Words by: Roger Weisman
“Without the sidemen, no music.” – Scott Sharrard, musical director of the Gregg Allman Band
Documentary feature film Sidemen: Long Road To Glory is about legends, pioneers and underdogs. It’s about the blues. It’s about rock ‘n’ roll. It’s about history, the future, and that sliver of time in between. It’s a fine film, and it was enthusiastically received when it was screened at South By Southwest and numerous other festivals last year. The filmmakers are currently engaged in a crowdsourcing campaign to finance worldwide distribution, so with a little luck, you’ll soon be able to see it too.
The movie tells the story of three bluesmen who managed to go largely unnoticed as they helped change the face of music: pianist Pinetop Perkins and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith from Muddy Waters’ band, and Hubert Sumlin, the guitarist who played for decades alongside Howlin’ Wolf. Consummate musicians, these men all shared an uncommon ability to intuitively work within their respective outfits, adding their own personal voices and flair to the music without impinging on the space of their illustrious bandleaders (or fellow sidemen for that matter). These three men have long been held in high esteem by fellow musicians, and influenced many of the most celebrated figures in rock ‘n’ roll.
It is a reverent and affectionate portrait of three artists who found themselves at the center of a musical and cultural revolution. The movie is intimate and insightful, telling the story of men who are too often overlooked. And while the film frequently leans a bit heavily on the blues’ formative influence on rock ‘n’ roll, it does so with a noble purpose in mind: to connect with viewers who may have only a passing familiarity with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, to say nothing of the largely anonymous men behind them.
It achieves this splendidly. Notable performers such as Gregg Allman, Joe Perry, Shemekia Copeland and Bonnie Raitt offer insights and praise and share personal stories to create a thoughtful and engaging tribute. They illustrate the journey of the blues from the Mississippi delta, up to Chicago, then overseas to England where it was adopted by the next generation. It shows how these young British musicians, such as The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and Cream, embraced the blues and in turn sold it back to the white kids stateside, leading to renewed appreciation of the old masters. Hearing these artists share their stories reinforces the power of the music and the traditions that created it and sustain it.
Yet, while these interviews with legends of the classic rock era help to engage the neophyte, the stars of the show are obviously the three subjects themselves. It is the candid footage and interviews with them that give the film its character and depth, and provide a glimpse into their lives and personalities. The warmth, wit, and the laid-back, world-weary charisma of these gentlemen shine through. Even seemingly trivial tidbits, such as Pinetop’s incessant craving of McDonald’s (“They make some soft sandwiches, boy”) add to a sense of familiarity, and lighten the tone of a story which is often marked with more tribulations than triumph.
“These guys get to you,” mused the film’s director Scott Rosenbaum. “They’re these grandfatherly figures.”
Rosenbaum first conceived of this project during the filming of his feature film, The Perfect Age of Rock And Roll. While writing a scene taking place in a Route 66 jukejoint, Rosenbaum wanted the bar band to be played by these real, authentic, old bluesmen, a notion that he immediately dismissed as impossible. However, upon making inquiries, he was surprised to find that Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Hubert Sumlin, these legendary figures that he simply assumed to be inaccessible, were all ready, willing and available.
It proved to be a gratifying experience for all involved, with the old bluesmen delighting the young filmmakers in between takes with stories of their travels and old associates. Before the shoot ended, Sumlin told Rosenbaum, “I have a feeling we’re going to work together again.”
The Sidemen project started to take shape when the trio’s booking agent, Hugh Southard, subsequently approached Rosenbaum asking if they could use the name of the movie for a tour that the musicians were to undertake. Happy to comply, Rosenbaum also became determined to film the performances of the newly titled Perfect Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues Band for what he conceived would be a Last Waltz styled tribute film. Having seen that classic Martin Scorsese film of The Band’s final concert (of the original lineup) as a young child, it inspired him both musically and later as a filmmaker.
Also, it was with that film that he first became aware of Muddy Waters through his performance of “Mannish Boy,” a song that he had always associated with The Rolling Stones. It was the first moment when he began to realize that the music that he grew up loving went a bit further back. That realization all those years ago would figure into his goals with this new film.
“I was pretentious enough to think, well, maybe that should be one of the motivating factors here.” Rosenbaum said. “I would like to do a Last Waltz for this generation and hopefully turn on some young kids to the fact that there’s this deeper history.”
Rosenbaum and his crew filmed the short series of concerts, as well as extensive interview footage. This included documenting Smith and Perkins’ trip to Los Angeles to attend the Grammy Awards ceremony at which their new album, Joined At The Hip, was nominated for the award for Best Traditional Blues Album. Their award win that night provided a glimmer of the recognition that they were largely denied for their whole careers.
Tragic circumstances would then change the entire trajectory and narrative of the film. Just over a month after winning the Grammy, Pinetop Perkins passed away in his home in Austin, Texas. Smith and Sumlin would all pass on before the year was out. Rosenbaum was stunned.
“I knew that Pinetop likely would not survive and see this film,” Rosenbaum said. “But then the sheer shock and the crazy timing of them all going within such a short period of time. We fell in love with them, which is what made it difficult after they passed to, kind of, wrap our minds around how we were going to proceed.”
Rosenbaum’s vision of a triumphant Last Waltz style movie was dashed, and the whole project came to halt.
“I was really gun shy to proceed, because I felt it would come off looking like it was exploitative,” he said. “So I needed to let that age and mellow before I came back to it.”
After a while, it became clear that he had invested too much time and energy into the film, and the choice became not whether to continue, but how. He credits his writing partner, Jasin Cadic, with giving him the prodding to carry on.
“He knew how it was just weighing on me,” said Rosenbaum. “And he [Cadic] said, ‘you know if you never finish that project, you’ll never live it down. You need to finish it.’ Much to his credit, he really picked me up off the canvas.”
With the benefit of time and distance, it became clear that far from being exploitative, it seemed now that the passing of Pinetop, Willie and Hubert demanded tribute.
“This is what these guys wanted,” Rosenbaum said. “They asked me to tell their story. They trusted me with their legacies.”
And with their untimely departures, a narrative began to shape itself, one that would connect past present, and future, traditions and generations, and address the intoxicating allure of the blues that would drive it across the Atlantic and bring it back again.
The father-son elements in the relationship between Wolf and Hubert came into sharper focus. In addition, Rosenbaum drew attention to the Pinetop Perkins Foundation, an organization supporting and fostering the talent of young musicians, all born after the passing of Wolf and Muddy, who seek to carry the blues into the future.
It was also after the trio had passed that Rosenbaum was able to assemble the impressive roster of blues/rock luminaries who pay tribute. When the teaser reel of the film began to circulate, artists leapt at the opportunity to offer testimony.
“It changed the complexion and gave [the project] the momentum that I needed personally.” the director said. “They just love the music and love these guys. It really is Hubert, Pine, and Willie who carried the day allowing me to make all these inroads.”
It’s a fine film and it deserves to be seen. It’s also a joy to watch. Rosenbaum initiated a Kickstarter campaign on January 30 to raise funds for distribution, mainly to cover the costs of clearing the music rights for a worldwide release. The campaign runs through March 1.
“Hopefully this is our year,” he said. “We’ll get this done early, in the spring here. Take care of all the business, and then get on with the release.”
For the filmmakers it was a long road of their own, but it was definitely a labor of love.
“If we did anything right in the film, it was to give the viewer the experience of what it was like to be with these guys, to feel like you know them a little bit. And I think we’ve done that. I hope we’ve done that. And we’ll see.”
For more info about the Marc Maron-narrated film, including how to contribute to the campaign, go to www.sidemenfilm.com.