Follow Robert Mugge
Al Green and Robert Mugge at the October 25, 1985 American theatrical premiere of
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN
at the Coolidge Corner in Brookline, MA. Photo by Justin Freed.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 21-22, 2009
Two '80s Film Flashbacks
Sonny Rollins and Al Green Documentaries, New on DVD
By Will Friedwald
When Robert Mugge's documentaries "Sonny Rollins Saxophone
Colossus" (1986) and "Gospel According to Al Green" (1984)
were made, they were intended as a permanent record of two seminal
musicians at a very specific point in their careers. The central
figures themselves had axes to grind: Sonny Rollins -- and even
more so, his manager and wife, Lucille -- wanted to silence the
critics and fans who insisted that his contemporary work was inferior
to his classic albums of the '50s and '60s; Al Green was compelled
to explain to the world why he gave up singing pop music and devoted
his life to spreading God's word.
Today, those particular points don't matter as much as they once
did. Mr. Rollins is treated as a living legend, whose every performance,
young and old, is rightfully cherished; Mr. Green himself made
another career change and since the mid-1990s has been performing
secular as well as sacred music, knowing full well that audiences
will accept him no matter what he sings.
But these two films, newly released on DVD by Acorn Media, hold
up well as vital profiles of their subjects at turning points in
their lives, each combining a concert film with a journalistic
backstory. They also remind us how much the genre has changed in
the past two decades, a period of ever-shortening attention spans.
When Mr. Mugge made these documentaries (both of which exceed 1½ hours
in length, with not a minute wasted), it didn't seem like too much
to ask an audience to watch a man play a sax for 10 minutes straight.
"Saxophone Colossus," which takes its title from Mr.
Rollins's celebrated 1956 album, begins with the musician talking
about how he prepares for a performance; although it isn't exactly
through "meditating," he does drop that word, and both
of Mr. Mugge's films are extended meditations on one man's contributions
The filmmaker and his camera crew capture Mr. Rollins in performance
at two events. At the first, he and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony
Orchestra play the "Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra," Mr.
Rollins's collaboration with the Finnish arranger-composer-conductor
Heikki Saramanto. In the accompanying commentary, the director
explains that he thought the work might become a jazz classic on
the level of John Coltrane's suite "A Love Supreme." Instead,
the concerto -- though it's a fascinating piece, which includes
one movement that sounds inspired by Aaron Copland and another
by Caribbean music -- sank into obscurity. It has never been issued
The other concert included in "Saxophone Colossus" is
an August 1986 date in a rock quarry converted into a performance
space. Mr. Mugge's intention was to show the high level at which
Mr. Rollins performs even at a bread-and-butter gig with his regular
working band (including trombonist Clifton Anderson and bassist
Bob Cranshaw, who are still with him today).
Less than a half hour in, Mr. Rollins plays a short, unaccompanied
medley of several themes, including "A Kiss to Build a Dream
On" and "How Are Things in Glocca Morra," and then
jumps off the stage. Apparently, he was frustrated by the sound
of his tenor sax -- which had changed since it was relacquered.
He was intending to head into the outdoor audience, and to play
among them like a strolling musician. He hits the ground with such
force that his heel bone snaps, and he lies down on the stone,
flat on his back. Then, still horizontal, he begins to play "Autumn
Nocturne," with neither the audience nor the band realizing
that a bone is actually broken in his foot. In the days before
tiny video cameras and cellphone photography, this was an extraordinary
slice of reality to capture on film.
* * *
"Gospel According to Al Green" is driven by the irresistible,
almost aggressive charisma of its central figure (who won two more
Grammy Awards earlier this month). Not only does the Rev. Al Green
exude the same energy when singing of love for a woman or love
for Jesus, but he acknowledges no difference between preaching
in a Baptist church, addressing an audience in a night club, or
being interviewed by Mr. Mugge in a recording studio. Whether a
camera crew or a crowd of thousands is listening to him, he speaks
as if he's talking to his most intimate friend.
