It’s been gratifying over the past few years to see the rise of the “rockumentary” detailing the life’s and music of numerous musicians with more and more vintage footage unearthed. BBC4 may have staked its claim to be the natural home of these although honourable mentions must be given to the likes of Alan Yentob’s Imagine series. Once the province of occasional late night cultural backwaters such as Omnibus these days you can spend just about every Friday night reliving rock history. Unfortunately for every gem there’s a shed load of cheap and nasty shock docs peopled by a pool of talking heads who turn up spouting their opinions on just about anything even if their closest acquaintance with the subject was when their agent called to ask if they were interested in appearing. That said there have been some superb examples over the years. Aside from the fly on the wall type (Don’t Look Back, Cracked Actor, Dig!) there’s the historical document (No Direction Home, MC5: A True Testimonial, Oil City Confidential).
The Byrd Who Flew Alone is in the second camp, a two hour trip through time looking at the career of Gene Clark. Clark was the primary songwriter in the first incarnation of The Byrds and by all accounts was expected to be a massive solo star following his departure from them. The film documents his failure to achieve that fame as his ex bandmate David Crosby was the one who soared while his pioneering efforts in country rock were overshadowed by Gram Parsons who made the ultimate “career move” in dying young at the top of his powers.
Produced and co-directed by Paul Kendall, ex ZigZag writer, the film takes us from Clark’s humble rural beginnings in Tipton, Missouri to his untimely death at the age of 46. While there’s live footage of his brief stint with the New Christy Minstrels and The Byrds (of course) there’s a gap until the early eighties when there was a brief reunion with McGuinn and Hillman. Footage of Clark with Carla Olson however confirms that he remained a compelling performer and despite the lack of live action it’s great to have what little footage remains gathered together. While Clark is heard being interviewed there is no visual footage of him talking.
McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman are all interviewed with Hillman especially providing insights into their tumultuous relationship over the years. Taj Mahal, Carla Olson, Jerry Moss (the M in A&M) offer their recollections while Byrds biographer Johnny Rogan and standard bearer for the Clark legend, Sid Griffin, offer their explanations for the bad luck that dogged Clark as each time he was poised to leap ahead of the game he faltered. Clark is recalled almost as a Jekyll and Hyde character, a country boy with a sunny disposition when away from the bright lights of L.A. but prone to alcohol and drug abuse with a temper to match when in Sin City, a temper that proved disastrous when he tried to punch out David Geffen following Geffen’s displeasure with the No Other album. A more intimate picture of Clark is painted by interviews with family (Mendocino buddies, his brother, sister, sons and widow, Carlie) which offer us a glimpse of the man behind the rock star and a sense of the personal hurt they suffered as Clark indulged in his demons.
Above all there’s the music and the generous running time allows space for fuller discussions of his groundbreaking efforts. The first post Byrds album with the Gosdin Brothers, the pioneering country rock of the Dillard and Clark albums, The Byrds reunion, the pieced together and excellent Roadmaster, the template for the singer/songwriter era that was the “White Light” album and the pinnacle, the exotic and almost triumphant No Other are all detailed along with his last major label release, Two Sides to Every Story, released on Robert Stigwood’s label RSO (with Clark of course eventually insulting Stigwood) which featured a bearded avuncular hippie Clark on the cover just as punk was taking off. Olson, John York and Pat Robinson take us into Clark’s latter years although there’s little or no mention of their recorded output which Clarkophiles will argue was as good as the earlier work. The DVD also includes over an hour of special features with extended interviews, two complete performances and a directors’ commentary. We can’t comment on these at present as the review copy was of the film alone, one reason why Santa will be bringing a fully fledged Byrd related package come the day.
Gene Clark fans have been salivating ever since this film was mentioned however even if you have never heard Clark before it’s an important document in the development of Americana type music and best of all you will be amazed by the quality of his music. His voice, his writing haunts and will continue to do so.