It's taken over seven years (and 300 hours of footage) for the filmmakers to get a handle on its structure, but the documentary about legendary musical guru Col. Bruce Hampton is finally here, and it's named Basically Frightened, after the good colonel's poetic, funny (he's a VERY funny guy, Hampton), and bluesy list-song about things that give him the willies. Given that he's one of the most daring personalities ever to hit a stage (and we're talking Frank Zappa-type daring here; Zappa was a contemporary and a fan), after seeing this vastly entertaining tribute piece you might well think that Hampton really isn't afraid of anything, except maybe his own shadow. He's been in the music biz for five decades now while flying decidedly under the radar, except to say that he's been tremendously influential to the jam band movement best represented by those who often headline the famed H.O.R.D.E. festival, including Dave Matthews, The Allman Brothers, Derek Trucks, The Grateful Dead, Blues Traveller, Phish, Widespread Panic, Unknown Hinson, Peter Buck (of REM), Susan Tedeschi, and Rolling Stones associate Chuck Leavell (also repped here is the late Phil Walden, the CEO of Capricorn Records, who goes on record as labeling Hampton "the Vincent Van Gogh of rock 'n roll"). Each of these artists have veered from their road schedules to provide interviews singing the praises of their "crazed uncle," and this is certainly a feature of Basically Frightened that will help it find its audience.
Also represented here is Billy Bob Thornton, who cut his directorial teeth in the early 90s by helming a video featuring Col. Bruce and one of his many bands (the colonel has led, most famously, the Hampton Grease Band, The Lost Ones, The Aquarium Rescue Unit, and his present outfit The Pharaoh Gummint). Thornton went on to cast Hampton in a key scene for his Oscar-winning Sling Blade, in which the colonel plays the idiosyncratic lyricist for Dwight Yoakam's troubled troupe (the late, great Vic Chesnutt provides the music). That was the first time I'd ever seen Col. Bruce Hampton, even though I'm a native Atlantan. In the years before Sling Blade, I had read Hampton's name as it headlined many an Atlanta music venue, but I'd somehow missed seeing the man in action until 2005, when I finally met him at an October 26th gig in Tucker, GA. I walked into the place and shook his hand, and he said "Happy birthday" to me. I was awe-struck. How could he have known that today was my birthday?
But, in fact, he does this with everybody. The documentary even has a segment devoted to this unusual talent, which keys into Hampton's otherworldly connection to the writhings of the universe. Col. Bruce seems to be a magnet and conductor for inexplicable phenomenon. One of Basically Frightened's memorable moments has a few of Hampton's cohorts describing an on-the-road shake-up during which all witnessed a UFO arrival near a many-peopled mountaintop. A newcomer might chalk this sort of thing up to some sort of reductive acid flashback, but the film makes it clear that Col. Bruce and his band are vehemently anti-drug (at least, for their own purposes). Their wildness comes naturally, even onstage, where there seems to exist a miraculous telepathy between Hampton and his bandmates. The UFO sequence, like most of the movie, is goosed with underground-comix-flavored graphics by Joe Peary, whose work helps break up the film's tremendously talky visage.
And that brings me to my one major complaint with Basically Frightened: it's yakkity-yak all the way. In its zeal to educate, it sometimes becomes headsy and pedantic. The film begins with a tidal wave of praise from people you might know better that Hampton, and it subsequently seems to plead the viewer to dig deeper into this musical treasure (the problem here is that much of Bruce's output is hard to access nowadays). But I feel that, in movies, showing is better than telling and, save for one powerful segment, Basically Frightened is afraid to let Col. Bruce's music take center stage. I've since seen Hampton live three times, and the thing that strikes me about his acumen is his loving inclusion of all musical styles. In a Hampton live show, you might hear pure funk, followed by bluesy travelling, and then with a delve into classic country music. Then, in the middle, you might get total performance-artist wildness. But Basically Frightened prefers the wildness, because it's more visual (the sight of Col. Bruce speaking tongues at a microphone IS something extraordinary).
However, rarely does the soundtrack allow for anything other note except "weird." Hampton's music serves as background for the interviews, but it registers as nothing but noise. It's no surprise that the film's most effective sequence concludes with the brilliant "Hallifax," off of the Hampton Grease Band's notoriously low-selling debut double-disc Music to Eat. It helps that the story of Hampton's promising-then-disappointing major label bow is classic documentary material (this is also the film's only emotional low-point). But the fact that directors Michael Koepenick and Tom Lawson III cap this sequence with a full minute of Hampton's incredible song, which goes on for a trip-taking nine minutes on the album, lets us breathe a little bit while companioned only by the music and photographed scenes from 1969's Atlanta Music Festival. Full disclosure: I saw a rough cut of this movie back in the mid-2000s, because one of my best friends Tim O'Donnell, was hard at work editing the piece, and did so with tremendous results alongside his fellow editors. But, with all the performance footage shot for this film, it surprises me that the final product--timing in at around 90 minutes--doesn't allow for more unencumbered moments of musical bliss. Midway through watching Basically Frightened, I wondered if a Stop Making Sense-style concert movie might do a better job of introducing the masses to Col. Bruce; I could see it leading to impassioned record-buying much more effectively than do the adoring words from a coterie of the man's well-loved admirers. I have to admit that watching the movie proved to be a respectful intro to this this monumental artist. In that way, I think Basically Frightened does its job--but only as a primer. I contend a meticulously-filmed stage performance is absolutely in order. The brave and never self-important Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret. deserves another tribute, this time purely tune- and performance-based.
Courtesy of my friend Rich Gedney (who did the camerawork here), I took some time out at the Atlanta Film Festival closing party to interview director Michael Koepenick regarding his impassioned involvement with this project. Check it out...