Less an historical flashback than a present-tense valentine, vet docu team Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's "Only the Strong Survive" takes infectious delight in keeping company with Ann Peebles, the Chi-Lites, Isaac Hayes and other stars from R&B/soul music's late '50s-early '70s heyday.

Less an historical flashback than a present-tense valentine, vet docu team Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s “Only the Strong Survive” takes infectious delight in keeping company with Ann Peebles, the Chi-Lites, Isaac Hayes and other stars from R&B/soul music’s late ’50s-early ’70s heyday. Long since abandoned by the ever-shifting Top 40 landscape, these middle aged-to-octogenarian singers are still in fine, feisty form, both onstage and off. Basically a “Whatever Happened to. . . ?” concert pic, feature’s nostalgic focus and vid-shot modesty signal home viewing formats as its natural outlet.

Entertainment journalist and music fan Roger Friedman (a nebbishy on-camera presence here) instigated project upon realizing that practically no filmed records existed of the great soul superstars after their initial chart-topping runs — though apart from those since deceased (Otis Redding, etc.), nearly all remained busy on a downsized concert circuit.

Tracking them down, pic finds a degree of warm camaraderie between each that seems rare among celebrities. Even more surprising, none evince more than semi-jokey regret toward the record company contracts and royalty standards that continue to cheat all out of millions in “golden oldie” income.

Apart from brief interviews, backstage glimpses and travelogue moments (i.e. visiting Memphis sites once home to Stax and Hi Records), main focus is on the spotlighted acts in performance.

While advanced age has taken its toll on a few pipes — and today’s live-concert auds, themselves very much getting on in years, are a largely sedentary lot — there are still numerous inspirational stage moments here.

Ever the sartorial dandy, Wilson Pickett flutters hearts anew with “In the Midnight Hour.” Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, rescued from a long drug addicted/dealing period by his manager-wife, delivers a showstopping “Something Is Wrong.” Jerry Butler, who left music for a successful Chicago political career, steps back to the mike for a dramatic reading of “For Your Precious Love.”

Biggest discovery here is the glamorous Mary Wilson, who now gets to sing supple-voiced lead — with two young latest-edition Supremes as backup — on “Love Child” and other hits once dominated by her fellow traveler Diana Ross.

Performing at benefits or in-the-round/dinner theater-type venues, stars often outclass their under-rehearsed bands and synth-laden latter-day arrangements. Lack of narrative impetus between concert segs eventually wears out pic’s welcome after 70 minutes or so, though recurrent scenes featuring pre-Elvis “King” Rufus Thomas (who died in December at age 84) and co-host Jay Michael Davis on their weekly Memphis radio show remain a sassy delight throughout.

Archival footage utilized is teasingly brief, but then chronicling soul music’s back pages is not the idea here. Casually structured pic is workmanlike on design levels, music sound recording generally excellent. Print screened at Sundance lacked full end-scroll credits.

Only the Strong Survive

Docu

Production

A Miramax Films release of a Pennebaker-Hegedus Films production. Produced by Roger Friedman, Frazer Pennebaker. Executive producers, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein. Directed by Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker.

Crew

Camera (color, HD video), Jim Desmond, Nick Doob, Hegedus, Erez Laufer, Jehane Noujaim, Pennebaker; editors, Roger Friedman, Hegedus, Laufer, Pennebaker; sound, Hegedus, John Paul Pennebaker, Kit Pennebaker; concert recording, Eric Anderson. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Special Screening), Jan. 14, 2002. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

William Bell, Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, Issac Hayes, Sam Moore, Ann Peebles, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Mary Wilson.
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