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Billy Paul: Am I Black Enough For You (DVD)

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Genre: Music DVDs / Exempt / Director: Göran Olsson / Actors: Billy Paul ... / DVD released 2009-09-21 at Drakes Avenue / Features of the DVD: Colour, DVD-Video, PAL

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      16.09.2012 17:57
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      An enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying documentary on soul legend Billy Paul

      A few months ago Billy Paul turned up on an episode of "Top of the Pops" which was part of BBC4's repeat run of the show. It turns out it's the only surviving performance of Paul from the TOTP archive and he was singing "Let Em In", his cover version of the Wings hit. It was a memorable performance, showing off the jazz influence in Paul's voice never mind the fact he had turned a pop song into something of a message song.

      Soul music in the 70s didn't have protest songs - it had message songs, and Paul performed on one of the most famous, "Let's Clean Up the Ghetto". His involvement in this song which was released under the banner of the Philadelphia All Stars was down to the fact he was not only Philly born and bred but he was also signed to the Philadelphia International record label, which was the brainchild of songwriting and production partners Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

      Billy Paul isn't famous amongst mainstream audiences for message songs however - his biggest hit is the classic make out song "Me and Mrs Jones", which was a massive hit for Paul, hitting the number one spot on Billboard's Hot 100 in 1972. The song is still well known 40 years on but the title of this documentary comes from his follow up single, the much less heard "Am I Black Enough For You".

      ~~The Film~~

      "Am I Black Enough For You" was released in 2010 and filmed by Swedish director Goran Olsson. The film features some indepth interviews not only with Paul and his wife Blanche but also with Kenny Gamble , Questlove and Schoolly D.

      The film follows Paul as he performs in both the US and France, and features live performances of him performing some of his best remembered songs.


      ~~Opinion~~

      This is a decent music documentary but perhaps it's biggest flaw is it does try to be a little too clever by half, which means you might miss some of the points Olsson is trying to get across.

      At the start of the film Paul and his wife Blanche are interviewed in a car with the lighting used to such an effect it looks almost like a Matisse painting. Blanche reveals that when they first met, Paul felt she was trying too hard to look white. She recalls how obnoxious she found him on this first meeting, saying how much she liked the blonde hair she had at the time. Paul stays silent throughout this tale, almost as if he has heard it a million times before - which is possible given they have been together since 1965.

      Later on when Paul and Blanche are asked about their thoughts on "Am I Black Enough For You" being released as the follow up to "Me and Mrs Jones" the responses from Billy and Blanche are interesting. Paul thinks it was a mistake but seems rather sangfroid about things. Blanche on the other hand is far more vocal about how the song was wrong for her husband and projected the wrong image for him, thus stalling his career. This leaves the viewer wondering - does Paul still think his wife is too white?

      The film doesn't go into depth on Paul's early life, merely mentioning in passing Paul served in the military for a couple of years in the late 1950s. He spent some time in Germany and recalls his desire to visit Vienna to learn more about Mozart because at the time he was into classical music. Paul first love musically was jazz and if "Me and Mrs Jones" is the only song of his you have ever heard this will not surprise you. He has the smoothness of delivery that jazz singers are renowned for, and other songs his ability to improvise is evident too.

      Live performances punctuate the film but I must admit I had mixed feelings about these because Olsson has dubbed the original recorded version over footage he has shot of Paul performing live. This makes sense in some performances but not necessarily in others and it would have been nice to hear how he sounds today a little more often. The answer is not bad at all - and he was 74 when most of this film was shot in 2009.

      Paul comes across as a well mannered, happy person and it's only through interviews with more contemporary artists and his lawyer that the viewer learns how much he was ripped off by Philadelphia International records in the 1970s. This leads us neatly to the interviews with Kenny Gamble, and you can tell there's an element of tension between the two men which exists today, mixed with mutual respect.

      Kenny Gamble was the man who chose "Am I Black Enough For You" as the follow up to Paul's biggest hit. It's hard to imagine in 2012 why a song with this title wouldn't be a hit due to the huge popularity of RnB music but the problem was a mixture of timing and racism. Gamble comes across as a bit of an idealist, sprinkled too with a touch of black power politics and he seems unapologetic for choosing a song which portrayed Paul as something of a radical as opposed to the smooth voiced crooner who crossed over with "Me and Mrs Jones". The mainstream radio stations who had lapped that song up baulked at what they perceived to be a black power anthem - as did the white couples who had smooched along to "Mrs Jones" - and as a result it wasn't a hit.

      Fast forward almost 40 years and the interviews with Schoolly D, who reworked the song into a rap version and Questlove suggest the song was simply years ahead of its time - and certainly viewed today it's a song which gives Paul more credibility - certainly far more than the UK follow up single "Let's Make a Baby".

      Questlove is a particularly good interviewee - he's articulate and knowledgeable and quite clearly a fan of Billy Paul. His thoughts are interspersed with an interview where Paul tells the story of his grandmother who had to leave Georgia when her husband was lynched and there's a suggestion by Olsson that this was a trigger for Paul becoming politically charged musically but what I was left with was a sense of sadness in Paul that people could be racist as opposed to a sense of anger. The only time he showed any trace of anger in the film was recalling a racist Philadelphia police officer whose name is bleeped out. His anger over the way this officer treated Billie Holiday is evident but you are left wondering what angered him the most - the racism or the unfair arrest of his favourite singer who he openly admits he hero worshipped?

      Questlove does pick up on songs such as "I'm Just a Prisoner", with Olsson using archive footage from the period of young black men being booked in at police stations (invariably by white officers). His memories on how his family used the song as a warning to him to work in school and stay off the streets are chilling but the archive footage seems a little cliched.

      In complete contrast to this is a short and pointless interview with Clive Davis (I sometimes think he'd talk to anyone such is his love of his own voice) which seems to have taken place in some vast catacomb so echoey is his voice.

      The impression I got from this film is that Billy Paul wasn't much of a black protest singer when he joined Philadelphia International -instead he was a professional singer who did as he was told. Kenny Gamble on the other hand was far more politicised and it just so happened he was the person writing the songs for Paul and some of those politics rubbed off on Paul after a while.

      The end result is a little unsatisfying. The relationship between Billy and Blanche is wonderful to watch but questions remain about his relationship with Kenny Gamble and Olsson doesn't convince that certainly for some of the time in the 1970s Paul merely did as Gamble said.

      There's a beautiful scene where Billy and Blanche are showing Olsson old photographs and stop at one where both are painfully thin. Blanche mentions addictions which have been overcome but that's as far as Olsson gets in letting us know about them. Similarly there is a powerful sequence where you see Paul praying before going onstage but his faith is barely mentioned. For a man whose vocal roots are so lacking in gospel I'd have liked to have known more about his beliefs and if they influenced him at all.

      The best thing about the film is Paul himself - he's charismatic, charming and has a voice which is worth repeated listening. I just wish Olsson had done a documentary which didn't use race so much as an issue - that would have worked far better on a documentary on Kenny Gamble himself.

      I picked this up on DVD in HMV for just £3. There's no extras on the DVD apart from the trailer but there is a booklet which includes an indepth interview with Billy Paul which is worth a read.

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