Message to The Sister: If you can DVR this, please do.
Everyone should watch this. Sam Cooke is one of my most favorite artists of all time. For absolute realz.
TV review: 'Sam Cooke: Crossing Over'
Sam Cooke: Crossing Over "American Masters." 10 p.m. Monday on KQED, with encore broadcasts.
Mill Valley filmmaker John Antonelli originally planned to watch the nationwide broadcast of his documentary, "Sam Cooke: Crossing Over," at Chicago's Regal Theater, where Cooke himself reigned over hometown crowds in ecstatic performances more than 45 years ago. But then the long arm of Cooke's manager, Allen Klein, snaked out of the grave.
A threatening letter from attorneys representing Klein's management firm scotched that prospect, as it did another planned event closer to home by the Mill Valley Film Festival. Antonelli may wind up watching the show, which airs at 10 p.m. Monday on KQED-TV, at home with his girlfriend and a bottle of Champagne.
Klein, who died last year of Alzheimer's disease at age 77, was a jealous, fierce guardian of the Cooke estate. The New York accountant and business manager was known for an aggressive style that contributed to the breakup of the Beatles after he signed to represent three of the four band members. His steadfast opposition to Antonelli's entirely laudatory, almost deliberately noncontroversial hourlong accolade to the great soul singer is the reason the project took more than 12 years to complete. This film, narrated by Danny Glover, has been so long in production that many of the featured interview subjects are no longer alive: James Brown, Lou Rawls, Jerry Wexler, Billy Preston.
At first, Antonelli approached Klein, after reading the 1995 Daniel Wolff biography, "You Send Me," and the veteran documentarian headed out to shoot some sample interviews with Klein's blessing. Then there came the phone message. "Allen changed his mind," said Antonelli, sitting in the captain's cabin of his Sausalito houseboat office, world headquarters of his Mill Valley Film Group.
Antonelli said he hit the low point sometime shortly after that when he and a film crew spent an afternoon in a Detroit restaurant waiting for Aretha Franklin, who never showed. "That was super-depressing," he said.
He was at the wedding of fellow filmmaker Chann Berry, who ended up producer on the Cooke film, when the bride in full regalia told him that Cooke's family, friends of hers since elementary school, had agreed to an interview. "I knew she grew up in Chicago," Antonelli said, "but I had no idea she had any connection with the Cookes."
Many subjects wouldn't talk
Even then, although Cooke's sister, Agnes, since deceased, and brother Charles did sit for interviews, his other brother, L.C., declined. All through the doggedly determined production, Antonelli found subjects unwilling to talk because of pressure from Klein. Also among the unwilling was Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick, who wrote a Klein-sanctioned 2003 VH-1 cable TV documentary on Cooke.
Klein could have stopped any film with his control of Cooke's music publishing except for a statutory exemption for public television that grants compulsory licenses to educational broadcasts. Consequently, there will be no home video version of "Sam Cooke: Crossing Over." If you're interested, make a point of catching it Monday or on any of the encore broadcasts - it's well worth seeing. Cooke was his era's most charismatic vocalist. Best known for his sweetly warbled 1957 No. 1 hit, "You Send Me," Cooke stayed on the charts throughout the remainder of his too-short, brilliant seven-year career. No less an authority than Jerry Wexler, producer of Ray Charles and Franklin, always called Cooke the greatest vocalist of his generation.
Heartthrob to vital artist
Antonelli follows handsome, talented Cooke from his beginnings as a heartthrob in the gospel world with, first, the Highway QC's and, eventually, as a star of the country's leading gospel quartet, the Soul Stirrers. His first pop sessions were held in secret for fear that word leaking out could hurt his standing in the gospel field. Cooke led rhythm and blues to the threshold of soul, developing as an artist, songwriter and record producer from the innocent early works of "Wonderful World" or "Only Sixteen" (done in collaboration with young Herb Alpert and Lou Adler, both featured in the Antonelli film) to the mature, powerful voice of "A Change Is Gonna Come."
Cooke's career was cut short in December 1964 when he was shot to death in an incident at a South Central Los Angeles motel never satisfactorily explained. Antonelli included a pair of short pieces of filmed testimony from the coroner's inquest that are among the film's most enduring images.
Antonelli is hampered by a lack of outstanding footage. Cooke made many appearances on television singing "You Send Me," but he often used the national platform to present more adult-oriented material that bore little relation to the gospel-fired soul revivals he led at nightclubs (see his epic record, "Live at the Harlem Square Club"). Ten years of searching by Antonelli unearthed not a single filmed performance of Cooke singing his anthemic "A Change Is Gonna Come."
Despite the grim ending, Antonelli keeps his focus musical, skipping across Cooke's tangled personal life and not even mentioning his association with the Black Muslims (although there is some fun banter included between Cooke and Cassius Clay, before he became Muhammad Ali). The film glows with warmth and intensity because of the insistent incandescence emanating from its center from Cooke himself.
Antonelli and Mill Valley Film Group partner Will Parrinello have been making documentary films since their 1984 film about author Jack Kerouac - "Kerouac - King of Beats." Their sixth special on Goldman award-winners, "Global Focus VI - The New Environmentalists," hosted by Robert Redford, airs in March on PBS.
Film a personal victory
Cooke's music inspired Antonelli since he was a kid growing up outside of Lowell, Mass. Teaming up with Rick Roper, a childhood friend as a co-producer, Antonelli found great personal meaning and satisfaction in bringing the documentary in for a landing after overcoming a formidable adversary in Allen Klein just to get as far as he did.
So what if he stays home Monday night? He still won.
"As much as a pain in the ass as it was to make this - and I certainly don't have another 10 years to do something like this again - it was exciting to have this music," he said. "The only way I could do this was for public television."
I act on stage with real people and real musicians as opposed to starring opposite my cousins and the soundtrack from Pippi Longstocking. I love music, champagne, hot toddies, and NPR. And I am a black belt in like, everything.