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Only the Strong Survive

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/10/05 13:21:31

"Great music, fun stories, and the Chi-Lites!!"
3 stars (Just Average)

“Memphis has two kings, Elvis Presley and Rufus Thomas,” we’re told at the beginning of “Only the Strong Survive.” “But Rufus was first.” Thomas, a legend in the Memphis music scene and a key player in the soul music boom of the 1960s, passed away in 2001, but before he went, he appeared in this documentary that chronicles the modern lives of a handful of history’s best soul performers.

I’m reminded, of course, of “Standing In the Shadows of Motown,” which gave us the history of the Funk Brothers intercut with footage of the band playing Motown classics with a few modern stars. “Only the Strong Survive” uses the same formula, but it’s not the same movie; this film offers less history and more present day goodies. We get a brief rundown of the backstory of, say, Stax Records, and then it’s off to information on what Sam Moore, Mary Wilson, Jerry Butler, and others are doing these days. (That Butler and Wilson were not from the Memphis scene might confuse the theme, but it does not matter, since their tales are still worth hearing.)

I would have prefered deeper insights. Watching Moore sheepishly discuss legal matters with his wife, a crusader for performers’ rights, informed me that there was more to each story than what we got here. Moore looks downright uncomfortable every time his wife starts another tirade on the issue - why not dig deep and find out why? Is he, as it seems, just a little shy regarding the topic, or is there more to it?

And what of Wilson, shown here singing old Supremes tunes? The film mentions the ancient legal battle regarding Wilson’s desire to use the name “Supremes” in the promotion of her solo career, but we only get a few sentences, not much more. We also get a hint of an oversized ego at work here, but the filmmakers refuse to entertain such thoughts.

And yet I didn’t mind so much that the movie is all too reverential of its subjects, since it does give us the chance to get close to some musical giants. Moore has some touching moments, including an interview in which he confesses living in poverty and running drugs not too long after the breakup of Sam and Dave. On the lighter side, interviews with Wilson Pickett and Carla Thomas come off as casual conversations to which we’ve been graciously invited, and hearing them reminisce about the good ol’ days is a delight. And who can suppress a smile upon learning that Jerry “Iceman” Butler is now a county commissioner, or that the Chi-Lites are still together with their original line up for all these decades, when so many others had broken up or changed rosters?

As with “Motown,” which also went a little light on its storytelling, the best part of “Only the Strong Survive” comes from its concert footage. We’re shown a hefty amount of sweet performances from all involved, taken mostly from those great oldies showcase tours that travel the country. (Watch and marvel at how much fun the Chi-Lites, no so much older, have with yet another performance of “Have You Seen Her,” and how much they seem to enjoy getting the audience to cheer at all the high notes.) The film ends with a string of tunes, classics all, and while there’s nothing special to the direction (the whole thing’s shot on digital video), the performances alone are pure gold. You’ll leave the film with all the right songs stuck in your head. As a concert film, this one’s a blast.

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