By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 19, 2022)
Get out of my head…all of you.
– Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth
When a great artist dies, it is not uncommon to default to the old standby that “(he or she) meant so much, to so many people.” Of David Bowie (who returned to the cosmos in 2016), it may be more accurate to say that “he was so many people, who meant so much.”
Bowie invented the idea of “re-invention”. It’s also possible that he invented a working time machine because he was always ahead of the curve (or leading the herd). He was the poster boy for “postmodern”. Space rock? Meet Major Tom. Glam rock? Meet Ziggy Stardust. Doom rock? Meet the Diamond Dog. Neo soul? Meet the Thin White Duke. Electronica? Ich bin ein Berliner. New Romantic? We all know Major Tom’s a junkie…
Of his myriad personas, David Jones remains the most enigmatic; perhaps, as suggested in Brett Morgen’s trippy Moonage Daydream (now on Blu-ray), even to Bowie himself. More On the Road than on the records, Morgen’s kaleidoscopic thesis is framed as a globe-trotting odyssey of an artist in search of himself (think of it as the Koyaanisqatsi of rock docs).
A caveat for fans: this is anything but a traditional, linear biographical portrait. Nearly all the “narration” is by Bowie himself, via strategically assembled archival interview clips (like the Beatles Anthology). Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of original Bowie music and scads of performance clips (the film was officially sanctioned by his estate, so I assume there were no licensing restrictions). The music is ever-present; just don’t expect it to be dissected and/or praised by the usual parade of musicologists and contemporaries.
While ardent fans (guilty) will recognize quite a few clips on loan from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1973 concert film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: the Motion Picture (as well as other Bowie documentaries) there is some fascinating “new” footage here and there. A performance of “The Jean Genie” with Jeff Beck sitting in with the Spiders caught me by surprise (it was shot for Pennebaker’s 1973 film but had been omitted at Beck’s request). Beck and Mick Ronson are on fire, and it neatly closes the circle with the Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man” …the obvious inspiration for the song’s main riff.
The best way to describe the experience of watching this film is to quote “Thomas Jerome Newton”, the alien played by Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film version of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man to Fell to Earth (screenplay adapted by Paul Mayersberg):
Television. The strange thing about television is that it – doesn’t *tell* you everything. It *shows* you everything about life on Earth, but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s in the nature of television. Just waves in space.
Morgen doesn’t tell you everything about Bowie’s life, he simply shows you. Even if David Jones’ “true mysteries” remain elusive as credits roll, the journey itself is quite absorbing and ultimately moving. And if you want to take the cosmic perspective, you, me and Moonage Daydream are all just waves in space…floating in a most peculiar way.
There has been a proliferation of documentaries profiling legendary session musicians of the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond who helped create the “soundtrack of our lives” (Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Take Me to the River, Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet From Stardom, Hired Gun, etc.). One of the best of the batch is the 2008/2015 film The Wrecking Crew.
“The Wrecking Crew” was a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the distinctive pop “sound” that defined classic Top 40 from the late 50s through the mid-70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons.
The eponymous film was a labor of love in every sense of the word for first-time director Denny Tedesco, whose late father was the guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Tedesco, a premier member of the team.
Tedesco’s new documentary, Immediate Family can be viewed as a “sequel”, essentially picking up where The Wrecking Crew left off. While many of the musicians profiled in the former film continued to work through the ensuing years, a new crop of hired guns began to make a name for themselves. Tedesco focuses on four players: bassist Leland Sklar, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Russ Kunkel.
The names may not immediately ring a bell, but once you can associate faces with them, you’ll smack your forehead and say to yourself “Oh…that guy!” (especially Wachtel and Sklar, who sport quite distinctive hair and beard styles, respectively). Individually and collectively, the quartet has played in the studio and on the road with the likes of Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Don Henley, Keith Richards, and Phil Collins (all of whom are on hand to offer their two cents in the film).
All four players have had fascinating journeys, and when you realize their collective studio sessions number in the thousands, it’s impressive. It’s also inspiring for those of us of a…certain age that they remain so vibrant and productive well into their 70s. Entertaining road stories abound; Wachtel has the best ones, he’s quite the raconteur. His anecdote about a night he and Linda Ronstadt hit a strip club had me rolling.
Other luminaries who show up include Lyle Lovett, Stevie Nicks and Neil Young, as well as producers Peter Asher, Lou Adler and Mike Post. The film does get a tad redundant with the praise, and I think the phrase “It was a magical time” has now officially worn out its welcome-or maybe I’ve seen too many music docs. Still, I had a good time hanging out in the studio with these folks, and I think the film should strike a chord with any true music fan.