SXSW Interview: Director Scott Rosenbaum and Producer Jasin Cadic talk about Blues documentary Sidemen: A Long Road to Glory

Many independent music documentaries seek to uncover some of the most important moments or threads in music history, making them essential for just about anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the legacy, the complexities, the behind-the-scenes struggles, and the beauty of music, both as a vessel of expression and as a lifelong passion for artists around the world; Sidemen: Long Road to Glory is such a movie, and you can tell just from the way Director Scott Rosenbaum and Producer Jasin Cadic talk about the film in this interview, which The Iris recently conducted at the current film component of SXSW 2016.

The film is very much about the touchstones and groundwork of many of the “sidemen” of Blues. Artists like piano player Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and guitarist Hubert Sumlin – all Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf sidemen – are the subjects of the documentary, presenting an in-depth look behind the curtain of historical moments in Blues history with live performances and interviews with these artists who were ready, willing and able to help finish this documentary before their deaths in 2011.

Below is a transcription from Scott and Jasin as they talk to The Iris’ Larry Heath about making the film, the passion that went into the project, the origins of it, and more.

Congratulations on this beautiful film, telling the story of this three incredible musicians and not just their legacy but the broader legacy of that era, of blues music. The process goes back quite awhile in term of when this project started, can you tell me a little bit about the origins of where Sideman began?

Scott: Sure, Jasin and I made a film and had written a scene that revolved around the Juke Joint and just growing up loving and discovering the roots of American roots music that influenced all the rock and roll that we loved. Sort of a lifelong discovery for so many people when it comes to blues, and Chicago blues, delta blues, going back to the beginning to WC Handy. And almost as a goof we had written these Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf sidemen into the film not knowing that they will actually appear. We thought perhaps we had to cast the actors to play the band and the juke joint. Gratefully when we went to cast the film they were all incredible and willing and showed up. We spent the day with them on set talking about all these great old, first-hand stories of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf…it was just mind blowing.

I had always loved the Last Waltz growing up and that for me was my first exposure to the Blues, seeing Muddy Waters playing what I had thought at that time was a Rolling Stone song in “Mannish Boy”… and just to kind of come full circle and meet these guys, it was like you know what “let’s do a Last Waltz style concert film that features these last original blues guys and have all the rockers that ultimately covered their music, come out and pay tribute, similar to the Last Waltz”.

Two and a half years into the process, as you know from the film, they all passed away. We knew that Pinetop [Perkins] was 95 and wasn’t going to live forever so it was clear that was one of the motivations in getting this quickly. But of course I had no idea that that would unfold, but we managed a few of those concert pairings as you see in the film like Robbie Krieger playing “Back Door Man” in Little Red Rooster with Hubert Sumlin] is essentially the touchstone for what we had originally set out to do. It pays homage to these Sidemen who were the guys that played the licks on these great rock songs that we loved.

Really after they died it was a challenge. Aside from the emotional toll it took with being on the road for three years with these guys, we had fallen in love with them, and to lose them so quickly…it took a little while to regroup and then figure out what we want to do. And when Jasin and I started to assemble the narrative and really go out and get the interviews that really filled in the holes and told the story, then it became a much broader story as you point out.

That’s right, and one that seems to suggest that McDonalds and chainsmoking lead to a longer life, if I had learned anything from the film, it’s that that is the secret.

Scott: [Laughs] We actually reached out to McDonalds, thinking that it would be good PR for them to sponsor the film but they…

Jasin: Or you could have lived to 140 if you didn’t eat McDonalds and smoke.. but we will never know.

You interviewed as well the late Johnny Winter…it must be humbling to have gotten to experience life with some of these incredible legendary musicians in their final years.

Scott: Yes, tremendously humbling for us to be part of this film in any way. Yeah we made the film but it just feels like there was something larger at work. We are just fortunate to be at the right place the right time to have the awareness and appreciation for who these guys were and had the camera turned on.

