Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Language Bernie Worrell Made
“Genius” is one of the most overused terms on the planet. It’s one of those superlatives writers fall back on to pad faulty arguments about everything and everyone from the latest household cleanser to the newest album by rock stars past their prime. Swifters might be a clever tool for apartment dwellers, but they’re hardly ingenious. A tasty riff on a pop song might move you momentarily, but it’s unlikely to alter the course of civilization, “You Really Got Me” notwithstanding.

Real genius is a little more elusive. It’s made up of moments so inspired, so indefinable, that it’s almost imperceptible at its birth. That’s why it takes us years, decades, even centuries to recognize true genius. Genius is something stentorian, lurking everywhere, a parasite from beyond infecting only a few along the way. So subtle is its presence that those inflicted with it are blissfully unaware of it coursing through their being.

Bernie Worrell is one of those beings. At first glance, he’s an unassuming man in his early sixties, the sort of guy you’d hardly give more than a cordial nod were you to pass him on the street. But you’d notice a certain aura about him, as if you’d known him from somewhere.

And you’d be right. His name may have escaped you, but if you’ve turned on a radio in the last thirty years, you’re familiar with him. A founding member of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, the man who was instrumental in transforming Talking Heads from an uptight white quartet to a world-class funk ensemble, Bernie Worrell is the invisible genius behind modern music.

Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth documents Worrell’s significance in shaping modern pop music. A classically trained child prodigy, Worrell wrote his first concerto at age eight. He had been studying Mozart, Ravel and Bach since the age of four, joined the Washington Symphony Orchestra by the time he was ten and studied at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. He was primed for a career as a classical pianist.

Genius, as it is wont to do with those it inflicts, sent Worrell on a different path, urging him to take the piano to a different sphere, to invent a new language for the keyboard. He found his voice in the clavinet and minimoog, and began laying down the rudiments of the new language in the early days of Parliament-Funkadelic with songs like “Flashlight,” and introduced it full-blown to mainstream audiences with Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.” He’s since become one of the most sampled musicians in hip-hop, and is credited in some circles as being responsible for Dr. Dre’s sound. He’s worked with some of the most prominent musicians in pop music, and has shaped almost every electronic sound heard in pop music over the past four decades.

For all his contributions, though, Worrell lives in relative obscurity, a situation with which he doesn’t seem completely uncomfortable. For Worrell, it’s all about the sounds he makes, ever-shifting, always evolving. It’s as if he’s beyond words, articulating instead through the voice of his music. It’s left to those who know and love him to speak on his behalf in Stranger

At 39 minutes, Stranger is more a tribute to Bernie Worrell than anything else. While it does include some vintage P-Funk and Talking Heads footage, it could hardly be categorized as a concert film. And since it takes a soundbite approach to telling its story, it can’t really be classified as a documentary, either. Yet, it emerges as a story, sometimes upbeat, sometimes bittersweet that needs to be told.

Featuring shotgun-style interviews with Talking Heads David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, P-Funk maestros George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes and producer Bill Laswell, among others, a portrait of Bernie Worrell takes shape, nebulous though it is. We begin to see him as a man less concerned with notoriety and fortune than with the mere joy inherent in creation. He is yet another artist who, despite his undeniable influence, has reaped few of the monetary rewards his contemporaries have seen.

If there’s a downside to Stranger, it’s that many of the interviewees worry overmuch that he will die in obscurity, like a nineteenth century impressionist, unrecognized until years after his demise. There’s not much danger of that, though. Bonus material on the DVD, particularly clips from Worrell’s Improviczario sessions illustrate he is as vibrant and innovative as he ever was.

For director Philip Di Fiore, Stranger was obviously a labor of love. Wisely choosing to let musicians who have worked with Worrell through the years propel the story, he’s managed to create a portrait of a man who is too reticent to talk about himself. For those of us who have admired Worrell through his music over the years, it’s an emotional experience. For Worrell and the demon genius—well, they’re busy working on new lexicons. Genius will do that to a guy.

No comments: