Only The Strong Survive
REVIEW by Willard Manus

Keep an eye out for Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker's new r&b documentary, ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE, which will be released early this year by Miramax Films. The film, which premiered recently at AFI FEST 2002 in Los Angeles, looks at the life and times of some of the great soul stars of the 60s and 70s--Isaac Hayes, Mary Wilson, Wilson Pickett, The Chi Lites, Sam Moore, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Jerry Butler and Ann Peebles.

Hegedus and Pennebaker are no strangers to the pop music world. Forty years ago the latter introduced the techniques of cinema-verite in his portraits of Bob Dylan ("Don't Look Back") and Janis Joplin & Jimmy Hendrix ("Monterey Pop"). Later, he shot "Keep on Rockin'" with Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, and David Bowie in "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars."

Hegedus won acclaim earlier this year for her intimate study of the dot-com.mania, "," and the bluegrass documentary she produced for Joel and Ethan Coen, "Down From the Mountain." She has also made rock videos for the likes of John Hiatt, Victoria Williams and Soul Asylum.

ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE isn't the usual historical look at a bygone era and its stars. The film goes beyond talking heads and archival footage to focus on singers who never stopped working after the hits stopped coming. With the help of Roger Friedman, a New York journalist and Fox News correspondent who is a lifelong r&b fan, Pennebaker and Hegedus tracked down these oldtimers and put a camera on them while they talked, joked and sang, both on and offstage.

Memphis figures strongly, not only because it was the home of both Stax Records and Sun Records, but because it is where such pioneer r&b artists as Rufus Thomas and Sam Moore first came to fame. Both men figure prominently in the film. Thomas, who started out as a Memphis d.j., was still a radio regular as recently as 2001. His on-air bantering with his partner, the slyly witty Jay Michael Davis, is priceless, as is his duet with his daughter Carla, an r&b star in her own right. Sadly, Rufus Thomas did not live long enough to see the finished version of ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE. He died at age 84 two years ago, just as the film was being prepped for the Sundance Film Festival. ONLY THE STRONG is dedicated to him.

Sam Moore, the legendary "Soul Man" himself, once half of the duo Sam and Dave, also enjoys some powerful on-screen moments. After several top-ten hits in the 60s and a career revival in the 80s, Moore succumbed to drugs and became not just an addict but a pusher. He talks about those grim days in candid fashion.

"I used to sell drugs all up and down here," he tells the filmmakers as they drive down New York's Eighth Avenue. "I stayed in an $8 a night hotel." Which drugs? they ask. "Cocaine and heroin, same as Belushi," he replies.

Fortunately, Moore met a woman who fell in love with him and helped him fight his way back to sobriety and normalcy. "I did it by not attacking Sam but his demons," she says. Moore has been clean since the mid-80s, happily married to Joyce and singing up a storm when he can. His performance at an R&B Foundation dinner for Isaac Hayes is one of the highlights of the film.

Mary Wilson's live concert at the Westbury Theatre provides even more heat. Wilson, who made her debut with The Supremes forty years ago, is known for her spats with Diana Ross. What's been forgotten until now is what a compelling singer she is, as evidenced by her rendition of the Supremes hit, "Someday We'll Be Together."

Hegedus/Pennebaker catch up with Jerry Butler at a private show in New Jersey. Now an important politician in Chicago, the smooth, urbane Butler shows that he still has his vocal chops. Ditto Pickett, Hayes and the other stars of this highly enjoyable documentary.