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.

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