Saturday, May 28, 2011

“This Time: A Music Documentary” (Inspiration 101)

There is a sizeable market these days for watching up-and-comers as they try to “make it” in show business. From the 20-something pop singers of “American Idol” to the often more seasoned low-level pros of “The Voice”, to the high-school hopefuls fictionally portrayed on “Glee” or “Fame”, there is a lot of interest in singers on the way up. But what about those artists who at one did “make it”, whose careers peaked, then began the long slide down the path to obscurity, whether relatively or totally. In the chew-’em-up-and-spit-’em-out world of entertainment, there are too many performers who have enjoyed moments in the sun, who are every bit as talented (and far more worldly-wise) now as they were then, but who are desperately fighting to maintain or regain an audience.

“This Time” is a documentary by Victor Mignatti which traces the recent paths traveled by the once-famous soul vocal group, the Sweet Inspirations - who sang backups for some of the most beloved stars in show business during the 1960’s and into the ‘70’s - as they try to make a recording comeback; a less fabled, but still once-successful singer named Pat Hodges, well-known during the disco era as one-third of the vocal group Hodges, James and Smith; and a cabaret singer named Bobby Belfry, whose success as a cabaret singer in New York has yet to translate to national renown, but who is trying hard to reach the next rung on the ladder. Supplementing these stories is a look at record producer/songwriter/arranger Pietor Angell, who achieved a level of success writing musical scores for television, but who is also working to “make it” as a record producer, seen here working with the Sweet Inspirations and with Hodges.

What the general public doesn’t see when they blithely sit home and dial their phones to vote for a favorite contestant on a televised talent contest is the amount of hard work - the sometimes metaphorical, but often literal blood-sweat-and-tears - the sheer struggle that performers go through in the process of attempting to attain their dreams. The key word here is “attempt”. For every contestant for whom the chairs turn around on “The Voice”, there are far more who have put in many years of paying dues that never got them much further than the first audition. To go through all that it takes to get to any realistic level of success, to finally break through to the charts or the television screens, and then to have that flurry of big-time visibility last only a few fleeting moments must be as heartbreaking as not to make it at all. This is a cruel business, and yet so many people devote so many of their most productive years to it. This DVD spares the feelings of none of its participants in its merciless portrayal of the killing fields of the record biz.

The Sweet Inspirations sang backgrounds on hit recordings by Dionne Warwick - the group‘s original soloist, Cissy Houston, is not only the mother of Whitney Houston, but also Dionne Warwick’s aunt - Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, and others. They had their own chart hits, including a Top 20 song called “Sweet Inspiration” in 1968. They toured with Elvis Presley for many years, as warm-up act and backing singers. But following Elvis’ death, the group lost most of their momentum. When we see them here - in segments apparently filmed about nine-ten years ago, the group consisted of two members from their their hit period (Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown) plus a third singer, Portia Griffin, who joined in 1994. The group was able to maintain a professional standing by touring with Elvis tribute artists (which I believe the current edition of the group still does). At least they have that to fall back on. But when this footage was shot, it had been well over 20 years since they recorded an album. In the eyes of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately music business, they essentially had to start their recording career all over again, under the auspices of writer/producer Angell.

The “Sweets” sound absolutely wonderful during the recording session that opens the film. We see them adding harmonized “ah-oops” to a previously recorded track. We don’t hear the rest of the song at first, just their voices blending to sing a syllable or two every now and then. This is, of course, the normal way the overdubbing process used to “sweeten” basic tracks works, yet there’s something a bit disconcerting, even humorous about hearing these disembodied three-part vocal shoops out of context. Nevertheless, when we get to hear the whole thing mixed together, it becomes clear just how skillfully the Sweets can sing backgrounds that make absolutely perfect sense in the finished product. The skill of the producer is to know when that level of “perfect sense” and appropriateness is achieved, and Pietor Angell certainly has the ears for the job.

