ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #3: Family Band: The Cowsills Story)

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A Family Band: The Cowsills Story
Louise Palanker and Bill Filipiak, directors (2010)

[SMALL ANNOUNCEMENT: I haven’t updated my Rock and Roll Cinema category for a couple of years. Along the way, I decided it would be better the call this category Rock and Roll Screenings, so I can write about television or other video formats under the same umbrella…not saying I will…just saying it’s….possible.]

[NOTE: H-m-m-m-m…The Jackson 5, Julie Brown, Tommy James and now, finally, my long-promised review of the Cowsills’ documentary. It must be “Naked Truth Week” at The Round Place In the Middle. I’ll have one more post in the next few days tying it all up. For now…]

[2nd NOTE: Oh wait….Previous thoughts on/links to all things Cowsill here. I especially recommend that newcomers search for the Playboy After Dark clip, which I’m pretty sure is the only clip I’ve ever posted twice. Okay, on with the show…]

Rock and roll certainly gets in the blood.

Take Louise Palanker, who apparently decided to spend a decade or so chasing down the story of the Cowsills and putting it on film.

On the surface, that is a strange obsession–and it becomes a little stranger when you watch the result and realize that, while its self-deprecating tone might win a few converts, it is not especially aimed at doing so. If you come to this film thinking, as one (admittedly deeply misguided) reviewer put it, that the Cowsills were the most meretricious band of the sixties, then there’s not much chance this film will change your mind.

It might stick with you, though, even then.

Not that I was among those who needed convincing–I loved “Indian Lake” the first time I heard it on a crappy sounding TV-special oldies’ collection back in the late seventies, and, a thousand spins later, hearing Billy Cowsill moan about being forced to record “this piece of shit” doesn’t diminish my love one bit!–but this particular labor of love has certainly stuck with me.

The claims for the Cowsills’ “importance”–that overused, very sixties-style word–are, I think, a good deal more significant than the film acknowledges…or maybe just has time for.

They pretty much invented a certain approach to teen-pop–both as music (thanks to the inordinate talent of the kids) and marketing (thanks to the inordinate obstinance of their horribly abusive father)–which took a deep hold in American life at the very moment their own band (and family) were disintegrating. That approach, carried on by so many others, has never really gone out of style since.

Several commenters in the film espouse (without contradiction) the view that the Cowsills’ stopped having hits because their time had basically passed. I’d argue that, by the time the events recalled elsewhere in the film had wrecked their career, their true moment had finally come. One semi-tragic element of their story (mostly unexplored here)–is that they weren’t allowed to participate in the mini-Pop Explosion they made possible.

So what’s not in the film is this: Within six months of their last major hit–1969’s “Hair” (brilliantly produced by Bill and Bob, the great story of how they got it released against their record company’s wishes is both fully told in the film and well worth remembering if you’re under any illusion that the barriers to the Cowsills transitioning to adult stardom were any way musical)–falling from the charts, the next family of talented kids waiting in the wings entered those charts for the first time.

That was the Jackson 5.

Starting in January of 1970, the Jackson, Osmond and Cassidy (aka “Partridge,” for whom the Cowsills were the very direct inspiration) families spent eighteen of the next fifty-four weeks at #1 on the Billboard pop chart. Those other families–real and imagined–maintained a semi-iconic cultural presence for decades to come, and, of course, produced the biggest pop star of the post-Beatles era.

Meanwhile, The Cowsills themselves–pioneers of the concept and (excepting Michael Jackson) likely the most talented of the bunch–entered the oblivion zone.

Whatever the reasons, the market for families of cute kids with teen idol looks drying up wasn’t one of them.

Semi-tragic, as I mentioned. Quite possibly a great movie there.

But, as I also mentioned, that isn’t the tale Palanker and the Cowsills chose to tell.

So I guess the very fair question going in, is “Do they have another tale worth telling?”

You bet they do.

