by Rick Ouellette
The 2017 Asbury Park Music and Film Festival, its third annual installment, took place April 20-23 in the Jersey Shore city long known as the breeding ground of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and many others practitioners of the area’s soulful, unpretentious brand of rock ‘n’ roll. This edition was notable for a Friday night spectacular held at the venerable Paramount Theater on the boardwalk. First up was the premier of the documentary “Just Before the Dawn,” an affectionate tribute to the town’s famous music scene. That was followed by a mix-and-match jam session of musicians whose roots in the area go back as far as a half century. You could almost feel a jolt of electricity charge through the crowd when the curtain lifted to reveal Springsteen, Southside Johnny and E-Street alumni Little Steven Van Zandt and David Sancious leading the large group of players and singers. It was Glory Days redux especially for the New Jersey faithful who dominated the sold-out audience. But as the film that preceded the concert showed, this is part of an often sobering rise-fall-rise narrative.
Childhood music education is a great cause supported by the festival and spotlighted in the film. At the all-star jam, the Boss gives his seal of approval to one of the kids from the local Lake House Music Academy.
Asbury Park was already famous as a mid-century, Mid-Atlantic vacation spot dominated by amusement-park attractions when a vibrant music scene grew up around it: by the late Sixties there were more than 70 nightclubs in a one square mile area. (The Ferris wheel, Tilt-a-Whirl, Tunnel of Love and Madam Marie’s fortune-telling booth all made it into the Springsteen lexicon). But as filmmaker Tom Jones points out early on (backed up by interviews with several long-time residents), this is a tale of a city that was divided literally by the train tracks that ran through the middle of town. On the other side of those rails, away from the beachfront, was a largely African-American district that forever felt left behind by the city fathers. That neighborhood had its own lively music scene: in addition to its homegrown talent, it attracted performers like Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King and Duke Ellington. In fact, for a place of about 16,000 residents Asbury attracted an impressive of top-line acts: the boardwalk’s Convention Hall (adjacent to the Paramount) hosted the Rolling Stones, Byrds and Doors in the same era.
The top floor of the building on the left, 702 Cookman Avenue, is the location of the legendary Upstage club.
(Photo by author)
But as we find out in “Just Before the Dawn,” the local music circuit was an integrated scene. A large chunk of the film focuses on the downtown Upstage club, a narrow windowless two-floor walk-up that, without a liquor license, came into it’s own after hours when the bars had closed for the night. Even viewers not well-versed with names of players like Jeff Kazee, Ricky DeSarno, Billy Ryan and Ernest “Boom” Carter will be taken by the sense of discovery of a scene coalescing. With the narrow walk-up not conducive to people lugging heavy musical equipment, the owner of the Upstage constructed a recessed wall-of-sound system where several guitar players could plug in at once and likely did, judging from the archival photos (check out that long-haired hippie Bruce!). In a great scene of rock ‘n’ roll archaeology, the filmmakers lift the steel grate at 702 Cookman Ave. and head back up the stairs into the long-vacant space (still painted in day-glo psychedelic colors) to interview Little Steven.
The interior of the Upstage has been vacant since 1971. There has been talk of renovating the building as a combination performance space/museum/cafe. (Photos by Billboard.com)
It came as a surprise to many of the musicians when Asbury Park erupted into several days of rioting starting on Independence Day, 1970. (Fittingly, a snippet of Springsteen’s beloved ballad “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” plays at the start of the film). The era’s inner-city rage that ignited bigger places like Detroit, Newark and Watts came home to the Jersey Shore in a spasm of fire and violence that gutted the black business district, much of which was never re-built. That and the changing shopping and vacationing habits of Middle America put Asbury into a tailspin from which it has taken many decades to recover.
The hopeful part of that narrative, a city once down on its luck being rejuvenated by an incoming creative class, a refreshed music scene and a growing LGBT community, is spelled out at various points during the film. While some of this spills over into PR boosterism, you only needed to walk around town to see for yourself. Much of the festival’s screenings and other events take place on or near Cookman Avenue, now a haven of the city’s burgeoning creative class, with the arthouse cinema House of Independents as the key venue. But a very affordable Gallery Pass wristband let festival goers sample films that screened at many of the galleries and artist workspaces that line the street along with the funky little shops, record stores, etc.
The “Upstage All-Stars” doing chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny.”
While the live shows are a big drawer for the APMFF (this year saw Marshall Crenshaw, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Mike & the Mechanics among others), for me it’s often the smaller, labor-of-love documentaries that make an impression, especially the ones that show rock music’s great global reach. “What We Did was Secret” was a real eye-opener of a film from director David Alvarez about the activist Madrid punk scene of the 1980s. In a Spain that was only a decade removed from the death of fascist dictator Franco, the high stakes game of political mobilization from the members of groups like Sin Dios, Armpit Smell and Kortatu is a terse warning for our own time. More pleasantly, “Nihao Hamtai: Magma, First Chinese Tour” is a gratifying video diary of the way-out French jazz-prog band Magma finding an audience in the Far East more than 40 years after the release of their first record. The festival also featured several blocks of short films on a dizzying array of subjects. I especially enjoyed the bittersweet portrait on the aging issues of the semi-famous English singer Carol Grimes (“The Singer’s Tale”) and the amusing portrait of the plaid shorts-wearing Jersey covers band whose appeal is summed up in the title (The Nerds: A Rockumentary”).
In my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, I emphasize how the look of rock music—with its endless array of colorful characters and emphasis on dynamic live performance—is nearly as integral to its appeal as the sound of it. And with a half-century of history to draw upon, the time is ripe for this sort of music-centric film festival. (Other examples are L.A.’s Don’t Knock the Rock and the ongoing Doc ‘n’ Roll series in London). With its wide-ranging programming, strong local support and ability to book a variety of impressive live acts (not to mention its iconic, and convenient, location in the middle of the Northeast Corridor), the future success of the Asbury Park Music and Film festival looks assured. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year.
Bookmark their website and keep abreast for the 2018 edition. http://apmff.com/
My latest book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available! And now you can try-before-you-buy, click on the link below to go to my author page and view a 30-page excerpt. http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html