Documentary Film Review – “It Was the Music”

Red Poppy Films LLC, 2021

Fascinating and detailed look at the lives of two support musicians who take front of stage.

It Was the Music’, is a ten-part documentary film stretching over 7.5 hours, featuring partners in life and music Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams.  Filming takes place over 2016 – 2017 and appearances, if sometimes fleeting, are made by; Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, Rosanne Cash, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh.  In truth, it is the arguably less famous figures such as David Bromberg, Garland Jeffreys and Larry Taylor (bassist for Canned Heat) that provide particular interest given their normally lower profiles.  One highlight is the appearance of Hot Tuna duo Jack Casady and a tanned and fit Jorma Kaukonen who are interviewed at the Targhee Festival in the shadow of marvellous mountain scenery.

Simultaneously this is filmmaker Mark Moskowitz’s hymn to the music of his youth in the ’60s and ’70s.  Many of the assembled participants were a part of those times and are able to talk knowledgeably about them because they were there and participated.  As always with tales of nostalgia, it is seen as somehow a better time for all manner of things, especially music. But then who is to argue?

One of the most memorable of Alistair Cookes many pithy comments about his adopted country was something to the effect that Americans will use 5 vowels where one will do – or something similar – illustrating their tendency to prolific and obfuscating verbiage.  Well, thankfully there is none of that here.  Virtually all participants speak interestingly and reasonably briefly about the subject in hand and it’s all worth a listen.

The focus is on Campbell and Williams’ progress, from musicians who backed Bob Dylan and Levon Helm, to recording and performing their own music. Campbell was with Dylan for eight years and he and Williams were a big part of Helm’s Midnight Rambles concerts.  The couple makes the decision to pack up their SUV and set off as a duo to tour small scale venues, something of a change from the arenas Campbell visited with Dylan. Filmmaker  Mark Moskowitz saw them perform one night, was smitten and went on to produce this account of their lives.

It is remarked at one stage that Campbell and Williams are a good-looking couple – which they are.  More importantly, they are a likeable couple and still appear very close after a 30-year marriage.  This is relevant inasmuch as the film is very much about people just as much as it is about music; at one stage we watch Williams doing her supermarket shop and at another we watch Campbell clearing the leaves and fixing the fences in his garden (or estate as we might call it).  A prime example of their connection with people is the scene in which Campbell gives violin (oh all right, fiddle) lessons to some youngsters.  He connects well with one young man who clearly gets it, whilst another blank-faced young female gives no clue as to what she makes of it all. Campbell also tells a good story about playing alongside the principal violinist in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  What will make you smile is the look on Williams face as she watches, with evident pride and love, her eminently likeable husband doing what he loves to do – take music to others.

Campbell smiles almost constantly and if not exactly shambling then certainly with the presence of a tall man (just to prove he is real he does have a couple of tetchy moments in the course of the filming).  He is an award-winning guitarist who has played with artists, ‘too numerous to mention’, though there is no evidence that he was ever the fifth Beatle or played with Miles.  He is a noted producer and there is evidence aplenty in the film as to why he is so highly rated as a player, not just of the guitar but seemingly anything with strings attached (except perhaps a Don Arden contract?).  Williams is the voice and very good it is too though her guitar work seems limited to strumming along in the background. Whilst Campbell has the weaker voice that sometimes betrays him, they do harmonise well together.  So all in all they complement each other well.

Williams is more of the talker but no less of a warm presence than her husband and on stage, they trade off each other nicely, each able to give the other a little jibe or two. She came to New York originally to pursue her acting career and made a name as a backing singer. During the couple’s association with Levon Helm, they formed a musical identity of their own, ultimately cemented by the release of their self-titled début album.

The couple live in Woodstock (in a stunning location) and whilst time is spent talking about their support for Helm, they also visit Big Pink and take a peek at Albert Grossman’s Bearsville compound – which does seem to have fallen on hard times.  However much of the story unfolds in the Tennessee home of Williams’ parents, a place she seems to be increasingly missing.  Whilst she was brought up on church and gospel, Campbell is a New Yorker, even if when listening to him you wouldn’t necessarily know.  He spent most of his young life at the nearby Fillmore East. His parents seem to have been warm and supportive toward their children and there is a point where Campbell recalls his father saying that they were the joy of his life.

