As an originator of the "Tulsa Sound," J.J. Cale is a true musical pioneer. As the subject of this sensational documentary about his most recent tour, Judge Bill Gibron says he's an icon to individuality and an engaging cinematic subject.
After midnight, we're gonna let it all hang out.
J.J. Cale is like aged sipping whisky. His style is both hardened and laid back. When he plays guitar, he remains seated onstage, his wiry body balanced on a barstool as he lightly strums the strings. When he sings, his voice is filled with years on the fringe of popular culture, tinged with the taste of fame, fortune, and fellowship. If it wasn't for Eric Clapton's "Slowhand" salute to this gifted troubadour, recording classic versions of Cale's songs "After Midnight" and "Cocaine," this blues boogie icon would perhaps be nothing more than a bar band footnote in the world of music, but thanks to his eternal optimism, self-styled approach to the business, and his unswerving dedication to his particular sonic technique, Cale has cemented his status as a certified cult celebrity. Over the course of four decades, 12-plus albums, and hundreds of gigs, he has gone from journeyman to mentor, a performer devoted to his audience, his family, and the imprint he's left on the face of rock 'n' roll. It's no wonder then that German director Jörg Bundschun, known for his 2001 documentary on the legendary John Lee Hooker, decided to follow Cale as he crisscrossed the American Southwest. On tour supporting his 2005 LP To Tulsa and Back, it was the first time in 35 years that the typically reclusive artist let cameras in to see his many sides, both personal and professional. The result was something more than a look at the talent and times of an aging musician. Bundschun managed to uncover the unseen soul of the United States, a vista filled with good times, good folks, and good graces.
At its core, To Tulsa and Back is a basic retrospective. Since Cale was touring many of the places from his past, Bundschun's film has an inherent narrative. Beginning in Oklahoma, we see where Cale was born and hear how he played local clubs and halls, gaining skill and developing his sound. In the late '50s, he picked up lifetime friends and career-long sideman. Still around in 2005, bassist Bill Raffensperger and keyboardist Rocky Frisco (drummer Jim Karstein would join up a little later) show the deep dedication Cale has to his style. More concerned with the feel than with the sound (though his love of technology behooves a keenness to auditory aesthetics), his band dynamic has altered very little in the last forty years. As we move on in time, we are introduced to individuals important to Cale's career. Audie Ashworth is cited as a collaborator and antagonist. As Cale's longtime producer Audie provoked the best—and occasionally, the worst—out of the usually passive performer (sadly, Ashworth died in 2001). Then in Dallas, there is Clapton, looking fit and effusive as he recalls hearing Cale's songs for the first time and the decision to record "After Midnight." As the gigs continue, from Texas to Colorado and all points around the Rocky Mountain region, we hear about Cale's rising success, his decision to avoid obvious attempts at courting the mainstream (he refused to do American Bandstand because he didn't want to lip sync) and the ultimate decline of his fortunes (Clapton's "Cocaine" as a second helping from his catalog aside). Determined to live and record the way he wanted to, Cale moved all across the Southwest, occasionally living the simple life in a trailer.
None of this diminished his desire to make music. In fact, it inspired him to take charge of his career arc. Instead of trying to play by the rules of the hit-oriented music machine, Cale slowed things down, learned the techniques of studio production (engineering, board operating, etc.), and set about making his own recordings. Releasing them on his own schedule and touring when he felt like, Cale's calculated decision paid off. It won him the admiration of music purists and established his credentials as an honest, authentic singer and songwriter. As he moves from venue to venue, you can see the adoration in the faces of the fans he meets. People are won over by his easygoing characteristics and lack of pretense. If anything, Cale seems almost too familiar. He never plays "the star," never looking for recognition or respect that isn't earned sincerely and truthfully. Part of the joy in Bundschun's film is that he lets the camera play observer, never trying to twist events to fit a preconceived agenda or scheme. This is why To Tulsa and Back transcends its Behind the Music facets to become a telling travelogue of a man and his country. Frankly, the vast horizons of the United States have never been captured in a more beautiful, inspiring manner. Bundschun's compositions look like fine art prints, the lush greenness of valleys running up and melding with the proverbial purple mountains majesty of the Rockies to create unbelievably moving images. As long asphalt ribbons cut through the terrain, we can see the symbolism to Cale's career. This musician continues to travel a singular path into an overwhelming topography of hype and hysteria. Happily, it's a journey that's resulted in something timeless, not temporary.
Loaded with over an hour of added content, including full-concert performances, acoustic jams, and extended interviews, Time Life's technical treatment of this DVD title is a delight. The 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen image, captured in high definition, is astounding. The landscapes are verdant and inspirational, the faces of everyone onscreen filled with character and personality. On the sound side, things are equally impressive. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix offers both music and dialogue in sharp, crystal clarity. There are a couple of occasions where stock elements let us down (at one point, Cale is joined onstage by a harmonica and mandolin player, and we can barely hear either performance) but, for the most part, the aural elements here are superb. Rounding out the presentation are examples of unreleased Cale tracks, the aforementioned performances and the expanded Q&A material. Viewable all at once or in separate sections, this supplemental material really helps to flesh out what is already an amazing documentary experience.
That J. J. Cale is not better known is no big surprise. His music sits right on the cusp between roots and rock, and he never tries to alter his approach to win over the MTV-raised demographic. Instead he wants to be appreciated for what he has to offer, not how he looks on television. To Tulsa and Back is proof that his cautious, calculated conceits work best for him. They have provided recognition, respect, and remuneration for nearly 50 years. Most artists would sacrifice everything for such longevity. Surprisingly enough, Cale didn't have to give up very much at all.
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