Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Doo wop biopics

There aren't that many films about real or fictitious doo wop groups, as far as I know, but here are my notes about three examples of the genre, available on DVD: The Five Heartbeats, The Temptations and Looking For An Echo.

Set in 1965 and based in part on the great doo wop-to-soul group the Dells, this is a pretty good film. It has the sentimental bits associated with biopics, and the emphasis is on entertainment, occasionally at the expense of exploring the darker side more fully, but that's the story Robert Townsend wanted to tell and the way he wanted to tell it. It's also a story not told often enough: read the biography of the Spaniels, Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight (reviewed here) for a similar tale - but they, alas, could not transcend the "oldies" tag and largely failed to benefit from the huge hit of the book's title while the Dells, who started out on the same label (Vee-Jay in Chicago) made themselves more versatile and even refashioned their doo wop hits into soul classics.

Townsend, who cowrote, directed, and stars as the Smokey Robinson-type creative heart of the group, says he initially set out to write a comedy but then added darker parts about prejudice and the relegation of a tiny group photo to a corner of the album cover so that an image of a bikini-clad white lovely would ensure them crossover success. When I saw this with a largely black audience in London when it first came out, I recall the vociferous reaction when a group member, confronted with the picture, says something to the effect that Elvis Presley got to have his own photo on his album cover.

Surfing for images just now, I note that another blog, entitled Dirty Laundry, viewable here, talks about The Five Heartbeats being neglected in America in the context of the lack of recognition for the 1996 film Set It Off:

At that time, film was about as segregated as the neighborhoods in most American cities (this may have changed somewhat). Another movie neglected around the same time by the (white) moviegoing public was The Five Heartbeats —which is even crazier, considering it’s a rock ‘n’ roll movie. I went to see it three times in three different theaters, and on each occasion I was in the minority as a white person; the first time I saw it, in a predominantly Asian neighborhood, I was the only non-black person in the theater. What is wrong with white people?!?

The music, incidentally, has some very effective Motown pastiches. I wish it had been set ten years earlier, when the Dells and others were singing doo wop, but apart from that personal preference this film and soundtrack CD (in the same package) can be warmly recommended.

This appears to be a made-for-TV movie but it also seems honest and engaging. I have also read comments on a well-known shopping website which suggest that the stories of some of the group members are misrepresented (one claim is that illness has been ignored in order to suggest drink as one member’s exclusive downfall) but as I don't know enough to comment on that I can only say that this seems like a pretty good account of the rise and fall of one of Motown's greatest groups - and the story is basically the group's survival against the odds.

A particular bonus for me is that you see individual members singing doo wop at the start and we see - which I don't recall on film before but have read about - the way in which doo wop singing was about status, seeing off rivals (with sweeter voices rather than heavier fists) with the victors' getting closer to girls. (This ties in with Ben E King’s account of streetcorner singing days as quoted in my piece on Stand By Me here.) The Cadillacs are also portrayed - we see the young Temptations are inspired by their stage act.

With so many stories to deal with, I have no doubt there were compromises (and I don't know how close the film is to Otis Williams' biography as I haven't read it), but in the end, with the two key members the sole survivors and their most golden moment saved till the last (a rendition of My Girl to an empty theatre after we know that almost all the players are dead) it does feel like a real story where, as Williams says, no one person is bigger than the group - though David Ruffin seems to have done his best. But fictionalised or oversimplified or whatever, both The Five Heartbeats and this film say something about what it feels like to be in a group and the stresses and strains when ego and time get in the way.

First of all, it has to be said that spects of this film are a bit like those American TV movies of the week which focus on some major problem to overcome. In this case the question is whether our hero can be true to the memory of his wife while finding romance and cope with his daughter's (possibly) terminal illness - and these strands are neatly plaited together because it's his daughter's nurse who offers the potential romance.

So far, so formulaic - which is not to say that it would be a bad example of that genre. But what lifts this film above those made-for-TV jobs is the music: the hero was lead singer in a doo wop group which gave up in the sixties when the British invasion kicked in, and in a powerful scene near the end the group members finally have it out: by quitting, did the hero throw away the group's chance of greater success, forcing the others to give up too early? This has the ring of authenticity: in the documentary DVD Life Could Be a Dream, more than one person confirms that the stateside success of the Beatles help kill off doo wop as a major force.

There are also other finely judged moments which show that for the hero the music is still something vital - when he is finally unable to resist joining in an impromptu singing session for example - and such moments, for me, counterbalance the occasional sentimentality of the rest of the film. The music is by Kenny Vance and the title song (presented as a son's tribute to his father's past) has since become a doo wop anthem, recorded by longstanding acapella group the Persuasions and others.

In short, the film is well worth buying if you're interested in doo wop but for me, as a matter of personal taste, it's a bit too determinedly heartwarming overall. It has to be commended, nevertheless, for giving some sense of what it must have been like to be in a group - the friendship, the bonding and the resentments.

I haven't seen Why Do Fools Fall in Love for some time, and am working on a monologue based on Frankie Lymon, so don't really want to remind myself of it until that is done and dusted, beyond saying I agree with those who feel Lymon is essentially a bit player in the film as the focus is on his three widows' trying to claim the royalties to his biggest song. If you can obtain it, I can recommend the half hour PBS documentary I Promise to Remember. It appears as an extra on the videobeat edition of the trashy Alan Freed movie Rock Rock Rock. Fragments can be glimpsed on youtube in the rather unsatisfactory form of a "video book" by George Goldner's niece; the sense of a sad story being economically told is all but lost.

A final word for a film which isn't about a doo wop but a jazz group. Benny Green, one of my musical mentors, reviewed it very warmly as a convincing portrait of a group. As far as I know it hasn't been issued on DVD. It's called  Sven Klang's Combo. It's about a group of Danish jazz musicians, happy to play Dixieland jazz in the fifties until they are joined by a Charlie Parker-type saxophonist. Either with permission from the leader or out of devilment, he plays a Parker-type solo in the middle of a dance, and the reaction is interesting: displaying none of that "Go home dirty Bopper" reaction which apparently greeted Bruce Turner's joining Humphrey Lyttleton's band, the dancers simply wait until he has finished and the more familiar music strikes up again.

In a way, that's worse than hostility - the possibility that this is music which is not going to tear down the walls after all. I don't know whether the actors were musicians but a lot of the action centres around their rehearsing. This also makes me think of a Matt the Cat interview in which Earl Carroll talked of how he was taken aside by an audience member when he tried  to jazz up a doo wop number. As I remember the interview, he talked of its being a chastening moment - ie that he ought not to have forgotten who the concert was for - but I wonder ...