But making it in show-biz is not just about vocal talent and solid production, it’s also about image. The Sweet Inspirations of 2002 are no longer young, glamorous women, yet it behooves them to give them the illusion that they are still just that. Thus, we see scenes of them shopping for stage wigs and posing for a promotional photo shoot. By the time the transformation is finished, they look every bit as slick as they sound, almost becoming different people than the three aging women we see offstage. But a later studio session goes much less smoothly, and a great deal of soul-searching and discussions with Angell are needed for the project to regain its footing. Former long-time member Sylvia Shemwell, who had been forced to leave the group fairly recently due to a stroke which left her unable to talk, is brought in to bolster everyone’s spirits (she died in 2010). Another project reunites them with Cissy Houston - whom we first see directing a gospel choir (her main role in music in recent years) - who still sings beautifully. But the latter project is mistakenly released under Houston’s name, with lesser billing to the Sweets. That mistake is eventually corrected, but Angell’s producer credit is permanently excised. There are many problems encountered at many steps along the way, and the album is released without any commercial impact. Realistically, none was expected. Sadly, if the Sweet Inspirations ever do mount a major comeback, they will have to do so without Myrna Smith, who has passed away since the film’s completion. The group continues on.

But the Sweets’ lack of a comeback does not put them out on the streets. When we first meet Pat Hodges, on the other hand, she is indeed homeless. Hodges, James and Smith had a few hits, yes, but the group disintegrated under the tyrannical control of former Motown producer William “Mickey” Stevenson. Very little came of Hodges’ career after that, despite her obvious surfeit of talent. Pietor Angell tries to put her life back on track, and indeed does produce a few hits on the club charts for the singer. But having a successful hit on the club charts does not necessarily translate into fat royalty checks. At one point, Angell reflects that the DJ’s are the stars in the clubs, not the artists, even though the DJ’s aren’t the performers on the records.
Hodges has the vocal power and all the right tools, but she suffers from a serious weight problem. Angell makes sure she works out with a trainer to ward off future health problems. But eventually, Hodges loses her fire. She appreciates all Angell has tried to do for her, but as the money fails to materialize, her enthusiasm for a comeback waxes and wanes. Her sessions sound fine, her live performances are of more variable quality, and she holds her own in a meeting with the Sweet Inspirations, but her desire diminishes. At at the time of the film’s release, her album remained uncompleted.

All of the artist’s stories are told chronologically, but are intertwined. One can hear a genre affiliation between the Sweets’ and Pat Hodges’ respective vocal styles, so only a minor disconnect occurs when one artist’s segment gives way to the next. Besides, the two acts share a common producer, which brings a certain continuity to the four women’s segments.The film’s most serious flaws, however, come when the gospel/r&b-rooted singers make way for the episodes in the life of the cabaret singer. Bobby Belfry is a pleasant performer and a likable enough fellow, but his style - combining elements of jazz, adult contemporary and Broadway - is too much of a contrast with the other artists. His story is worth telling, to be sure, but it seems to me - and this is solely my personal opinion, one which director Mignatti quite obviously disagrees with - that either Belfry belongs in a different film altogether, or else the artists’ stories should have been told separately, without trying to jump from one to the other. The film’s focus seems to ebb a bit whenever Belfry comes on, which is not his fault. He’s just a very different type of artist. Perhaps Mignatti felt the need to contrast someone who was never famous, but feels he should be (which appears to be more a matter of self-confidence than egotism), with those artists who were once famous and want to be again. I might also add that, to my ears, enjoyable though Belfry’s light-voiced renditions are, his most promising talent is as a songwriter, who should be writing for musical theater - which, of course, is a minefield in itself. Interestingly, the longer Belfry’s segment goes on, the less frustrated he seems to be with his lot as a singing bartender who has earned considerable respect, though not a wide audience. (A glimpse at his website, after my first draft of this review, indicates he has indeed begun to write for theater. Good luck, Bobby!)

By the end of the film, Angell, having done about all he can with the Sweets and Pat Hodges, begins applying his production and writing skills to his own project - tabbed Monte Carlo and his Orchestra with singer Kristi Rose. Based on the brief sample we’re given, I wish them luck as well.

There’s a historically significant bonus feature on the disc - 32 minutes of informal reminiscences by Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown on their experiences during their Golden Era, mostly with Elvis, but also with Aretha and Dionne.

“This Time” is certainly a worthwhile entry into the singers-hoping-to-better-establish-their-positions documentary arena. By examining artists who were once renowned and who are trying to reach something resembling their former status once again, the film looks at this concept of “making it” from a fresh perspective, which makes it well worth seeing. Fans of fine soul singing will find this disc to be of particular interest.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

“Bob Dylan Revealed” (MVD)/”Dont Look Back” (Docurama Blu-Ray)

There has been a spate of new and re-issued books, DVD’s, and CD’s released of late in conjunction with Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, which should come as no surprise. After all, few artists in any field of music have been as carefully documented, analyzed, theorized, interpreted, gossiped about, adored, reviled, you name it, as has been Bob Dylan. Any anniversary or milestone is bound to lead to even newer and - one hopes- fresher interpretations as they come along. But as for now, here are two contributions to this year’s Bob Dylan hagiography.

