By Don R. Lewis | May 11, 2003

Take Fox entertainment writer Roger Friedman, pair him with docu-maniacs D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. Then, let Miramax finance and release your film. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Too bad what comes out is a downright boring look into the lives of early Motown performers who still perform today. This film has so many chances to spice up the screen….and passes, I was wondering if I were watching an info-mercial for some kind of “K-Tel Classics- Revisted” album.
Pennebaker and Hegedus know how to craft a successful documentary. Both did 2000’s “Down From the Mountain,” the doc/ concert film of the music from “Oh Brother Where Art Thou.” Pennebaker did the quintessential rock doc in 1966 when he followed Bob Dylan to Europe and came out with “Don’t Look Back.” Then why does “Only the Strong Survive” come off so out of tune?
For starters, the concert footage is just awful. Wilson Pickett, a once glorious musical force, looks like a parody of himself as he performs before a crowd of old fogies. Even worse is Mary Wilson, formerly of “The Supremes” who butchers classic tunes in front of a half-full and tiny auditorium. Had this footage been shown in a way that the audience feels how bad these people have it, this film would work. Instead, narrator/producer Friedman fawns over these washed up performers as if it were still the fifties and sixties, when they deserved it.
When he meets Wilson, he tells her that although everyone loved Diana Ross, he can see that Wilson has an amazing presence as a front woman for a group. Please! Sure, we all have soft spots for childhood idols, but lets be realistic here. Wilson was clearly the third Supreme and the two hacks she has backing her up now don’t help her lackluster performances.
Not all of the performances totally stink. Sam Moore (from “Sam and Dave” fame) pulls off a truly touching and heartfelt tune at a tribute for friend Isaac Hayes. While clearly out of shape and a little out of practice, Moore pulls through with a heartfelt performance. Also impressive is a performance (and interview footage) with Carla Thomas who basically vanished from music after a promising start as a teen singer. Yet, these performances are not enough to save this disappointing tribute to stars of yesteryear in need of a buck.
The film also totally glosses over the ugly court battles that tied up Wilson as well as Moore preferring to show them trying to make it happen alone. Moore actually has had a pretty amazing life, rebounding from a nasty drug habit and finally getting his life together. The five minutes dedicated to that story in this film is not enough.
Possibly the best part of this film is the footage of the recently deceased Rufus Thomas. Whenever he is onscreen, we get to laugh and admire a man who never left the limelight. He is known as the “other” King of Memphis and a documentary about his life would have been ideal. He had a Memphis radio show with Jay Johnson and the footage of it in this film is side-splitting.
Had this film merely showed it’s subjects as sad, once great superstars, thriving for survival in a fickle world, it would have been great. Instead, we get fan-boy Friedman (who clearly knows and loves this music) living a dream as he gets to meet his childhood idols. I understand that’s what we are supposed to see and enjoy here, but it’s really sad and boring to see these people trying to make money off their past glory.

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