Film Review: This Time

Scruffy documentary, in need of more focus, about the travails of ever-aspiring singers has rewarding moments among the randomness.

Nothing less than a serious rebuke to the grating, shallow, instant-jackpot values of reality shows like “American Idol,” This Time depicts the dire struggles of would-be singing stars climbing that ever-slippery ladder to success. Actually, “success” is almost too strong a word here, for I think most of them would be happy just to make an honest, dignified living doing what they love best. Two of the subjects featured here, the female singing group The Sweet Inspirations and Pat Hodges, formerly of the ’70s crew Hodges, James & Smith, have already had their place in the sun, and are bent on making a comeback.

Bobby Belfry, a singer-songwriter pushing 40, is still waiting for his big break as he dutifully tends bar nightly at a Manhattan cabaret. He’s an appealing guy with an admirable seriousness of intent and, from the snippets we see of him in performance, possessed of a definite winsome talent. As a veteran of too many nights of good, bad and indifferent cabaret, I do wonder, however, if he could interestingly sustain an entire show.

Director Victor Mignatti unfortunately favors talk over the music here. The Sweet Inspirations have a great story: As perhaps the most in-demand backup singers of the 1960s and ’70s for everyone from Elvis to Aretha, they are now reduced to performing with Elvis impersonators in “tribute” concerts across the country. They are an irascible trio of ingratiating survivors, joking and encouraging each other backstage and somewhat showing their age. But when they open their mouths on their still stirringly resonant hit “Sweet Inspiration,” their sound is still sweet indeed. The devastating moment when original member Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother) decided to strike out on her own, a la Diana Ross with The Supremes, is cursorily covered. Equally wrenching for the group is what happens when Houston comes back to sing with them, only to grab the spotlight, billing-wise, on their comeback CD, through no intent of her own but the machinations of typically venal, short-sighted producers.

Songwriter Peitor Angell emerges as a vital figure in the film, for it is he, a committed fan, who is trying to engineer the comebacks of all these women. Hodges presents a special case in the fact that she is homeless, although still capable of whipping Gay Pride crowds into a frenzy with her searing vocal pipes on the danceable anthems Angell composes for her. Angell’s sincere efforts border on the heroic, which make it all the more heartbreaking when, despite all he has done for her, she begins to display ambivalence toward performing.

More cohesiveness and definitely more uninterrupted singing would have helped this doc, which, as endearing as it undeniably is, tends to ramble and repeat itself. It does stand, however, as a testament to the unkillable spirit of performers who, even if they never attain the top rung of show business, will never be a mere flash in the pan.