Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Save the Children (1973)

          Equally interesting as a compendium of vibrant musical performances and as a record of an ambitious black-pride event, the musical documentary Save the Children was filmed at the 1972 Operation PUSH exposition in Chicago, a massive convention featuring live music, religion, speeches, and a variety of exhibitors promoting black-owned businesses and causes. The event drew a spectacular array of African-American singers, including some of Motown’s biggest stars, and it was overseen by the fiery Rev. Jesse Jackson, several of whose moving sermons are featured in the documentary. Save the Children is quite long for a film of its type, running just over two hours, but the spectrum of music is amazing, and the beauty of the cause energizes every frame, even if some artists, like the Jackson 5, treat their appearances like generic concerts instead of contributions to a social movement.
          Opening and closing with Jesse Jackson, who also appears intermittently throughout, the documentary cycles through more than a dozen musical performances, some of which are shown in their entirety, some of which are truncated, and some of which are intercut with newsreel-type footage showing the realities of everyday African-American life. Many sequences explode with the pure joy of musicality, while others have serious undertones. The movie’s title stems not only from one of Jesse Jackson’s impassioned oratories, and also from the refrain of a poignant song that Marvin Gaye performs onstage.
          Most of the artists appearing in Save the Children are shown at the height of their powers, so Mavis Staples (fronting the Staple Singers) renders vocals so blistering it’s a wonder she makes it off the stage alive, while soul sirens including Roberta Flack and Gladys Knight lay down smooth grooves. Among those making more frivolous contributions are the Chi-Lites, the Jackson 5 (young Michael Jackson leads a medley including “ABC” and “I Want You Back”), the Main Ingredient, and the O’Jays. Cannonball Adderly represents the jazz world, Isaac Hayes provides his signature hot-buttered soul, and the Temptations deliver a thumping run through “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Also present on the stellar roster is the great Bill Withers and a relatively obscure R&B thrush named Zulema, who energizes her number with industrial-strength vocals.
           Yet perhaps the most touching performance comes from Sammy Davis Jr. In remarks prior to his tune, Davis all but asks for permission to perform, as if he realizes that his Rat Pack association separates him from the back-to-basics ethos of the black-pride movement. Subsequently, after performing a hokey but impressive version of “I Gotta Be Me,” Davis weeps onstage, basking in the glory of a massive all-black audience. The years have tarnished Jesse Jackson’s reputation, and the ’70s black-pride movement has evolved and splintered, but it’s worth remembering the PUSH event as a model for blending music with social action.

Save the Children: GROOVY

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