STRANGER: BERNIE WORRELL ON EARTH

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."


Bootsy, Worrell, Laswell (l to r)
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.


Bernie Worrell by Michael Weintrob
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.

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.

 
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.

-Bernie Worrell

 

THE JOURNEY BEGINS

Philip, what was your goal as the filmmaker of STRANGER?


Film Maker Philip Di Fiore
"My goal started off as what not to do," said Di Fiore. "Initially, when I started, I didn't want to use any interviews. I was following Bernie around the country on tour, and I wanted to do it more in a cinema verité style — more like a Maysles Brothers film or something with no interviews. It would have been an interesting movie, a much different movie — in a way, much smaller. At one point, I had to take my ego out of the way and make the best movie possible. Part of the allure was that this is a guy that a lot of people don't know about, so why should you know about him? I let his friends and collaborators tell you why. What makes him interesting and unique enough to take an hour out of your life to learn about him? I definitely wanted to make sure there was enough of his music, but at the same time, I didn't want it to be a concert movie. I wanted it to have a story and a flow, and I didn't mind editing his songs and cutting it down in order to do that. I didn't want to just play entire songs at the expense of breaking the flow of the narrative. At the same time, I wanted it to be entertaining and enjoyable to watch. I edited it more on an emotional level instead of trying to fit in every little fact. I was willing to sacrifice facts if there was an emotional movement. It doesn't flow in chronological order - information was unveiled on an emotional level. The black and white scenes of Bernie at the hotel and his journey to the gig were the thread that pulled his story through."

The film is sometimes very sad. Scenes portray Bernie as a very isolated man. You can't get over the fact that he's a genius living alone on the road.

"I would guess that he feels that a lot of the time because he's a genius, but a lot of touring musicians must feel this way. While traveling with Bernie, I noticed that life on the road can be very lonely, and it is very grueling. Sometimes, you're living in your own head in a Motel 6."

Where did you get the idea for the film?


Bernie Worrell
"I had gone to school with Bassl, Bernie's son. We were high school classmates. Bernie would come by the school from time to time. I didn't know who he was; he was just a great person, very social, talked to everybody from the kids to the teachers. He certainly didn't look like he was working a 9 to 5 job. He wore rock T-shirts, so you knew something was going on. I didn't know he was a musician, let alone, how great a musician. At the time, I think he was recording with Keith Richards, his first solo album Talk Is Cheap. Skip forward ten years, and within that time, I really got into Bernie's stuff — Talking Heads first and went backwards into P-Funk. By the time I got to film school, he was known within a certain circle, but he really wasn't as widely known as I imagined he would have been. His imprint is everywhere on music to the point that I'd mention his name to people, and they wouldn't know who he was. I just couldn't believe it. I could believe it on one level because of his personality — he never really called attention to himself. In film school, I thought Bernie was a great subject for a documentary and an interesting person. That's what drew me into him first, and then I wanted to delve into his musical contributions. As I was making the movie, there was a dark tone. There is a lot of darkness because he's someone that lives on Earth, thus the title, and he has to deal with a lot of earthly negative things that happen to anyone. To deny that would have been half the story."

THE HOUSE THAT FUNK BUILT

Bernie, when did you start playing with George Clinton?

"I started playing with George through hanging out at the barbershop in Plainfield, New Jersey when we were teenagers," said Worrell. "[Playing with Clinton] - it's freedom to do whatever I want. It's a natural feeling from all the years we've been together. I know what he's going to do, and he knows what I'm going to do (sometimes!!). We were influenced by anything and everything — from jazz to rock (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin) to classical to pop to country. It's been a wild ride since then."

Philip, the film has Bernie tagged as a child prodigy. How did that concept coupled with his relationship with his mother help mold his musical development?


P-Funk
"I knew a lot about his classical [music] upbringing and that he was a child prodigy," said Di Fiore. "I didn't know the extent to which he was sheltered by his mother. I was definitely intrigued by the fact that part of his genius is God-given. He was born with perfect pitch. His mom showed him a scale at two, and he played it back perfectly. The other half of it is a lot of hard work. He practiced for hours and hours a day. He was playing recitals. When he went to the New England Conservatory, he was studying classical music, obviously, but on Saturdays he was playing for a male Jewish choir. He would play for Latin ballerina groups. He was playing in the R&B clubs at night. He was really working at honing his craft, so you had this element that I definitely wanted to come across. I wanted people to see he's special and was born with a gift, but there's an element of hard work and being open to play so many different styles of music that shaped him. I wanted to play on that stereotype people may have about African-American musicians. Here was a guy that was a classical music prodigy and eventually ended up revolutionizing other genres. I didn't realize how protective his mother was, and she was probably one of the main forces that shaped his personality. Even today, he'll talk about her that way. He does have a rebellious streak to him. You can hear it in his music. He takes musical forms, sabotages them, and turns them around and uses them the way he wants. When you think you're following him, he'll switch it back up. He'll keep you on your toes, and that's his constant rebellion against what people expect of him and what they expect, generally, when they listen to music. What Bernie is doing is funkier. When you talk about putting Bernie in a genre, he's really one of the few musicians that transcend language. You really can't put him in a genre or classify his playing with words. He'll sabotage that and purposely make you sit there and really think about what he's doing, instead of trying to talk about it. It is very difficult."

