The Feedback: Brent Wilson's 'Streetlight Harmonies'
By Tom White
Since IDA's DocuClub was relaunched in 2016 as a forum for sharing and soliciting feedback about works-in-progress, many DocuClub alums have since premiered their works on the festival circuit and beyond. In an effort to both monitor and celebrate the evolution of these films to premiere-ready status, we reach out to the filmmakers as they are either winding their way through the festival circuit, or gearing up for it.
In this edition of "The Feedback," we spotlight Brent Wilson's Streetlight Harmonies, which had its festival premiere last fall at DOC NYC and makes its VOD premiere on March 31 on iTunes. The film tells the story of doo-wop, a sub-genre of rock 'n' roll that hit its stride in the 1950s and early '60s with its sweet a capella harmonies and toe-tapping, finger-snapping musical expression. With roots tracing back to gospel, doo-wop laid down the foundation for so many genres of popular music in the decades to come. Wilson and his team tracked down some of the leading exponents of doo-wop to tell their stories.
We caught up with Wilson by email to share his reflections on making the film, screening it in front of a DocuClub audience, and refining it for the audience at large. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Documentary: Obviously, a film about a musical genre calls for a lot of music and footage. How did you manage the research and clearance process, and were you able to make a successful argument for fair use overall?
BRENT WILSON: With the scope of the project, we knew that fair use was going to be critical for the film. Most of the story takes place at the dawn of television. In fact, it's television’s role in the boom of the Beatles that helped mark the end of the era. Therefore, acquiring whatever footage was actually available at that time was key. And because there is so little, we knew it would be expensive so we planned from the beginning to have fair use in our arsenal.
Our AP, Nate Kamiya, worked very closely with [the law firm] Donaldson & Callif to make sure we had a strong case for fair use on as much footage and as many stills as possible. If something was not applicable, we went back to the edit or found alternatives.
From a research perspective, it was the same old story I think all doc filmmakers are familiar with: How do you eat an elephant...one bite at a time? Our team hunted and reviewed thousands of photos ranging from the artists’ personal collections, to our music historian providing leads, to good old-fashioned Google.
Our archive supervisor, Kate Coe, is a highly experienced veteran and was a patient teacher to me as well. A strong team really allows a director to focus on the story.
D: You cover a lot of territory in this film—roots, key players, sub-genres, racism and the civil rights movement, legacy—and you've made the viewing experience manageable by incorporating chapters. Talk about the process of structuring your film.
BW: Structure was one of the most difficult aspects for us. This is the first and so far only serious documentary on the subject of doo-wop music, and we felt we owed it to the artists to tell as much of their story as we possibly could.
At the same time, I felt it was important that the film feel brisk and entertaining to a mass audience. I knew we didn’t need to preach the choir. If you loved this music, you would watch. What I wanted were the people who knew very little. I think that's why we do these films—for them to be seen by as many people as possible. So I knew we had to also keep the story moving and the color pallet bright.
I'm also a believer in a three-act structure, and I wanted Streetlight Harmonies to flow as much as possible as if it were a narrative film. I felt a three-act film would feel familiar to a broader audience who may not know anything about this music. In my eyes, if a film starts to feel like a history lesson instead of a good story, you're doomed.
Finally, when doing a music doc, I think you have to let the music guide you part way. There's an energy and flow that comes with a series of songs, and how and where you place those songs. It's not so much the case anymore, but in my day, the album was the work of art, not the single. If an album were great, like The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds or The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's, one song would connect you to another until you had listened to the whole album and heard the full story.
I try to bring that philosophy to my storytelling as well. Ironically, I just completed a documentary on Brian Wilson and that philosophy of the album-as-art that he really created is a key theme in that film.
D: You also managed to track down many of the driving forces of doo-wop—musicians, producers, DJs. Were there any individuals whom you couldn’t secure for participation in your film?
