By Hank Stuever
Monday, January 11, 2010; C05
It is 1959-ish and Dick Clark is asking the newly famous, chart-topping Sam Cooke why he left a career in gospel music behind to record pop songs -- the genre Cooke's people taught him to regard as "the devil's music." "What caused you to turn to this kind of music?" Clark wonders.
Cooke smirks and replies: "My economic situation."
Clark laughs and praises Cooke for his honesty. What seems to be a lighthearted moment in "Sam Cooke: Crossing Over," which airs Monday night in another of public television's "American Masters" series, in fact underscores the dilemma presented in this unsatisfying, one-hour rush through Cooke's career: The guy just wanted to sing and become famous.
Yet, because he died young (and at the height of the civil rights movement) he must bear some other symbolism, as required by the law of nostalgic, pop-cultural lore. And so filmmaker John Antonelli's documentary works too hard to make a case that without Cooke, the inevitable would somehow not have occurred: There would be no gospel-inspired movement toward Motown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and so on.
What's best are the songs themselves, on their own. It starts with "You Send Me" in 1957, and continues for seven years with such hits as "Cupid," "Twistin' the Night Away," "Chain Gang" and "A Change Is Gonna Come," until Cooke's death in 1964. The glimpses of Cooke in his handsome, honey-voiced prime, seducing an American television and radio audience, are worth tuning in; 50 years on, Cooke's groundbreaking voice still resonates so sweetly.
While it's true that he was the first black recording artist to successfully break free from the strict lines that divided the gospel, R&B and pop charts, "Crossing Over" (narrated by Danny Glover) struggles to do anything with that accomplishment other than place him on a timeline and surround his memory with segregation-era news footage and fond reminiscences.
Cooke's early years with the Soul Stirrers, a gospel group on the chitlin circuit, are most interesting -- and sadly brief. We get very little information about his Chicago boyhood or upbringing, and he emerges in the first few minutes as a young man of 20 who causes females in the congregation to swoon, "combing his hair as he sings 'God is wonderfulll,' " Bobby Womack recalls.
The behind-the-scenes story of Antonelli's struggle to make this film might have made a better story instead. According to an interview Antonelli recently gave the San Francisco Chronicle, he ran into repeated resistance from Allen Klein, Cooke's obstinate manager and keeper of the estate, who died last year. The stonewalling, Antonelli said, stretched production for 12 years. Many of the interviewees seen here are now dead -- James Brown, Lou Rawls, Jerry Wexler -- which distracts the viewer into wondering when the interviews took place.
What results is less worthy of the "American Masters" series and plays more like an infomercial; one would almost anticipate commercial breaks offering a five-CD collection of hits. We are escorted through the key points in Cooke's life (this hit, then that one; a marriage and divorce and then another marriage; another hit song, then another, then the founding of a record label; the loss of his infant son, who drowned) until, jarringly, a drunk and allegedly belligerent Cooke is shot and killed, at age 33, by a Los Angeles motel manager -- in what was ruled justifiable homicide. His eternally brokenhearted friends and family (including a sister, Agnes, who has also since died) didn't buy that, and still don't.
What's left is "You Send Me" and other memorable songs and . . . what else? "Sam Cooke: Crossing Over" wishes to infuse that legacy with more meaning and significance than Cooke's oeuvre might in fact bear, by stating the obvious over and over. Sometimes a pop star is only a pop star, and a song is only a golden oldie. But still golden, and what a thing to be.
American Masters -- Sam Cooke: Crossing Over; (one hour) airs at 10 p.m. tonight on WETA and 9 p.m. on MPT.