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SXSW: The Life Of Sidemen
by Stephen Becker 11 Mar 2016

Three of the blues’ most important backup players get the star treatment in “Sidemen – Long Road to Glory.”

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AUSTIN – The most thoughtful line in “Sidemen – Long Road to Glory” comes from a person who’s burned through his share of brain cells.
“You had it all the time, pal. You just didn’t listen.”
That’s how Keith Richards sums up the Rolling Stones’ mission to repackage American blues music for a wider (and whiter) audience.
That mission to champion the underappreciated is the line that runs through “Sidemen,” which tells the stories of three influential bluesmen revered by aficionados. The average music fan might not know the names of pianist Pinetop Perkins, guitarist Hubert Sumlin and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. But they’ll surely know the bandleaders they worked for: Sumlin played with Howlin’ Wolf while Perkins and Smith backed up Muddy Waters.
All three grew up in the rural South without two nickels to rub together. And each hightailed it to Chicago as they ran towards the blues and away from plantation life. Perkins dropped out of school after third grade to earn 50 cents a week picking cotton. Sumlin’s mother spent a week’s salary on his first guitar. And Smith’s first instrument was a harmonica – the cheapest instrument you could by. “Sidemen” is right in line with the Oscar-winning “20 Feet from Stardom,” “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” and “The Wrecking Crew,” – music docs that played SXSW in recent years that also look at important and overlooked figures in the biz.
“What was it like to be a sideman? It’s just being completely passionate about your art. Not caring about the recognition, and in many cases, not caring about being paid,” said “Sidemen” director Scott Rosenbaum after Friday night’s world premiere screening. “So many of the interviews I did about Hubert were about how he just didn’t care about money. All he cared about was that guitar. For someone who doesn’t have that kind of passion, it would sound almost alien in a way. But that was what motivated him, and it’s incredible to see passion that burns that intently.”
Each of the movie’s subjects suffered through lean times in the 1970s and ’80s. Punk and new wave ruled radio, and some worried the blues died with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
Fortunately, the artists who idolized these men wouldn’t let them fade away. In “Sidemen,” Bonnie Raitt, Joe Perry, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Johnny Winter and Greg Allman extol their greatness. John Landis talks about how he and Dan Aykroyd were thrilled to feature Perkins and Smith in “The Blues Brothers.”
Notice a trend here? (Hint: It’s the same idea Richards and the Stones were getting at 50 years ago.)
Rosenbaum says yes, he’s aware of this decades-old trend of white artists exposing black blues musicians to a larger audience – a trend that he’s now participating in.
“I wanted this film to celebrate the music and how it’s brought people together,” he said. “I mean, there’s so much division in this country – and there always has been – and perhaps, sadly, there always will be to some degree. But what was so great about Pinetop, Willie and Hubert was it didn’t matter to them. Really, it was: Are you a good person? Are you a good musician? Those were the things that were paramount to them.”
That idea shines through “Sidemen” – people who care about music above all else.

“Sidemen” screens again on Wednesday and March 19. No word yet on if the film will play any of North Texas’ spring festivals – stay tuned. In the meantime watch the trailer.

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