BW: Sadly, yes. Capturing the stories of men and women of this generation is always a race against time. We lost two booked interviews before we could do their interviews. The first was Ben E. King, to whom you see a small tribute in the film. We were on an East Coast swing, capturing interviews. We booked Mr. King but we had to leave town before an impending snowstorm. We rebooked his interview for a few weeks later, but Ben passed just a week later.
The other was Dave Somerville of The Diamonds. The Diamonds had that great hit, "Little Darlin'," which is the only time a white group probably ever lived up to an original version of an African-American group's original—which is a significant chapter in the film.
On the day of Dave's interview, he called to say he had fallen and broken his leg, and that we should reschedule for next week if he could do his interview in a cast. He never fully recovered and he passed away a short time after.
Also, Pat Boone takes a considerable berating for covering many African-American artists' songs and making them hits while denying the original artists' airplay. I was very interested in hearing Mr. Boone's side of the story, but he repeatedly declined.
D: With regard to your screening at DocuClub, what were your expectations going into that screening?
BW: I wasn't sure what to expect, but I can say we were scared to death. This was the first time anyone outside of the edit bay would see the film. This is, of course, also a screening with your peers, and you're asking them for honest feedback. In my mind, this goes completely against the credo, "Never ask a question you don't want the answer to."
In the end, though, the film was received wonderfully and the group was very enthusiastic with their praise; the feedback we received was invaluable.
I would encourage anyone to submit his or her film [to DocuClub] and participate. It's also just a wonderful way to meet other filmmakers and be reminded that we’re not alone in this crazy business.
D: What were the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit the most from the DocuClub screening?
BW: In the end, if you're making a film to be seen by anyone other than your mother, you have to take that leap of faith and have that work seen by people that have not been on the journey with you. You have to have fresh eyes; you need to know if your story is working and your themes are resonating. Are you evoking some kind of honest emotion? That's the question we all need to ask ourselves, and you can get that answer with a screening at DocuClub.
I think, as much as anything else, this is what the DocuClub provides.
D: What audience observations did you find most surprising and unexpected?
BW: We all make our films in a bubble. For me, we spent nine months editing Streetlight Harmonies, so that bubble got real small. By the end, I had no idea what worked or didn't work anymore. So just having the film received so warmly, to find out that the story flowed and the audience cared about these characters felt surprising to me at that stage.
The screening gave us all a second wind.
D: What were the most valuable takeaways from the screening?
BW: That the audience wanted to know more. That was always one of our goals. I never felt that we could tell the full story of this music and its impact in an entertaining 90 minutes, but I believed if we did our job well, the audience would leave wanting to know more.
If you watch our film and search out these songs to play at home, or Google to learn a little bit more about The Drifters, or The Crystals, than we did our job.
D: When you went back to the edit room, what were the key changes you made?
BW: There were some really great practical notes such as font type and scale that were very helpful, as well as suggestions on the mix. It's fascinating; we all sit in a dark room, editing and mixing to that small room, but as soon as you play it for an audience on a screen or large TV with people 50 to 100 hundred feet away, the film takes on another life that you need to address.
D: What were the key factors that determined that your film was ready for your festival premiere, which was at DOC NYC last fall?
BW: My partners Theresa Page Steele and Tim Headington were extremely supportive in allowing me as the director to discover what the heart of the story was going to be. They gave me the time to explore what music best represented the era, but every project needs a pencils-down moment.
A great producer will usually know that time before a director, and Theresa and Tim both felt the film was ready. And they were right.
D: When you screened your film at DOC NYC, what were some of the reactions, questions and observations that you found most surprising and unexpected?
BW: You spend years creating something and then you finally send it out into the world and hope for the best. For me that night ended up being magical. The film received a standing ovation and fantastic reviews. Many of the artists that appear in the film were in the audience and were treated like royalty.
So to be perfectly honest, after I looked over and saw my wife wiping away a tear, it was all a blur.
Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.