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Bringing Fame to an Obscure Industry Legend
on March 15, 2006
When Tom Dowd died in 2002, in his adopted state of Florida, he was neither rich nor famous. For the record, he died of emphysema, a week after his 77th birthday.
Although he was well-known in the recording industry, his obituary rated only 712 words in The New York Times, and not much more than that in Rolling Stone Magazine, although Rolling Stone published a picture, too.
Very few people outside the recording industry knew anything about what is shown in this documentary. However, Dowd's impact on the industry affected millions of fans of Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Tito Puente, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, and Phil Ramone. All of those artists appear in this documentary.
Dowd also recorded a host of others, from perky Eileen Barton's hit If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake, for National Records in 1950, to Charlie Mingus, to assisting Abba in 1979, to Meat Loaf [!!] in 1983, to the Bee Gees in 1990, to the Allman Brothers Band. The discography on the documentary's website, [...] is 99 screens long, in other words, huge.
In February 2002, Dowd received a Grammy for his services to the recording industry. Eric Clapton said that Dowd had encouraged him to realize "what my skills were."
Dowd built the first control console to use sliders (linear faders) instead of knobs. He popularized to eight-track recorder invented by Les Paul.
This documentary was supposed to fix the problem of Dowd's relative obscurity.
However, the director and editor, who had never directed or edited a feature-length documentary before, may not have been experienced enough to bring such a complex and wonderful story to the screen. The time and place seem to shift out from under the viewer, as the film moves from archive footage, to re-creations, to contemporary interviews. Despite his seven years dedication to the project, Mark Moorman has put together a pleasant 90 minutes that do not, unfortunately, do justice to the subject.
An article in the Miami Herald, published just before this documentary was due to be shown at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival said the film "was supposed to be finished last week and at festival headquarters in Park City, Utah. But Moormann [sic] is still scrambling to complete the final mixing, putting in 16-hour days at Cineworks, a Miami production facility."
"That's part of making movies," he says of the last-minute rush. "We've got to have it done by Wednesday."
Moorman had worked hard on the film for seven years. He had paid for a lot of it himself, shuttling back and forth between the film and his regular gig as a cinematographer. The State of Florida gave him a puny $5,000 grant, and that was it.
Early in the process, Dowd handed Moorman a manuscript. It was Dowd's autobiography. In an interview with hybridmagazine.com, shortly after the documentary was shown at South by Southwest, Moorman said, "I was just amazed that one person could have been a participant in the making of so much history."
Maybe Moorman bit off more than he could chew. He told the interviewer for hybridmagazine.com, "I'd go on the Internet or go to the library and get books and I'd find out who Ahmet Ertegun was, and where he came from. And I did a lot of research on each individual person before I went to interview them."
Asked by Roxanne Bogucka of hybridmagazine.com about the use of re-creations, a dubious documentary technique which fell out of favor after it was used in the "March of Time" documentaries during World War II, Moorman explained, "That was about keeping the audience involved, you know. I mean the content could potentially be rather dry in nature - technical stuff like, you know, knobs and two-track, four-track."
"I mean it all seemed to be a little bit boring. It could potentially be boring, so I was like, well, 'let's spice this up and let's get these guys in town,' these jazz guys, and I used their music. It sounded like it could have been 1940s, but it was modern and cool. So I got the guys who did it and brought them in the studio, we shot it black-and-white, and had an art director come in and make the studio kind of look like 1948. And it was just about keeping the audience interested."
One key to what is missing in this documentary comes up in the hybridmagazine.com interview. Asked about Dowd's directorial genius, Moorman replies, "I didn't really have conversations with him about directing, but it is certainly something that has been brought up before, in that directors actually could get a really, in terms of what they could watch this film and really get some good feedback on how to direct, because Tom wasn't so much forcing his style on other people, he was getting the most out of the musicians and the artists he was working with."
Those conversations never had, might have been quite an addition to the film.
Everyone who worked on this documentary had the very best of intentions. Dowd's wonderful disposition -- he is always smiling -- comes through. It is a Valentine of a film to Dowd, for Dowd, about Dowd.
It is not a bad documentary. It is well worth watching. The music is GREAT! Just be prepared, after it's over, to want more, a lot more.