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No Stranger

img  Tobias

It‘s just a couple of minutes to six pm, when Bernie Worrell gets up and treats himself to a breakfast of a cigarette. In a couple of hours, he will do what everybody on “Stranger – Bernie Worrell on Earth ” seems to agree he does best: Setting a club on fire with his funky and furious Keyboard style. But until then, there is still plenty of time to talk about his past as a prodigious child, reflect upon his influence on generations of million-selling copycats and debate whether he can be seen as the Beethoven of our time. But first and foremost of all, Bernie Worrell needs to wake up. Standing in the doorway of the bathroom, he tries lighting his cigarette once, twice, thrice without moving, just waiting for the moment to come.

Hair Cuts for the New Mozart

“Stranger” certainly gets off to a good start. Philip di Fiore has managed to secure interviews with every single important musician Worrell has worked with, all eager to share their deep devotion for Worrell’s oeuvre and sound: Bootsie Collins, Bill Laswell, Prince Paul (of HipHop act De la Soul), Mos Def and the entire Talking Heads crew. Combined, the line-up recollects his rise from a student of classical music who secretly played gigs as part of nearby-club’s houseband to a revered Synthesizer wizard.

It all begins when little Bernie, already with a concerto under his belt at the tender age of eight and backed by a mother eager to turn him into the new Mozart, visits Bootsie Collin’s barber shop. Whatever they talked about at the time, it sure wasn’t hair cuts, for only shortly after, Collins reluctantly invites him over to a jam session of his fledgling outfit Parliament. His scepticism about the funkiness of this nurdy kid quickly turns into utter amazement as soon as Worrell strikes the keys.

It will be the tandem of Bootsie’s bass and Bernie’s rhythmic key configurations as well as their “insistance on the 1” (dubbed “the rhythm of life” by Collins) which makes their music completely irresistable. Sporting a wardrobe equally eccentric as their songs, the formation turns into a headliner in its own right, opens for rock bands and pens the hit “Flashlight”, whose quirky Mini-Moog lines by Worrell will serve as the basis for Dr. Dre’s entire musical imperium.

When Parliament disband, Worrell is invited to join succesful “avantgarde pop” ensemble Talking Heads. The three piece consisting of Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and frontman David Byrne is looking for someone capable of transporting their nervous white man’s rock to a more groovy plain. Footage from the band performing one of their signature tunes, “Burning down the House”, jumping about on stage, dancing and having fun at it, proves that Worrell’s influence extended well beyond the mere musical front. His presence had a soothing impact on the group and explains why the trio is still in contact with him – and why Weymouth worries about his ongoing drinking and smoking habbits like a mother.

Images instead of Content
This of course, is the part where things could and should get interesting. Bernie Worrell is at a peak, playing to sold out houses, with his recognisable keyboard style making an immediate impact on audiences and young musicians alike. Living Colour, themselves innovators with their organic and positively aggressive mix of Funk, Soul and Metal, seem to virtually have grown up to his music.

Unfortunately, though, it is right here that “Stranger” falters. Already strongly focussed on images instead of content and merely glueing together short interview snippets to arrive at some form of continuity, the movie fails to expand upon the deciding moment of the life of a man it obviously considers a genius. There is a phase when Worrell is going strong and then there is the here and now, which sees him struggling to earn his daily bread. In between, there is a black hole.

The documentary also fails to explain what it is that set Worrell apart from leagues of other Keyboard virtuosos (it’s not as if there weren’t any, after all). Di Fiore has taped hours of conversation, some of them magnificently interesting and fascinating for anyone with an interest in the development of Funk and Rap and the roots of contemporary R ‘n B. Unfortunately, he has used the stereotypically cliched moments for the actual film.

“Very rarely do people create new sounds and tones for everybody”, Mos Def oracles, “not just new arrangements or compositions, but a new sound. You know... that’s amazing.” Truth being told, nobody seems to know. Larry Alexander, who minutely followed the tracks of P-Funk in his book “An Oral History”, of all people, conceeds: “It is accurate to say he created a new language musically. But to put a handle on how to put that into words is difficult.” As diffiicult as it might be: Isn’t that an essential component of what this movie should set out to do?

A buzz, nevertheless
Maybe the dilemma of “Bernie Worrell on Earth” is that it was born with a wrong name. For all its claims of Worrell’s art being out of time and touch with a public not yet ready for an act of this innovative power, it does nothing but praise his musical talent. It does not portray him as a “Stranger”, instead presenting us with an “unrecognised musical genius”. That, alas, is a far less interesting topic than what was promised at the outset.

At just fourty minutes’ length, the movie is of course an entertaining ride nonetheless. Despite its contemporarily high framerate and only seconds-short concert extracts, it truly generates a buzz. You can hear Worrell’s elegant side, his lightningspeed virtuosity as well as the moments where he takes his melodies straight into the world of sound art. Afterwards, you will want to listen to his work, read about his life and see him perform live.

A good point to start your trip down discovery lane is “Lodge” (out on Karlrecords) an album project initiated by Finish Drum n Bass act Fanu and aforementioned Bill Laswell, who is still a frequent collaborator – and which features Bernie Worrell alongside Nils Petter Molvaer and Graham Haynes. Within the context of this supergroup, Worrell is neither an alien nor an eccentric, but merely an incredibly playful keyboarder with a flashing, futuristic and formidable technique. In this case, the music really speaks more than a thousand words.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Bernie Worrell
Homepage; Karlrecords

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