More songs, less palaver
Anybody who saw 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown,' the great soul music documentary about the Funk Brothers, is bound to be intrigued by 'Only the Strong Survive.'
This 95-minute documentary was shown at the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival over the Fourth of July weekend and is slated to play at the Guild Theatre.
'Only the Strong Survive' tackles the history of soul music label Stax Records in Memphis, largely through the recollections and music of veteran survivors. So you get modern performances from Wilson Pickett, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, Isaac Hayes and Carla Thomas and her amazing father, Rufus ('Walking the Dog') Thomas, who turns in a lively performance at age 82.
A few key figures Ñ like Otis Redding and the Staple Singers Ñ are either entirely omitted or presented only in passing in vintage footage. Interviews with Butler, Pickett and Carla Thomas establish who they are, then go on far too long. D.A. Pennebaker (who made Bob Dylan's 'Don't Look Back') and Chris Hegedus are named as directors here, but one of the producers blunders into several scenes and has to explain who he is.
Among the stars, Moore is genuinely affecting as he recalls his down and out days in the 1970s, dealing heroin and cocaine in New York, now passing through the same neighborhood in a limousine. Moore's wife is gritty and engaging as she describes how she helped him clean up, and later he turns in an electric stage performance.
Mary Wilson is gracious and still shows her Supremes magnetism, warming up in sweats with two new members, then ripping through 'Someday We'll Be Together' in a concert dress she must have jumped into from the top of the stairs.
Best song you might have forgotten? The stunningly bleak 'I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home,' performed by underrated soul diva Ann Peebles.
When these artists are onstage, their energy is a fond reminder of an extraordinarily dynamic musical period in the 1960s, but the film rambles maddeningly between performances. And like an album you buy for only a couple of hit tunes, there's a lot of filler.