STRANGER: BERNIE WORRELL ON EARTH

 
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."


Take full advantage of all JamBase has to offer by signing up for an account!


You'll receive

show alerts

when your favorite artists announce shows, be eligible to enter contests for

free tickets

, gain the ability to

share your personalized live music calendar

and much more. Join JamBase!