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"Only the Strong Survive"

Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker.
Release Year:  2002 
Review Date:  5/12/03 


In the vein of music documentaries like “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”, “Only the Strong Survive” reminds us of just how good music used to be in the 1960s and ‘70s by giving us glimpses of how stars brought up in the Memphis soul scene succeeded and thrive even today.

While not as rich as “...Motown”, “Only the Strong Survive” has some pretty good musical numbers and some insight on where the Memphis rhythm & blues scene fit with the Motown sound and the influence both had on a nation that quickly fell in love with soul music.  The artists profiled here include Rufus Thomas--still performing at 82 years old--Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, Mary Wilson, Sam Moore, The Chi-Lites and Jerry Butler.  Even if the names don’t sound so familiar, the songs certainly do--from Moore’s “Soul Man” and “Hold On...I’m Comin’” to The Chi-Lites’ signature song “Have You Seen Her?” to Hayes’ classic “Theme from ‘Shaft’”--and the musical numbers sound almost as good as they did 30 or 40 years ago.  In fact, Moore and Pickett sound not far removed from their run in the ‘60s...and, Hayes’ hilarious monotone delivery of the classic line from “Theme from ‘Shaft’”

“That Shaft is a bad mutha...[Shut yo’ mouth!]/I’m talkin’ ‘bout Shaft!”

is still one of the best lines in a song I’ve ever heard, and it makes you laugh and feel good as Hayes stands up on stage saying it again for the billionth time like he never used the line before.  In fact, it is this feeling that “Only the Strong Survive” captures the best--just the easygoing nature of the music and the musicians, especially off-stage.  This movie has lots of great “black folk hangin’ out” scenes that I love; Pickett sitting around in the recording studio, talking about how ugly he thought Diana Ross was coming up; Rufus Thomas, signing autographs and telling stories about how the scene was 40 years ago.  Or Mary Wilson--former member of The Supremes--talking about the relationships between the famous threesome.  Or Moore, hangin’ out with Hayes on the Hayes radio show in New York City one morning.  The non-music scenes rarely paint the performers in a bad light, and this leads to plain ol’ 60-year-old performers waxing poetic and I soaked it up.

There was a point, though, where I was daydreaming during this film.  You know why?  I’m a hip-hop fan, and whenever I see these music retrospectives on the Motown scene, or rock & roll from the 60s, or even disco to a certain extent, I think about how timeless some of the music is.  “Only the Strong Survive” features a number of scenes where these performers are doing shows for people in their own age bracket, so there’s Pickett, doing “In the Midnight Hour” in front a bunch of 40-somethings and 50-somethings, jammin’.  I just can’t imagine how it will be when I’m 50.  Who will I go to see in concert?  Something about the current crop of rap stars--say, a 50 Cent, or our just-removed and aging veterans, like Dr. Dre, Snoop, Jay-Z, and on and on--just doesn’t scream concert tour at age 55.  Can you imagine a rap concert with those guys being THAT old?  Jay-Z talking about bitches, gettin’ laid, fancy cars, and the status-oriented rap of today when they get old?  When you watch Mary Wilson perform “Someday We’ll Be Together”, you know that it was relevant to her then, and it’s relevant to her now.  What will rap stars do with songs like “Big Pimpin’” when they get older?  Food for thought.

“Only the Strong Survive” is mostly a good time, though.  And, it features Thomas and his daughter Carla singing the classic “Night Time is the Right Time”, which is the song that is featured in an episode of “The Cosby Show” (the family’s song-and-dance number from what many consider the show’s best episode, according to that reunion Cosby show from last spring) and extra credit points are automatically given for that.  This film is in limited release, so check around and see if this is showing in your neck of the woods.

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09