Courtesy of Jerome Brunet
Scott Rosenbaum’s documentary profiles legendary blues musicians Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.
Scott Rosenbaum’s documentary profiling three legendary blues musicians arrives too late. The film chronicles the lives and careers of Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who all passed away in 2011. That, as well as the onscreen interviews with deceased musicians such as Gregg Allman and Johnny Winter, lends an undeniable elegiac quality to Sidemen: Long Road to Glory. The film should prove catnip to music lovers, especially blues fans.
None of the three subjects are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but as the film makes abundantly clear, they should be. Sumlin was a pioneering guitarist who provided indelible riffs to the music of Howlin’ Wolf, while Perkins and Smith played piano and drums respectively for Muddy Waters, among many other musicians. All three men’s careers lasted into their eighties and nineties, and while they earned the love and respect of both their peers and the many younger players whom they influenced, they never earned the fame and fortune of the performers for whom they served as sidemen.
“I was getting the scraps, they were getting the money,” complains Perkins in one of the film’s many fascinating interview segments. All three elderly musicians discuss their early years growing up in the Deep South, in some cases on plantations; their moving to Chicago, where they helped revolutionize electric blues; and their relationships with the seminal figures Wolf and Waters.
Numerous contemporary musicians testify to the men’s importance, including Joe Bonamassa, Shemekia Copeland, Warren Haynes, Robby Krieger, Joe Perry, Bonnie Raitt, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. All of them point out, to one degree or another, how rock ‘n’ roll wouldn’t exist without the blues and without the contributions of Sumlin, Perkins and Smith in particular.
Ironically, it was such British artists as The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton who popularized the music in America. Footage of the former in their early days shows them ripping through their version of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic “Little Red Rooster.” In America, passionate blues fans included Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, who intended to showcase Waters in the Blues Brothers movie. When Waters fell ill, John Lee Hooker took over; a clip from the film shows him performing his trademark number “Boom Boom” while accompanied by Smith and Perkins.
One of the more amusing anecdotes related concerns the recording of the classic London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, on which the venerable performer was backed up by such then-young British musicians as Clapton, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. To ingratiate themselves with the prickly Wolf, Clapton and the others pretended not to know how to play some of the music, prompting the singer to show them how it should be done.
The film ends on a happy note, showing Perkins and Smith journeying to Los Angeles and winning a Grammy for their 2011 album Joined at the Hip. At age 97, Perkins became the oldest Grammy winner ever, and died only a month later. Within eight months, Smith and Sumlin had also died.
Narrated by comedian Marc Maron, Sidemen: Long Road to Glory earns a place besides such films as 20 Feet From Stardom and Standing in the Shadows of Motown as overdue cinematic tributes to underappreciated musicians.
Production companies: Red Hawk Films, Red Thread Productions
Director: Scott D. Rosenbaum
Screenwriters: Jasin Cadic, Scott D. Rosenbaum
Producers: Jasin Cadic, Tony Grazia, Emmett James, Scott D. Rosenbaum, Joseph White
Executive producers: Fabrizio Grossi, Alan Rudolph, Pat Scalabrino
Directors of photography: Robby Baumgartner, Daniel Marracino, Brian McAward, Declan Quinn, Joseph Quirk, Greg Wilson
Editor: Bo Mehrad