survive

2003, Movie, PG-13, 101 mins


D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus's hybrid concert film checks in on the still-active giants of 1960s and early '70s soul music, starting with a coterie of artists who recorded for the great Memphis, Tenn.-based soul labels Stax/Volt and Hi Records, including R&B patriarch Rufus Thomas (who died just as the film finished production, and to whom it's dedicated) and the eternally cool Isaac Hayes. But it includes artists from soul scenes that flourished elsewhere, including ex-Supreme Mary Wilson, the Chi-Lites and Wilson Pickett. A few major figures are AWOL, notably the reverends Solomon Burke and Al Green and the troubled-but-brilliant James Carr, who's heard only in a snippet from one of his classic records. But just about everyone else you'd want to hear from is on hand. Co-producer and major soul fan Roger Friedman is both the off-camera narrator and on-screen interviewer; he's clearly in awe of the soul greats and they clearly like him, sharing amazing stories with charm, humor and candor. Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave fame) is particularly riveting in his matter-of-fact discussion of his rock-bottom days as a Manhattan street drug dealer, but that's as grim as it gets. Even Pickett, who had some high-profile drug and legal problems in the late '80s, seems to have survived with wit, talent and oversized ego intact. Jerry "The Iceman" Butler, whose signature song provides the film's title, became a major player in Chicago-area politics after the hits stopped coming. The musical segments (shot in various locations between 1999 and 2001) are mostly sensational, with a just few minor cavils. Compared to, say, what, Martin Scorsese might have accomplished under the same circumstances, Pennebaker and Hegedus's style is prosaic and their penchant for extreme close-ups occasionally distracting — unruly nose hair can undermine a musically mesmerizing sequence. Some artists' powers are diminished — the still-charming Chi-Lites legendarily angelic harmonies have become somewhat less so — but most of the music is as fine and fierce as you could want. Carla Thomas's rapturous take on her early doo-wop hit "Gee Whiz" and Butler's smoldering, slowed down rethink of "For Your Precious Love" are transcendent. The biggest revelation is the inexplicably underrated Ann Peebles; her performance of "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home," a cheating song anchored by one of the most sinuous Memphis soul grooves of all time, seems more like a force of nature than a work of interpretive art. leave a comment --Steve Simels

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