Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith were some of the greatest musicians to ever play the blues. Director Scott Rosenbaum had an idea to bring them together for a documentary that would culminate with a big reunion show inspired by “The Last Waltz.”
When all three men died in 2011, Rosenbaum had to completely refocus his plan. The end result made its world première last night on the first evening of SXSW.
These musical geniuses played with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, pioneers of electric Chicago blues. Over the years, their riffs and beats would power some of the most iconic songs ever to be recorded.
Their work struggled to be recognized in the mainstream until the early 1960s when British teens, removed from the racial lines that divided the music in America, started to fall in love with American blues music. It ended up influencing an entire generation of artists from England like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton who helped to turn American teens on to these musicians who were right in their backyard.
Perkins, Sumlin and Smith all rose out of the Jim Crow South and ended up in Chicago, music already deep in their blood. Perkins ended up on piano and Smith behind the drums for Muddy Waters while Simon played guitar for Howlin’ Wolf. They were always in the background, but their impact on the music was undeniable. They helped to establish the cornerstone of rock and roll and this film lovingly tells their stories.
Thankfully, the filmmakers were able to get over two years worth of interviews under their belt before these titans of the blues passed away, meaning that we get to hear many stories in their own words. Comedian and podcaster Marc Maron narrates the story, providing a little extra context to the important history and legacy of these players. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Bonnie Raitt, Gregg Allman and Johnny Winter are among the artists who shared stages with these men over the years who are also interviewed and recount some of their favorite memories.
At the post-film Q&A, a local audience member asked why Clifford Antone’s story of supporting the blues in Austin didn’t make it into the film. It was argued that he was the one who convinced Pinetop Perkins to spend his final years living in town and to continue playing. Rosenbaum admitted that there were hundreds of hours of footage that had to be narrowed down and that, in shaping the final cut of the film, a lot was left out.
“Sidemen” is an important story of friendship, perseverance, and passion. In the end, it seems fitting to have focused on who these men were and tell the stories of how they all went from humble, if not difficult, beginnings to become the greatest blues musicians who ever lived even if their names weren’t on the marquee. These are stories of skill but, also to a degree, of chance. Had they not been in the right place at the right time, who knows how different their legacies might be.
Other screenings: 10:45a.m. Wednesday, Alamo South Lamar; 1:45 p.m. March 19, Topfer Theater.