Jasin: film or no film, some of these guys – Johnny and the main players that we capture – it’s some of their last moments like artistically; even playing, speaking…across everything. That in itself is amazing, to be part of that.

There is so much that comes out of the film, in terms of the concept of the Sidemen and that these were the men with the real blues because they were paid 50 cents for the day as Pinetop said.

Scott: And the work he was doing I mean, we were filming down in Clarksdale where he [Pinetop] was talking about. I mean it’s 110 degrees, they are out in the sun. It was incomprehensible to imagine the experience that these guys had to live through. 50 cents a day plus the brutality of it all.

What do you hope this film does for the legacy of these artists? For some they are household names, but for most they were not.

Scott: They had either said it directly to us or had intimated… I think on some level even though Willie [Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith] and Hubert seemed like they were in fine shape – even though Hubert had some health issues – they sensed their mortality.

Well they said it in the film that they don’t know if they will still be here next year.

Scott: There were several moments where they intimated that this film is important to them because they want , and Willie says it, to pass it on to the next generation. They really wanted their music to transcend their lives. So it was a pretty tall order for us to take on, and then of course having them passed, we hope that…

Jasin: I think they earned the monument. I think they put the time in, and I think people should know. It is not money thing or fame thing, I think it’s earned. Especially when it comes to someone like Hubert who is not in the hall of Fame, I think and feel he should really be there. For Pine and Willie who had played for 40 to 50 years plus, I think they were part of some great moments in rock history, and I think as these people pass and in the next few years, they are all going to be gone, I think they have earned the right not to be forgotten.

It is in the title isn’t it? You speak to people like Eric Clapton and about how someone like Hubert meant to him and inspired him. Did you find that pretty much across the board with everyone you spoke to? That it was like “These guys, they were my heroes”.

Scott: We figured that out or saw that very early on, interviewing guys that were our musical heroes. But then we were told that this would be refreshing for them to be not talking about themselves. And we saw the genuine love and respect and humility that these great rockstars had, for these men, it was just fantastic to witness and I hope it comes through in the film, you see the heartfelt responses that these people get about these guys.

Warren Haynes started out as a sidemen himself so he probably feels more connection than most. Eric Clapton as well in the beginning…the white kids sitting up the back. I really enjoyed how you brought it full circle for the modern audience. We are talking about there would be no rock and roll without this music. This is the origin story of music. How important was it for you to be able to articulate that, knowing the sort of audience you are going to have in 2016?

Scott: Tremendous, because for me growing up and seeing the Last Waltz, that was my introduction to it. When we discussed the narrative, it was very important that we served two masters. We served the hardcore blues fan as well as the wider audience that doesn’t know anything about the blues. We are very fortunate and happy that some of the early responses of some people who would never turn on a blues record said “I really want to listen to this music after watching the film.”

Jasin: And If they do know about the blues, they know about what we said, they know about Wolf and Muddy, and they would want to go a step deeper, and [find out that] these guys were there too. They connect Wolf and Muddy to …Zepplin and Rolling Stones, like most people do, but then you go another step down.

Scott: We tried to avoid going off to too much into musical nerdism but we wanted to. It was very hard for us with the outtakes and we spent a year in the editing room with our great Editor Beau Mirad (sp?), the three of us just had to chip away, chip away and chip away to get this thing down to 75 minutes, where we didn’t any dead spots, because we want to non-blues fans to be able to enjoy and not just have their eyes on the back of their head.

Jasin: I think that is the key for docs in general now, not to get into nerdisms and as you start to fade out, the person you are trying to reach doesn’t know about the topic will just zone out and turn off. So the first thing is, yeah you want to get the message across, but also keep in mind about the narrative and make a film that people want to watch.

You got to see the film yesterday with an audience in Austin, one of the music cities of the world, what was the experience like?