His recounting of hearing the word from God that he must be born
again is compelling enough to make even a nonbeliever get down
on his knees. The story of how a vengeful ex-lover attacked him
by throwing a cauldron of boiling hot grits on him, and then shot
herself, is by turns both comic and tragic. There's a touching
moment when his once and future producer, Willie Mitchell, tells
of how their partnership ended when Mr. Green stopped singing pop
songs. It is ironically underscored by their 1972 hit "Let's
But "Gospel According to Al Green," like "Saxophone
Colossus," is ultimately driven by the music, which we get
to hear at its proper length. Mr. Green describes gospel music
as having "an electricity that's got nothin' to do with sex," but
there's an overt sensuality to his performance here -- whether
describing romantic or spiritual ecstasy. He makes it clear that
both come from the same place in the heart.
Mr. Friedwald writes about jazz and other music for the Journal.
Reprinted from The
Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company. All
THE MEMPHIS FLYER
February 26, 2009
Full of Fire
A classic documentary captures Al
Green in the pulpit and onstage.
By Chris Herrington
The first time I interviewed Al Green, on the phone, several years
ago, the legendary soul singer took me by surprise. I'd been a
huge fan of his music for years, but not only had I never spoken
to him, I had never seen or heard him interviewed.
Green's speaking manner was nearly as idiosyncratic and dynamic
as his one-of-a-kind vocals. Not only was his normal conversation
sing-songy, he would break, literally, into song. Asking a question
about his music's connection to Motown, Green burst into Temptations
and Smokey Robinson songs. Throughout the interview, when songs
were mentioned, he would occasionally dip into them, weaving bits
of singing in and out of the conversation.
Had I seen filmmaker Robert Mugge's 1984 documentary Gospel
According to Al Green, I might have been better prepared. In that film, Green
is first seen in his home studio, being interviewed while plucking
an electric guitar. "I love you with all my heart," he
sings, picking out a few notes and making the cliché soar.
A few minutes later, Green tells the story of playing a show in
Dallas, early in his career, and not getting paid. Driving back
home to Michigan, a girlfriend with him, he sings a new song he'd
written, "Tired of Being Along." Strumming the guitar
the whole time, Green interrupts his own story periodically to
sing the song's opening verse or chorus.
"The girl said, 'Would you please put that thing down? You're
driving me nuts,'" Green remembers with a grin. "But
I was gone on that song."
Green's way of speaking is almost fey — downright cutesy — as
stylized as his singing. In the mid-'70s, critic Robert Christgau — a
big fan — wrote of Green's speech: "The man crinkles
up his voice as if he's trying out for Sesame Street; he drawls
like someone affecting a drawl; he hesitates and giggles and murmurs
and swallows his words."
Green is having a very good year. His 2008 album Lay It Down,
was the best of a fine trio of recent secular "comeback" albums.
A few weeks ago, the album garnered Green two Grammys on a night
where he dueted with fellow Mid-Southerner Justin Timberlake on
his classic single "Let's Stay Together."
Soon after Green's big Grammy moment, the long-unavailable Gospel
According to Al Green received a 25th-anniversary DVD release,
allowing viewers a remarkably intimate glimpse of Green in the
days not long after he'd essentially abandoned secular music for
Mugge is a documentarian who specializes in making films about
American music, including such high-profile works as Deep Blues, Saxophone Colossus (a film about jazz great Sonny Rollins re-released
concurrently with Gospel According to Al Green), and the post-Katrina
New Orleans Music in Exile. Gospel According to Al Green was one
of Mugge's first films, but the director apparently sees it as
a template for his subsequent work. In a new interview that is
one of the new edition's special features, Mugge says, "In
many respects, Gospel According to Al Green is exactly what I want
my films to be: It captures a musical artist at the peak of his
powers; it develops many themes related to traditional American
music; and it presents a dramatic story."
