Film Reviews

Soundman God

Music industry insiders and audiophiles may be the only people who have heard of Tom Dowd, despite his work engineering and producing countless classic albums for five decades, and a 2002 Grammy Award. Miami-based director Mark Moormann spent the last seven years filming a documentary, Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, to tell Dowd's story to the uninitiated. The finished product will be showing at the Sundance Film Festival this week, and Moormann hopes his film will eventually see the inside of a commercial theater (locals will get a glimpse at the Miami Film Festival in February).

Dowd's discography is over 60 pages long, but a smattering of highlights is enough to show why, in Moormann's words, "somebody had to tell his story." Dowd engineered, produced, or co-produced classics from genres across the musical spectrum from jazz (Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Tito Puente, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman), to rhythm and blues (Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Booker T. and the MG's ), and 1960s and '70s guitar rock (Derek and the Dominoes, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Cream). As the film -- at 90 minutes, Moormann's first feature-length project -- commences, you'll quickly realize you've known, er heard, Dowd all along.

For the last two decades of his career, Dowd worked out of Miami's super-studio Criteria, where Moormann met him while making a music video for -- gulp -- Don Johnson. Years later, a mutual acquaintance gave Moormann a manuscript of Dowd's autobiography. "I was awed. I had to do something about this guy's story."

Moormann, 39, a video and commercial director who started in film as a cameraman, found Dowd's technological prowess as groundbreaking as the list of musicians he recorded. "How do you tell the story of an engineer and make it interesting? I decided to tell it through the story of recording technology," Moormann says. It's a fitting framework, as Dowd also helped trailblaze the technology and recording techniques that built the modern music industry. After pioneering stereo recording with Atlantic Records in the late 1950s, Dowd built some of the first multitrack machines ever used, and it took other studios years to catch up to the technology.

Dowd's technological prowess comes as no surprise after the documentary gets into his pre-music industry life. Dowd graduated high school at sixteen, and enrolled at Columbia University to study physics. He spent the next six years working on the Manhattan Project for Uncle Sam, after which he was told he'd have to start over at Columbia if he wanted a degree -- all the work he'd done was too secret to turn over to the university for credit. A disgusted Dowd ditched his dream of becoming a nuclear physicist and wound up recording Charlie Parker in a walkup on 56th Street.

Dowd's story is strange and interesting enough to engage viewers, but Moormann imbues his film with a visual richness often lacking in documentaries. "We shot it on Super 16 celluloid [rather than video]," Moormann says. "We tried to make it very cinematic for a documentary." The director's use of handheld and aerial shots keeps the visuals interesting. The opening sequence features the piano coda from "Layla" while the camera pans slowly over the inside of a baby grand. For all its oddness -- the shot seems to be taken from a plane gliding over an endless plain of strange machinery -- there is an emotional resonance that lasts throughout the picture.

Moormann, who spent his own money and convinced crews to work gratis for the first six years of filming, clearly feels strongly about his subject; but then it seems, from the number of interviews in this documentary, so did others. Because Dowd's discography is enormous, Moormann asks, "What artists do you pick?" Whoever would talk to him, as it turned out. Moormann says he spent countless hours on the phone, orbiting the army of personal secretaries, attorneys, and managers who fend off the throngs of journalists and fans trying to reach the stars. He knew that once the right people heard Tom Dowd's name, he'd score an interview.

"For four months I called Eric Clapton's attorney in London, then one day I get a call from his manager. He says, 'We'll do it Friday.'"

Clapton's not the only star eager to talk about Dowd. Moormann interviewed the current members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and coaxed some shockingly lucid comments out of Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts. Perhaps best of all is the interview with Ray Charles, conducted backstage after a concert at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Charles, effusive as always, fairly dances with joy when Dowd is brought in as a mid-interview surprise.

The object of everyone's affection generally displays a humble, intelligent demeanor in the film, despite the accolades thrown his way. Moormann was able to show Dowd a semifinished version of the film in October. Then Dowd died October 27 of long-term respiratory illness at the age of 77. Moormann says he regrets missing the chance to show a polished, finished product to Dowd the engineer, but feels he accomplished his mission: "It became a responsibility to bring this guy's story to the world."

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Forrest Norman
Contact: Forrest Norman