By Kim Hughes
What leads some musical performers to produce original stuff while others emerge as interpreters or, if they go really deep, as tribute artists pushing a fully inhabited experience? Turns out the ingredients for both — a voodoo combination of talent, timing, good luck, bad luck, and plain old cash —are pretty much the same. Only the end result is different… sort of.
That’s the nutshell takeaway from Almost Almost Famous, Canuck director/cinematographer Barry Lank’s documentary on an enormously talented group of singers and musicians who just happen to perform as Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Jackie Wilson, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and others from the late-1950s when rock and roll was nascent and, chiefly, when the wizened members of their audience were in their youthful prime.
Almost Almost Famous follows the self-styled Class of ’59 as they tour secondary markets across North America peddling a déjà vu mix of nostalgia, chops, homage and, if you look very closely, artistic antipathy. As might be expected, Lank relies heavily on talking head interviews with his subjects to push the narrative forward. Off-stage, the performers press flesh with their adoring fans while engaging in existential contemplations on what their roles really entail.
Behind the giant stage personalities are giant backstage personalities, notably Texas-born Lance Lipinsky who plays the Killer (that’s Jerry Lee Lewis to the small fry) with a mix of ferocious native talent and often barely disguised contempt for his lot in life. His prickliness is leavened by Ted Torres’s Elvis Presley, who in conversation seems positively sanguine about his job; perhaps not surprising when we learn that an estimated 85,000 (!) Elvis impersonators are plying the trade with just 500 making a living.
Regarded in that light — or indeed, in the light of the gazillions of singer/songwriters bravely plying their own stuff and still ending up unloved and unheard in the delete bins of the world — Torres and his bandmates are doing just fine.
Real-world perspective arrives (as it so often does) via tour manager Marty Kramer, whose past gigs with The Guess Who, Led Zeppelin, and Neil Young have buffered him against the rages of prima donnas enduring the indignities of puny dressing rooms with bad lighting. It’s not the most riveting (or fastest-moving) film you’ll see this year but Almost Almost Famous is a fun fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the mechanics of a rarely considered but clearly thriving vein of show business.
Almost Almost Famous. Directed by Barry Lank. With Lance Lipinsky, Ted Torres, Bobby Brooks and Jeff Giles. Opens December 7 at Toronto's Imagine Carlton Cinemas and plays December 14 and 17 at Toronto's Hot Docs Ted Rogers Theatre.