New York Magazine recently devoted an issue to the music of New York City, and that reminded me of solid documentary I reviewed a few months ago for The Playlist: “Sample This.”
“Sample This” would make a hell of an article. In fact, it did. In 2006, Will Hermes told the story of the story of the oft-forgotten, oft-sampled Incredible Bongo Band in the New York Times. His article, wonderfully titled “All Rise for the National Anthem of Hip-Hop,” began like so: “This is a story about a nearly forgotten album and the birth of hip-hop music. Like many good hip-hop tales, and pop yarns in general, it involves unlikely characters rising from obscurity and is colored with creative passion, violence, drugs, thievery, paydays and paybacks.”
That so-called pop yarn forms the basis for director Dan Forrer’s “Sample This,” a fascinating, fun, messy, and overlong documentary that never quite captures the simple beauty of Hermes’ article, but succeeds in bringing to light details about some of the most influential sounds in music history. Were it not for the Incredible Bongo Band, and, specifically, the song “Apache,” hip-hop as we know it might not exist. Elements of the track have been used in countless songs over the years, and, as “Sample This” details, the role of “Apache” in the early days of rap and hip-hop especially make it one of the most essential recordings of the last five decades.
Forrer’s film, then, means to shine a light on the historically significant but not-necessarily-famous folks who made up the band and helped create it. There is no figure more central to the story than Michael Viner, a former Robert F. Kennedy staffer who, through a series of unlikely events, moved into the music industry. Viner was a marketing genius—one who certainly had no talent for the bongos—whose inimitable post-politics career even led to the role of music supervisor of one of the strangest films ever made, one in which Ray Milland’s head is transplanted onto Rosey Grier’s body. This leads to one of the more memorable lines in recent film: “Although Viner never could have guessed it, ‘The Thing With Two Heads’ started him on the path to creating the Incredible Bongo Band.”
Indeed it did. For the soundtrack, Viner put together a stunning group of performers, many of them well-known studio musicians. Forrer talks to some of the unknowns who toiled behind the scenes while others became famous, and they offer unique insight into how many, many hits were created. (“I played and arranged all the Partridge Family Records”; “We were The Monkees, and Glen Campbell.”) As drummer Bobbye Hall puts it, “I am a studio musician. I make hits…That’s what I do.” The Incredible Bongo Band was comprised of many of these greats, including “greatest percussionist of all time” King Errison, Derek and the Dominoes drummer Jim Gordon, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Steve Douglas, organist Robbie King, and other biggies.
Together, in a Vancouver studio (chosen for humorous reasons spelled out in the film), they made history. Perhaps that sounds overly dramatic, but it’s true. One could make a handy chart demonstrating the long-term impact following the release of Bongo Rock in 1973: DJ Kool Herc discovered the album while crate-digging (he removed label from vinyl so no competing DJs would know what it was or where it came from), Grandmaster Flash (and others) sample the breakbeat, and on, and on, and on… It is the inimitable Questlove who points to the song’s continued relevance, which he expects to continue: “In 2020, they’ll figure out a new way [to use the song] — probably, they’ll play Apache backwards.”
If it seems like information overload, well, it is. Forrer is attempting to cover a lot of ground here, and succeeds more than he fails. But there are also some strange decisions, chief among them the choice of narrator. If you are making a documentary about the band that changed the face of hip-hop, Gene Simmons doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice. But, believe it or not, Simmons does an admirable job. However, the KISS kingpin is just one example of the film’s inherent WTF?-ness. Consider that over the course of the 83-minute film, the following people, films, bands, etc. are involved: The Young and the Restless, Nadia Comăneci, Bing Crosby, Spike Jones (the drummer—note the spelling), Ricky Nelson, “Thunderball,” Frank Sinatra, Terry Melcher, the Manson Family, Billy Graham, Son of Sam, Sidney Sheldon and Neil Diamond. It’s a pop culture bouillabaisse that is often too “Behind the Music”-ish, especially when Simmons reads lines like, “As was so often the case with the incredible Bongo Band, destiny played a major hand.”
Was the story of the Incredible Bongo Band told more succinctly in Will Hermes’ 2006 New York Times piece? I think so. Would “Sample This” have been more effective as a 30-minute short? Without question. But it is hard to walk away too disappointed when the stories are this fascinating—and when the music is this triumphant. [B]