Judge Gordon Sullivan keeps on ramblin'.
"He changed music forever…"
According to the 2010 census data, eight out of the ten most racially segregated cities in America aren't anywhere in what could be called the South, and none are in what's normally considered the "Deep South" of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, etc. The majority of these segregated cities are in the upper Midwest (think Detroit) or on the East Coast (New York City). I'm not saying that means the North is more racist than the South, but it does show how attitudes towards race change according to geography. Generally speaking, in the South we see a lack of segregation because of poverty; it's hard to be choosy about your neighbors when you have no place else to live. Though I haven't done an historical investigation, I would suspect that this trend is not new; though perhaps more racist, it seems likelier that blacks and whites have more day-to-day interaction in the South. This is borne out in the culture that comes out; rock 'n' roll, the most black-meets-white cultural phenomenon of the twentieth century, comes from Memphis. Even deeper south, you get Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where a bunch of white guys recorded a bunch of black soul musicians. The results included classic track by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Song of the South: Duane Allman & the Rise of the Allman Brothers Band shows how the band wended their way through this cultural mixture of black and white influences. Though it doesn't have band authorization, it'll appeal to fans of the The Allmans' early work.
Song of the South is a biographical documentary that takes about two hours to follow Duane and Greg Allman from their early years in Florida, through their cover band early days, out to California, and eventually to success recording in the FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The film ends with Duane's tragic early death in a motorcycle accident, with a small coda covering the similar death of bassist Berry Oakley. Along the way, we hear from former associates, friends, and musical collaborators combined with some archival interviews and footage and music from the band's early days.
Let's get the biggest problem with Song of the South out of the way: the title is taken literally. The Allman Brothers have been a going concern, off-and-on, for nearly five decades. Though this doc presents a decent overview of the literal Allman Brothers' early years, we only get the actual band's first two years before Duane's death presented here. The band continued to tour after Duane's death and have regrouped several times since then to tour with a combination of original and new members. None of that latter career is addressed at all.
The doc also doesn't quite live up to Song of the South, either. Yes, there is some discussion of the importance of the South to the music and culture surrounding the Allman Brothers, but a two-hour documentary could easily talk just about that influence without spending any time on the band's history. Those looking for a comprehensive discussion of Southern music—even those bands that grew out of the Allmans' popularity like Lynyrd Skynyrd—will be disappointed.
If it's not a definitive portrait of the Allman Brothers, nor a significant discussion of Southern music, what is Song of the South? Essentially, this is a biography of Duane Allman. Most of the focus is on him and his guitar prowess for the majority of the running time. The doc even devotes a significant section to Duane's participation in Eric Clapton's Derek and the Dominos record Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Just as the Allman Brothers were taking off, Duane left them hanging for a handful of shows so he could record with Clapton. It's a landmark recording in the history of rock guitar, but it doesn't say much about the Allman Brothers as a band. This might be the most extreme example, but the rest of the doc keeps this "bias" towards Duane throughout. That's not a huge problem—Duane is a hugely influential guitar player—but those looking for a more thorough overview of the band might balk at the singular focus.
In the doc's defense, it has a decent budget. This means we get actual licensed music from a variety of sources. There are moments when actual Allman Brothers tracks play, and we hear excerpts from Led Zeppelin, Wilson Pickett, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. This keeps the film from seeming like a fly-by-night cash-in attempt that only licenses the cheapest and crappiest clips from bargain-basement news stations. Attention to detail prevails throughout the film, from the musical selections to the interviews, making the whole thing feel polished and professional.
The DVD itself is pretty solid as well. The full-frame transfer looks decent, with sharp contemporary interviews and archival material of varying quality. Nothing to complain about, really. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is similarly strong; the interviews are loud and clear, perfectly mixed with the musical examples. Extras include a pair of deleted scenes that cover the relationship between the Allman Brothers and their recording at Criteria studios. A set of contributors' bios is helpfully included.
If you know what you're getting into—a documentary that's really about Duane Allman—then The Allman Brothers: Song of the South will satisfy. With plenty of stories, music, and insights, the doc will help fans return to the records with a new appreciation for Southern rock.
Not guilty. Keep on ramblin'.
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