'The Big Beat: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll': Film Review

Courtesy of Film Society Lincoln Center
Essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of rhythm and blues and rock

Joe Lauro's documentary chronicles the life and career of the legendary rock 'n' roll musican

That Fats Domino is one of the all-time greats of rock 'n' roll is indisputable, but somehow his reputation has been eclipsed over the years by such contemporaries as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. This despite having sold some 60 million records between the years 1949-1962 at a time when segregation still ruled in key parts of the country. Joe Lauro's loving documentary provides an invaluable service in bringing music lovers a greater appreciation for this performer who has settled into a contented reclusiveness. The Big Beat: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll, recently showcased at Lincoln Center's Sound + Vison documentary series, is a natural for eventual cable and public television exposure. American Masters, are you listening?

Domino, who grew up in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward where he still lives, was influenced by such R&B musicians as Amos Milburn and Louis Jordan. He toured with the legendary New Orleans musician Professor Longhair, but truly came into his own when he teamed with producer/songwriter/trumpeter Dave Bartholomew, who signed him to Imperial Records. Their partnership changed music history.

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Although the film's only interviews with Fats are of the vintage variety, there are fairly recent ones with many of his colleagues, including Bartholomew, still vibrant in his early '90s; engineer Cosima Matassa; drummer Earl Palmer; trumpeter Herb Hardesty and road manager Billy Diamond, as well as several authors who provide illuminating historical context.

But the film's true centerpiece is extensive footage from a live performance given by Fats in 1962, a rare cinematic example of the artist at his prime. There are also clips of his 1956 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, in which his hard-working band was shamefully hidden by a curtain and, more amusingly, a duet with Perry Como, of all people, on "I'm Walking."

His career is extensively recounted, including his playing on Lloyd Price's "Lawdy Miss Clawdy"—ironically, the only song Fats played on that hit the top of the charts; his crossover hit "Ain't That a Shame," covered by Pat Boone a week later; his biggest hit, "Blueberry Hill," which began as a B-side, and his appearance in the campy Jayne Mansfield film The Girl Can't Help It.

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There's also home movie footage of Fats playing the piano in his home as recently as 2010, demonstrating that despite his refusal to perform in public he's still got the chops.

The filmmaker, who's previously produced or directed films about Louis Prima, Harold Arlen and the history of gospel music, approaches his subject matter with the passion and dedication of a true aficionado. It's heartening to note that Fats, accompanied by Bartholomew and musician Dr. John, enthusiastically attended the film's world premiere screening at last year's New Orleans Film Festival.

Production: Historic Films, INA, Shanachie Entertainment
Director: Joe Lauro
Screenwriters: Joe Lauro, Rick Coleman
Producers: Celia Zaentz, Rich Nevins

No rating, 90 min.

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