“Bob Dylan Revealed” is the latest offering from Dylan tribute artist and film documentarian Joel Gilbert, his fourth Dylan film to date. As with many unauthorized biographically-oriented DVD’s, it has some film footage and a lot of interviews with various people of interest, but no music by the subject of the film himself. This is sometimes a problem, but in this case, we already know the music, so it’s really not needed. When I classify it as “biographically-oriented”, I don’t intend to imply that it is a straightforward, year-by-year recounting of every significant thing that happened in Dylan’s life. Rather, it focuses on a few events which Gilbert finds particularly illuminating in his quest to further understand Dylan, his music, and his career.

The film opens in 1962, as photographer Barry Feinstein (who took the cover shots of a number of Dylan albums, as well as other well-known images) recalls seeing Dylan in Greenwich Village. He recalls that it was hard to make out the lyrics, but he already felt this early that he was “in the company of somebody very important.” Later in the film, he talks about the 1974 tour, focusing on the circumstances under which certain pictures were taken.

We then switch to drummer Mickey Jones’ reminiscences of playing with The Band as Dylan’s backup band. Jones bristles at the suggestion that Dylan turned electric “for the money” (a common accusation at the time), pointing that out that the switch in musical style actually cost him quite a lot of money. When an interviewer asks if he was trying to deliver a message in his songs or was simply entertaining, Dylan replies that he was just entertaining. Jones says Dylan rarely did straight interviews, that he liked to play games. But the clips suggest that the interviewers took him seriously, even when it was obvious that he was joking. There is a great deal more evidence of this in “Don’t Look Back”, but it’s interesting to hear this from someone who was there. Jones also offers rare candid home-movie footage from international tours. He says the electric material was not well received anywhere in the world. He also discusses the infamous “Judas!” shout, and says it was not Dylan himself who gave the instruction to “play f***ing loud” at the Manchester concert, both of which have became part of Dylan lore.

Scarlet Rivera, the violinist who was so much beloved by Dylan fans of the 1970’s, and bassist Rob Stoner talk about recording the “Desire” LP, as well as the Rolling Thunder Revue. Claudia Levy identifies a particular French film as the inspiration for the makeup during that tour, while Ramblin’ Jack Elliott chimes in on the tour also.

One of the pleasant surprises (to me) is the amount of space devoted to a jovial Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who freely discusses the circumstances of his arrest and the role of Bob Dylan‘s song and benefit concerts in his subsequent release. He also offer a suggestion as to why Joni Mitchell was booed at a prison concert.

Rob Stoner and Joel Selvin talk about the 1978 World Tour, which featured updated arrangements (concocted by members of the band, rather than Dylan himself) of the old hits Dylan preferred not to sing anymore, at the behest of a Japanese promoter.It was this tour by “the big band” with its Vegas-style arrangements, that caused Dylan to be saddled with a reputation as a slick, show-biz entertainer, modeled at least in part on Neil Diamond’s performing style.

Perhaps the most cryptic, still controversial turn in Dylan’s career came when he was “born again” under the aegis of Pastor Bill Dwyer of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church. Director Gilbert wisely allows Dwyer to give his side of the story without interference, though I doubt it will satisfy many viewers. Dwyer says Dylan first approached him (many have assumed it was the other way around) in a period of crisis. Famed producer Jerry Wexler (who passed away in 2008) relates how he happily agreed to produce “Slow Train Coming” without knowing the lyric content of the album. He also claims to have contributed the oft-derided “Zimmy” line to “Gotta Serve Somebody”. Selvin discusses the strong negative reaction to Dylan’s Christian concert in San Francisco, intercut with angry comments from fans as they walked out. Selvin believed the music itself was solid, but that Dylan’s preaching from the stage (some of it heard here) and the single-focus on gospel lyrics turned people off.

