directed by Jennifer Maas
(USA, 95 minutes)
May 30, 2010 9:30 PM, SIFF Cinema
The directorial debut of Seattle filmmaker Jennifer Mass profiles Seattle’s seemingly forgotten Soul/Funk scene from the 60’s & 70’s – a time when rock didn’t dominate our musical landscape and nobody had heard of a saxophone player named Kenny G or grunge god like Kurt Cobain. Quincy Jones had already left the city as had Jimi Hendrix both going on to what would become iconic careers in the music industry forever leaving an indelible impression on our musical psyche. But that was not the case for the artists featured in Wheedle’s Groove who form the background for Maas’ poignant film about this era.
Much of the film is narrated by Seattle’s first hip-hop export Sir-Mix-A-Lot who, before he was hanging on Broadway with his posse, was a child in the neighborhood where much of the music was being played, created, and lived. It also features members of other quintessential Seattle bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Soundgarden, the Fastbacks, and even “Q” himself reflecting on the musical climate in Seattle then and now.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Wheedle’s Groove was its insights on the institutional racism that prevented many of these artists from ever achieving their dreams or even playing outside the Puget Sound area while white acts riffing on what they were doing were getting all the gigs and making significantly more money doing so. But they did have KYAC, the only black radio station that was playing their music right alongside national artists much in the same way (but in a much broader sense) that KEXP does for local musicians of all genres does today.
What was most moving about this film is that it gave these artists, who have mostly gone on in the business of living ordinary lives, a chance to tell their story; to recreate what it was like to live in our city during that time, and share the feeling of a dream deferred.
Director Jennifer Mass of Evil Bunny Films shared a few of her thoughts on why she felt this story needed to be told.
What initially drew you into this world?
I interviewed Matt Sullivan at Light In The Attic in September of 2005 for a documentary I was doing about the behind the scenes music people in Seattle. I interviewed John Richards, Nabil and Jason at Sonic Boom, and a few other folks. Light In The Attic was just about to release this compilation of forgotten soul gems from Seattle in the 1960s and 1970s. After hearing that, I felt compelled to make a documentary about it. A week later I showed up at the CD release party, and I was hooked. Five years later, we finished the film and Matt and I got married. We took our honeymoon at the Indie Memphis Film Festival where Wheedle’s Groove premiered.
This project has been a labor of love for you, how long did it take you to complete and what do you think your biggest sacrifices have been?
It took about five years from start until it premiered at a film festival. It will be another year of film festival attendance and promotion, and then we will release the film digitally, on DVD, and theatrically. That will probably be another six months or so of work. So really once it’s all over, it will have been nearly seven years. Much of that time I was just working on it when I could afford to, so it wasn’t seven years solid. The biggest sacrifice has probably been financial. We did receive wonderful grants from Humanities Washington and 4Culture, and some wonderful donations from the community. But it’s still a big financial undertaking. There was also obviously a huge fear of not doing the subject justice. These people whose past I was trying to document had really put their faith in me, and I didn’t want to let them down.
What kept you tied to this project?
I decided early on that it was important to document the scene rather than to focus in on some small event or to follow one person and have the music scene be texture in the background. The movie I was naively making was about 20 or 30 people over the course of fifteen years. Honestly there were plenty of times where I thought I just wasn’t going to be able to find a story. One of the things that kept me going was that I had received the two generous grants from Humanities Washington and 4Culture. I took it very seriously that they had given Wheedle’s Groove the money instead of someone else, and that they had really gone out on a limb sponsoring a relatively new filmmaker. If it weren’t for receiving those grants, this might have turned into a nice big oral history project.
Who was more fun to interview – Sir Mix-a-Lot or Kenny G?
They were both pretty amazing. Sir Mix-a-Lot was able to paint a picture of that time better than anybody. He was probably about eleven or twelve and living in the Central District in the early 70s. He was able to beautifully put into words how magical the Central District was at that time. His eyes light up. It was really cool. Kenny G was great too. He was having such a good time that he stopped the sound check in the arena where we were interviewing him so that we could continue past an hour. He was really funny and warm.
Was there anyone you wish you could have spoken to?
Robbie Hill’s Family Affair went on the Dinah Shore show in the early seventies backing up Cuba Gooding’s band The Main Ingredient. It would’ve been cool to talk to Dinah Shore, who passed a few years back and to Cuba Gooding. I don’t know what I would’ve done with that, but it would’ve been neat. It would’ve been cool also to interview someone who was at Jimmy Hendrix’s funeral where Pastor Pat Wright sang. That’s an amazing story that didn’t make it into the movie. Also there was an English woman who came to Pat’s door in 2001 and offered her a bunch of money for her 45 copy of Little Love Affair. It would’ve been amazing to track that woman down.
Your film gives a lot of these musicians a voice to tell a story that was otherwise overlooked by history, what was most important to you and your crew when you were conducting these interviews?
I think I became a bit obsessed for awhile with making sure we interviewed everyone we possibly could. Although at some point, I just had to quit. I don’t think anyone would have wanted to see the movie that would’ve come out of adding 30 more interviews. We also tried really hard to get the facts right. We had this dry-erase board with post-it notes all over it that was attempting to be a timeline of all these musician’s lives and how they intersected with each other and with what was going on in the world. It was a good exercise, but end the end we had to back off of that when we realized that it was making our movie feel like a term paper. Regardless, we’ve got a really huge body of work, which the movie doesn’t even touch on, that would be a wonderful jumping-off point for a grad student’s thesis.
I hear the Mayor digs the Light In The Attic Wheedle’s Groove releases. Along with your film, how has all this current attention affected the musicians you featured?
It’s been great for them. They are thrilled to get to play again. I think Seattle has been really excited to learn about this part of its past, and it’s been amazingly supportive of the project. The Wheedle’s Groove band played Mayor McGinn’s inaugration, which was such a huge honor for all of us involved.
What do you think current musicians can learn from this story?
I’m not really sure what there is to learn. The truth is that most musicians making some or all of their living doing music might not get to do that forever, but I don’t think that’s any reason to not try. The thing the folks in the film kept on saying is that the gift of being able to play music will be with you your entire life regardless of whether or not you become famous or get to the point where you can no longer do it for your living.
You do a lot of projects that prominently feature music, how is music important to you as a filmmaker?
Music is always prominent in my mind from the very beginning of a project, which makes sense for a music documentary, but might be a little backwards for a film outside of that genre.
Is it tough to be a filmmaker in Seattle these days?
I think it’s a really good time to be a filmmaker in Seattle. There really are all these little pockets of filmmakers outside of Los Angeles and New York that are making great work — Seattle is a particularly thriving one right now. The film festival circuit brings all theses little pockets together and has created a pretty amazing American independent film community.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a couple of short documentaries one music related and one not, and I’m writing a screenplay set in Yakima about a happenstance detective. I’m also producing a film called Treatment directed by Steven Schardt, which is currently in post production.
It’s hard to believe, after listening to the Light in the Attic releases and seeing Wheedle’s Groove that these artists didn’t get the recognition they surely deserved, but I guess that’s why it makes for such a fascinating topic for Ms. Mass. This is a film not to be missed!
Here’s a taste of Wheedle’s Groove: