I have an affection and weakness for music documentaries, especially films about musicians or musical movements that I know little about. In a way, the film’s job becomes to convince me that the subject matter is worth exploring further, after the movie is done. And not since Martin Scorsese’s PBS series on the blues has a film tempted me to explore the musical style as much as Sidemen: Long Road to Glory did. I was especially curious about this film because, much like the blues itself, it has roots deep in Chicago, specifically the songs of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, both of whom were Chess Records artists and brought the stylings of the Deep South to the Windy City.
As the titles clues us in, this film isn’t about those two seminal artists. It’s about three men in particular who playing alongside or behind them—pianist Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and guitar legend Hubert Sumlin—and formulated their sound to such a degree that they became so associated with these two frontmen it was difficult for them to get work when their bosses died. The life of a sideman is tough when your band leader is gone, and many of them struggled with drug addiction, homelessness and other health issues for many years.
I was especially impressed with the sheer volume of archival footage, and thankfully the camera operators occasionally turned the camera away from the man at the microphone and showcased the players around him. There are also a host of interviews with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, Elvis Bishop, Joe Perry, Robby Krieger, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Derek Trucks, as well as two recently passed greats, Johnny Winter and Gregg Allman. They all sing the praises of the three subjects, but also do a great job explaining the thankless yet vital role of sidemen in the blues and early rock ’n’ roll.
When Sidemen was first being filmed, all three of the subjects were still alive, and two of them had even just won their first Grammy for an album they made together in 2011. So what they have to say about their lives is clearly the most significant part of the film. But it’s also fun to hear them speak on the significance of bands like The Rolling Stones (who covered many old blues songs over the years) and turning young white kids on to their music, giving Wolf and Waters much-needed revivals in their careers.
Director Scott D. Rosenbaum has to deal with many hard blows during the course of making this film, but he’s able to pivot, turning Sidemen into a testament about legacy—including a much-needed plea to put all three of these men in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. A sometimes painful journey, the movie is still an important story with so much worthy music squeezed into every square inch.
The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. On Friday, October 20 at 8pm and Saturday, October 21 at 5:45pm, director Scott D. Rosenbaum, producers Tony Grazia and Jasin Cadic, and special guest Willie Javik are scheduled to appear (I’ll be moderating the Q&A on Saturday).