Long-time self-styled “Dylanologist” A. J. Weberman believes Dylan returned to Judaism because he felt “used” by the Christian movement. We get to see an unexpected glimpse of Dylan at a Chassidic telethon, wearing a yarmulke, playing a recorder in back of a couple Jewish folksingers, and soliciting donations. Must be seen to be believed. (As I think of it, this may be the only musical performance by Dylan in the film.)

In 1992, Dylan launched the Never Ending Tour, which is recalled by drummer Winston Watson, who is dumbfounded that Dylan gave him no indication of what he wanted him to play. He also shares a few observations about Dylan’s performing style and fan reaction.

The film runs 1 hour, 52 minutes. There are no extras, but none are necessary. The disc will probably appeal more to hard-core fans and pop-culture historians rather than to casual fans. You know who you are.


One film that should be seen by everyone - though hard-core fans and historians already have it in their collections on DVD, no doubt - is the Blu-Ray reissue of D. A. Pennebaker’s film “Dont Look Back” (sic; no apostrophe in the first word). Indeed, it has been so highly regarded for so long that one is tempted to believe it doesn’t even need a review, that it will pretty much sell itself. But if there’s anything that teaching popular music history courses on the University level has taught me, it’s that younger generations’ knowledge of what we old-timers consider to be classics is spotty at best. One cannot automatically assume that everyone out there is familiar with classic 1960’s-era Dylan, much less Pennebaker’s film on the subject. Thus, a review is in order.

Even if you haven’t seen the complete film, you may well be familiar with the opening sequence, as it has been referenced in many other documentaries and websites (including, of course, Youtube). While “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is playing on the soundtrack, Dylan displays, then discards one by one, cue cards of significant words in the song, eventually reaching the point where the cards and the lyrics don’t fully synch up. This is a playful Dylan, having fun with words and their meaning, an image very much unlike the dour, ultra-serious-protest Dylan the media liked to portray. That side of Dylan is much in evidence throughout this documentary filmed during Dylan’s 1965 English tour. But the playful Dylan is perhaps even more in evidence when the people he’s interacting with aren’t in on the joke. Thus, we see interviewers trying to hang on to his every word, as if he were giving them straight and significant answers, even when it should have been obvious that he wasn’t. We might, however, question his playfulness of intent when we see Dylan angrily stalking other interviewers, browbeating one prospective young interviewer who tries to out-argue him. Likewise, Dylan virtually attacks a “Time Magazine” journalist, insisting that what “Time” prints is facts, but not “the truth”, so why should he tell this reporter anything? He also tells the “Time “ man that he’s as good a singer as Caruso. Whether Dylan believes what he’s telling these two fellows is less important in the long run than their reactions to him, which are better seen than described.

In all, this is a candid portrait of Dylan at a crucial juncture in his career, just as he was becoming famous enough to attract young teen girls in the streets below his hotel room, shouting up to him as if he were already a “rock star”. Nevertheless, his performances during this tour were strictly solo-acoustic, which would very shortly change. We see footage of significant concert performances (including a memorable rendering of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”). But we also see Dylan backstage and in vehicles, interacting with musicians such as Alan Price, the other Animals, Joan Baez, John Mayall (briefly), a very young and naive Donovan, and classic old folkie Derroll Adams (an American performer who settled in England, and has subsequently been largely forgotten in his homeland). These interactions are sometimes informal musical duets/jams, at other times simply conversational. Even so, they open Dylan up to the scrutiny of the world, removing much of the mysticism that surrounded his image during this period. In other words, we meet a human Bob Dylan, not a near-deity.

We also get insight into Albert Grossman, Dylan’s fabled and often controversial manager. We see the prickly, profane side of Albert Grossman, to be sure, but we also witness Grossman the shrewd negotiator, who clearly has his client’s best interests at heart, and has a finagler’s way of achieving his goals. Dylan’s faithful road manager, Bob Neuwirth, comes off as an almost-constant presence as well, a stabilizing influence in a pressure-filled life. But even he has a difficult time holding Dylan back when the singer has a confrontation with a guest in his hotel room over a glass thrown on the street, a scene I find oddly discomfiting to watch.

The picture quality of “Dont Look Back” is grainy black-and-white, certainly a far cry from the Hi-Def we’ve come to associate with Blu-Ray discs. Nonetheless, the quality is probably as good as you can hope for until the next technological breakthrough comes along. Four-and-a-half decades later, “Dont Look Back” holds up amazingly well as one of the finest, most intimate, most forthright glimpses into the life of any major creative figure. It has served as the model for countless films, PBS specials, and VH1 portraits to follow. But the original cinema verite music documentary is still the classic of the genre.

