Friday, 11 November 2016

Fleapit revisited:Tear the Roof Off - The Untold Story of Parliament Funkadelic

There have been so many members of Parliament/Funkadelic, so many offshoot bands, so many alter egos, so many egos even that to tell their story in its entirety you'd probably need to stretch it out over a couple of box sets. It's something to suggest to Netflix or HBO.

So props to Bobby J Brown for trying to condense it down to an hour's length. Ideal for that Friday night BBC4 music documentary slot but enjoying a brief cinema run as part of London's Doc'n'Roll film festival. Brown has worked more as an actor than a director in the past. He'd appeared in The Wire and also in John Water's Pecker. A great pedigree but other than the city of Baltimore it's hard to see much in common or much that would lead him to the funk.

Tear The Roof Off starts off as a fairly conventional documentary. Telling the story of how George Clinton and his childhood friends in Plainfield, New Jersey form a doo-wop group called The Parliaments. They travel to Detroit to get signed to Motown and then cheat on Motown by having a huge hit in 1967 with (I Wanna) Testify on Revilot Records. It's the first example of George Clinton taking over as bandleader and svengali.

After that the chronology goes a bit haywire. It's not adequately explained how these besuited smart young men mutate into the freak show that becomes the p-funk organisation. Nor how their doo-wop sound becomes more soulful and ever funkier before eventually morphing into the ultimate in funk rock experiences.

The music you hear throughout the film is, of course, absolutely excellent.The run of albums Funkadelic put out throughout the seventies stands shoulder to shoulder with anybody else. Not just in funk but in all music. From 1970's self titled debut, via Maggot Brain, America Eats Its Young, Cosmic Slop and on to 1978's One Nation Under A Groove they forged a sound, an image, and an ethos that was like nothing that had gone before. Or, indeed, since.

They went a step further by inventing their own mythology. Populated by characters like Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk, Rumpofsteelskin, and Starchild. The latter of these worked for Dr.Funkenstein, the intergalactic master of outer space Funk. Funk was spelt with a capital F as it's the source of all creative energy on Earth. Sir Nose, being too cool to dance, intended to place humanity into the Zone of Zero Funkativity but Starchild is on hand with his Bop Gun to achieve Funkentelechy for all humanity and everyone, even Sir Nose, starts dancing.

With all this going on, and words like supergroovalisticprosifunkstication, thumpasorus, and trombipulation being bandied about you won't be surprised to hear drugs were involved - and lots of them. Ludicrously large amounts. At one point Clinton, who by now was running the whole show, was paying band members in drugs. You may've wanted money but drugs were what you got.

It's here where the story, unsurprisingly, turns a darker corner. Addictions destroy, and even end, lives. The girls (and in many cases they are girls, not women) recruited for the band are treated abysmally, bordering on abuse in some cases and in one example crossing right over that border.

Clinton becomes a dictator. Pocketing royalties and keeping his bandmates hooked on drugs while living it up in his lakeside mansion in Michigan. While they were so high you couldn't get over it some of his behaviour was so low you couldn't get under it. How the fuck he managed to preside over such a huge rotating line up of musicians, many of them hopelessly addicted, while maintaining a gargantuan habit himself is a wonder of nature.

Perhaps due to Clinton not coming out of this well he's not there to represent himself. Bootsy Collins is another glaring omission. But the makers of the film have been able to secure interviews with vital musicians like trombonist Fred Wesley, drummer Jerome 'Bigfoot' Brailey, guitarist DeWayne 'Blackbyrd' McKnight and bassist Cordell 'Boogie' Mosson who died in 2013 giving us an idea how long this film's been in the can.

The talking heads interviews with these guys and the vintage live footage are easily the best parts of the films and luckily there's plenty of that. The seemingly endless anecdotes are in turns insightful and hilarious. Occasionally both. The historical reenactments fare less well. They look a bit daft and in a film where a man appears on stage wearing a nappy, another runs around the street wearing a fox mask, and George Clinton exits the mothership with his dick out behind bemused guest Sly Stone that's saying something.

For somebody who was new to the band, the mythology, and Afrofuturism as a whole the film may be a bit confusing, potentially alienating. For someone who's been an admirer of the band for decades like my cinema date Tony there's very little new for them. For someone like me, I own four or five albums and have been meaning to get a few more, it's pitched just about right.

If you're in the former two camps I can recommend the film to you. If you're with me in camp three then I'd say it's close to a must see. You could wait for it to show up on BBC4 but as another friend, Ian, said "you need to see the Mothership on the big screen" - and you do too.

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