Deep City: SXSW Review

Music doc adds just a little to the CD reissue that inspired it. 

Marlon Johnson, Dennis Scholl and Chad Tingle introduce an obscure chapter in Soul music history.

AUSTIN — A cinematic supplement to an excellent archival CD reissue, Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound tells the brief story of a Miami soul music enterprise that was all but unknown until 2006. Though not meaty enough to demand commercial distribution, the film (by directing trio Marlon Johnson, Dennis Scholl, and Chad Tingle) is a natural match for SXSW's valuable music-centric 24 Beats Per Second section, gathering first-hand recollections from many of the scene's most important participants.

Miami's not a city one associates with soul music, but as the crate diggers at the Numero Group label have proved in a series of celebrated reissues, excellent soul was recorded in plenty of places outside Detroit and Muscle Shoals. Their 2006 release Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label told the story of Deep City, a small outfit whose biggest mark on history was the introduction of singer Betty Wright, who was 14 when she cut her first record for them. This film picks up on their work, frequently interviewing Numero co-founder Ken Shipley.

SXSW REVIEW: Fort Tilden

Interviewees, including producer Willie Clarke and songwriter Clarence "Blowfly" Reid, describe a scene in which major touring artists would play high-profile gigs on Miami Beach, then gather for unofficial jams with residents of the Overtown neighborhood. When one resident, label co-founder Johnny Pearsall, started his own record store, a piano was kept in the back so the musically-inclined could write part of a song whenever inspiration struck. Soon, the young company was targeting Motown and others with records that sometimes benefitted from the players' experience in school marching bands. (The film cites other distinctive influences, including sounds from Cuba and the Bahamas, but doesn't show much evidence of these.)

For at least the first half of the film, the label's output of good songs is both blessing and curse: While what we hear is enough to get us interested in the story, the filmmakers use tunes as a near-constant musical bed for interviews and vintage visual material, resulting in a monotonous feel that keeps us from sinking into the stories. Though it sets the scene with a wealth of film and photos of life in late '60s/early '70s Miami, the film suffers somewhat from the absence of any old performance film on these artists, and from the fact that Wright refused to be interviewed. Other material on the realities of Payola-era record promotion and the like is colorful but will be old news to most of the record geeks likely to find this film.

Production Company: WLRN

Directors-Producers: Marlon Johnson, Dennis Scholl, Chad Tingle

Director of photography: Art Nobo

Editor: Jaime Quintana

No rating, 56 minutes