There is a veritable plethora of extras. There are five audio-only bonus performances recorded on the tour; an insightful conversation between Pennebaker (who no longer sports his once-famed top hat) and Greil Marcus about specific aspects of the film; an alternate take of the cue-card segment, in which Ginsberg is more visible in the background; and a trailer for the film which is, in essence, merely the cue-card segment once again. I was unable to access the commentary track with Grossman and Neuwirth, despite numerous attempts.

The most substantial extra, however, is an hour-plus DVD (not Blu-Ray) of the companion film to “Dont Look Back”, entitled “65 Revisited”, which Pennebaker fashioned from outtakes of the original film. In some cases, this is material which seemed less important in 1967 (when “Dont Look Back” was first released) than it does in retrospect. But there are also some excellent performances which are well worth disseminating, and more insights into the participants (which include Nico this time around), as well as more shots of Dylan composing at the piano. Particularly welcome are an energetic concert clip of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and a fine performance of “She Belongs To Me”. The film ends with a rather awkward version of the cue-card sequence on a windy rooftop, with producer Tom Wilson replacing Ginsberg. This bonus disc also has its own commentary track - which I’m happy to say I was able to access - in which Pennebaker and Neuwirth discuss how individual scenes were filmed, etc. “65 Revisited” never reaches the.lofty heights of “Dont Look Back”, but it’s well worth viewing. And it’s certainly appropriate to have the two films in one package.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

“Romantic Warriors: A Progressive Music Saga” (Zeitgeist Media)

Ah, yes, progressive rock - Yes, King Crimson, Genesis during the Peter Gabriel era, ELP. Great stuff back in the 1970’s. But then it petered out, disappearing for all time, never to be heard from again, right?

Not exactly. True, the perceptions most people seem to have of prog-rock is that it was either a moment of glory that was too good to last, or an aberration in the history of rock that went on much too long, depending on one’s personal tastes and open-mindedness. But, as this new documentary readily demonstrates, prog is not only still with us, with hundreds of bands still playing and furthering the music’s artistic capabilities, it is thriving every way except commercially. It is a refreshing examination of an underground music scene built around musicians who are perfectly aware that they’re not on an easy path to fame and fortune, but who continue to play and experiment with the types of music they love because it’s what THEY want to do, not what the suits who run the record industry want them to do.

I am reviewing this off a screener disc of an hour-long edit of the film, which has just begun to appear on Public Television stations across the country, with more stations to be added in the near future. There is also a 95-minute home-DVD version for sale on the producers’ website, I’m unable to tell you what the differences are between the commercial version and the PBS edition, but since this is very much a “good thing”, more of it can only be better. Anyone who loved the Golden Era of prog-rock in its ‘70’s heyday, and has pined for the ”old days” should find either version to be of great interest.

Fans of 70’s prog should likewise be pleased to learn that the creative, experimental spirit of the music is still a major feature of the current crop of bands. We are told early on that the main focus of the American prog scene is along the East Coast, and in fact much of the action was filmed in Baltimore, Bethlehem, PA (at the “Nearfest” festival), and Chapel Hill, NC (at “Prog Day”). But we also learn that Europe and Latin America have remained hotbeds of the music as well. Thus, we get to meet not only a number of American bands (not all from the Eastern US), but also bands from Italy, Sweden, and Mexico. Short performance clips are a highlight of the film. (I actually would have preferred them to be longer, and perhaps there are longer clips on the DVD version; one can only introduce so much unfamiliar music by unfamiliar bands in an hour-long overview.) Names such as D.F.A., Deluge Grandeur, and Cabezas De Cera may mean little to most people (I confess the latter two are new names to me as well), but they are very active gigging and recording bands just waiting their turn to be discovered. And this film is the very means by which fans of classic prog-rock can begin to discover the current crop of bands.

