Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty: SXSW Review
Greg Olliver chronicles the Texas bluesman's return to form.
AUSTIN — Four years ago, Greg Olliver entertained SXSW crowds with Lemmy, a bio he co-directed about the cult-adored frontman of Motorhead, Lemmy Kilmister. That often very funny doc required no particular love of heavy metal or familiarity with its star, but not all rock legends hold a screen as well as the author of "Ace of Spades": In Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty, the director offers an enjoyable career summary that will play best with the vet's fans, perhaps as part of a CD/DVD special edition of one of his albums.
Winter, the 70 year-old Texan who became a star in the late '60s, is presented here as something of an eccentric who was all but killed by drugs and whose career barely survived years of mismanagement. (Ironically, his experiment with heroin was brief compared to years of dependency on methadone.) Riding on the tour bus now, with bandmates who work to put meat on his bones (even tricking him into eating double helpings) and keep his concerts crowd-pleasing, we get the sense it's a very lucky thing he's even around to tell his story today.
That story is an unlikely one. Winter and his brother Edgar, gangly albinos from Beaumont, were unconventional bluesmen to say the least. They might have gigged in obscurity for decades had a 1968 Rolling Stone article not included them in its assessment of what was hot on the Texas scene. Winter was an almost literal overnight success, and the story of that early fame is fleshed out by interviewees including old bandmate Tommy Shannon and former Columbia Records president Clive Davis. Guitar heroes including Aerosmith's Joe Perry to Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top show up to pay their respects as well.
Winter himself tells a few high-life stories involving Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and others, but it's his collaboration with Muddy Waters — whose career was revitalized by Winter-produced comeback LPs — that carries the most weight here. Anecdotes about the pair's close friendship drive home Winter's likeable earnestness about the black blues musicians whose work he studied for hours a day as a teen.
Alternating with this history is some present-day performance footage and the account of how a skin-and-bones, nearly catatonic Winter — who says "the '90s was a bad decade for me" — was rescued by a change in management. While the story never strays far from the rock-doc rise-and-fall template, Olliver's fannish affection for his still-spirited subject will keep most viewers engaged.
Production Company: Secret Weapon Films
Director-Director of photography: Greg Olliver
Producers: Jeremy Mack, Greg Olliver, Chris Robertson
Executive producer: Paul Nelson
Editors: Jeremy Mack, Greg Olliver
No rating, 80 minutes