For many years I wanted to do a documentary that traced the history of rock-n-roll from a completely black perspective. While I love rock as much as the next person--and perhaps even more than the next person--there is a special place in my heart for black rockers, and I've often felt most of them have never gotten there just due. Sure, guys like Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix are often cited when listing the contributions of African-Americans to rock music, but there are many other names that have been forgotten or seldom known. And that's why I planned for many years to do a black rock documentary. Fortunately, filmmaker Raymond Gale had the same idea as me, and thanks to his film Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker, I can now scratch off one project on my "Things To Do" list.
The history of rock music has always favored white musicians like Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and the Comets, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley, who, as we all know, has been crowned the King of Rock-n-Roll. The truth is that rock was a mutation of the blues, and before it was called "rock" it was most commonly called either "race music" or "colored music." This is, of course, because most of the early musicians playing what would latter be dubbed as rock were black. The term "rock and roll" itself comes from the coded slang of colored music, and used to describe sex.
Electric Purgatory is an impressive history lesson that kicks off with a live performance by Fishbone, the first in a series of incredible pieces of archival footage found throughout the film. The film offers a quick and abbreviated overview of the history of rock, touching upon the roots it has in the blues, and covering several of the most noted rock pioneers of the 1950s. Gale pays close attention to Little Richard, who is himself the embodiment of rock music, and easily one of the most crucial people in the development and showmanship of rock-n-roll. With a mix of interviews and performance footage, Gale pieces together an incredible timeline of rock's evolution from the 1950s up to the early part of the 21st century. Along the way he talks to rockers from better known groups like Fishbone, Living Colour and 24-7 Spyz, and the film begins to navigate political waters as it addresses issues of racism in the music industry.
As a documentary, the film really hits its stride and finds its most assured footing in the second half, as it examines the career of Fishbone. Easily one of the most influential bands of the past three decades, commercial success has largely eluded the band, as the film, members of Fishbone, and even fellow musicians like ?uestlove of The Roots candidly discuss. To that end, Electric Purgatory feels at times like it is as much about Fishbone as it is about any other group, and there are certainly groups that come across as being either under represented or completely absent. But that's not a bad thing, so much as the nature of all documentaries. It is easy to come away complaining about what band wasn't discussed or what musician wasn't interviewed, and in the process lose sight of the amazing things that are being presented. And there are some amazing things being said, especially by Fishbone's Angelo Moore and Spacey-T, Vernon Reid of Living Colour, Doung Pinnick of King's X and Jimi Hazel of 24-7 Spyz.
Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker is not a comprehensive documentary (that would require a multi-part series that ran at least twelve hours, and dedicated an entire sequence to Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy), but it is a solid documentary that is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. Gale's film makes for a nice companion piece to James Spooner's documentary Afro-Punk, and the two would make a great double feature. Electric Purgatory is also a great jumping-off point for the discovery and rediscovery of some truly incredible music. And perhaps, most important, the film raises the question of "where do we go from here?"--an issue that needs to be discussed as long as black rockers continue to struggle to survive and find success in a medium they pioneered.