That story is part of pop-music lore: how Green, a journeyman
Michigan soul singer with Southern roots, was discovered by Memphis
producer Willie Mitchell at a Texas club and lured to Tennessee;
how Green and Mitchell worked to perfect a soul sound that bridged
the divide between '60s grit and '70s silk; the dramatic incident
where Green was scalded with hot grits by an upset lover, who then
killed herself; how Green had a religious awakening, abandoning
pop music for the pulpit in the form of his own Memphis church:
the Full Gospel Tabernacle on Hale Road.
This story has never been told with such intimacy as in Gospel
According to Al Green. Green was candid on these subjects in his
2000 autobiography Take Me to the River, but here you hear the
words in Green's amazing voice and you can watch, rapt no doubt,
as he performs his life story with the same charisma as he performs
his great songs.
Gospel According to Al Green captures its subject in three primary
settings: alone in his home studio, onstage at Bolling Air Force
Base in Washington, D.C., and, finally, in the pulpit at Full Gospel
Tabernacle. The only other subjects who get much screen time are
Willie Mitchell, interviewed at Royal Studio, where most of Green's
greatest work was recorded, and the pop critic Ken Tucker, who
calls Green a synthesis or the soft, wounded style of Smokey Robinson
and grit of Wilson Pickett.
Originally, Mugge says in his DVD extra interview, there were
other outside talking heads in the film and the director had included
himself as an on-screen subject. That material didn't test well
in early screenings: The audience just wanted to watch Green talking,
singing, and preaching — performances all.
At Bolling, Green stretches out Curtis Mayfield's "People
Get Ready" and goes deep into the gospel standard "Nearer
My God to Thee" while walking off the stage and into the crowd.
In the studio, he's riveting, talking candidly about the "grits" incident
and his middle-of-the-night religious awakening. Most memorable
is his description of his impulsive purchase of his church.
"You know how I wrote the check?" Green asks, reaching
into the breast pocket of his suit and pulling out his glasses. "Out
of a little book I had in my pocket. Just a little pad book. Not
even a real, real, real book. Just a little pad book.
"I wrote the check right on out for the whole building," Green
says, running his fingers over his glasses as if they were the
checkbook. "And signed it," he says, waving his hand
dismissively. "Through with that. 'Cause see, now, Sunday
I'm preaching. That's all."
Mugge holds back on Green's church service until the final third
of the film, when he surprisingly gives Green in the pulpit roughly
half an hour of uncommented-on screen time, where you notice how
little difference there is between Green's three public sides:
speaking, singing, and preaching. Green is, here, improvisational,
his voicing ranging between speech and song.
"This is a film about love," Mugge says. "About
the connections between soul music and gospel, and about a guy
who flew too close to the sun, got his eyeballs burned, and has
been singing ever since with fire coming out of his mouth."
And to borrow a title of one of Green's many terrific '70s albums,
he's nothing if not full of fire here.
Reprinted with permission from The Memphis Flyer
THE CITY PAPER (Nashville)
February 3, 2009
OnDVD: New releases spotlight Green, Rollins
Acclaimed director Robert
Mugge has excelled as a music documentarian over the past three
decades. His productions have profiled both famous and obscure
performers in numerous genres. The long list of exceptional Mugge
productions include a pair of 1980s works on Al Green and Sonny
Rollins that have just been reissued on DVD.
Gospel According to Al Green and Sonny Rollins:
Saxophone Colossus (both Acorn Media) represent the finest filmed presentations
ever done on these two giants of American music, and each blend
insights and splendid, rare performance footage in a manner that
distinguishes them from basic concert or documentary items.
Al Green had made the transition from soul matinee idol to hard-working
minister by 1984, the year Mugge originally filmed Gospel
According to Al Green. He talks extensively about the events that led to
his abandoning that soul career, and also discusses the problems
he experienced in establishing and maintaining his Memphis church.
For those skeptical about Green’s conversion, the DVD
includes a marvelous example pastor Green, as he presents a rich
sermon that combines biblical references, personal stories and
occasional song inserts. The package also has several scenes
from his church services, which sometimes extend for hours on
Sunday mornings and afternoons.
