and D.A. Pennebaker

Among the chief pleasures of Only the Strong Survive is hearing soul-music stars who came of age in the ’60s sing their old hits with the benefit of long—and in many cases, bitterly achieved—life experience. When Sam Moore, for example, steps up to the microphone as part of a tribute to his old friend Isaac Hayes and sings “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” every note rings with his happy amazement at still being able to appear onstage after a near-fatal battle with heroin and cocaine in the ’70s and ’80s. His voice might be a little shaky, but he more than makes up for lack of vocal power with a rapturous, childlike reaction to the moment. When he gets offstage, he sits in his dressing room for what seems like an hour, beaming and shaking his head at the effect the music has had on him. And the nearly 60-year-old Carla Thomas even manages to make her bubblegummy “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” which she wrote in 1958 at age 16, sound like an achingly beautiful lament. Along with her father, Memphis soul legend Rufus Thomas, Thomas stands at the center of Only the Strong Survive’s multilayered narrative, which pays big-hearted tribute to those singers and a handful of others, including former Supreme Mary Wilson, nonstop talker Wilson Pickett, and supersmooth Jerry “Iceman” Butler, who founded the Impressions with Curtis Mayfield when he was 18 and is now, as Cook County commissioner, the second-most-powerful politician in Chicago. Directed by the husband-and-wife team of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, the feature-length documentary is moving and charming, if a little rough around the edges. Using journalist (and co-producer) Roger Friedman as a narrator, Pennebaker and Hegedus chart a meandering course through the history of soul music, visiting the former site of Memphis’ Stax Records and interspersing archival photographs and vintage recordings with performance footage shot in 1999 and 2000. That most of those concerts were filmed in front of noticeably spotty crowds merely underscores the fact that, despite its title, Only the Strong Survive is essentially a 95-minute elegy. Indeed, the film is dedicated to the memory of the amiable, gravel-voiced Rufus Thomas, who died just as the filmmakers were getting their movie ready for its Sundance debut. —Christopher Hawthorne