VH1 milks its hottest franchise, “Behind the Music,” in the first movie to carry the VH1 brand. “Sweetwater” is a veritable behind-the-scenes of “Behind,” and its strengths and weaknesses are a mirror of its non-fiction sibling. Emphasis, as in most of these, is on the band leader, in this case singer Nansi Nevins, and its quick rise, a spiraling fall and a bit of recovery. Paralleling this is the story of a TV show host reporting Sweetwater’s story who’s dealing with her own recovery from substance abuse. Pic struggles early on to get the story set up — it’s all far too obvious and melodramatic — but eventually it finds an agreeable tone, thanks to a solid ensemble of actors, that should hold viewers the first time around.
Beyond being the first band to play at Woodstock, Sweetwater’s story would hold marginal interest as a fact-based piece despite the group being quite revolutionary for the 1960s: It was a multiracial act fusing classical, gospel, jazz and pop with congas, flute, cello and no lead guitar. Or as the liner notes on its first album said, Sweetwater is “eight high-octane musicians who met and jammed in the great peanut butter octopus that is Los Angeles.”
After the band signed with Reprise Records, it appeared on virtually every major television variety show and opened shows for Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Who, Santana, Frank Zappa and others. Truly, only a devastating car accident blocked them from stardom.
Pic begins with Cami Carlson (Kelli Williams of “The Practice”) returning to work from rehab. She has lost her anchoring duties at Mix TV and is put on the “what happened to” trail of Sweetwater, a band she has never heard of.
Carlson’s first stop is a construction site where band founder Alex Del Zoppo (Frederic Forrest) wants little to do with reliving the past. “A war story,” he says, “has humiliation written all over it.” Still, he feels compelled to tell Carlson about their beginnings.
Flash back to 1968 where Sweetwater is jamming in an L.A. club. Nevins (Amy Jo Johnson of “Felicity”) accepts the dare proffered by her friend Rita Spiridakis (Michelle Beaudoin) to get onstage and sing. She gets alongside the stage and eventually is beckoned to the microphone, where she dazzles the entourage before bolting out the door.
As luck would have it, Del Zoppo (Kurt Max Runte) and bandmate Fred Herrera (Robert Moloney) bump into Nevins buying a Big Mama Thornton album at a local record store — a sure sign that she’s hip. She explains she has no interest in singing and once she informs them she’s a senior in high school, their interest wanes as well. Off she drives.
Carlson’s story re-enters with the introduction of each new character. She digs up Herrera (Terry David Mulligan), the one who remained in music by becoming orchestra manager for Yanni and Michael Crawford, Spiridakis (subtly limned by Babz Chula) and Nevins’ reticent sister Mary (Ingrid Tesch). Eventually she winds up in the classroom of Nevins (Michelle Phillips), where the singer begins a retribution process with her old cohorts.
Heart of the story concerns Nevins and the tailspin she goes into after a vocal cord is damaged during surgery following a car accident. The band drops her and she attempts to revive her career with producer Todd Badham (a barely recognizable Adam Ant), who had eyed her as a solo act for years, which fails to pass muster with fans or critics. She winds up a homeless drunk.
From rock bottom, she restarts her life and eventually reunites with three of her bandmates to perform at the Whisky’s 35th anniversary in January. (Three members of the band have died). While that sparked some interest in a more permanent reunion, Rhino is banking on the telepic bolstering their revival. Through its Internet-only arm, Rhino Handmade, the label will be selling a Sweetwater compilation beginning Monday.
Much of the music captures the band, and the casting directors have done an A-1 job is getting actors who resembled the band. Nevins is played convincingly in the past and present by Johnson and Phillips, and Johnson, while not as affecting as Nevins in the ’60s, holds her own. (Nevins sings for Phillips in the closing moments). Phillips, who undoubtedly sees shades of her life in the script, gives a reserved yet polished perf.
Victoria Wozniak’s script is generally superficial, using events to move the story while explicating few if any of the emotions evolved. There’s no discussion of why the band did what it did, good times or bad, and as so often happens in “Behind the Music,” the rise to the top appears pre-ordained and inescapable. Aspect of the multiracial band is never explored, and the black actors are given no lines beyond a few hippie slogans.
Camera work is steady, but in the final reel, as Carlson sees herself in Nevins, it gets heavy-handed. Williams, however, is weighed down by lines of exposition. The filmmakers never generate any feeling for her character, and there’s little empathy for what she has been through.
Lorraine Senna’s direction is solid if unspectacular. Switching between Woodstock film clips and new footage is done well, and editing keeps pic moving at a good clip. Review cassette had only a temporary score that was in line with usual “Behind the Music” standards.