Village Music: Last of the Great Record Stores, Gillian and Monroe Grisman’s five-years-in-the-making documentary about John Goddard’s legendary Village Music, covered a lot of ground in its world premiere Friday night at the 35th Mill Valley Film Festival.
Over the course of the film’s 110 minutes, there are Goddard’s early years as a collector of just about anything (bird’s nests are mentioned) and his takeover of Village nearly 45 years ago from owner Sarah Wilcox in a “payment plan” transaction.
There are interviews recorded just before Goddard closed Village Music on Sept. 30, 2007, in which a who’s who of Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famers express the feeling of loss that comes with the end of an era, particularly since the original Sweetwater, with which Village had a symbiotic relationship, closed the same day.
Director Gillian Grisman also dives into the music industry’s format shift from vinyl to CDs to MP3s, the latter of which gets verbally disrobed by Village fan Ry Cooder, who describes the compressed digital files as having the homogenized sonic consistency of peanut butter.
But more than anything, the Grismans’ documentary is about Goddard’s mighty impact on musicians.
That influence spans from the inspiration heavyweights like Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt drew from Goddard’s encyclopedic musical knowledge and his one-of-everything inventory to the unexpected career jolt Village’s in-store shows or anniversary parties at the Sweetwater brought to artists toiling in obscurity.
A diverse cast of Goddard acolytes put that deep impact into words throughout the film.
“This is where we got all of our source material,” says Grateful Dead guitarist and Sweetwater Music Hall co-owner Bob Weir.
“This store has been my muse since I moved here,” says DJ Shadow, who played regular DJ sets at Village during its final weeks, including a jaw-dropping, four-turntable set with longtime collaborator Cut Chemist.
But Goddard’s influence on musicians was obvious long after the film ended Friday night as mega-watt stars and under-the-radar powerhouses took the stage at the Sweetwater for the Village Music All-Stars tribute concert. Costello, Sammy Hagar, Narada Michael Walden, Dan Hicks, Jerry Harrison, Elvin Bishop and Bill Kirchen all showed up, as did a cast of longtime local stalwarts, including Austin deLone, Jonathan Korty, Scott Mathews.
The show was steeped in the American music celebrated by the film, from Hagar’s cover of “Mustang Sally” and Bishop’s raging rendition of “What the Hell Is Going On?” to Harrison’s raucous take on “I’m a King Bee.” Narada Michael Walden brought the house down with a bombastic version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”
To anybody who’d seen the Grismans’ film, the all-star appearances came as no surprise. In many ways, the film is as much about live music as it is recorded music.
The documentary features 18 uninterrupted performances, mostly from Goddard’s in-store shows and his anniversary parties at the original Sweetwater. Grisman lets the songs linger, eschewing snippets for deeper sonic portraits of the artists on whom Goddard shone his spotlight.
Some of them are simply show-stoppers, including one in which John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Carlos Santana and Cooder share the Sweetwater stage, and another that features Costello, Hagar, Jerry Garcia, Commander Cody and James Burton, Elvis Presley’s former guitar player.
The performances include many of the aforementioned stars but also lesser-knowns like Frankie Ford, Don & Dewey, Little Jimmie Scott and Ann Peebles, whose pours herself into her classic song “I Can’t Stand the Rain.”
Of all the performances, none match the unbridled emotion of “Let Me Down Easy” by Bettye Lavette, the soul singer who had been making music since the early 1960s but didn't see her career really take off until 2005 when Goddard, among others, turned music insiders onto the criminally under-rated artist.
“He wound up, literally, saving my career,” Lavette says in the film.
Many of the film’s interviews from 2007 perfectly capture the deep melancholy felt by many local residents and regular visitors who worried about the long-term impact of the loss of the Sweetwater and Village Music on the cultural footing of Mill Valley and beyond.
“It’s like losing a species,” actor Peter Coyote says in the film. “The generations that follow have nothing to compare it to, so they’re not going to notice it’s gone.”
Luckily for Mill Valley Film Festival-goers and (hopefully) a much wider subsequent audience, the Grismans have created a living document of one self-described “music freak,” the record store he built in downtown Mill Valley and the emotional value of recorded and live music.
The 411: Village Music: Last of the Great Record Stores screens again Monday, Oct. 8 and Saturday, Oct. 13 at 9:30 p.m. at the Smith Rafael Film Center. Go to the festival's website for more info on those screenings.
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