Sample This: Film Review

Sample This - H 2013
This improbably fascinating documentary will be manna from heaven to pop culture devotees.

Dan Forrer's documentary delves into the history of the little-known instrumental song that became one of the most sampled tracks in pop music history.

For a film about a little-known song by a now forgotten band, Sample This manages to weave in a wealth of pop culture wanderings into its tapestry. The song, “Apache,” originally appeared on a 1973 album by Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, a group of studio musicians assembled by Viner, a producer whose previous credits included the hit novelty album The Best of Marcel Marceau, which consisted of silence followed by the sound of audience clapping. While the song made little impact initially, it was later discovered by DJs and hip-hop artists and improbably went on to become one of the most sampled tracks in pop music history.  

But that’s not even the most compelling element of Dan Forrer’s entertaining if disjointed documentary, which delves into the history of the track and its creators with a near obsessive attention to detail. Among the colorful elements featured in the film are the assassination of Robert Kennedy (a young Viner was one of his aides); the campy horror film The Thing With Two Heads; the Charles Manson murders; the possible participation of Ringo Starr on the album; and the notorious gangster Johnny Roselli and his possible role in the CIA’s plot to kill Fidel Castro and the subsequent JFK assassination.

“Apache,” which one onscreen commentator describes as “the national anthem of hip-hop,” was originally written by a British songwriter inspired by American westerns and recorded by the band The Shadows. The obscure instrumental was later covered by the Incredible Bongo Band, which had been created by Viner to contribute a couple of songs to the soundtrack of The Thing With Two Heads, which starred the improbable onscreen duo of Rosey Grier and Ray Milland.

The song languished in obscurity until it was rediscovered a few years later by DJ Kool Herc, who made it a staple of his Bronx dance parties. It was later covered by The Sugarhill Gang and eventually became a hip-hop staple, used by artists including Missy Elliot, Amy Winehouse, Nas, LL Cool J, The Roots and countless others.

While the film narrated by Gene Simmons largely eschews delving into exploring the cultural impact of sampling on pop music, it endlessly explores the fascinating characters involved in the song’s creation and evolution. Among the members of the Incredible Bongo Band were such musicians as guitarist Mike Deasy, who was once briefly had a connection with Manson; drummer Jim Gordon, who later suffered from severe emotional illness and went to prison for killing his mother; and bongo player King Errisson, who was befriended in Jamaica by Sean Connery during the filming of Thunderball.

It’s a fascinatingly eccentric, if digressive, tale, recounted through a combination of archival footage and interviews with such figures as Afrika Bambaataa, Questlove, Freda Payne, Melle Mel and Jerry Butler, among many others. A joyous coda features the band’s surviving members reuniting to jam on the Hawaii Five-0 theme song.

Opens: Friday, Sept. 13 (GoDigital, Inc.)
Director/screenwriter: Dan Forrer
Producer: Bob Burris
Director of photography: Philip Hurn
Editor: Michael Levine
Composer: Perry Botkin Jr.
Not rated, 85 minutes