It hasn’t been that long since filmmaker Ken Burns’ massive documentary on Jazz aired. There’s a pretty big story to be told of the rise of Black music post-Jazz that could begin with the development of Rhythm and Blues and culminates in the birth and explosion of Soul. A mixture of much that had come before it, such as Pop, Jazz, and R&B, the big innovation of Soul was its foundation of Gospel. It’s kind of ironic then that one of the most central figures in this story is a white Jewish-atheist named Jerry Wexler.
Wexler’s life is a lot to take one for one 90-minute documentary, but director Tom Thurman tries. Though now retired, his fingerprints as producer, songwriter, and record company executive are found on a frightening amount of pop music over the last five decades. As producer, his only peers might be Sam Philips (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash) and George Martin (The Beatles). Wexler first came into prominence as an influential music critic for Billboard Magazine. In the early 1950’s, pal Ahmet Ertegun brought Jerry in as a partner in Atlantic Records where he quickly thrived as a producer. “Immaculate Funk” is his term for the kind of work he did that sounded deep and rich, but also clean. What really set Wexler apart was his ability to help varied artists find their voice. As many testimonials show, he accomplished this with artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Etta James, Big Joe Turner, Sam & Dave and the Drifters. He also produced seminal works from other artists like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Dusty Springfield, Bobby Darin, and Dire Straits. Wexler is the guy who, following a mid-1960’s burnout at Atlantic, found the MG’s at Muscle Shoals studio in Memphis and built them into what became the famous Stax Soul sound.
Wexler’s legacy is so huge, that Thurman has no hope of covering more than an overview in this film. Through photos, film clips, and anecdotes related by the artists themselves, he does just that, but the subject is difficult to know. Wexler seems loved and respected by everyone, but doesn’t remotely care about a legacy or letting anyone inside his head. His overall contributions to the civil rights movement and the changing public image of Blacks throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s is only touched upon. I couldn’t really tell how aware he was at the time of the broader implications of his actions upon the public consciousness. “Immaculate Funk” was something that was created by having black and white musicians and artists working together. The biggest insight the film gives into its creator is that the moments he truly lived for were of the creation of the songs he produced. He was happiest witnessing the artists hit their most potent moments when they were first committed to tape. After he was done, he rarely needed to listen again to the final products.
Maybe that’s all there is. Perhaps there’s nothing else important about the man that we need to know. Probably the best choice would be a multi-part documentary or narrative feature that explored the music and the times that surrounded him. It could be that only by seeing his presence within the world he lived, would we see an accurate reflection of who he was and is. Still, “Jerry Wexler: Immaculate Funk” is a good attempt. Though the man himself states he “don’t give a f**k” about his place in history, it is gratifying someone like Thurman tried. Forget a place, Jerry Wexler is a great piece of the history of pop music. The public should remember such individuals. Without them, what might we be left with today?