But the DVD also showcases the masterful Green secular style,
with excerpts from performances featuring magnificent renditions
of classic hits like “Let’s Stay Together” as
well as equally strong gospel numbers such as “Amazing
Green addresses the demands of both stardom and the ministry
with equal fervor, explaining that each demands an intensity
and commitment that can be draining and debilitating.
Through a nearly 90-minute interview, viewers see sides of Green
he’s never before or since revealed. The set is completed
with the inclusion of the original theatrical trailer and Mugge’s
reflections on the project.
As for Sonny Rollins, he began playing the saxophone as an 11-year-old
and was working with Thelonious Monk before he was 18. His soaring,
relentless solos and integrity as a performer have made him a
Rollins also has often walked away from the music scene when
he felt his playing was getting stale or predictable, even at
times when his work was extremely popular. Sonny Rollins:
Saxophone Colossus was filmed in 1986, only a year after he’d started
recording and performing again following almost nine years out
of the spotlight.
His DVD includes far more comments and conversation from Rollins
(who’s never sought the spotlight) about his background
and interests than usual. He goes into very specific detail about
the importance of spirituality in his life and music, while dissecting
his approach to improvisation and performance.
A song’s melody has always been what has most attracted
Rollins to a composition, and his ability to hear alternative
directions in a tune while exploring it and his experiments with
song structure are displayed in wonderful footage of him teaming
with a Japanese symphony orchestra in Tokyo and a smaller group
in New York.
While not extensively or exclusively a concert film, Sonny
Rollins: Saxophone Colossus amply examines the Rollins musical method,
while also giving fans vital insight into his interests and life
away from the bandstand.
Reprinted with permission from The
City Paper - Nashville's Online Source for Daily News
THE ALL MOVIE GUIDE
December 24, 2008
According to Al Green and Saxophone Colossus: The All Movie
By Nathan Southern
This January will witness a very special event – the
DVD reissue of two of the most brilliant music documentaries
of the past quarter century, both by the gifted Robert
Mugge: 1984’s Gospel
According to Al Green, and 1986’s Sonny Rollins: Saxophone
Colossus. Acorn Media is handling the rereleases, with a number
of supplements including directorial reflections by Mugge; these
welcome additions do enrich the films, but more prominent is
the supreme craftsmanship of both works themselves. I took a
fresh look at these two modern classics over the weekend and
felt particularly struck by how well they succeed in completely
different arenas and with completely distinct voices – a
testament to Mugge’s versatility and adaptability as a
Shot at the tail end of 1983, Gospel According
to Al Green went into production about a decade after Green’s
famous conversion to Pentecostalism, and six years after his purchase
of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis and his temporary
refusal to perform any of his soulful R&B hits again. Mugge
intercuts several elements within the film: a shockingly candid
and revelatory interview with Green, an impromptu recording session
of the chart-topper “Let’s Stay Together” (with
Green agreeing to set aside his secular music ban for the sake
of Mugge’s cameras), a concert by Green at the Bolling Air
Force Base and Noncommissioned Officer’s Club in honor of
1984 Black History Week, and a sermon at Green’s church.
in its early stages, the documentary pulls its power from Green’s almost hypnotic and mesmeric music, which
exerts an astonishing level of emotional pull toward the onscreen
and offscreen audiences; few cinematic outings have captured
this aspect of gospel music so beautifully. (Compare the film,
for example, to other gospel documentaries that interrupt the
flow and emotional throes of the music with frequent cutaways).
Mugge avoids that error by courageously letting the audience
observe the concert portions for extended periods of time (thus
wisely trusting in his subject matter) and allowing the music
to build, to such a degree that its overall emotional structure
begins to mirror the emotional structure of one of Green’s
Willie Mitchell-produced songs as described in an onscreen interview
with Mitchell – a gradual build to crescendo: “I
think a song should be like climbing a mountain… Start
at the bottom and climb to the top.” Mugge employs a like
narrative structure in the documentary itself.
