1970s Chicago comes alive in full funk in ‘Stony Island’
By Dave Hoekstra Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org April 2, 2012 8:54PM
A rhythm and blues band comes of age in “Stony Island,” filmed in Chicago in 1978 and full of South Side landmarks.
◆ 8 p.m. Wednesday and 8:15 p.m. Thursday, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State (details at siskelfilmcenter.org)
◆ Shows, 9, 11 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday at Buddy Guy’s, 700 S. Wabash (free with film stub)
Updated: May 4, 2012 8:11AM
The neighborhoods of Chicago are as sharply defined as rhythm & blues.
Some jump. Others dance. Some communities swing low, while others hear the drama of a higher power.
The electric Andrew Davis-Tamar Hoffs film “Stony Island” (1978) reflects this gritty clarion spirit.
If you are seeking a better understanding of Chicago, see this movie. Long unavailable, “Stony Island” receives a rare screening Wednesday and Thursday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. The film also comes out April 24 on DVD..
A galaxy of music and film characters appear in “Stony Island”: Chicago saxophone legend Gene Barge, Rae Dawn Chong, Dennis Franz, the late great jazz poet Oscar Brown Jr., Chess session guitarist Phil Upchurch and future Bangles star Susanna Hoffs, who plays “Farm Girl Lucie.” Her mother, Tamara Hoffs wrote and produced “Stony Island,” with Chicago native Davis, who went on to direct the Oscar-nominated “The Fugitive,” “Above the Law” and “The Guardian.” Davis and cast members will appear for Q&A sessions after the screenings.
Stony Island Avenue, which runs from 56th to the Calumet River, is a South Side landmark, with similarly iconic places such as Moo & Oink and the Nation of Islam Mosque along its blocks. The first steps that blues legend Muddy Waters took off a bus from Mississippi were on Stony Island. Chicago’s music legacy informs the film, which revolves around rhythm & blues performers and how they’re affected by a veteran bluesman (Gene Barge).
“The musical culture of Chicago’s South Side is very significant,” said hip-hop legend Chuck D. in a moving 30-minute documentary included on the DVD. “No place has a musical language such as Chicago.”
Barge, 85, is one of Chicago’s most underchampioned musical figures. A Chess Records session player, he produced Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. He led the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH Breadbasket bands in the late 1960s. “Gene is a Chicago treasure,” Davis said in an interview from Los Angeles. “This movie is a tribute to him.”
In “Stony Island,” Barge plays Percy Price, who mentors the Stony Island Band, a fusion of rock, blues and jazz, much like what Chicago’s Earth, Wind & Fire and Chaka Khan were doing in the late 1970s. The plot follows the band’s journey to become American idols. Barge pretty much plays himself, an empathetic soul who leads with notes of dignity and patience.
In fitting with the film’s music themes, Buddy Guy’s Legends, 700 S. Wabash, will host “after-parties” to complement the screenings. Lead “Stony Island” actor Richie Davis (Andrew’s brother) and his Chicago Catz will perform at 9 and 11 p.m. Wednesday. The Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings with Barge perform at 9 and 11 p.m. Thursday. (Susanna Hoffs is hoping to sit in.) Admission is free with a Siskel Center ticket stub.
In February, “Stony Island” was screened at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles in a Grammy event co-sponsored by Chicago’s acclaimed Numero Group soul, jazz and blues label. “There were a bunch of kids who weren’t even born when the movie was made,” Davis said. “They were flipping out at the music and the tone of the interracial qualities. [Also] the look of the city. We had to take the bus to 63rd and Stony to take the L downtown. It was amazing. There was a Greyhound bus stop there where you would see people getting off the bus from Mississippi with shopping bags. It was a blend of Jews, Poles, Slovaks and University of Chicago [types].”
Numero Group co-owner Rob Sevier said, “ ‘Stony Island’ is a substantial document of Chicago music. There’s no footage of these underground soul groups. It is like our liner notes come to life. It has everything a movie like the ‘Blues Brothers’ lacks in legitimacy and accuracy. The footage is amazing. For instance, [the footage shot from] the L tracks, you just don’t see that from the ’70s, because it was impossible to get a permit [to do this] before there was a Chicago film board. It’s completely unfiltered.”
“Stony Island,” Davis’ first film, was made in 25 days with a tight $300,000 budget and a small crew. He shot in a raw, neo-realistic style influenced by his mentor Haskell Wexler. Davis was an assistant cameraman on Wexler’s cinema verite “Medium Cool” (1969), also shot in Chicago.
“Stony Island” also is a kaleidoscope of a bygone Chicago. Davis employs enticing footage of Rush Street neon, the red Magikist lips billboards and the La Salle Street Station, which was the arriving point for Southerners of the Great Migration. These bright lights are the big destinations for the Stony Island Band.
He also uses the CTA’s L lines, with vintage green-and-white cars, as a thread connecting neighborhoods. The city becomes another voice in “Stony Island,” similar to how Davis would later use Chicago as a vivid backdrop for “The Fugitive.”
Susanna Hoffs said “Stony Island” informed her career choices. She was 18 when it was shot in the winter of 1978. “I was thrown into this indie filmmaking world where I was a P.A. [production assistant] and actor,” Hoffs recalled on Saturday as she was taking her son on a tour of Boston colleges. (“More hectic than a Bangles tour,” she said.) While making the film, “I wrote my first song that was ever produced. I was not one of the musicians. I was ‘the girl from the country’ and didn’t fit in character-wise. I wasn’t a blues player. But when I went back to U.C.-Berkeley after we made ‘Stony Island,’ some part of that experience enlightened me to the idea I wanted to pursue the arts. I hit the ground running because the punk movement was in full bloom.”
The film fell through the cracks because its distributor recast it as a blaxploitation flick, retitling it “My Main Man From Stony Island.” “It was devastating,” Davis said. “The movie was about music being a common language and race being transcended by the love of music. This is nothing new. Racism is still a big part of our life. I thought this could break through. This was before hip-hop and rap. But look at the headlines today. It’s very timely.”
Barge was the bridge to “Stony Island.”
“Gene was recommened to me by Chuck Stepner [in the promotional department at CBS],” Davis said. When Stepner was at J. Walter Thompson, he worked on a late 1960s Muddy Waters Hamm’s beer radio jingle with Barge at Chess Records. (Earlier this week, Barge said Waters was one of the first blues artists to promote products on radio.)
“Chuck recommended Gene to be this older, mentor character,” Davis said. “When I met him, Gene was working on Natalie Cole’s album [Grammy-nominated “Sophisticated Lady,” 1977]. He had this great rhythm section. I just pulled in that rhythm section and added Richie [Davis], who was a young guitar player at the time, [singer] Stoney Robinson, [New Orleans piano player and Paul Butterfield Band member] Ronnie Barron, Rae Dawn Chong and George Englund. The chemistry between these disparate groups who all had respect for each other’s music was interesting.”
The Barge character dies in “Stony Island,” and Barron (born Ronald Barrosse, who died in 1997) becomes his spiritual heir. Davis went on to cast Barron in “Above the Law” and “Code of Silence.”
Davis fondly remembers “Stony Island” as his career launching point. “I had seen these films [George] Lucas [“American Graffitti”] and [Martin] Scorsese [“Mean Streets”] did about growing up,” Davis said. “I thought it would be interesting to do a film about my growing up on the South Side.”
Then and now, this iconic street is an island in a sea of everchanging currents.
For video and more from Susanna Hoffs and Andrew Davis, visit blogs.suntimes.com/hoekstra