By Randy Ray
THE APOCALYPSE NOW OF MUSIC FILMS
We gathered ourselves from the table of Capitalism and wandered across the sway, diverting minds from the tangible into the intangible realm of chaos and magic. In the era during which I grew up, Led Zeppelin ruled every high school hallway, grassy field, car back seat, concert hall, and record player. Hell, there were times when if you mentioned anything even remotely critical of the band, you'd find yourself toothless and sporting a black eye the size of Texas. There was only one other band that commanded that type of respect from its multi-colored audience: Parliament Funkadelic. My older sister turned me onto the Chocolate City Delights of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell. I would be blasting Physical Graffiti; she'd be pumping the floorboards with "Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)." Sometimes, these strange and brave new worlds would collide. You think Da Funk ain't in Zeppelin? Check out "Trampled Underfoot" — six minutes of driving grooves that will smack yo ass silly. Think Zep ain't in P-Funk? Brotha, "Dr. Funkenstein" is "Kashmir."
So here we are over twenty-five years later, and Bernie Worrell, the groundbreaking keyboard player of Parliament Funkadelic, is the subject of the Apocalypse Now of music films. STRANGER: Bernie Worrell on Earth, a film by Philip Di Fiore, is a documentary that parallels the artistic process of the Funk Master. The viewer is taken up a black-and-white and Technicolor scattershot river as scenes of brief madness are interlaced with numerous shots of profound musical genius. By the end of the journey, as we find the symbolic Mothership and peek inside to understand the film's subject, we have various bits of information, but there is very little to help glue the fragments into an assimilated whole. Bernie Worrell comes across as the mysterious Colonel Kurtz from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, whereas the filmmaker resembles Captain Willard — patiently trying to gather all of the kaleidoscopic images into a single defining sound bite. But that ain't Bernie's bag, man, and it certainly isn't the theme used by the very talented forces behind this sweet little masterpiece.
"I cry when I watch it," said Worrell. "I get emotional seeing my friends up there saying the things they say about me, the footage Phil has, and how he put it together."
The film hits you in the face with a startling juxtaposition of sadness and greatness. There are shots of Worrell alone in a Motel 6, looking in the bathroom mirror upon waking; on stage, blasting notes from some 23rd Century dance club environment he invented; walking the streets, drifting away from yet another hotel, ramblin' on to yet another show. Eyes are smothered, ears are slammed, the mind, reeling with the portrait: a solitary monk-like genius living a life as an isolated artist. He reaped few royalties from his groundbreaking work with P-Funk and has struggled with various problems ever since. The film had its world premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah before winning both the 2005 Best Short Documentary at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival and 2005 Best Foreign Film in the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in Greece. Recently, the film was submitted for consideration for the 2006 Academy Awards. Worrell is also recording his first solo projects in over a decade - an album produced by Prince Paul - and another work featuring an improvisational trio that includes Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun. Quite a renaissance for a musician who has also worked with a list that includes Talking Heads, the Pretenders, Keith Richards, Warren Haynes, and Mos Def.
Bootsy, Worrell, Laswell (l to r)
The list is long, impressive, and nowhere near complete. Bernie Worrell's keyboard playing has influenced all of the above and legions more. JamBase sits down with both the filmmaker, Philip Di Fiore, and his film's subject as we try to find the right notes to accurately create a sound that matches the elusive definition. Worrell is a soft-spoken, quiet man but was generous in his few comments. This article centers on him as the subject and that is a subject about which Worrell clearly chooses not to speak at great length. Like other giants, he believes talk is cheap. The Music is The Man.
Bernie Worrell by Michael Weintrob
Di Fiore has written and directed experimental short films and videos while playing guitar in dive bars all over his hometown of New York City. He attended New School University in New York - the same school where co-producer and cinematographer Seth Lind studied. Producer Steve Kalafer rounds out the film's talented trio. He is the head of New Jersey Studios and has been nominated for three Academy Awards as a producer of the short documentary Curtain Call, the short animation film More, as well as for producing the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival Best Short Documentary Sister Rose's Passion, a 2005 Academy Awards nominee.