That's the great hook for me. The film has excellent footage of Worrell skipping through genres, and that is much better than having him try to explain his musical process on film.

"Thank you. That's good," said Di Fiore. "That was a decision I made when I chose not to interview him. At times, the film frustrates people when I travel around to film festivals and show it. It always comes up in the Q&A afterwards: "We love the movie, but we'd like to hear more of Bernie speaking." I understand that totally, but my decision was that the best way to learn about Bernie was that his personality really comes out through his music. The other fact is that he dislikes talking about himself so much that when I did interview him and we talked about him, he would quickly change the subject. He'd ask me how my family was doing, and I'd still be making a movie if I relied on that. In terms of the different musical genres that he flies through, it's hard to explain. Normally, you'd think 'Wow, that's great and all, but I like my certain genres of music.' All of his music is tied together. It is unified, and his personality is the unifying force. If he goes through classical or what may seem like jazz or something, or heavy metal, it still reflects his personality, and it somehow all fits together."

 
When you talk about putting Bernie in a genre, he's really one of the few musicians that transcend language. You really can't put him in a genre or classify his playing with words. He'll sabotage that and purposely make you sit there and really think about what he's doing, instead of trying to talk about it. It is very difficult.

-Philip Di Fiore

 

Speaking about your music, Bernie, in the beginning of the 80s, you joined forces with Talking Heads.

"Talking Heads kind of reflected, in the studio, how early Funkadelic worked in the studio," said Worrell. "Just start off by jamming, and things would come together naturally. Then, finishing touches were put on later."

What is your favorite aspect of playing live music?


Bernie Worrell
"Complete freedom — it's no holds barred," responded Worrell. "I like to play in many different groups with different musicians. Sometimes with less people in a group, you can play more variety."

Philip, was it easy to get these high profile names to talk with you on camera?

"The difficult thing was that Bernie and his wife Judie lost touch with a lot of people. They're in touch with a lot of the people in the movie, but some people are just like anyone else. Someone changes their phone number or e-mail, and the connection is gone. I had to take the ball and reestablish connections. It wasn't hard to reach out to people. Once people found out that there was a film being made, 99% of the people were very enthusiastic about being interviewed and participating. Really, actually, they were thanking me for doing the project. At the same time, because they're musicians and they live such a hectic lifestyle, it took a long time to set up the interviews. I was kind of at the mercy of the subject's schedules. I decided just to go with it and to not set up random artificial deadlines and to try to get as many people to participate as possible."

Any interview subjects that totally knocked you out?


Bootsy Collins
"Any time you have a chance to talk with David Byrne, it's a special time," said Di Fiore. "I'm a huge fan of all of his work. I had a little bit of an out-of-body experience in that interview just watching myself interviewing him. I got a little bit star struck there. He was just such a nice, warm, friendly guy. He put me at ease and did a wonderful job. He was a great guy to talk to outside the interview. We bought our bicycles at the same shop in Manhattan. Mos Def was one of the most articulate people. There's probably about a half-hour to 45 minutes of extra interview footage of him that I didn't use, but it's all so incredible. I had to pick and choose. Everything he said was absolutely brilliant and articulated the things I was thinking better than I could have. Plus, you know, you can't take a bad picture of him. Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth — I went to their house in Connecticut. Bootsy Collins — I drove to his house in Cincinnati. It was a family atmosphere as everyone just welcomed me into their home and took time out to talk about Bernie. I interviewed Warren Haynes while he was recording his most recent Gov't Mule album (Deja Voodoo) at the studio. I also interviewed Bill Laswell at a Spanish restaurant in Greenwich Village. Every interview has a little story, and I'll always remember each one of them. Nowadays, you can be a musician who just focuses on the music if you surround yourself with the right team of people, and you're only susceptible to those people taking advantage of you. These days, most musicians have found the right teams. Bernie, Bootsy, and George and that era — it was the Wild West."

In one segment, former Talking Head Tina Weymouth said that Bernie drinks and smokes too much. Can you blame him? When people ask me about my writing technique, I reply, "Write on coffee. Edit on whiskey." Why? Because it feeds the monkey and separates the solid from the bullshit really fast.

"You can't separate these elements," says Di Fiore. "It's a product of his profession. His office is a bar — that's where he works. Not all musicians are big drinkers, but if you have a proclivity to that stuff, and it's surrounding you... You know, from talking with his family, the real problem came when Bernie found that he had nothing from all of his publishing from Parliament Funkadelic. He went into a downward spiral after that. Like you said, it's sad so you can't blame him, in a way. It is sad for me because he's a friend of mine."

How is your current relationship with Bernie?

"I see Bernie a lot lately on the film festival circuit. A wonderful, unique thing about film festivals is that a movie can be just part of the overall experience, and if you can have the subject there, or in Bernie's case, have a performance, it really rounds out the experience. I've been seeing him quite a bit, and I've been trying to get some of his solo projects recorded. He hasn't been able to do that in over twelve years. I'm trying to use any connections I've made through the movie to help him. We've become pretty close since I took on the project."

