Film Review: Sidemen: Long Road to Glory

Tribute to three pioneering blues musicians will leave viewers wanting more.
Specialty Releases

Spotlighting three underappreciated blues musicians, Sidemen: Long Road to Glory is the latest addition to a music documentary niche that includes Standing in the Shadows of Motown, The Wrecking Crew and Muscle Shoals. Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins and Willie Smith were outstanding players, and they make this movie interesting in spite of itself.

All three grew up in the South and migrated to Chicago, after World War II the home of a biting, electrified blues sound whose influence spread throughout pop culture. Perkins, in his 90s at the time of filming, played piano for luminaries like Sonny Boy Williamson. In 1969 he joined the Muddy Waters band. Smith, born in Arkansas, moved to Chicago when he was 17 and played drums for Waters for decades.

Born in Mississippi, Sumlin became the most famous of the three for his long relationship with Howlin' Wolf. Sumlin supplied the backbone and savage riffs that propelled Wolf hits like "Killing Floor" and "Smokestack Lightning." Bonnie Raitt thinks his work on "300 Pounds of Joy" marks the greatest guitar solo ever recorded.

Raitt's comments are the most astute and respectful of the many rock musicians—mostly white, male and middle-aged—interviewed for the documentary. On one hand it's nice to know that stars Joe Perry, Derek Trucks and Robby Krieger like Sumlin's guitar playing, but the movie would have benefited from more music and less talk.

Unfortunately, so little exists of the three in their prime, and that footage tends to focus on Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. The three are also seen in contemporary interviews as they prepare for a tribute concert. But all three died within months of each other in 2011.

That left director, co-writer and producer Scott Rosenbaum scrambling for a framework for his movie. He fills time with talking heads repeating the same praises and a bombastic narration (read by Marc Maron). Statements like "These three sidemen would go on to redefine popular music as we know it" sour the whole project.

Rosenbaum's documentary argues that sidemen didn't get enough credit at the time, and that British rock musicians borrowed the sound and reflected it back to U.S. listeners. To viewers, that means watching guilty rockers justifying their cultural appropriation by throwing out wild claims, like rock ’n’ roll wouldn't exist without Sumlin.

Then again, Sumlin was a phenomenal musician, and any opportunity to see him helps. Like Perkins and Smith, he was an appealing personality with a strong sense of humor, no matter how hard his life. Even with its flaws, Sidemen can't diminish their accomplishments.

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