Williams is the more demonstrative of the two and is often moved to tears.  The early death of her brother is alluded to and it seems likely that he was a troubled soul, though it goes no further than that.  Campbell is clearly emotional when describing how he didn’t know how alone he had been until he met the woman that filled that gap.  Whilst his parents are both dead, his wife’s are both still very much alive and that fact does have its ramifications.

Both are good musicians though it is clear that Campbell is both the most talented and most famous, something which comes to a head when a clearly frustrated Williams accuses him of seeing her as his, ‘puppet singer. I’m not sure it is a fair comment, and when Cambell challenges her she does seem to back off. It does highlight the many, sometimes conflicting, layers of their personal and professional lives.  Williams talks about her unfulfilled expectation that she would have children and suggests that it would not have suited their lifestyle to be parents. This does seem rather like rationalising something which she might wish to be different – especially when you see and hear how they are around other peoples children.

This is at times a diffuse almost rambling tale, though that can be seen as part of its charm and over the hours that are spent in their company, the couple, their friends and family are always engaging and interesting. The director diverges at times into the lives of others as Tracy Nelson gives her story, including how Steve Miller broke her heart.  Jerron ‘Blind Boy Paxton’ is showcased at length including his excellent train-time harmonica playing.  He’s no country boy and is, literally, straight out of Compton.  As mentioned, both halves of Hot Tuna get the chance to talk in some detail.  Phil Lesh describes his love of the avant-garde, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton (both light-years distant from the world of Campbell and Williams). Two ex DJs visit the empty rooms of the radio station where they used to present; a lengthy list of artists give their take on Campbell and Williams as well as wider issues.  At no time does this devolve into mere hagiography.

If there is glamour in music then that thought can be dismissed or challenged by watching the duo hauling their possessions into a hotel room, being late for a gig or dropping the CD’s all over the floor on the way in. Journeys of many many miles are taken to get to a small venue in downtown somewhere or other – though paradoxically it is those gigs that seem to be meat and drink to Campbell in particular.

We watch Campbell and his associates flicking through vinyl in a record shop and offering running commentaries about what each might have meant to them.  Admiration is expressed for John Sebastian (?) Canned Heat and perhaps most left-field of all, Ten Years After.  In fact, the musicians exhibit an admirable openness to a range of music as evidenced by Jerry Douglas who talks about his son’s rapper friend Little Ro-Ro – who becomes the title of one of his new tunes.  At one stage William Bell turns up (he and Campbell co-wrote together) and we get a glimpse of the world of Stax music.  Bell concludes that country, blues and soul are all part of the same deal – all are a reflection of the same hard times.

There’s nugget after nugget here and it’s best you discover them yourself and I refrain from giving too much more away, especially given that there are so many on offer. Thoroughly recommended as the film is there were two minor irritations.  Firstly, and it seems a modern disease, the credits are way too fast to be read in their entirety – and if ever there deserved to be readable credits it is for a film such as this.

Secondly, it is not easy to work out who’s who.  The film is described as a documentary and some subtitled naming of the people on view would not go amiss.  It is possible to work out most identities and it may be that sort of guessing game is something you enjoy – but it can be a little irritating if you can’t work it out.

Musicians can be curiously inarticulate at times and that might be why they say it with their instruments.  Even those who do have a way with words can talk absolute rubbish at times  – as evidenced by some of Van Morrison’s recent comments.  This excellent documentary does not suffer either of these faults and is an engrossing insight into the world of Campbell, Williams and their many friends.  Oh, and there’s lots of great music in it too.

‘It Was the Music’s ten episodes is available on Vimeo as well as Amazon Prime. A 15 song soundtrack is available on CD, Spotify and other streaming services.

About Gordon Sharpe 66 Articles
Retired music fan longing to get back to the Lakes and hoping to visit Scotland before much longer - somehow South Cheshire just doesn't cut it. Still seeking the grail in terms of a convincing description of what Americana really is but really enjoying the search. And still wondering when Kenny Rogers will get his just deserts

2 Comments

  1. I have a fond memory of a late 70s evening with Larry. We got proficient at dropping the needle right at the beginning of Albert Lee’s killer guitar solo on Dave Edmunds’ “Sweet Little Lisa” and listened to it perhaps 30 times.

  2. For all our readers who are fans of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, and the music and artists covered by ‘It Was The Music’, AUK will be publishing an interview with director Mark Moskowitz, Larry and Teresa in the coming weeks.

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