Little-remembered today, the Cowsills were a U.S. TV and radio staple in the late 1960s, their wholesome take on flower-power pop inspiring the fictional "Partridge Family" just as its real-life model began fading from public view. "Family Band: The Cowsills Story" goes behind the scenes to dig up its share of private dirt and family secrets in an entertaining if uneven docu that excels in showcasing kitschy vintage clips but is less sure-footed chronicling the clan's complicated larger story. Nostalgic appeal should make it an attractive item on the fest circuit, with home-format sales to follow.
Teenage newlyweds Bud and Barbara Cowsill produced their seven offspring while he was still traveling the globe in the Navy, an inhouse dad only half the year or less. By the time he retired from service, four of the boys (youngest Susan was the sole girl) had formed their own Beatles-esque rock band.
Having no musical talent himself but recognizing everyone else in the family had it in spades, Bud aggressively pushed them as a professional act. Soon the Cowsills were relocating from Rhode Island to Southern California, signed by MGM (which insisted Barbara and Susan join the group), and scoring several chart hits. On innumerable network variety shows they made a chirpy, energetic impression, seemingly having the time of their lives; probably most kids watching wished they were Cowsills, too.
But there were problems, or rather one big problem: Dad. According to family members and colleagues interviewed here, Bud was a volatile, hard-drinking, physically abusive character who brooked no opposition, and did the family's career fortunes far more harm than good in the end. He prevented son Richard, with whom he regularly locked horns, from joining the band -- the only child left out -- and after quarreling with Pop, frontman Billy himself is "fired from the group and the family."
When the act officially dissolved a while later, the junior Cowsills discovered not only that the millions of dollars in income they'd generated had evaporated, but that they were now (thanks to the music industry's ever-magical bookkeeping) hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Docu fast-forwards through subsequent decades, briefly noting some siblings' substance-abuse problems and other woes before focusing on an annus horribilus as Hurricane Katrina contributes to the family's pileup of tragic losses.
There's a lot of engaging material here, but it's not particularly well organized, snapping into focus best during the long section devoted to the Cowsills' heyday. (Delightful variety show performance excerpts include "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Playboy After Dark," not excluding the skit that bizarrely led to this scrubbed act scoring a huge hit with the title song from Broadway's tribal love-rock musical "Hair.") Once those years are covered, scattershot content leaves too many questions unraised, like the degree of later contact the kids had with their parents. More info on their adult musical careers would also be welcome -- you'd hardly guess from the evidence here that Susan is a minor alternative-rock icon.
There's not a lot of polish to docu's packaging, though some of that will be less apparent on the smallscreen.
Camera (color, HD), Broyles; editor, Filipiak; sound, Jason Barry. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival (Santa Barbara Filmmakers), Feb. 3, 2012. Running time: 86 MIN.