For the surviving Cowsill children, it’s pretty clear that, from this distance, making sense of their lives meant more than making sense of their career.

This the film does beautifully. Not by providing easy answers (or, in some cases, any answer) but by continually asking the right questions and giving us an up-close-and-personal view of the results.

The framework has Bob Cowsill, the band’s putative leader since their father kicked brother Billy out in the immediate aftermath of “Hair,” going back and interviewing various record men and family members. The parents, Bud and Barbara Cowsill, were both deceased by the time filming began, but there are several aunts available and their responses are, by turns, frustrating, poignant and infuriating. “I spanked my own kids,” one of Bud’s sisters says.

It’s not clear that she grasps the long difference between spanking your kids and doing what Bud Cowsill did.

What he did in the beginning was manage his own kids’ musical career well enough to get them on the national stage with a family-oriented pop image that was far removed from the garage band ethos the older boys wanted to pursue. What he did in the end was wreck every single opportunity he made–multiple lucrative recording contracts, an unprecedented ten-show contract with the Ed Sullivan Show, a chance to be participants in (or at least compensated inspiration for) the Partridge Family TV show–by his boorish, paranoid, ultimately incompetent personal and managerial behavior.

What he also did, from beginning to end, was relentlessly mete out virtually every form of physical and psychological abuse known to fatherhood.

The damage shows. Bill, Barry and Richard (the only sibling not allowed in the band–dad’s decision again and, according to Bill, not a good one) all struggled with various addictions and have passed away since filming began (Bill and Barry before the film was finished, though, fortunately, both were interviewed extensively).

For the rest, there was a troubled but ultimately inspirational (in the best sense) journey of individual and collective discovery.

It’s that journey Palanker chose to focus on and one of the film’s great strengths is that–through some really skillful editing (and given how long this project took, and how small its budget must have been, I mean really skillful–this thing flows)–the basics of the musical story manage to rest easily inside the family’s tortured narrative. Bob Cowsill is a genial presence, gently probing his relatives and other principals (like the band’s first producer, Artie Kornfeld, and Partridge mom, Shirley Jones, both genial presences themselves and a welcome relief from the often grim family drama), without becoming abrasive or judgmental.

The film benefits enormously, too, from the simple fact that the charisma of the first “first family of pop”–that is, the elements, beyond their considerable talent, that made them stars–still comes through: Bill’s ferocity, Barry’s sly wit, Susan’s spunk, even John’s essentially laid-back little-brotherness (to which I can relate). It’s not hard to see why they made it big–and it’s easy to lament what might have been even if they’ve understandably grown long-ago-and-far-away philosophical about the whole thing themselves.

I’m not sure there’s anything here that a victim of an abusive parent would call revelatory, but that’s part of the point. It’s a too-common family story told uncommonly well. If I have a quibble with the film, besides perhaps selling their historical significance a little short, it’s a relative paucity of music clips–I assume that was a rights issue, but the Cowsills were often superb on period television and I thought there were a few places where a well placed video could have added to the impact of the familial story as well as beef up the musical one.

There’s always YouTube, though (see below), and, in any case, this particular lack is more than made up for on DVD by the inclusion of a second disc of truly extraordinary “extras.” There’s a great musical tribute to Barry (who died in Hurricane Katrina, and which should be included in the links above), and several excellent full-length interviews that were edited for clips in the film.

Most of all, there’s a long clip with Barry and Richard–the son who was sent to Viet Nam instead of the Ed Sullivan Show–riding around in a darkened van, reminiscing, coping, fending off demons. At some point Richard takes over with a monologue about his experiences that beats every “Viet Nam” movie ever made as a primer on the enduring damage done to the national soul.

In the end, Palanker, Bill Filipiak and their team, plus the Cowsills themselves, made a fine film against what I take to be next-to-impossible odds.

The end product is rather like the Cowsills themselves.

Not perfect, just vital.

Oh, and about that musical thing (not from the film, but it could have been…and, if you’ve been here before, you know how I feel about singers):