If you know who Bernie Worrell is then the fact that there is a documentary about him will give you goose bumps. If you don’t know who he is, I can almost guarantee you’ve heard his creations. You see, Worrell is a musician whose main instrument is the keyboards. He’s played with Parliament Funkadelic and the Talking Heads, and if you don’t know who he is yet let me explain that he didn’t just play the keyboards. No. He used them to create a whole new language and a sound that had never been heard before and has since influenced almost all of popular music. He is rightly considered to be the modern day equivalent to Mozart, and he is a genius. Nobody who knows music will dispute any of this. Nobody.
This short (far too short, actually) documentary presents Worrell to a world that may not know him, but other folks do, and they are speaking out. People like Mos Def, David Byrne, Bootsy Collins, Dr. Know, Will Calhoun, Warren Haynes and George Clinton all sing his praises, and various music journalists explain how he grew up to become the man he is today. Because he is a genius, though, and because he is an innovator, he struggles. He can’t always get gigs. He doesn’t have the rights to the songs he did with Parliament Funkadelic, either, and he drinks and smokes enough to worry Tina Weymouth. But, as this documentary shows, he is above that. Worrell is on another plane of existence all together, and we’re all better off for it … sort of.
Perhaps the best lesson to take from “Stranger” has nothing to do with Worrell. After all, his accomplishments aren’t open to debate. Instead, the lesson here is how we treat people of his caliber. And how do we treat them? We don’t. Society usually does not even acknowledge innovators and geniuses of the arts until they are gone. It is as if there is a penalty to be paid for being so far ahead of everyone else, and that penalty is economic sanctions and relative obscurity. Sure, your peers may know of you and respect you, but you aren’t a household name. That’s proven right here. How many people know of Clinton and Byrne but not Worrell? Most likely almost everyone who has just a passing knowledge of music. Yet these two men are blown away by this guy — and Clinton and Byrne are no talentless hacks themselves.
This documentary isn’t going to change things for Worrell. He’ll probably die unknown to most of the world. But for those among us who know of this man, it’s a nice tribute to the soul who changed the way music is heard. Let’s hope this isn’t the final monument, though. The man deserves more than a forty-minute look into his life. And that’s one more thing about him that isn’t debatable.