By turns festive and elegiac, and sometimes both at the same time, Scott D. Rosenbaum’s “Sidemen: Long Road to Glory” celebrates three blues greats — pianist Pinetop Perkins, guitarist Hubert Sumlin and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith — who made their mark performing with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and significantly influenced generations of rock and blues artists. The eloquence of the documentary’s title becomes clear as its double meaning gradually comes into focus in the overarching narrative constructed by Rosenbaum and co-scripter Jasin Cadic: Their three subjects spent much of their lives overshadowed and underappreciated before receiving their due recognition. And all three “went to glory” within eight months of each other in 2011.
Lest that sound too melancholy, it should quickly be added that “Sidemen” is an exceptionally entertaining and captivating tribute to the men and their music — and that there’s more than enough of said music here to please blues aficionados and recruit converts. Better still, the three “stars” of the piece are animated and amusing as they spin stories about early times and recent accolades, collaborations and solo efforts, good times and rough patches.
Of the group, Perkins — who was 97 when his interviews were filmed — arguably is the most slyly self-deprecating. (Asked whether he still chases women, he shakes his head, points between his legs and sighs: “This thing here stays softer than cotton.”) But all three provide lively commentary for the filmmakers to weave into what essentially is as much a fascinating history lesson as an homage to three individuals.
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“Sidemen” traces the lives of Perkins, Sumlin and Smith back to the early years of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the Mississippi Delta and elsewhere in the rural South to Northern cities where there were more employment opportunities (and, not incidentally, less overt racism). Artfully entwining testimonies from interviewees, solid narration by Marc Maron, and the evocative illustrations of Chuck Collins, Rosenbaum vividly recounts highlights from his subjects’ hardscrabble salad days (including a hilarious early encounter between Sumlin and Howlin’ Wolf) while unearthing the Southern-fried roots of the blues. As bluesman Guy Davis explain: “Blues is the music of survivors. Not those who died on the path or got lynched. Those who survived — they got to sing the blues.”
Hubert (who embraced Wolf as a father figure during their decades together) and Perkins and Smith (longtime sidemen for Waters) played their music to survive, but it took years for them to thrive. The documentary focuses on a key cross-cultural irony: It wasn’t until the endorsement of British rockers in the ’60s — notably the Rolling Stones, who scored a chart-topping hit with their cover of Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster” — that U.S. audiences became more aware of homegrown talents like Wolf, Waters and their sidemen. Keith Richards laughs while imagining a conversation with an America heretofore ignorant of the blues: “You had it all the time, pal. You just didn’t listen.”
Another English music legend, Eric Clapton, helped jumpstart Wolf’s stalled career in 1970 by serving as ramrod for “The Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions,” a well-received album showcasing the bluesman and an all-star backup ensemble that featured Steve Winwood, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Clapton himself. Hubert sounds positively tickled as he recalls that the temperamental Wolf was reluctant to play with the younger musicians until Clapton and others respectfully asked for guitar-playing pointers. But Hubert also sounds proud when he reveals that Chess Records execs initially resisted paying for Hubert to accompany Wolf to London — but quickly reversed themselves when Clapton demanded he be part of the package.
“Sidemen” abounds with colorful anecdotes — there’s an amazing story about Jimi Hendrix’s unexpected appearance at a Howlin’ Wolf concert — and dutifully notes the profound influence of bluesmen like Perkins, Sumlin and Smith on the evolution of rock ’n’ roll. (Muddy Waters celebrated the connection in “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll,” a song on his 1977 Johnny Winter-producer comeback album, “Hard Again.”) And while the film certainly doesn’t shy away from the harsh specifics of his subjects’ career downturns, it leads to a satisfyingly triumphant note, showing how, after decades in the music business, Perkins and Smith finally won their first Grammy Award for the album “Joined at the Hip.”
Rosenbaum refrains from any direct acknowledgement of his subjects’ deaths until the final minutes of his documentary. The bad news hardly comes as a surprise, given that they are repeatedly referenced in the past tense during interviews with admirers such as Bonnie Raitt (a music documentary mainstay, and rightly so). Still, the blunt-force impact of the information (along with an end-credits shout-out to Winter and Gregg Allman, who also have passed away since being interviewed for the documentary) may unsettle some viewers, especially those with no previous knowledge of the three sidemen.
On the other hand, Rosenbaum saves something spirit-lifting for an epilogue. Yes, Perkins, Sumlin and Smith are gone. But their influence continues apace, and their music remains vigorously alive. A happy ending for a movie about the blues? Hey, why not?