As part of the ’12 SBIFF’s “Cinesonic” sidebar and the generally amped-up segment of music films, and especially pop/rock music films, at least two of the films fall under the shadow of the VHI syndrome, offering fuller pictures of acts heretofore unexplored in a deeper way. We can safely file the documentaries on the Cowsills and Morphine’s Mark Sandman under the “where are they now…?” (and “where is their back story now?”) category, but from radically different ends of the spectrum and different time trajectories.
With the ‘60s teen idol and family band archetype of the Cowsills, their high profile in the ‘60s was their public pinnacle, and the documentary Family Band: The Cowsills Story seeks to tell the behind-the-scenes and after-the-fame-bubble story. Morphine, quite in contrast, was a unique, low, dark and enigmatic band from the alt-rocking ‘90s, and the documentary Cure for Pain: the Mark Sandman Story tells leader Sandman’s story backwards, from his early death onstage in 1999. Each story, in its way, is fascinating, heartwarming at times, tragic at others, but ever compelling to the rock culture junkies among us and within us.
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With Family Band: the Cowsills Story, directed by Louise Palanker, Bill Filipiak, and Ian Boyles, we’re led through the remarkable and fairly unknown saga of the one-time hit making family band which became the model for TV’s “The Partridge Family.” Feeding off of the power of stark contrast and historical context, the engaging doc cuts back and forth from primary colored clips from their halcyon days — appearances on Ed Sullivan, scoring hit records with the fiendishly catchy “Happy,” “Hair,” and other songs — and interviews with a wide range of those involved in the meteoric rise and fall of the band. In short, the high-flying trajectory was self-sabotaged by a stage father running amok, the architect of the band who was also abusive and alcoholic stage father.
Two of the five brothers have died within the last few years, but we get a strong sense of who they were in the film, which ends on the up note: the remaining siblings are still tightly connected and continue to make music.
Another common factor between these two disparate rock and roll stories is the fact that their music has timeless power on its side, if in various ways. The Cowsills took the high road, with cheery pop suitable for the whole family, which was surprisingly and a bit sneakily quite sophisticated and cooler than it pretended to be. Morphine took the low road, eating hipness and attitude for breakfast, but with deposits of humanity and melodic invention threading through that seductive low rumble of a sound. Both bands made sounds worth knowing, and rediscovering, with the help of reminders like these films.
You know it’s film festival time when …an evening out can include a dizzying array of events and venues, and a furtive desire to check out as much as possible (if you have the cultural obsessive gene, that is). So, post-Cowsills saga, we drifted up State Street for a quick blast of data and entertainment at the “Virtuosos” character actor tribute evening at the Arlington, and then popping across the street to SOhO. There, Bob Cowsill — star of screen and stage this night — was the leader of a killer “cover” band. Joining him were his drummer brother and former Santa Barbarans Robbie Scharf on bass, and on the three-handed guitar, the super-cool Timmy Bryson. On a cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” Bryson peeled off a whirring solo on a 12-string Rickenbacker which seemed to channel both Toger McGuinn and Steve Howe, and Tim Bryson.
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