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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
It's an Up-and-Down World
by Donald Levit

The entertainment industry is by reputation amoral, an often crooked dog-eat-dog business that may bring riches and fame but does not necessarily shower rewards on talent. Tag-lined “Every dream has its soundtrack,” director/photographer/editor/sound recordist Victor Mignatti’s This Time does not until the end illustrate the brick wall of the music world’s machinations. Losing its track amidst tangential figures, it details the hopes and despairs of performers -- two individual, one group -- and a writer/arranger/producer, impossible dreamers all, and their highs and lows as well as their artistic, spiritual and financial motivations.

If not as movie-mined as individual singers with serious personal demons, classic pop groups are still a not unfamiliar theme: Sparkle (1970, now being remade), The Five Heartbeats, Dreamgirls (from a Broadway musical successful in 1981, in contrast to the short-lived Baby It’s You) -- Supremes, Dells, Shirelles/Florence Greenberg.

The hundred-eleven-minute documentary should have been expanded into two, even three, separate releases. The people are fun, and so are the performances, solo or harmonized, soul-gospel or rock-cabaret, onstage or being worked out in rehearsal. But as with many similar films, there is an excess of clips, with the music left in teasing snippets.

Though much is connected through composer/producer Peitor Angell, a friend who had first alerted Mignatti, there is also a division between “The Sweets” and Pat Hodges on the one hand, and bartender/singer/songwriter Bobby Belfry on the other; less a separation by race than by type of music and venue, and by the latter’s more or less self-management and -promotion. With this switching back and forth on top of bringing in many momentary figures (including an alter ego), thrust and thread are not so strong as would have been with less and fewer. The film should have been as selective as it is in its restrained use of long-ago snapshots.

The group is The Sweet Inspirations, formed out of Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church by Emily “Cissy” Drinkard Houston, Sylvia Sherwell, Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown. Backing vocalists on hundreds of Atlantic recordings in Memphis, Muscle Shoals and New York -- for Cissy’s niece Dionne Warwick, Aretha, Dusty Springfield, Hendrix, Van Morrison, Wilson Pickett, Garnet Mimms -- they put out two successful albums and a hit single in 1968 and, when Houston went solo (apparently resulting in some hard feelings), backed up Elvis for eight years until his death. (Smith also co-wrote for Beach Boy Carl Wilson.)

Never superstars, and with stroke survivor Sherwell giving way to Portia Griffin, they work for two-and-a-half years with Angell on getting together a CD. He is also nursing along Hodges, who recorded and toured in the ‘70s as part of Hodges, James & Smith. By the time she began to record again in 1997 and did three Billboard Club Chart top-ten singles, she was living homeless in South Central LA. Of the six principal players, she is the only one that is indicated as being a parent (and grandparent).

The personalities of the three central-focus Sweets complement one another and yet contrast, while Hodges and Belfry are worlds apart unto themselves.

Way overweight on bad knees, Hodges vacillates between Christ and Caesar, God and Mammon, at times combining them in praying He will furnish the money to improve her lot, at times believing in her talent and at others ready to throw in the towel while also bringing the Word of Love to gay and lesbian audiences.

The odd man out here, white suburbanite Belfry has driven in to work and perform at Upper East Side Brady’s piano bar and other venues. These fifteen years have not entirely muted his dream of rock stardom. At just shy of forty the youngest by much of these performers, he cannot get the fortuitous big-break idea out of his system.

Near the end of the four-and-a-half-year shoot, the Sweets’ In the Right Place CD came out, changed and basically sabotaged by the record company and thus now plugged, played and sold via iTunes and at the girl group’s concerts. The beat goes on.

(Released by Village Art Pictures and Inspiration 101, LLC; not rated by MPAA.)

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