Despite a long-running musical career laced with tragedy and loss, most casual fans of music probably aren't too familiar with vocalist Jimmy Scott. Heck, the first time I remember hearing him in action was during Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, belting out the Badalamenti/Lynch-penned "Sycamore Trees". While his high-range, slow-tempo style isn't exactly my musical cup of tea, it's a distinctive sound that sounds both new and familiar all at once. Equally distinctive, however, is the man's life story as told during Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew, a new documentary directed by long-time admirer and fan Matthew Buzzell.
As a musician and a human being, "Little" Jimmy Scott is easily recognized. His small stature and high voice are the result of Kallmann's Syndrome, a rare condition that leaves its victims in a permanent state of pre-pubescence. Treatment was refused, mainly out of fear that it would damage his singing voice; his passion in life was music, and he didn't want anything to stand in his way. After a tough, fatherless childhood (which also saw the death of his mother in his early teens and the gradual division of his ten siblings in foster homes), Scott encountered a number of other roadblocks, stemming mainly from his musical stylings. High voices and poetic song interpretations didn't mix well with the swagger of jazz, and even a hit with Lionel Hampton ("Everybody's Somebody's Fool") saw Scott go virtually uncredited for his vocal performance. Despite recording a critically acclaimed album with the help of Ray Charles, Scott encountered major problems with a record label that all but killed his hopes for a lifelong career. After these events, Scott spent countless years working practically everywhere except the music industry. Four failed marriages didn't help matters, either.
There's even more to the story, and the bulk of it is reflected upon by the man himself in If You Only Knew. Despite a few basic shortcomings, it's great to hear this stuff firsthand...and it's especially nice to know that he's still performing as he nears 80 years of age. This documentary is a low-budget production to be sure---and would have been slightly more engaging with a bit of polish---but If You Only Knew remains an interesting piece that was done out of sincere respect for the artist. Although Rhino's DVD treatment is a little spotty at times (especially in the technical department), there are a number of good things to discover here. With that said, let's see how this disc stacks up, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Presentation:
Let's be honest: most documentaries on DVD aren't remembered for their exceptional visual quality, and If You Only Knew is no different. The film isn't exactly a feast for the eyes to begin with, and the non-anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer doesn't help matters any. Sure, it's a low-budget affair---not to mention most of it was shot on the fly---but there's additional problems here, including a noticeable amount of edge enhancement, digital artifacts, and other eyesores. It's hardly unwatchable, but there's no denying that the video quality is this disc's low point.
On the other hand---and almost frustratingly so---the disc's audio fares much better. Presented in 5.1 Surround (quite a rarity for most documentaries), this is a good-sounding, natural mix that captures the breadth of the material well. Although Scott is a little hard to understand at times, the majority of the dialogue here is easily heard and won't pose any problems. The music is perhaps the biggest standout, offering a surprising amount of atmosphere and clarity. Unfortunately, no subtitles have been included, and that's never a good thing.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
There's good and bad points here, and the menu designs rest squarely in the middle. While they don't necessarily look like a million bucks, these simply-designed menus offer easy navigation and a nice laid-back ambience. The 78-minute film has been divided into 14 chapters, and no layer change was detected during playback. Bonus features are presented in 4:3 fullscreen and non-anamorphic widescreen. Packaging is a step in the right direction, as this single-disc release is housed in a clear keepcase with sharply-designed cover and interior artwork.
Another welcome surprise is the inclusion of several key bonus features, kicked off by an Audio Commentary featuring Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Scott, Elie Adams, and filmmakers Matthew Buzzell, Ryan Gerber, Sylvio Sharif Tabet and Jacob Bricca. This isn't your average commentary---as director Buzzell points out early on---but a collection of additional conversations and other interviews that provide an additional layer to the film. It's also worth noting that the commentary is silent during Scott's performances, which was another nice touch. Also included is a nice Photo Gallery, featuring some truly rare shots of Scott and company through the years. Next up is a Short Film entitled "Alone Together" (also directed and completed by Buzzell and the same team), an additional, reflective piece in the artist's own words. Last but not least, there's a text-based Essay entitled "Time After Time: Jimmy Scott on Film" written by jazz historian Todd B. Weeks. All in all, this DVD contains a nice little mix of supplements that support the film well.
It's not the best documentary I've seen in recent memory, but If You Only Knew has a number of things that work to its advantage: for starters, it's an honest look at a man's interesting career, compiled by a team of filmmakers who truly admire his work. While I'm not the biggest fan of Scott's music, his troubled life's story is fascinating enough to make this a decent choice for any music fan. It's a shame that the overall film (and subsequent DVD treatment) couldn't have been a little more polished, as the poor video quality really takes this one down a notch. Still, this package has its share of additional strengths---including a nice audio presentation and a few valuable bonus features---that easily make If You Only Knew worth a weekend look. Rent It.
Randy Miller III is a moderately affable art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.