(The following review was first published on February 20, 2016 when the film opened the 22nd Annual Sedona International Film Festival in Sedona, Arizona. The documentary will air on CNN, January 1, 2017 at 8pm.)
It’s hard to believe that Chicago has been part of our musical landscape for more than four decades. As comedian Jimmy Pardo states in the new documentary Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago, “Their music is literally the soundtrack of my life.” And so it is with many of us around the world, and this compelling documentary illustrates why.
Directed and edited by Peter Pardini, the film explores the history of the band from the beginning in 1967 when they were the six-piece Chicago Transit Authority, or CTA as the marquee lettering would often abbreviate, or simply the self-described rock and roll band with horns. What’s particularly impressive is how the documentary presents the band and all of its various members as flawed musicians. It wasn’t that their talent was in question, but when success comes – particularly when it comes as repeatedly as it did with Chicago – the behavior of young guys grouped together with too much money can often bring the kind of conflicts most of us in the real world rarely experience. Here, there’s no sugar-coating the tale, and that’s exactly what you want from a good, big screen documentary.
Under the unconventional management of original producer Jimmy Guercio, who declined to be a part of the film, the original six members were known as The Big Thing. It was when they moved to Los Angeles and signed with Columbia Records that the band changed their name. As saxophonist Walt Parazaider stated when referring to the signing of contracts, a handshake was initially enough. “And the only way you get out of it is to ask out or you die.”
In one of several new interviews recorded for the film, keyboardist and singer/songwriter Rober Lamm talks of how he perceives Chicago as not so much a band but as a family where during the four generations of being together, like many families, members come and go. “We’re all replaceable,” he insists.
Starting from ’67 when the band played covers, they found that replicating the work of others wasn’t doing it for them, so they would occasionally incorporate something new of their own into the lineup. It would get them fired. If it wasn’t Top 40, the club owners didn’t want to know. But there was always something unique about CTA and the type of rock and roll sound they were after, and they were determined to make it, but they were determined to make it with their own, original material. As Clive Davis at Columbia says: “They were performing artists from the get-go. Their material was very strong.”
Using clips of home movies, personal family pictures, music videos and new, recorded interviews, if the film makes one thing clear it’s this: In those early days, those young musicians had a great admiration for each other’s talent, and they got to know each other fast. They lived together and shared everything. The fridge had separate name tags on each shelf, and it was known that whoever showered last was going to get the cold water.
The first song they recorded was Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? in 1969 on a 16 track tape. But when it came to radio, they discovered a Catch-22 situation. Programmers wouldn’t play their song because they had never had a hit. But how could they ever have a hit if the radio never played their song? That was just one of many dilemmas with the music industry that the band would discover.
Shot in widescreen with a two hour running time and dedicated to record producer Phil Ramone, Pardini’s documentary does a great job of exposing many of the fears, doubts, punctured egos and quirks of being involved with a successful rock band in the music industry. Trumpet player Lee Loughnane talks of his lack of confidence as a player and how he would often say to himself, “I don’t belong here.” We also learn how it was that Peter Cetera, who would later launch a solo career after an inevitable split from the band, was never good at self promotion. If anything, he was embarrassed about it. In a telling moment with a clip from BBC TV’s Top of the Pops, British host Noel Edmunds asks Cetera on camera about the success of the enormous hit If You Leave Me Now and how he came to write it. Cetera stammers for a reply, notably irritated, then states, “I don’t know, I just wrote it. You put me on the spot.”
Once the film is over, you should know everything you ever wanted to know about Chicago, warts ‘n all, including the story behind the death of one of the founding members, Terry Kath, plus the hiring and firing of replacement musician Donnie Dacus and the couple of million dollars Columbia gave the musicians to just simply go away when they were no longer considered commercially relevant.
There are also plenty of stories regarding the making of the music. Learning how Just You ‘n Me came about can’t fail to raise that extra level of admiration for the song. In fact, once the film concludes, the first thing you’ll find yourself wanting to do is to rush home back to your collection and start playing Chicago’s enormous catalog from the beginning.
And on a personal note, after all these years I’ve finally found out what 25 Or 6 To 4 is about. It’s a song about writing a song. The title was the time in the morning when it was being written. Of course it was. What else could it have been?