Only the Strong Survive
The Movie: Otis Redding once named an album A Soupcon of Soul, and that's what you've got here. Seminal documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, The War Room) and his collaborator/wife Chris Hegedus (The War Room, Startup.com) set out to check in on some of the still-standing legends of '60s R&B, including Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, and the late Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla Thomas. The resulting film mixes concert footage with backstage interviews and interaction, and it devotes not enough time or dedication to either. Pennebaker and Hegedus reveal just enough of Moore's personality and his life since his run of hits in the '60s to intrigue, but quickly cut away to his impassioned but unfocused current performances (a trait he shares with several other veterans here). Meanwhile, singers who still rivet--Carla Thomas turns her initial teenage hit "Gee Whiz" into an astonishing paean of nearly holy passion; the urbane Jerry Butler, now a Chicago-area politician, blows away his still-touring peers--don't get nearly enough screen time. At the hour and a half mark, having offered a few tantalizing glimpses of rich biographies and untapped musical depths, the film ends abruptly, leaving you wanting more, and not in a good way.
The Disc: The Only the Strong Survive DVD deserves to exist if only to provide evidence of the continuing existence of Sir Mack Rice, the kind of songwriter and performer who deserves his own movie, not to be left out entirely besides inclusion on the "special features" menu. Rice's tear through "Mustang Sally" is one of a generous handful of moments that make the extras menus almost more happening than the feature presentation. Soul cognoscenti and newcomers alike will also thrill to the still-suave William Bell singing his "You Don't Miss Your Water" as part of the same slate of extra performance footage. There is also an extended sampler of the on-air old-school clowning between Rufus Thomas and Memphis radio host Jaye Davis, a sporadic highlight of the film proper. The commentary track, which features Moore, Carla Thomas, and producer-to-the-stars Jerry Wexler, provides yet more of the insight and detail that Only the Strong Survive itself maddeningly misses.