“I will never make a song about bling-bling,” says steel guitarist Robert Randolph early in the entirely flattering docu “Press On.” As Grammy-nominated primary populist of a musical style dubbed “sacred steel,” Randolph’s indifference toward contempo hip-hop and R&B’s emphasis on material things is refreshing. Still, he’s an ambitious careerist determined to convert (musically, that is) secular audiences, and at times “Press On” comes close to feeling like a promotional tool. The music itself is a persuasive counterbalance, but there’s a tad too much attention paid to one (still fairly unknown) artist, suggesting primary exposure will be on DVD.
Adopted in the late ’30s by Pentecostal House of God churches that could ill-afford a traditional organ, the “sacred” steel guitar soon developed a style very different from its more familiar uses in Hawaiian and country music. The often rambunctious sound sustains call-and-response interaction with the preacher’s exhortations.
Incredibly, sacred steel guitar music remained virtually unknown in the secular world, even among roots-music fanatics, until the late 1990s.
Young pedal steel prodigy Randolph has fast emerged as a possible breakout star. After playing almost exclusively to African-American parishioners, he and his bandmates were bemusedly shocked to find themselves overnight sensations on the crossover “jam band” circuit, at one point opening for Dave Matthews Band at Madison Square Garden.
Randolph and band are also shown playing backup for Eric Clapton and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Warner Bros. signing, a first album, numerous TV appearances and a spotlight-stealing performance on the Grammys ensued.
Very clear about his intent to “create our own niche in the mainstream music world,” Randolph certainly has the instrumental virtuosity, the smokin’ band and live charisma to carve out a notable career. On the other hand, he’s not much of a vocalist, and his songwriting skills are very much in-progress.
The film’s insistence he’s the Next Big Thing is perhaps a tad too much, too soon. Having Clapton praise him is one thing; making screentime for WB publicists to do the same seems a bit de trop.
Docu’s boosterism leaves little room for a look at the Church of God community or other sacred steel masters past and present. Even basic backstage intimacy is limited. No uncomfortable questions are asked, for instance, how Randolph and his bandmates have been impacted by their fairly abrupt jump to a secular success some church members find inherently objectionable.
Nonetheless, helmer Gillian Grisman (“Grateful Dawg”) has assembled a competent package, with attention duly paid where it counts most: Sound mix in concert segs is generally excellent.