Chris HEGEDUS and D.A. Pennebaker’s rousing documentary “Only the Strong Survive” takes its title from one of rhythm-and-blues pioneer Jerry Butler’s most enduring hits, and it serves as an apt anthem not only for Butler but also for all of the other artists the filmmakers honor: Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, Mary Wilson, Sam Moore, the Chi-Lites and Ann Peebles.
In essence this is a concert film with lots of appetizing filler that gives a sense of the geographical and stylistic evolution of rhythm and blues in cities across the nation, where soul music flourished roughly between 1960 and 1975, when it was displaced by disco. Yet the R&B-soul; influence persists and, most important, so do many of its creators. Indeed, the film offers a terrific lineup, performers whose ability to enthrall audiences is undiminished years after their peak of popularity.
“Only the Strong Survive” is not merely a record of a packaged nostalgia show but has been artfully assembled from various concert appearances that its stars made throughout 1999. It emphasizes its stars’ capacity to endure as individuals and entertainers and does not dwell on the harder times and personal travails they survived. However, it acknowledges the well-known exploitation black artists have traditionally experienced in the pop music industry.
The mood of this movie is definitely upbeat, and setting the tone is Rufus Thomas, referred to as Memphis’ “Other King,” a legend in his own right and, as a disc jockey, the first man to play Elvis Presley records for black audiences.
When the filmmakers catch up with Thomas, then 82, he is still holding forth with his popular weekly program in Memphis, playing oldies but goodies interspersed with comical patter with his partner Jay Michael Davis. As a DJ Thomas is credited with giving soul music and rhythm and blues their start, from whence it spread to Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Detroit. Moments from Thomas’ radio show in progress provide the thread for the film, which culminates with Thomas performing at a Memphis benefit with his equally renowned daughter, Carla. Despite his age -- and a triple bypass -- Thomas proves a dynamo in performance. Sadly, he died in December 2001, just as “Only the Strong Survive” was being completed for its premiere at Sundance last year.
The film offers a striking contrast in performing styles, especially among the men. The rugged, ageless Pickett is a real powerhouse whereas Butler puts over a love song with a grand flourish. He performs with great warmth but a smoothness and cool. Sam Moore is truly electrifying, and when he sings “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” it becomes the very definition of soul, which he defines simply -- and modestly -- as “putting a little extra emphasis on what you’re singing.” Moore appears at a tribute to Isaac Hayes, calling attention to Hayes’ major role at Stax Records, where he wrote or co-wrote many of its major hits.
Ann Peebles and Mary Wilson remain strikingly attractive women and vibrant singers of much style and authority; Wilson may have been a backup singer with the Supremes but is in truth a lead singer with a star quality never fully recognized. It’s easy to imagine her as a successful cabaret artist. Yet what is striking about Wilson and all the others showcased in this graceful film is a lack of bitterness, an appreciation of the good things that came their way and an eagerness to press on. These strong individuals indeed do survive.
‘Only the Strong Survive’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief language and a drug reference
Times guidelines: Suitable for all ages
A Miramax Films and Pennebaker Hegedus Films presentation. Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. Producers Roger Friedman and Frazer Pennebaker. Executive producers Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein. Cinematographers James Desmond, Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, Jehane Noujaim, D.A. Pennebaker. Editors Chris Hegedus, Erez Laufer and D.A. Pennebaker. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
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