While the ambition of the indie documentary “This Time” is perhaps admirable, the trouble with the picture is evident from the synopsis of the film. While the sizzle being sold to audiences is that it chronicles the return of The Sweet Inspirations, the backing singers who worked with Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and more, it’s actually three stories, with the struggles of a thirty-something cabaret singer Bobby Belfry, and a forgotten disco-era singer Pat Hodges (of Hodges, James & Smith) also tossed into the mix. The result is a film that’s fractured and jarring, trying to tie the tales of these three acts into some kind of over-reaching arc about the machinations of the industry, which the most interesting story is hiding in plain sight.
Why we don’t get a whole movie about The Sweet Inspirations is mind boggling. Starting as a gospel group in the ’50s, members through the years have include Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston (yes, mother of Whitney Houston), and Jerry Wexler, the legendary music producer over at Atlantic Records, signed the girls to a deal simply to have them available to sing for the rest of the acts on the label. While they were never big charting stars, they worked with the cream of the crop, and on a number of iconic albums such as Dusty In Memphis. They clearly made some lasting footprints in the music business, but likely hampered by the tiny budget of the film (the press notes reveal director Victor Mignatti worked as a crew of one), we hear nothing of their work during the prime of their career (licensing those songs would cost a fortune), nor is there any context or insight from anyone in the industry on what they meant to those records or to the artists who benefited from their voices.
And so with a dearth of info on them, we get two artists to go along with The Sweet Inspirations in order to turn “This Time” into a feature length film. In what is an easy parallel, Mignatti turns the camera to Hodges, who experienced a modest amount of success in the ’70s, only to become homeless (how or why is more or less left unexplored) and take on intermittent acting gigs (though you won’t see any of that info in the film). She experiences a resurgence thanks to a couple of recent club hits, but continues to remain near destitute. But what doesn’t work at all is the story of Belfry, an enthusiastic singer/songwriter in New York, struggling to find an audience for his showtunes. Working as a bartender for fifteen years, he stays doggedly focused on trying to launch his career, but is there even a market for what he’s trying to do? Is his partner/manager merely humoring these dreams? These are tough questions that the viewer may yell at the screen, but they are never delved into, in what becomes a recurring theme throughout the disjointed picture that jumps from story to story to story with little rhyme or reason.
But perhaps most tragically, one can’t help but feel an overwhelming sadness at how earnest and misguided the efforts all around feel. Producer Peitor Angell, who generously gives a lot of time to both The Sweet Inspirations and Pat Hodges, seems to be unaware of how other label and acts are resurrecting R&B artists by keeping it simple. A look at what Daptone has done for Charles Bradley or Truth & Soul for Lee Fields with pairing them with no fuss, throwback soul musicians and songs to great success, runs counter to the somewhat artificial synth driven backdrops Angell gives The Sweet Inspirations or worse, the club beats for Hodges. Especially for the latter, who is up front about her faith in God being the most important driving force in her life, having her sing gay anthems (example title: “I’m Coming Out”) instead of gospel seems incongruous. While Hodges is deeply appreciative of the support she receives from the LGBT community, it’s not exactly a shock when she reveals that her heart isn’t in performing.
“This Time” demands that an audience take for granted the thesis that this movie is about great talents that are being ignored by the industry, but does little to make that case. Both The Sweet Inspirations and Pat Hodges are likely filled with stories about the ups and downs of their careers, but Mignatti curiously fails to ask or capture any memorable anecdotes from these women or from those that crossed their path over their years. Their talent is absolutely undeniable, but when you see Angell trying to revive their careers with gaudy tunes, and even more gaudy artwork and press photos, it’s hard to rally to their cause when the best foot isn’t even put forward. When The Sweet Inspirations wonder why their CD isn’t in stores, you immediately want to ask Angell why he didn’t try to shop their record around to the bounty of indie soul/revival labels out there who know exactly how to push, market and package this stuff. As for Belfry, he is immensely charming and his attitude is resolutely positive, but his talent isn’t ever enough to convince that he’s the next big thing just waiting for a break, so his portion of the film — as random as it already is — immediately becomes even more superfluous.
Unfocused, and feeling mostly incomplete in even the most basic standards of documentary film, “This Time” unfortunately reflects an amateur approach that is felt not just in the filmmaking but in the very people trying to bring The Sweet Inspirations, Pat Hodges and Bobby Belfry to bigger recognition. One never wants to take down those who are well-intentioned, and making an honest effort, but the very message of the film is constantly undercut by what seem to be bad decisions or at times, an ignorance as to how the music industry works today. In short, “This Time” is disappointment, a missed opportunity to let viewers know just where these R&B acts came from, and why we should be interested in where they go tomorrow. [C-]