The Cowsills, a Newport-based family group of singers who inspired “The Partridge Family” TV series, became Billboard chart toppers in the late 1960s thanks to their squeaky clean image and catchy tunes.
“The Rain, The Park, And Other Things;” “We Can Fly,” “Indian Lake” and later in the hippie era, “Hair,” were among their hits, performed at the height of their popularity by five brothers, sister Susan and their mother, Barbara. They were paraded in front of the TV cameras with the likes of Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Mike Douglas, Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Buddy Ebsen, even Hugh Hefner. They had their own TV special and screaming girl fans. They seemed happy and carefree and intensely talented.
But behind the glare of the spotlights there were black clouds, which is the subject of the intimate documentary “Family Band: The Cowsills Story” which will be screened at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10, at Veterans Memorial Auditorum as part of Flickers: The Rhode Island International Film Festival.
Using archival footage, interviews with the surviving Cowsills and earlier interviews with brothers who died before this film was made, directors Louise Palanker, Ian Broyles and Bill Filipiak have gone behind the tinsel curtain to reveal the heartache and unhappiness that went on behind the scenes of the happy-go-lucky, all-American family image that was crafted around them by record companies and their father.
Bud Cowsill, a Navy guy who wasn’t around much during the years when they were growing up, recognized the innate musical abilities of his children who could pick up a guitar or get behind a set of drums and instinctively play the instruments, not to mention their knack for four- and five- and six-part harmony. Bud took his sons, who had already formed a band in hopes of being like The Beatles, put them together with their sister and mother — “It never occurred to me that Mom would be in my rock band,” recalled Bill Cowsill later — and shrewdly marketed them as the well-scrubbed American ideal.
Bob Cowsill said with a mix of pride and irony that “I was the only 16-year-old kid in high school with a record deal … and on two record labels … and three flops by the time I was 17.”
But Bud’s ideas, which rarely gelled with the hopes of his sons (whom he never asked anyway), was to create a sort of modern-day Von Trapp family group, along the lines of “The Sound of Music.” But if anything, the boys hated their father, hated the songs he picked out for them to sing. Son Richard likened him to a puppeteer pulling the strings. Bud was used to military discipline, but his children saw him as an autocrat who would sometimes get drunk and strike out in anger.
Bud was the guiding force behind the Cowsills and yet, in the end, drove them into the ground. His demands gave him a reputation of being difficult to deal with and although the Cowsills were contracted to do 10 Sullivan shows, they wound up doing only two. Later, in anger, he fired son Bill from the group. He mismanaged their money, calculated by one brother at $20 million earned over four years, and they wound up deep in debt.
How they survived and the unhappy end that came to some of them is told frankly in the film. And yet there is humor, too, in their recollections and a great deal of historical images that will rekindle memories for those who were there.
****Family Band: The Cowsills Story
Featuring: Bill, Bob, Barry, John, Susan, Paul, Richard Cowsill.
Rated: Not rated, contains adult themes, profanity.
Running time: 1:26