Billy Joel says he remembers three things about 1969.
“Led Zeppelin’s first album. Woodstock. And Joe Cocker.”
And why did he fight the traffic, the crowds, the mud and an endless succession of earlier acts to go to Woodstock?
Netflix’s new documentary about the British blues singer doesn’t dive deep into the psyche of a man who is mostly remembered for his much-mocked stage antics. But John Edginton’s film, with interviews from childhood friends, longtime bandmates, producers, engineers, admiring peers and backup singers, does create a marvelous tribute to a singer who, like James Brown, left it all onstage every night– hundreds of stages, thousands and thousands of nights.
He was “consumed” by the music, totally giving himself over to the songs, songwriters Jimmy Webb and Randy Newman testify. He was “in a trance” during every show, his longtime tour manager Ray Neopolitano adds, and backup singer Rita Coolidge backs him up.
And he was so into every note of every song “that he was playing ‘air guitar’ before there was such a thing as air guitar,” offers veteran Rolling Stone writer Ben Fong Torres.
The film’s best tour guide through the Cocker epoch is hometown friend and long time bandmate Chris Stainton, who remembers the origins — he composed Cocker’s first English hit, “Marjorine,” which Joe wrote the lyrics to.
Stainton was there for the rise, the break out in America, and the drug-induced fall. And he was on that epic “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour, scores of cities, scores of shows, post-Woodstock, when Cocker turned over assembling his band to the great Leon Russell, who proceeded to create an event (filmed for a concert doc) that was so stuffed with musicians that every hit of that Cocker era — “The Letter,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Feelin’ Alright” — earned a definitive “Wall of Sound” treatment every night.
As Coolidge, later a star solo singer, and A & M Records boss Jerry Moss note, “nobody made any money on that.” But damn, what a sound.
Cocker is heard on old taped interviews, many with Fong Torres, and comes off the way those closest to him describe him — gentle, easy-going. The deranged stage presence, which could make him intimidating, even scary? Just the facade of a man losing himself in every song, not fretting over his attire, his hair or the alarming glint in his bugged-out eyes.
If the film itself is just a surface gloss, that’s because we don’t get a sense of what drove him into drugs and liquor. Coolidge suggests the crazy pressure his management put him under (threats, she says). But others think he was a guy who could give up his vices, but once he took that first drink/pill/etc., he wouldn’t stop until he was incoherent.
A forgotten hero in this tale — remember, Cocker staged an epic comeback in the 70s, recorded a Oscar-winning hit song and played to packed venues to the end of his life — is Michael Lang. The always-grinning, always upbeat co-creator of Woodstock took over Cocker’s management, started him on the road to manageable sobriety and remade him as a star, only to be discarded as Cocker’s star reached its apex.
“Mad Dog With Soul” is most to be treasured for its music, from that first hit to “You Are So Beautiful” to the last (“When the Night Comes,” a memorable song from a forgettable Tom Selleck prison picture), all given life-and-death urgency by Cocker. The live performances and the plaudits of his peers deliver a whole new appreciation for his genius.
Songwriter Randy Newman, whose “Guilty” and “You Can Leave Your Hat On” Cocker burned into a generation’s brain, deserves the last word, and gets it.
“Wait. He’s NOT in the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame?”
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult themes
Cast: Joe Cocker, Billy Joel, Rita Coolidge, Pam Cocker, Vic Cocker, Randy Newman, Chris Stainton, Ben Fong Torres, Jimmy Webb
Credits: Written and directed by John Edginton. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:30