Thursday, November 5, 2015

Mad Dogs & Englishmen (1971)

          Seeing as how delivering great sets at the Woodstock festival in 1969 helped lift many artists into the pop-music stratosphere, it was probably inevitable that at least one of the musicians who made a strong impression in the documentary-film record of the festival, Woodstock (1970), would earn a movie all his own. Hence Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a lengthy nonfiction movie about the tour of the same name headlined by English blues/rock howler Joe Cocker, whose rendition of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” was a shining moment in Woodstock. Had the folks behind Mad Dogs & Englishmen concentrated solely on Cocker’s musical performances, the picture might have been consistently interesting. Yet the filmmakers unwisely emulated the style of rock docs including D.A. Pennebaker’s famous Bob Dlyan study, Don’t Look Back (1967), juxtaposing personal and private moments. Put bluntly, Joe Cocker is no Bob Dylan in terms of charisma and prismatic identity. Quite to the contrary, Cocker is rather dull to watch in the offstage bits, coming across as a pleasant but thoroughly average bloke who simply happens to have an exciting job. The filmmakers also rely too heavily on generic footage of fans and groupies, none of whom do or say anything remarkable on camera. At least the bits of roadies packing joints are amusing to watch.
          Anyway, the performance scenes, which should have been the focus, are fine, even though it’s anticlimactic when the film proper concludes with, you guessed it, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Haven’t we seen that somewhere before? Along the way to “Friends,” Cocker and his ferocious band—led by guitarist, pianist, vocalist, and arranger Leon Russell, one of the mad geniuses of classic rock—rip through “Delta Lady” and “Feelin’ Alright,” among other tunes. In quieter passages, Cocker and his mates play rehearsal versions of “Darling Be Home Soon” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”; additionally, Cocker’s backup singers entertain themselves during a plane ride by harmonizing on the Carpenters’ “Superstar.” Shot on grainy 16mm stock and weighed down by a muddy audio track, Mad Dogs & Englishmen is undoubtedly a treasure for fans of the singular Cocker, whose much-satirized physical gyrations are front and center throughout performance scenes. For non-devotees, Mad Dogs & Englishmen ranks with the least essential rock films of the ’70s.

Mad Dogs & Englishmen: FUNKY

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