This week Acorn Media hands us two DVD reissues from music documentarian Robert Mugge, focusing on two very different artists in somewhat similar straits. With the documentaries Gospel According to Al Green (1984) and Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus (1986), Mugge finds both artists on the other side of their commercial and (perceived) creative peaks, with both reaching in different directions for new inspiration.
Gospel According to begins with the soulful Al Green solo with guitar, singing about a love deep in his heart. His beaming smiles and squeals of delight spill joy through the screen into our laps. Going in blind, the assumption here is the song is about love for a woman, but when he plays the song again through the credits, what we've seen in the prior 90 minutes confirms that it's more likely about his love for God. Using fiery gospel performances from 1984 as a backdrop, the film intertwines interviews with Green, producer Willie Mitchell and rock critics to piece together his conversion.
Much of the film seems built around getting Green to talk about the infamous "hot grits" incident that most believe (and Green finally admits 30 years later) spurred his conversion. The story goes that Green was seeing 29-year-old Mary Woodson, while seeing other women, and when Green turned down an offer for marriage she became unhinged. While Green took a bath to unwind after a long recording session, the spurned lover Woodson boiled some grits on the stove and proceeded to throw them on a naked Green. He suffered second and third degree burns, and barricaded himself in a room. With her revenge now complete, Woodson located Green's .38 revolver and took her own life. As Green tells the story in the film, it seems to occupy a blind spot in his memory, even earnestly asking Mugge, "Did it really happen?" -- as if he hadn't really been a witness to the incident. Green, in fact, tells of his born-again conversion for the film entirely different, insisting instead that it was a 4 a.m. wake-up call from his Lord in a hotel room in Anaheim back in 1973, predating the incident (and a lot more sleeping around) by more than a year.
Green began moving toward gospel, eventually distancing himself completely from secular music after 1977's The Belle Album. That album features a lyric in its title track that pretty much encapsulates the bridge between gospel and soul that Green had been crossing: "It's you that I want, but it's Him that I need." Green then turned his back on the money and fame and gave himself fully to singing only for the Lord. With Green's recent successful return to secular music (last year's Lay It Down), seeing Green in full gospel mode is even timelier. Green really gets a workout screaming for the Lord, and it's hard for even the hardened to resist his unbridled joy. But is it really all joy, or is part of it just a mask for the past he's repressing?
Meanwhile, if Gospel is fascinating for an incident unseen, Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus actually captures a legendary scene on film. The film is really two short documentaries put together, the first focusing on an outdoor concert in Saugerties, New York, in August of 1986, and the second on the debut of a concerto Rollins wrote, performed in Tokyo with a symphony backing him. Mugge again weaves together interviews with his subject (with his wife Lucille) alongside critics, who, much to Mugge's chagrin, can't find anything negative to say about the legend, other than his recordings often don't live up to his live performances.
The Saugerties concert is legendary, and Rollins' playing helps make his critics' point, as he is on fire through the performance. The concert is captured in the album G-Man, which served as the soundtrack release for the movie. The title track opens the film and features some of Rollins' most daring solos ever captured. Later, during a rendition of "Autumn Nocturne," Rollins moves from song-to-song phrasing before deciding to jump off the rocky stage, breaking his ankle on the fall. He lies there for a minute, assessing his pain, before launching back into his solo, much to the delight of his bandmates and audience alike.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the second half in Tokyo, as his "Concerto for Tenor Sax" seems pedestrian in comparison, and the symphony backing him mostly a distraction from the solos he conjures up on stage. It's no wonder that this is the only recording commercially available.
Both DVDs are kind of grainy in the transfer, as it seems the original reels were not well preserved, but the sound is top-notch. Extra features for Gospel include an uncut 90-minute interview with Green that's placed like a director's commentary, and both DVDs have video of the director's recollections, with Mugge giving insight into key scenes of both films. Both discs are great for fans of the artists, but I'd only really recommend Gospel for the casual fan.