Great and Greatest: Sam Cooke, subject of a Bay Area-made documentary, produces a record with help from his friend Muhammed Ali in 1963. (Photo by Getty Images, courtesy filmmaker)

Antonelli's 'Crossing Over' and Cooke's Soulful Genius

Michael Fox December 1, 2009

The first interviews John Antonelli recorded for his documentary about the late singer-songwriter Sam Cooke, back in 1998, were with music-industry heavyweights Herb Alpert and Lou Adler. Needless to say, a whole lot more people found themselves in front of Antonelli’s camera in the ensuing years. The patient, persistent Marin County filmmaker is finally ready to share the fruits of his labor, and the timing is pretty sweet. The new year gets off to a smooth, soulful start when PBS’ "American Masters" airs Sam Cooke: Crossing Over on January 11, 2010. Not coincidentally, it’s also four days before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.

"Sam Cooke was an embodiment of something very important in black history and black culture and black music," Antonelli explains.  "He was close friends with Muhammad Ali. They were very intertwined in their feelings about politics. It’s no fluke that he wrote "A Change Is Going to Come." He was very much feeling the pulse of what was going on in the Civil Rights Movement at that time. [That song] was the confluence of his creative life and his religious upbringing and his political awareness."

Antonelli is one of the most self-effacing filmmakers you’ll ever meet, deflecting every question into an acknowledgment of his collaborators (co-producer Chann Berry, executive producer Avon Kirkland and writer Noland Walker), funders (ITVS, primarily) or subject. He doesn’t bemoan the lengthy production process, pointing out instead that it enabled him to gradually arrive at a richer sense of the life and legacy of the influential singer who was born in Mississippi in 1931 and died in Los Angeles in 1964.

"When I started, and I thought it was for ‘American Masters,’ I thought of it more as a tribute to him and his music and what his impact was," Antonelli recalls.  "The deeper I got into it, in part due to the kind of comments I got from ITVS, [I asked] what did he give up to get what he got? What were the more complicated underlying issues in this man’s life? At first, those answers seemed simple to me. As we delved, and talked to friends and family, the deeper the piece got."

Cooke (like Aretha Franklin, whom he mentored) was a preacher’s child, and he achieved his first great success as a gospel singer. But he had bigger dreams, even in a Jim Crow world.  "He was the first black artist to have his own record label and to have his own music publishing," Antonelli points out, "and he was the first notable black gospel artist to cross over all the way to popular music—not just R&B."

Antonelli confides that the structure of Sam Cooke: Crossing Over was always pretty clear in his mind.  "You could see the arc right away," he says.  "The end of the first act was his crossover from gospel to pop. We knew that the tragic end was his death. But the really complicated, fascinating part to me, that made it worth the time to explore and figure out, was the quality he had, the brazen attitude that I can do anything."

Re-watching an interview in the editing room that he had shot in Chicago with Cooke’s niece, Gwendolyn Greene, Antonelli had a revelation.  "She described this situation where they’d go to an amusement park with their uncle, and he would essentially take over the park. That was the way he lived his life: He could do anything, anything was possible. You couldn’t say no to him. Nothing could get in his way."

It dawned on Antonelli—who owns the long-established Mill Valley Film Group (now based in Sausalito, for the record) with Will Parrinello—that that was the underlying theme in a lot of the interviews he conducted with Cooke’s peers. This aspect of Cooke’s personality, alas, also proved his undoing at the end. Curiously, the sordid story of the singer’s death has come to overshadow his accomplishments and importance as an artist with a chunk of the industry as well as the public.

"The biggest challenge was to get to the end of the piece and have people come away feeling that he was the significant person that I think he was," Antonelli says.

The filmmaker mentions that Otis Redding—another amazing singer who died young and is underappreciated today—performed a couple of Cooke numbers at his famous Monterey Pop performance in 1967. Asked if a film on Redding is in the cards, Antonelli allows that it’s on the list of potential future projects. He’s presently in post on From Poaching to Plowshares, a documentary about a Zambian environmental activist who has taught elephant poachers to make a living from sustainable farming and fishing, and beekeeping. In an oversight on my part, I neglected to inquire about the soundtrack.

Notes from the Underground? Have You Heard from Johannesburg?, Connie Field’s seven-part, eight-and-a-half-hour history of the worldwide anti-apartheid movement, is scheduled to open in New York in April at the Film Forum.  Micha Peled’s Seeds was among the docs funded in ITVS’ latest Open Call. ITVS is also backing (with CAAM and KQED, through the LINCS program,) What a Ghost Foretells: The Making of a Contemporary Opera, Monica Lam, David Peterson and Fawn Ring’s document of S.F. Opera’s production of "The Bonesetter’s Daughter" by Amy Tan and Stewart Wallace.

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