Scott: We were stressed out! Its definitely another tall order to show this film in Pinetop’s hometown where he lived and died, knowing not only will the audience be hardcore blues fans who saw him playing night after night down the street for years…but also knowing that we had invited their managers, their family members, the guys who played in Muddy’s band, it was a pretty critical audience to show for the first time and I’m thrilled to say that the feedback was just fantastic. We nailed it, got everything right, and we worried about that for years leading up to the edit and throughout the edit and right until last night.

I don’t envy that task at all. From what you are saying you are going back to 2007 and 2008 with it.

Scott: Yeah 2008, started shooting in 2009, really 7 years of work on this film. It was hard, it was some really hard years and you know it got to the point where between us it was almost a joke. But we were working on another screenplay and I was so burned out on the whole thing and I couldn’t get it to the finish line and Jasin just turned to me and the box was sitting behind us as we writing and he said “we need to finish this film, if you don’t finish it, you will never live with yourself for the rest of your life”. And that kind of picked me off the canvas, and we gave one last swing at it, at the last year and a half, and here we are. But all while thinking, “who am I to complain, when you think about the very subjects we are making this movie about and what they endured”, so that was motivation enough.

Think you’ve got a blues song in you now. Where do you go from here? What is next for the film?

Scott: Well this is our first outing so obviously, like every filmmaker, we have high hopes for where it goes. We would love a great distribution arrangement with someone who feels passionate about the film as we do, and as you were pointing out, we have tremendous material of full concerts, countless of hours interviews that we had to choose very carefully to tell our story, so there is alot that could come from it.

I was fortunate to meet the great Editor Lisa Day when I was in L.A doing the post on this a few weeks ago. She had edited the Talking Heads “Stop Making Sense“, and Rolling Stones “Lets Spend the Night Together”, for example. She was telling me that they just did a 20th anniversary and they did a four discs set, and she said “you guys need to do that.” We’re down for that.

The future of Blues music. It was commented on quite a few times in the film. Where do you see the future of Blues?

Jasin: I think it has seen a resurgence, with people like Black Keys and Jack White.. I think it is transforming, and they’re taking bits of it…I think throughout time it keeps changing, but there is always the root of it, and that is also the through line to this film, it’s like it doesn’t sound the same as it did in the 30s, the 60s, the 90s, or today. So I think it will keep morphing and changing and things like this film will help that happen, and keep it fresh in the minds of people.

Scott: We were keen to put the kids in there at the very end of the film for that very reason, to illustrate the fact that it just keeps on moving and growing and it keeps on inspiring new generations of music. Willie said it at the very end that “if it is up to me and you then things wouldn’t change, but it has got to progress”… Anything that stops evolving is destined to die and it doesn’t seem like that is the fate for the Blues. It is just too elemental to all music and something like this hopefully brings the blues itself to more people’s awareness but the root of the music is in all music popular in any form.

Jasin: I think that you hope that in arts in general.. like a new teenager finding the Black Keys for the first time or Jack White, they love them, but then they go back a little bit. It depends on how far somebody wants to go back, but the key is to have that material there so people can go back and know. If the stories are lost or the info is lost or not current, then that whole through line might get lost in today’s generation.

If you could go back seven years and give yourself one piece of advice going into this film, what would it be?

Scott: It is the same for when we do anything, for when we do a screenplay or a feature. An analogy I like and find apt is that it is like climbing a mountain, if you knew how hard it was going to be you would never start doing it in the first place. I wouldn’t want to know anything about it.. but we are going to do it again. It is like the moth to a flame, it is what we love and are passionate about, and we will figure out another film and start climbing that mountain again.

Jasin: “Don’t stop, it is a long road.”

Sidemen: Long Road To Glory Trailer from RED HAWK FILMS on Vimeo.

Sideman – Long Road to Glory had its World Premiere at SXSW. There is another SXSW screening on Saturday 19th March. More information can be found HERE.

Transcription by Vanessa Wu. Introduction by Chris Singh. Interview by Larry Heath.


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