Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971)

Genres - Music  |   Sub-Genres - Biography, Concerts, Vocal Music  |   Release Date - Mar 29, 1971 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 117 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - PG
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Review by Bruce Eder

Mad Dogs and Englishmen is strange to see today -- on so many levels that it's like a really off-kilter music/sociological education. For starters, in terms of its origins, it is probably the granddaddy of all A&M films. It's difficult to imagine, apart from some Herb Alpert promotional clips, what the company would have produced before this visually, much less anything that could stand on its own as a feature. As a movie, it pulses with energy from the opening frames, which depict an anxious crowd of would-be attendees frozen out of the sold-out show at the Fillmore East in New York, and one gets a tactile sense of what it was like around the Fillmore on a night when a really good act was there. Then there's the backstage stuff with Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, et al., and various groupies and hangers-on, but in less than eight minutes that seem like two, we're at the show. Between the performance sequences, we get shots of the band members doping, drinking, womanizing, and generally doing what rock stars did in those days. One unintentionally ironic moment has the band rehearsing Leon Russell's song "Superstar," which was to earn millions for A&M in a decidedly different version by the Carpenters. That's just before the band and its entourage -- dozens in all -- arrive in Plattsburg, NY, for a show at a local college. One moment in the Texas swing of the tour has become unintentionally funny across the decades, when a veteran groupie explains herself and her motivations and cites Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues as an authority who told her that, without the groupies, tours would be truly wretched experiences. Amid all of the cross cutting, there are some great musical moments: Cocker's performances of "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" and "The Letter," and Claudia Lennear's rendition of "Let It Be" (which are the highlights of the movie's first hour). There's also an ugly moment in the second hour when a lunatic begins verbally accosting the band members for their lifestyle before being ejected by the management. The whole viewing experience is rather bracing, even more so decades later, when touring and music have become much more managed and predictable.