Via the interviews
with Green, Mugge also provides intimate observations of a fascinating
character – it’s possible
that we’ve never before witnessed an interview subject
so animated by torrents of histrionic emotion – to such
a degree that it pushes Green beyond the point of eccentricity,
and makes him a source of endless curiosity. The film doesn’t
shy away from the possibility that Green enjoys being a spectacle
in and of himself, and Mugge, in fact, places his camera at exactly
the right places to observe the contradictions of this superstar,
who on the one hand projects very sincere devotion to his audiences
and a very sincere belief in Christian music and the Christian
gospel, and on the other hand grows visibly disinterested on
those brief occasions when someone else takes center stage. Meanwhile,
the film’s interview portions enable Green’s fascinating
personal story to emerge and build, and the documentary achieves
greatest profundity by establishing a link between the notorious
crisis that pushed the singer to the edge (when a distraught
girlfriend dumped boiling hot grits on him in the shower, then
shot herself) and the reliance on a spiritual anchor as a coping
device. Mugge ingeniously juxtaposes Green’s recollections
of the “incident” with a concert performance of “Amazing
Grace” featuring cathartic monologues that witness Green
openly dealing, before an audience, with the tumult that befell
him years earlier. More broadly, the film serves as a profound
reflection on the link, historically, between secular soul music
and African-American gospel music, and the extent to which the
former is often used as a tool to enervate and shape the latter.
Sans commentary, the film probes this intra-genre area gracefully,
Above all else, the film witnesses one of the
greatest of all soul singers at the peak of his abilities and
provides marvelous entertainment.
That can also be said of 1986’s Sonny
Rollins: Saxophone Colossus, though the emotional texture
and narrative structure of this opus stand alone. Hard bop
tenor saxophonist Rollins,
regarded by many as the world’s greatest jazz improviser,
made history by adapting the jazz stylings of Charlie Parker
to his chosen instrument, but by the mid-late 1980s, Rollins’s
wife-turned-manager, Lucille, felt concerned that his star
might be fading, despite the fact that he was performing more
brilliantly, at that point in his life, than at any other time.
Mugge’s film was thus designed as a vehicle to reassert
Rollins’s greatness, and on that level alone it succeeds
wonderfully. The writer-director divides the bulk of the film
between four elements: candid interviews with Rollins and his
wife, an August 1986 performance with a small jazz ensemble
headlined by Rollins at Saugarties New York’s Opus 40,
a series of reflections on Rollins by jazz critics Ira Gitler,
Gary Giddins and Francis Davis, and – as the centerpiece – the
only official filmed record of Rollins’s Concerto for
Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra, Movements 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7,
mounted and performed in Japan in May of ’86.
Green, is fascinating to watch, and though he’s
as complex a subject as one can imagine, we never feel the sense
of any emotional turmoil surrounding the musician that we do
from Green – only open, free, and unbridled joy that extends
to the film itself. (Just witness, for example, Sonny’s
rapturous performance of “Don’t Stop the Carnival” at
the Opus 40 that wraps the film). Structurally, Mugge approaches
Rollins as a subject by using the various interview and concert
materials to create a kind of interwoven narrative tapestry,
that builds to an impressionistic portrait of the musician. By
the time that the final sequence rolls around, we’ve gained
a myriad of insights into this legendary musician yet sense that
there are still many mysteries about him to be uncovered – the
film succeeds in building our curiosity and fascination. Musically,
the very best that can be said about Saxophone Colossus is that
a myriad of melodic complexities play out onscreen (including
the Japanese sequence – a groundbreaking fusion of fixed
symphonic structures and free jazz saxophone riffs), but one
can approach the material with only the most rudimentary knowledge
of what jazz improvisation entails, and actually learn the fundamentals
from watching Sonny’s performance. Mugge seems intent on
repeatedly filming Rollins from low angles, to enforce the musician’s
stature as a jazz giant (which partially explains the title);
with another subject, that might seem cliched, but the filmmaker
understands that the level of performance on display in the film
and the visual approach can do nothing but validate one another.
Reprinted with permission from the All