As it turns out, Victor Mignatti’s study about an aging R&B diva (Pat Hodges), a reinvented back-up trio, The Sweet Inspirations, a revered mother-with-a-past-and-future, Cissy Houston (yes, Whitney’s mom) and a songsmith/performer approaching middle age, Bobby Belfry, without a record deal anywhere near the horizon, is much more about dogged determination than the next big hit.
The other central, non-performing player is the irrepressible producer/composer Peitor Angell. Following so soon on the heels of Jobriath A.D. (cross-reference below), it is great to see a musical entrepreneur who knows how to stay out of the limelight (through no fault of his own as the Frixion Label “forgets” to give proper credit when the key CD is finally released) and put the welfare and ever-so-patient nurturing of his artists first. Sadly, that selfless devotion may be the determining factor as to why—despite a bevy of uplifting and invigorating tracks from Hodges and “The Sweets”: Belfry is not the recipient of Angell’s TLC—the increasingly elusive pot of recording gold has more fool’s dust than vrai nuggets in his courageous quest.
In their original incarnation “The Sweets”—founded by Cissy Houston—provided their singular three-part blend for the likes of Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick. The reinvigorated ensemble (thanks to Angell’s belief that something old can be new and “licenced”—a lucrative part of any producer’s revenue scheme—again) consists of Myrna Smith, Portia Griffin and Estelle Brown. Hearing and seeing them rework their stylings is one of the film’s great joys. Regrettably, rather than finding new fame and fortune, the group’s steadiest gig is plying their considerable craft with Elvis impersonators—perpetual bridesmaids to a ghost.
From her starring role in the world of soul (Hodges, James & Smith), Angell catches up with the now homeless Hodges living on and off the streets of LA with her daughter and grandson (male role models throughout the film are largely from the rainbow side of the “stronger” sex). Her interviews are simultaneously honest, touching and maddening. As her voice strengthens and timing improves, there’s the hope that a sort of soprano Rocky ending will send everyone home looking to buy the long-awaited second-coming album. Alas, the, at times, pathetic combination of endless obesity then the snuffing out of the “fire in her belly” for performing, leaves a bitter taste on screen and off as to what might have been. With all of the singer’s faith in the Almighty, it is hard to muster even a single “Amen” when so many prayers go unanswered.
Faith of a different kind drives the “singing bartender” Belfry to work up a cabaret act, hoping there will be fairy godfather producer in the crowd who will take his talent and turn it into the artistic powerhouse and cash cow that he desperately feels it ought to be (yet beware the likes of Jerry Brandt).
Unfortunately, his lack of diaphragm support, pushed top and penchant to filter what are frequently dulcet tunes “in the nose,” rather succinctly sums up why instead of a Michael Feinstein career, he will be crooning and serving for some time to come. Risk everything: submit to an opera-trained vocal coach and discover the voice that could be unleashed. Too old to change? Just peruse the career of Jon Vickers (cross-reference below).
Mignatti has done a stellar job of intertwining the two attempts to make it/remake it big in the increasingly cash-poor record industry. The intercuts (both visually and musically) brilliantly bind the curiously disparate/similar stories together in a manner that makes for compelling cinema, no matter how far up or down the charts the music goes. JWR