Judge Neal Solon ponders this documentary about a man who went from making atomic bombs to producing hit music.
"You've gotta always remember the name of the game is 'What does it sound like?'…I don't care if you got 90 tracks…what does it sound like, baby?"—Ray Charles
What do Cream and Derek and the Dominoes have in common? The most obvious answer is Eric Clapton, but there's a less obvious tie. He's the man who allows you to move from Cream to Tito Puente or Ray Charles or Ornette Coleman in one step. The answer is a soft-spoken, blue-eyed physicist named Tom Dowd. By the time Tom Dowd was 25, he had manned the controls for artists ranging from Lester Young to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and he remained in the business until his death in 2002. Still, few outside of the music business know his name. This is his story.
Facts of the Case
Thomas John Dowd Jr. was born October 20, 1925 in Manhattan. Eighteen years later, the gifted young student enrolled in the physics program at Columbia University. This program was to become a recruiting ground for a secret government pursuit that came to be known as the Manhattan Project. Dowd served his time with the Manhattan Project, unknowingly helping to develop the atomic bomb.
The physics used to develop the atomic bomb were well beyond anything being taught in any school at the time, and when World War II was over, Tom Dowd had a choice: he could return to college and ignore his knowledge that much of the physics he was "learning" were outdated, or he could pursue something else in life. This is how Tom Dowd ended up producing music, and it is one of the reasons that so many of the classic records on constant rotation in CD players everywhere sound the way that they do.
Dowd got his start producing records at the age of 22. He walked into the studio a kid with hands large enough to simultaneously reach the six knobs that controlled all the levels for recording and to operate them on the fly. In no time, little Tommy Dowd was respected as a technician, recording for Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Dowd's reputation, along with his catalog, would only continue to grow. His reputation was not just as a technician in the studio—it was also as a musician, an artist, and humble and caring person who could get what he wanted out of a musician without ever making the artist feel like this "technician" was trying to change his or her creation.
Dowd made his marks on the musicians with whom he worked as much or more than he made "his mark" on their recordings. There is no Tom Dowd sound. For Dowd, music was not about making the records sound the way he wanted them to; it was about getting the best out of those artists with whom he worked and preserving that performance for the rest of the world as best he could. For this, he is respected and remembered. Tom Dowd & the Language of Music is Dowd's story presented as a collection of these memories—Dowd's and those of the musicians with whom he worked.
Recent films like Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Buena Vista Social Club have spoiled film goers with regard to "music movies." They set the bar high and create certain expectations for those sitting down to a movie about another unknown hero of music. But even evaluated on its own, Tom Dowd & the Language of Music is missing something.
The film presents an intriguing story about the development of the producer that Eric Clapton, once a young kid who thought that no one in a recording booth could have anything worthwhile to say about his music, came to call a "legend." It examines Tom Dowd's history both as a producer and as a person. What, then, is missing?
Tom Dowd & the Language of Music is short on music. For a film that is about a man whose whole life after the age of 22 was music, the music to which he devoted his life is strangely absent. Twenty minutes of the film are spent discussing Dowd's time in the Manhattan Project. More time is spent discussing this portion of Dowd's life and his hand in the popularization of multi-track recording technologies than on discussing or presenting music itself.
The absence of music would not be so apparent, were it not for five minutes late in the film. As the film comes to a close, Tom Dowd & the Language of Music gives one a glimpse of what it could have been. Dowd sits alone behind a mixer, playing back a recording of Clapton's Layla.
Dowd isolates Clapton and Duane Allman's guitar parts on the recording. We hear the harmonics from Allman's slide guitar and the way they snake around Allman and Clapton's duet. We see the passion and the child-like excitement in the eyes of the aging Dowd, who is rediscovering a classic that he had a hand in forming. The result is spine tingling.
This film has a lot going for it. It has an interesting story, an amenable main character and stars—lots of stars. It undeniably has its moments. Some of these moments give one an idea of just how great the rest of the film could be.
What is not lacking is this film's presentation on disc. The video and audio are good as one would hope for a title of this nature. Interviews are interspersed with photographs and scenes of Tom Dowd's old stomping grounds, and all are presented clearly and effectively. This film is not one that is meant to impress with its visual flair, but it is still presented in a clean transfer that is effectively free of distracting visual defects. Inexplicably, however, the film is presented in a non-anamorphic transfer.
The audio is decidedly more important. It is clean, clear, and effective. What music is present in the film comes across with appropriate depth and nuance—most apparent in the Layla scene described above. The interviewees' comments are discernable throughout. Surrounds are used primarily for music and the like.
Extras include three deleted scenes—about Thomas Edison and early recording, musings on the meaning or the word and title of "producer," and the history of the Dowd family. The clips are all interesting, though it is easy to see why they were left out of the film. An extra titled Making of Studio Shoot is a brief look at how first-time director Mark Moormann and his crew created "vintage" clips—faux glimpses into a recording studio from the start of Dowd's career. Also included is a wealth of unused interview clips.
The extra interview clips include ten from Tom Dowd, five from Greg Allman, four from Dickey Betts, three from Joe Bonamassa, five from Ray Charles, four from Eric Clapton, three with Ahmet Ertegun, four from Jaimoe, four from Lynyrd Skynyrd, three from Arif Mardin, six from Les Paul, four from Phil Ramone, three from Al Schmitt, two from Mike Stoller, three from Butch Trucks, and four from Jerry Wexler. The clips range in length from mere seconds to minutes. The most interesting of the clips are anecdotal—stories that these musicians and remember from their days in the studio with Dowd. Butch Trucks from the Allman Brothers Band tells one notable story about Dowd literally cutting a song into pieces and putting it back together to get the version that would ultimately be released.
Lastly, there is a "video" photo gallery; there are trailers for other Palm Pictures releases Nói and Millennium Mambo, and three weblinks. The extras are not exhaustive, by any means, but most of the stuff included proved to be worthy supplements to the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When evaluating a film such as this documentary, it is often hard not to evaluate it based on what it does not have rather than it does. In cases such as this, looking at what is missing rather than evaluating what is presented has painted a picture of this film that is overly harsh. Tom Dowd & the Language of Music has a lot to offer potential viewers in spite of its shortcomings.
This film is, by its nature, a film biography. It strives to tell the story of Tom Dowd, record producer. While focusing on that causes some omissions, fans of music still gain a vital and intriguing part of the story of Atlantic records and many classic recordings by watching this movie. The film does entertain. It does capture the attention. It does tell a story that is worth telling. It is certainly worth watching.
Tom Dowd & the Language of Music has glimpses of greatness that make its omissions all the more obvious; that does not mean that what is here isn't worth seeing. It is—especially for those with interest in rock and roll history or any of the artists with whom Dowd worked. That said, don't approach this film hoping for a musical experience; disappointment will ensue, broken only briefly for the few moments that Dowd sits behind the mixer learning Layla all over again.
Director Mark Moormann and his crew are free to go. The court will be watching his future pursuits with interest. Palm Pictures is given a conditional release based on the strength of the presentation, but warned that non-anamorphic transfers are not considered appropriate for submission to the court. Tom Dowd—may you rest in peace; and may you be remembered by music lovers and musicians for years to come.
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