Thursday, August 2, 2012

Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth - 2005

"Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth" - 2005
Dir. by Philip Di Fiore - 39 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Bernie Worrell was the keyboard player for Parliament-Funkadelic, so you really should be familiar with his music, even if it's second-hand through omnipresent sampled work.  He's also played with the Talking Heads (as seen in "Stop Making Sense," a tremendous live concert movie) and dozens of other musicians.  He's regarded as a genius by other musicians, and created part of the foundation that hip-hop was built upon.  So how come nobody knows who he is?  And why is he living in a Motel 6 instead of raking in royalties from his heyday?

I wish that "Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth" did a better job of answering those questions (and others).  But before I get into the negatives here, let's start positive.  I'm glad that someone thought to do a film on Mr. Worrell in the first place.  In the 1990's, both George Clinton and Bootsy Collins had their own resurgences, and they were well-earned.  Worrell deserves no less, and there's no shortage of respected musicians who have worked with Bernie and are willing to sing his praises here (David Byrne, Clinton, Bootsy, Mos Def, Dr. Know, members of the Talking Heads and Living Colour, to begin with).  It's very clear that he's held in esteem by his peers; you don't even need to listen to the words any of these people say, just watch the expressions on their faces as they're talking about Worrell and his work.  And credit where credit is due, there is performance footage (although chopped up) not just from a contemporary concert, but from what would be considered his "prime."

So, what problems do I have with the film?  First off, it's not even as long as a P-Funk album.  It's hard to get a feel for what it was exactly that Worrell did when his band was known for longer-form songs (in other words, P-Funk wasn't a three-minute radio-hit kind of band).  And "Stranger" also runs afoul of the one cardinal sin regarding music docs: no full performance of any song.  Everything doesn't have to be played in full, but refusing to give any full songs at all (and that's not to mention the oddness of editing together performances when the guy you're talking about is a composer, and the whole of a given piece of music might have some integrity that's not being preserved) demands a familiarity with the subject's work that most people don't have.  And if you do have that familiarity, hearing snippets of some of your favorite pieces of music is akin to being taunted over and over again.  It's maddening, and it's worth tacking a few more minutes on the run time (especially with such a short film) so that a viewer can absorb just what it is that Worrell is doing (David Byrne talks at one point about how Worrell's style involved being somewhat invisible, which makes it hard to tout) in a full and accurate context.

The other big issue is that "Stranger" tap dances around questions that are alluded to in regards to Worrell's career and life.  It's clear that he's not what you would call successful (financially), and it's stated that he was on the tail end of the generation of musicians that were pretty much ripped off wholesale.  It's kind of shown that he's unstable (not exactly the right word, but it's ballpark), but the exact reason isn't ever given.  They say that he drinks, and smokes, but it's otherwise un-addressed.  And Worrell himself doesn't seem to allow much insight; nearly all of the footage of him is either on stage or quietly existing.  I'm not saying that every documentary needs to be a warts-and-all depiction, but when the other musicians are lamenting his inability to get things done within the confines of the existing record industry, there's a big pink elephant tap dancing in the room right behind each of them.  What exactly is the problem?  If neither the filmmaker, his friends, nor Worrell himself are willing to be honest about that, it's something that probably shouldn't have been brought up at all.

Maybe it sounds like I'm being really harsh on this film.  I'm glad it exists, that someone decided to shine a (flash)light on Worrell and his music.  I grew up on rap music that was based on his work (Digital Underground, in particular).  For what it is, it's enjoyable.  But it also either expects too much knowledge out of a viewer or just doesn't care to explain itself if you're not already knee-deep in the P-Funk catalog.  And, no full songs is a deal-breaker for me in any music documentary, particularly when the inclusion of not even a handful would have taken this from being a short film to nearly a feature-length.  It's a weirdly antagonistic stance to take towards more casual fans (or people who might not know who he is by name).  Even long-time fans would appreciate the chance to kick back and luxuriate in the work of what is billed over and over in this film as a musical genius.

2.5 / 5 - Streaming

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