'Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock 'n' Roll': Film Review

Courtesy of Trafalgar Releasing
'Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock 'n' Roll'
As the song says, glory days.
5/22/2019

Tom Jones' documentary chronicles the history of the Jersey Shore town and its legendary music scene.

It's fitting that the first voice you hear in Tom Jones' documentary about the New Jersey shore town is Bruce Springsteen's. Nobody else more single-handedly personifies the spirit, especially of the musical kind, than the legendary rocker, who used the image of a souvenir postcard for the cover of his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. While Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock 'n' Roll too often feels like a promotional video created by a local tourism organization, it nonetheless provides an engaging history of the town and its once-vibrant music scene.

Founded in the 1870s, Asbury Park soon became a resort destination filled with luxury hotels. Or at least on one side of the tracks; the neighborhood on the western side of the town's railroad tracks was home to lower-class immigrants and African Americans who staffed the establishments on the upscale east side. The town was essentially segregated until the 1950s, with black people largely relegated to a substandard section of the beach dubbed "Chicken Beach."

From its beginning, Asbury Park was a thriving music town, especially compared to its far more religious-minded neighbor, Ocean Grove. "You went to Ocean Grove to pray and Asbury Park to party," comments Johnny Lyon, of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes fame. Jazz, soul and blues predominated in the '40s and '50s, especially in such clubs as the Orchid Lounge, where many legendary black musicians played.

Rock 'n' roll became dominant in the 1960s, with the town's Convention Hall, a large venue, being ground central. The documentary includes wonderful, if fleeting, footage of some of the major acts who played there, including The Who (opening for Herman's Hermits), The Rolling Stones and The Doors. A small club called The Upstage became a hotbed of activity for local musicians, especially because it stayed open until 5 a.m., two hours later than other clubs. It was there that Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and Lyon largely got their starts, and where white and black musicians frequently jammed together. The club "was the Liverpool of America," intones Big Joe Henry, a New Jersey radio personality who narrates the proceedings with the exaggerated urgency of a late-night television pitchman.

Springsteen, Van Zandt and Lyons, as well as other musicians including past and present E Street Band members Max Weinberg, Garry Tallent and David Sancious, are interviewed frequently throughout the documentary. Springsteen waxes philosophical about Asbury Park's music scene and his early years in the manner only he can, making everything he says sound like the wisdom of an elder sage, while Van Zandt provides somewhat earthier commentary.

Everything changed in Asbury Park on July 4, 1970, when racial and economic tensions boiled over and a riot erupted that lasted for several days and decimated the town's already struggling west side. A downward spiral of urban blight ensued that has lasted until the present day, although there has been much renovation and new development in recent years thanks partly to a gay population influx.

The documentary's final minutes, providing a gung-ho account of the town's rebirth, proves the least interesting. A lengthy segment devoted to the Lakehouse Music Academy feels like puffery, although it does provide the opportunity for enjoyable footage from a benefit concert featuring Springsteen, Van Zandt and Southside Johnny jamming with some of its younger students.

Production company: Halo X Media
Distributor: Trafalgar Releasing
Director-screenwriter: Tom Jones
Producers: Amy Fisher, Tim Johnson, Will Miller Jr., Joe Petillo
Executive producers: Tom Donovan, Tom Jones
Director of photography: Will Miller Jr.
Editor: Mike Diiorio

88 minutes