IFC’s ‘Documentary Now!’ season fades to black on a soft-rock high note with ‘Gentle & Soft’
The inspiration for “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee,” the two-part season finale of the IFC comedy series “Documentary Now!,” arrived during a viewing of “History of the Eagles.”
Notably striking, said “Documentary Now!” costar and co-executive producer Bill Hader, was the disconnect between the peaceful, easy music created by the Southern California rock band of “Hotel California” fame and the often gruff personalities behind it.
“The idea of real alpha males playing very soft rock made us laugh,” said Hader, citing one particular scene in Alison Ellwood’s 2013 Eagles documentary: “Glenn Frey getting angry at Randy Meisner for not hitting a high note in ‘Take It to the Limit’ and threatening him. That was very funny to us, and you see that a lot, you know?”
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Thus our heroes in the Blue Jean Committee, whose story will air Thursday on IFC.
As portrayed by Hader and his “Documentary Now!” costar Fred Armisen, the fictional soft-rock duo of Clark Honus and Gene Allen hit the top of the charts in the early ‘70s with “Catalina Breeze.” Featuring the ridiculously hummable ballad “Gentle & Soft,” an ode to the open road called “Freeway Song” and others, the album propelled the Blue Jean Committee onto the national stage.
Employing a rise-and-fall structure that drives many music documentaries, “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee” traces the artists’ history through the use of faux footage, Crawdaddy magazine photos, live performances and interviews with the band. The film’s talking heads, including pop stars Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald and members of the band Haim, as well as writer-director Cameron Crowe and bestselling music writer Chuck Klosterman, offer straight-faced comment and critique.
Over the first four episodes of “Documentary Now!,” Hader, along with co-creators/executive producers Armisen and Seth Meyers and a team of writers, cracked open classic nonfiction filmic touchstones, tweaking them with just enough ridiculousness to stretch credulity. “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels is also an executive producer, and the series was recently renewed for two more seasons.
“Kanuk Uncovered” was a grainy black-and-white riff on “Nanook of the North.” For “Sandy Passage,” Hader and Armisen embodied versions of the aging mother and daughter captured in Albert and David Maysles’ “Grey Gardens.” In “DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon,” the writers poked fun at the renegade journalistic style as seen in the HBO series “Vice.” A rock doc was inevitable.
The meat of “Gentle & Soft,” said co-director Rhys Thomas, comes as we gradually learn the pair’s relationship dynamics and history. “They’re performing, but under their mikes they’re telling each other they’re going to kill each other, and counting down until the show is over.” Thomas said he also took cues from recent films “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” and “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me,” the documentary of Memphis, Tenn., rock band Big Star.
Once tension was established, said Hader, they started working on a back story. “We thought, ‘Chicago guys.’ Fred lived in Chicago, and I have a lot of family and friends there. That kind of no-nonsense attitude of Chicago people — ‘What if it’s a Chicago band that wanted to be a California band?’”
The narrative is propelled when the Committee strikes gold at the peak of America’s love affair with that smooth Southern California ‘70s vibe. The rub? The pair’s non-sequitur Chicago accents — the result of early years spent as blue-collar sausage makers in love with 12-bar blues. One key early song, called “Hey Miss,” features the opening couplet, “Hey, Miss, can I get a beer / And then a couple of beers?”
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As the band shifted west, the crowds got bigger and Hader’s character, Clark, perfected his harmonizing voice, a high-pitched wail suggestive of Joan Baez. (In reality, that voice is courtesy of Los Angeles singer Petra Haden.) The Blue Jean Committee peaks with a transformative gig at the Hollywood Bowl.
Predictably, fortunes fall, and a late-period reconciliation unearths buried emotions. In a memorable scene that contains barely any comedy but leaves a lasting impression, the members share a brief backstage moment.
Hader credits Thomas and co-director Alex Buono with capturing the scene’s emotion. “It’s this melancholy thing, and they just let it be so full. That’s a real testament to them. You’re not selling out the characters, and Fred and I get a chance to do what we did on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and then push it with nuanced performances.”
Thomas said he was struck by the subtleties of Hader’s and Armisen’s body language, and the pregnant pauses. “There’s that awkward, stilted conversation that they have where they don’t talk about anything in particular, and there’s this formality, but underneath you know there’s a million things that each one should be saying.”
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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