BURNIN' DOWN THE HOUSE

You've got the Bill Laswell camp that says that Bernie's legacy may equate to nothing. You've got the Tina Weymouth camp that says that he may end up like Andy Warhol, and suddenly, he's appreciated when he's dead. Warren Haynes compares him to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Bootsy Collins links him to Beethoven. The camera is turned around to face you. What will be Bernie's legacy according to Philip Di Fiore?


Benie Worrell
"Wow — that's interesting," said Di Fiore. "Well, first off, the thread between all of us is that we all hope that he has the legacy that he deserves, that he's created with his music. That would be a no-brainer. My personal take on it — I'm trying to answer directly while thinking out loud. I think it might take people some time to reflect to determine Bernie's influence. I'm starting to see a lot more writing about him now, not necessarily because of the movie, but if the movie helps, that would be wonderful. Maybe his kind of innovation and creation are coming back into vogue. I kind of view his music as timeless and not like a thing that is trendy or belongs in a time capsule from a certain era. Sadly, I think he might be really re-discovered when he's gone. It might take some real music aficionado who says: "Hey - we've discovered this great guy!" Meanwhile, he was here the whole time making this great music his whole life. I don't know why it takes an artist's death to bring notoriety or respect. I think it might take that in Bernie's case."

The sun was there the whole time, but it super novas and suddenly people pay attention.


Benie Worrell
"Exactly," said Di Fiore. "Maybe, when he passes away, someone will do re-issues of his work. It's in the writers' hands, too. Musicians know what his legacy should be, but they don't know what the written word will be — that really dictates the legacy. People read about him and re-discover his work. It's probably in the hands of the writers. My film might play a part."

How's the distribution going for the film?

"We're really close. We're talking to a couple of pretty large companies that are interested in distributing the movie on DVD, which will have a lot of great bonus material on it, a lot more performance stuff, a lot more straight music, which I know people wanted more of in the movie. I think this will satisfy straight Bernie fans and music fans that just want to watch straight Bernie performances; plus a ton of extra interviews that weren't featured in the movie. For example, I have the David Byrne story about how he got the idea for "Burnin' Down the House" when he was at a P-Funk show in L.A. So it looks like it will have a pretty good home on DVD, and we've approached a few different cable television stations as well."

FUNKIEST CLAVINET PLAYER ON THE PLANET

Bernie, in your work, do you draw from your classical conservatory education or perhaps from the current methods of sampling and producing funk music?

"I draw from my classical education as a child prodigy," said Worrell, "and everything I've learned and heard since then — the sounds of birds, animals, children, the wind, machines."

You are revered as one of the prime architects of funk. Do you feel appreciated by modern hip-hop artists who sample your music?

"I guess so. Sampling is a form of appreciation," concluded Worrell. "I see them as both apprentices and colleagues. I can teach them a lot, but I can learn from them too."

P-Funk, Talking Heads, Pretenders, Les Claypool — it's all so different.

"I guess a lot of people have wanted to play with Bernie because he's the Funkiest Clavinet Player on the Planet," said Di Fiore. "They are taking him because of his musical personality, and they know that he's going to figure out something special. It might not be on the keyboard they imagined or the genre that they signed him up for, but they know that he's got a great musical sensibility."

He continues to educate in all ten dimensions, exploring alternate universes while spinning intriguing audio webs — multi-phased notes echoing intergalactic tapestries that burden the writer with a worthless Roget's Thesaurus that will not help define the Man or his Music. Then again, definition kills, and sometimes the dark passages of someone's beauty are revealed through patient observation, careful listening, and a sweet little masterpiece like STRANGER: Bernie Worrell on Earth.

JamBase | Planet Earth
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Comments

echoedearth starstarstarstarstar Thu 9/8/2005 04:57PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I am so exited to find that Bernie is getting the recognition he deserves. wonderful job on the article. i can't wait to see the film!

nastymofo starstarstarstarstar Fri 9/9/2005 06:52AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Great article, intense and improvisational! Just like the style of music you guys write about!

Bfunk1620 starstarstarstarstar Fri 9/9/2005 11:23AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Great article... the best thing about Bernie is that he is the nicest man you will ever meet. I have been to about 10 Bernie Worrell related shows... I have personally met and had experiences with him 7 times... whether he has hugged me in the bathroom 5 minutes before showtime, bought my friends and I drinks hours before the show, slapping me a high five as he leaves the stage... he is pure hugs, smiles, love... a great person in general... and a fantastic musician as well. I don't know about you, but I want the FUNK!!!

Monica Way starstarstarstarstar Wed 9/14/2005 04:13PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Monica Way

awesome read. can't wait for the film.

disco4ever starstarstarstarstar Thu 9/15/2005 04:23PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

The man is a genius.

peace007 starstarstarstarstar Mon 9/26/2005 11:55AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

The Wizard of Woo is one of the great living musicians -- I want to buy the DVD RIGHT NOW! I've only seen Bernie a few times, but he NEVER lets the audience down! ROCK ON BERNIE!