Thursday, 13 November 2008

Andre Williams - Senile, Mobile, Hostile

Tragic, yet hilarious doc on Andre Williams explains his rise to fame, and his fall from grace.

An elderly man stands on a cold Chicago bridge. His worn face betrays years of drug and alcohol abuse and his jaw quivers as he charms passing strangers into filling his hat with change. Those familiar with the legendary reputation of Andre Williams may be shocked by the opening scene of Tricia Todd and Eric Matthies’ documentary, ‘Agile, Mobile, Hostile: A year in the life of Andre Williams.’ But Williams is just acting out a scene from a difficult time in his life. In the 50s and 60s he was a star. By the 1980s he was a panhandler and a crack-head.

Andre started singing in the fifties, recording over 50 songs for Fortune records, including ‘Bacon Fat’, ‘Jailbait’ and ‘The Greasy Chicken’. He went on to become a producer, working with the likes of Ike Turner and Stevie Wonder. Andre’s songs have been covered by everyone from Ray Charles to The Cramps. He even worked as an A&R man several times for Barry Gordon at Motown. In 1996 he cleaned up and released a come back album. Now at the age of 72, with sex, drugs and rum all making a come back in his life, Andre’s health is starting to deteriorate.

Todd and Matthies always work as a team, it’s a formula that helped them in the creation of ‘Ayamye’, their documentary about making bicycles in Africa, and it helped with ‘Agile, Mobile, Hostile’. Tricia also has experience working as production manager on several DVD-extras menu documentaries for films including 300, a Scanner Darkly and The Matrix Revisited. She and Eric have been fans of Andre for over 10 years. “Both of us have a life-long involvement with the underground; be it punk or garage, blues or jazz.” She explains, “Andre personifies all of it.”

Seeing Andre being so self destructive is alarming, during one live performance in the film, Andre is so weak, he can barely perform. On another shocking occasion he is arrested for possession and another he is hospitalised and told by his doctor he will die if he doesn’t make some life style changes. “It was difficult to balance perspectives between being his friend and wanting to remain objective as filmmakers.” Tricia confesses. “Don’t tell Andre but we always watered down his bottle of Bacardi.”

The film starts as a biography, explaining Andre’s history and achievements with the aid of interviews and archive footage, but ends up focusing on how today’s Andre finds it difficult to tour and perform in his old age and is a difficult man for his band mates to get along with. There is a depressing contrast between the success of his early musical career and his being brought out to perform like an old bear at the circus in his twilight years.

Tricia and Eric do not regret documenting the vulnerable side of the music legend, “My only regret is Andre not getting the success he deserves during that year!” Tricia says. The documentary is as much a critique of the way the music industry exploited gifted black musicians in the early days, as it is a window into the life of Andre Williams. “The system in which young song writers and performers worked, especially African American artists, in the 50s was very advantageous to the businessmen who ran the show and very disingenuous to the na├»ve young men and women with the talent. Andre is certainly a victim of this, like so many others.”

The tragic element, although moving, does not dominate the documentary. Andre has a terrific sense of humour and is relentlessly optimistic. Despite having so little to show for his remarkable career, he rarely lets his bitterness show. Andre's magnetic character and determination, ultimately, make the film very uplifting.

Joe Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

Review: A Life in the Death of Joe Meek.

Joe Meek is a name synonymous with uncompromising creative innovation in the history of independent music production. One of the first to use electronic sound effects and drum loops, Meek’s songs create an atmosphere sometimes bizarre and ridiculous, but always original. His works of musical pioneering genius include ‘Telstar’ by The Tornadoes and John Leyton’s haunting ‘Johnny remember me.’

The new documentary ‘A life in the death of Joe Meek’ explains the complicated and fascinating history and personality of this unique individual, without demonising him as others have. A homosexual, at a time when it was illegal in Britain, and also a practicing member of the occult, who believed he had a trans-dimensional psychic link with the deceased Buddy Holly, Meek is frequently written off as a maniac. This documentary not only demonstrates the significance and vast diversity of his work but also reveals the man behind the mincing, satanic persona the tabloids created.

Director, Howard Berger explains how he got hooked on Meek over 10 years ago, “I first heard of Joe Meek in a capsule review for the first and only US compilation of tracks on Razor and Tie. It just said his work was unorthodox and that he was responsible for the murder of his landlady resulting in his immediate suicide at 37 years of age. That alone was enough to peak interest.” Howard and his editor Susan Stahman originally set out to make a fictional biography based on Meek’s life, but as they learnt more about his perplexing story the idea was dropped and a more straight forward approach was adopted. “Sue suggested reviving Joe Meek in documentary form.” Howard explains. “She informed me of a bunch of recent deaths of some key Joe Meek performers like Screaming Lord Sutch and Heinz, and she said, ‘It's pretty much now or never,’ if we were to hope for interviews from first-handers.”

The film features an impressive selection of interviews with these ‘first handers’, as well as some modern music legends who have been influenced by Meek. “It's difficult not to be a little star struck.” Howard admits, “I mean, we find ourselves talking to people like Steve Howe from Yes or Keith Strickland from the B-52s.” But when asked if he is proud of accumulating this high-profile content, he answers modestly, “I'll be proud when it finds the right distributor. I'll be proud when I see it permeate culture the way I think it has a right to.” You can follow the progress of the film at: where festival screenings and distribution deals will be listed.