They were young. They were from Newport. They were at the top of the Billboard charts. They were on “The Ed Sullivan Show” singing with their mother, for Pete’s sake. It was the late 1960s and the whole country was watching them.
They were — and are — The Cowsills, the family band that later served as the inspiration for the hit TV series “The Partridge Family.”
Today the surviving members are spread out across the country — California, Oregon, Louisiana. But they still get together to play as a group, most recently at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and at B.B. King’s club just down the block from Times Square.
And they are going to be in Providence Wednesday night, Aug. 10, in a homecoming at Veterans Memorial Auditorium for Flickers: The Rhode Island International Film Festival that will mark the first film festival screening of “Family Band: The Cowsills Story.” The documentary will be followed by a Q&A session with the audience and a concert featuring Susan, Paul and Bob Cowsill. Bob, on the phone from Milwaukee where he was performing, says it will be “a Peter, Paul and Mary shot because we didn’t have the budget to bring in the eight-piece band we usually play with.”
“We don’t do a lot of shows,” adds Bob, 61, “because if we only play our four hits we can wrap up our career in 16 minutes.” So those shows are padded out with “cover tunes of our era and some of Susan’s tunes.”
Bob, who lives in Woodland Hills, Calif., has had a regular solo gig at a local pub for 26 years. “I’d settled into that life,” says the father of five and grandfather of four, when his regular routine was shattered one night by the arrival of longtime fan, film director Louise Palanker. “She’d been cruising our website and saw that I was playing in Woodland Hills near her and she came in.” Fortuitously, “It happened to be the night that we were all in town for [brother] John’s wedding and played for four hours. We are a good live band and she was impressed by the dynamics of that night.”
Palanker, inspired by what she saw, returned later to ask Bob if he and the family would be open to appearing in a documentary about their lives. “We had been approached for years to do CD box sets … but we only had four hits, and tours … but we couldn’t go out with Dick Clark’s oldies tour because we all had families and jobs.” Palanker’s offer was something different. “Louise was tenacious. She kept coming back, and finally I asked the family what they thought. It seemed positive to us, so we said, ‘Why not?’ ”
But this was not going to be a once-over-lightly film that echoed the goodness of “The Partridge Family” and emphasized the kind of songs the Cowsills sang, some of which they hated, yet which created the wholesome image of “the great apple pie family. Just put on our music and you feel better.”
Rather, “Family Band: The Cowsills Story” explored the dark side of that cheery image — the tenacious father, Bud Cowsill, who steered their careers, even adding their mother, Barbara, and 7-year-old sister, Susan, into the mix, something the four brothers who then made up the group were not keen on. “We really had to wrap our heads around the idea of having Mom in the group,” Bob says, adding that they had to go back in the studio to re-record one of their songs “to put in Mom’s voice.”
Nevertheless, the gimmick worked. “By having Mom in the group, we were different” from all the other boy-brother groups and “we went to the top of the charts.” It wasn’t long before TV came calling, but Bud’s abrasive personality eventually cut down on the number of offers and his mismanagement of their money led them to bankruptcy.
But in those days, before a performer’s every misstep became instant Internet fodder, “nothing was out in the open. Dad and my brother Bill could have an argument in a restaurant that escalated and MGM [Records] could keep it out of the press.” (Bill Cowsill, whose long interview about the family is an integral part of the film, died on the day of the memorial service for brother Barry, who drowned in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.)
So before they sat down with the film’s interviewers to bare their souls, “we knew we had to start interviewing ourselves so we could get a history.” Nevertheless, when Palanker’s first team of interviewers came in, it did not go well. “When they heard our stories, the whole story — 8 to 10 hours each — the first group became so focused on Dad that we began feeling we were in his movie.”
The reason the film took seven years to produce, Bob says, “is because two of those years we shut it down when we realized the crew couldn’t get past Dad.
“We reevaluated the whole thing. Who knew that doing a documentary was like psychotherapy? I felt like a punching bag for a while.”
The next crew of interviewers was more amenable to The Cowsills. “We would get little videos of what they had done from time to time. All we could tell was that it seemed to be going in a good direction.”
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that Bob got to watch the film “with 150 strangers at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. They got to ask questions afterward and it was a good period. It was a home run that night.”
He later saw the film alone with his wife, “which was the most difficult of all. When you’re out with the public, you can’t react. You put on a poker face. Alone, it’s real hard.”
In retrospect, Bob Cowsill has grown comfortable with the screen version of his life, bumps and all, remembrances from a long time ago. “Our family life is beautiful. We’re a happy family,” he says reflectively. “You can’t let external forces ruin your internal happiness.”
“Family Band: The Cowsills Story” will be screened at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10, at the 1,900-seat Veterans Memorial Auditorium, 1 Avenue of the Arts, Providence. A brief concert and a Q&A session will follow the screening with Bob Cowsill, Paul Cowsill, Richard Cowsill, Susan Cowsill, co-directors Louise Palanker and Ian Broyles and editor Bill Filipiak. Tickets are $15.