Judge Joel Pearce says this documentary took a little piece of his heart. A reward is offered for its return.
How long does it take to start a fire? To counter a culture? To rise and fall?
Big Brother and the Holding Company were a major part of the San Fransisco music scene in the mid to late 1960s, but they have since been relegated to footnote status underneath Janis Joplin, remembered only as a second rate backup band that supported one of rock's greatest vocalists. This documentary sets out to tell the story of this lesser known band, charting their rise to fame and their collapse shortly afterwards.
The first half of Nine Hundred Nights does that quite well. It gives a little background on what was happening in the music scene at the time, shows several of the band's earlier performances and interviews with the four members of the band. They are all pleasant to listen to, and are honest about the good and bad aspects of this period of their lives. During this time, the band relied on Sam Andrew and James Gurley, two guitarists with very different backgrounds, to develop their rough but energetic sound.
Then, they went looking for a strong vocalist to front the band. They found Janis Joplin, and the rest of the band suddenly started to disappear from focus. They became one of the most popular bands in San Francisco with Janis singing lead, and reached the height of their fame with their invitation to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival. After reaching this level of stardom, they set down to cut some studio albums, which was a quick road downhill. In a period where technical proficiency was becoming much more important, they simply didn't have the talent and skill required for mainstream studio recording. They were not as terrible as some critics have suggested, but they were obviously struggling. Directly following their second album, Cheap Thrills, Janis decided to leave the band.
After that point, Big Brother and the Holding Company tried to carry on with other vocalists, but you won't find that out from this documentary. Just as this band has always been ignored, the documentary is cut short as soon as Janis departs from the band. Essentially, this film, which attempts to restore the rest of the band, treats it in exactly the same way that everyone else always has. The band continued playing with each other into the '90s, but that fact is completely glossed over, as though they disappeared as soon as their lead singer walked out the door. If this is, as the back cover claims, the untold story of this lesser band, they really ought to have finished it.
The transfer is about as good as can be expected considering the nature of the material. The video transfer is adequate, clearly limited by some extremely old interview and concert footage. Suffice to say, it's not a disc to purchase because the image quality. The audio transfer is about the same, with as much restoration done as possible to the very old concert scenes. Considering this overall quality, I have no idea why Eagle Vision thought it necessary to include a stereo track as well as two 5.1 tracks. The concert footage has had some reverb added in the surround channels, but most of the sound seems trapped in the center channel. This, I suppose, would be the best part of the review to mention Rip Torn, who narrates the film sounding exactly like one of his characters. It's very distracting.
Fortunately, Eagle Vision has included a few of extra features to pad the short running time of the feature. The most important of these are full performances of "Down on Me," "The Coo Coo," "Ball and Chain," and "Piece of My Heart." This is a good way to get directly to the songs, as well as a chance to see them without interruption by interviews. They do look and sound a bit rough, but they're here. Also included is an audio only cover of Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King," which showcases the band's eclectic influences.
The disc also houses about an hour and a half of interview footage that didn't make it into the film. It's an interesting section to explore, because the segments are listed by theme and you can go right to information you would like to learn more about.
Beyond that, all that's really included is the discography of the band, a timeline of the band that pretty much ends when the documentary did, and several photo galleries. The galleries do include a few interesting items, and it's nice to have them available.
It's hard to imagine that there will be a wide audience for Nine Hundred Nights. It doesn't have enough concert footage to make it worth buying for casual fans, and it's really quite short. The extra features help some with that, but it's still nothing that a rental wouldn't be able to accomplish. Serious fans of the band may want to add the disc to their collections. Unfortunately, I don't think this disc will do much to change the way that Big Brother and the Holding Company has been treated by music fans over the past decade, even though it had a chance to tell more of the story than had been before.
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