The beginning of the film also offers a brief history of prog dating back to the 1960’s and through the decades since, a section which could be expanded greatly. The long lists of bands from each era and geographical area goes by pretty quickly (get ready to hit the pause button!), and is printed in a size that’s awfully small for many of us aging music lovers. With any luck, this historical overview will be the subject of another film to come. The only participant from the classic-prog era to be directly involved in this film is Gentle Giant guitarist Gary Green, who expresses pride in the fact that there are many bands still carrying on the legacy of Gentle Giant and their 70’s cohorts. And indeed, .Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Soft Machine, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer strike me as the original-prog bands who hold the greatest sway over the current bands spotlighted here. One other observation - much of the current prog would seem to fit in very easily with the jazz-rock fusion scene, had the fusion scene stuck to its original guns - along the lines of, say, Return To Forever - instead of degenerating into commercial/pop and eventually smooth-jazz. I would suggest fans of classic late-60’s/early-70’s jazz-rock should tune in to the PBS showings of the film. They might well discover a few things of interest here. (It is worth noting that a few of the interviewees refer to prog in more general terms, as “progressive music” rather than “progressive rock”).

Along with the performance clips, there are quite a few interview clips with musicians discussing their art, entrepreneurs (record-label operators, club/concert/festival promoters), and media people, all of whom stress, if not always quite so blatantly, the crucially significant point that prog is not a musical genre which will make anyone rich in 2011. This is a scene for people who believe in what they are doing, whose goal is to push their art into ever-newer directions. It is, then, a scene for dreamers, albeit people whose musical dreams and aspirations do not include wealth and world-wide renown. In a world filled with Lady Gagas and Katy Perrys (the sort of pop stars whom Gary Green argues aren’t involved with music at all, but “fashion”), the modern-day prog artist is just that - an artist - and a highly creative one at that.

Be sure to catch this when it shows on your local PBS station. You may well be back for the complete DVD.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

“Derailroaded: Inside The Mind Of Larry ‘Wild Man’ Fischer” (MVD)

In the 43 years since the release of the Frank Zappa-produced double-LP, “An Evening With Wild Man Fischer”, people have reacted to Larry Fischer in many different ways. Many folks have simply laughed off the man and his music as a bad joke, as if he were just another sick stand-up comic whose schtick went on far too long. Many others hear his shout-laden vocals and shake their heads in “turn that thing off” disgust. A few people - including many well-regarded musicians and critics - have treated him as a misunderstood and seriously under-appreciated genius. The general public, of course, remains blissfully unaware of him at all, and would most likely reject him if they did somehow happen to stumble across his recordings.

But after watching this unexpectedly well-done documentary - unexpected in part because Fischer is such a minor figure in the history of rock music that it’s surprising any documentary exists at all, but also in part because of the care and comprehensiveness with which the production team known as the Ubin Twins approached their subject - it strikes me that Fischer is neither someone to be laughed at nor someone to be saddled with a genius label that he could never hope to live up to. Larry Fischer is, as the blurb on the front of the DVD case would have it a “Manic Depressive. Paranoid Schizophrenic. Rock Legend.”

Larry Fischer is still alive, but not well. It’s tempting to speak of his “Wild Man” Fischer persona in the past tense, because it seems extremely unlikely that he will ever perform in public again; more on that later. There is nothing particularly “funny” or “comedic” about a seriously mentally person baring his naked emotions in public. He may seem humorous when heard on records, but the Ubins make the viewer painfully aware that there was a very tortured soul and damaged mind behind the “weirdness” of Wild Man Fischer. For those who may be unfamiliar with his work, Fischer wrote odd little songs, which he would sing to passersby on the streets of Los Angeles, charging them a dime to hear a swear-to-God-it’s-original song. Many of these songs were more like short snippets of lyric and melody, which often had the potential to be developed further into full-length songs, though he apparently felt satisfied with them in what sounds to me like an unfinished state. But they are, when all is said and done, the products of a manic-depressive paranoid-schizophrenic. That DVD-cover blurb is fact, not just a way to sell discs. He has indeed been institutionalized at certain points in his life, and the diagnosis is real, not imagined.

