Sam Moore seems like a happy guy, or at least someone who’s come through hard times with his enthusiasm for life intact. In 1965, as part of the soul duo Sam and Dave, he signed with Atlantic records and had a series of hits penned by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, including “Hold On! I’m A Comin’,” “I Thank You” and the act’s signature song and greatest crossover success, “Soul Man.”
By the early ’70s, Moore’s career was on the skids and he was into drugs and selling heroin and crack. Now we see him in 1999, performing on the soul revival circuit (such as it is), clean, sober and still in good voice, and talking about making that one more record that will blow people away. So what happened? What’s the story here?
Unfortunately, Only the Strong Survive isn’t the kind of movie that’s going to fill in any gaps or give you any kind of broader context for the glimpses of personal story it offers. The prevailing mood of this documentary, assembled by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, is celebratory and it isn’t about to let in too much downer material to spoil the fun. It’s a fannish approach and doesn’t dig very deep, and you’re left to mull over the little bits of info that slip past the film’s agenda — like the scene in the back of a car with Moore and his wife where she explains that she saved her husband from his evil ways by using a combination of tough love and taking control of his career, while Moore’s charismatic smile temporarily disappears and he gazes into space and yawns.
The movie’s instigator and narrator is one Roger Friedman, who early on declares his love for the old soul singers of the ’50s and ’60s, particularly those associated with the Memphis-Stax sound, and who asks the film’s keynote question, “Where are they now?” Which is pretty much what we find out — without finding out why they’re where they are, why Stax has never had the continuously exploitable popularity that Motown has achieved (short answer: they never had people like Holland-Dozier-Holland writing pop songs for them) and what were the factors that contributed to Memphis soul’s crossover success in the ’60s (the period of less-regimented radio)? And why did those factors fade away (something to do with money first, and then race)?
Still, it’s an enjoyable film in its modest way, despite the fact that it’s a far cry from Pennebaker’s best work. What puts it across are the singers who continue to beam even as the limelight has shifted away from them. Many of their performances are in snippet form, but you get enough to tell that their singular talents are still intact (with the exception of Wilson Pickett — the wicked rasp that used to ride under his voice now rides on top). The eternally cool Jerry Butler, now a Chicago politician, still has the smooth baritone that served him well when he was pursuing a more honorable profession. Carla Thomas, grown matronly, still has that jail bait allure in her singing that made her a teen star. And though Isaac Hayes, one of the main auteurs of the Memphis soul sound, doesn’t get much mic time, he emerges as a surprisingly shy and much-loved figure.
Throw in the Chi-Lites for slickness, Rufus Thomas for comic relief, Mary Wilson for diva power and Ann Peebles for much-deserved exposure and you have a well-rounded revue, though one with a lot of interruptions, unexamined assertions and gushing commentary. Which earns it a star rating like so: Two stars for the filmmakers, five stars for the survivors.
Showing exclusively at the Uptown Birmingham 8 (Old Woodward, S. of Maple). Call 248-644-3456.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.