At their best, Fischer’s songs are honest, heartfelt expressions of a mentally ill man’s authentic thoughts and feelings, showing creative turns of phrase and set to simple, often semi-spoken melodies. His delivery of these songs is that of a man with an untrained voice, filled with passion, sometimes crying out in misery, at other times overflowing with an enthusiasm and energy that more controlled singers could never hope to attain. He expresses his emotions by shouting out individual words or short passages, often at unpredictable moments. I can understand the temptation to credit him as a genius, because his songs and singing -inconsistent though they be - are unique and sometimes quite touching, as if every fiber of his being is contained in these songs and shouts. It is difficult not to be moved when he sings of being “derailroaded” (his way of saying ”derailed”), being pushed off his intended show-business career track by the machinations of a corrupt record industry. In true paranoiac fashion, his suspicious mind believes everyone - even those relatively few people who have tried to help him - are out to get him at every turn. It’s no secret that elements of the commercial record industry are corrupt, but (a) he is not being singled out for special punishment, and (b) his failure to become as famous as he sometimes claims to be, or as wealthy as he feels he should be, has more to do with the fact that he performs his songs in a manner which few people in the mainstream audience would find appealing than it does with music-biz rip-offs.

The Ubin Twins - Josh Rubin is credited as Director, Jeremy Lubin as producer; I suspect there was no such clear-cut division of labor while the film was being made - originally envisioned this project as encompassing a number of schizophrenic rock stars, including Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis, and Roky Erickson. But someone else was filming a documentary on Johnston, Wesley Willis passed away, and it became abundantly clear to the Ubins that Fischer had a fascinating enough story to justify a feature-length (86 minutes) film of his own. They uncovered a great deal of footage of Fischer on the streets, performing before audiences, and living his daily life, going as far back as the pre-Zappa era. They were granted permission to include Fischer’s appearance on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” (previously known through an almost unwatchable Youtube clip).They interviewed a tremendous range of Fischer’s friends, associates, and supporters. Frank Zappa had unfortunately died several years before the Ubins developed their interest in Fischer, but his widow Gail Zappa is here. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, Dr. Demento, Weird Al Yankovic, Solomon Burke (who gave Larry Fischer the “Wild Man” appellation) all add their insights. Most significantly, Bill Mumy (whose name Fischer consistently mispronounces as if it were spelled “Mummy”, rather than the correct way, “Moo-mee”) and Bob Haimer (a/k/a Art and Artie Barnes) - better known as Barnes & Barnes, under which name they not only recorded the classic “Fish Heads”, but also produced two albums for Fischer - talk openly about their love for and difficulties working with Larry Fischer.

Further insights come from Larry’s long-suffering brother, David Fischer, his aunt Josephine, with whom Larry was living while much of the film was being made, the highly respected Princeton Clinical Psychology Professor Dr. Louis Sass, Howard Bronson of Rhino Records (whose first release as a label was Fischer’s song about Rhino’s L.A. record store), comix artist Dennis Eichhorn (co-author of the graphic novel “The Legend of Wild Man Fischer”), and Irwin Chusid, the world’s great expert on “outsider music”. Fischer virtually typifies the “outsider” genre, which is populated by amateur singers and songwriters who believe they are doing fine, solid, acceptable work, but who are so far outside the mainstream that they don’t necessarily understand why the mainstream doesn’t accept them. And there are lengthy interviews and candid shots of Larry Fischer himself, letting us see straight through to his inner core.

This film was first shown on the Festival circuit about a half-dozen years ago. The Wild Man Fischer we see in 2004 is an old man (looking much older than 60), lost, still bitter about his lot in life. We learn at the very end of the film that he has entered a home where he has been put back on medication. The meds have calmed him, the home provides a shelter and food, so his needs are being taken care of in many ways he neglected to take care of himself. Then, the saddest words in the entire movie come on the screen - He has “lost the pep”, the enthusiasm which may have been his most endearing aspect as a performer. He is still Larry Fischer, but he is no longer “Wild Man” Fischer. Sad, yes. But the fact that he may have found something resembling peace may be as close as the film could ever have to a “happy ending”.

The DVD is jam-packed with extras. There are outtakes, a trailer, performances (including Weird Al singing Fischer’s signature tune, “Merry-Go-Round”), an overlong interview with the late X-rated comedian and action-movie star Rudy Ray Moore (who had no knowledge of Fischer’s work or mental condition, but thought he showed potential as a novelty singer). There are two commentary tracks, one in which the Ubin Twins discuss how the film came together, a second one of telephone conversations with Fischer. The first is quite interesting, the second strikes me as uncomfortably exploitative. There is also a four-page booklet of reflections by director Josh Rubin.

I can’t imagine anyone with an interest in Wild Man Fischer living without this DVD. I doubt it will make many new converts to the man’s music, but it is worth seeing by anyone with an interest in the relationship between the arts and mental conditions.