When director Bob Mugge hits town to introduce several of his films at the American Film Institute over the next few days, it's going to seem like a vacation.
In the last few months he's flown to Japan to complete filming on "Saxophone Colossus," a musical portrait of jazz giant Sonny Rollins ("the yen rose and the dollar fell so a very tight budget went to hell"), to Seattle and Vancouver for film festivals (tearing a knee ligament at the latter), to Philadelphia to get married and have the knee operated on, and to Australia for the Melbourne and Sydney film festivals (he spent the semihoneymoon on crutches and his wife caught pneumonia).
"It's been a crazy period," Mugge concedes. "And after all these years with my hair parted down the middle, that whole '60s thing, I got my hair spiked last week because I was getting challenged by my new 13-year-old stepdaughter to get 'hip.' "
The hair may be new, but Bob Mugge's films have been hip for some time. Over the last five years he has produced a distinctive body of documentary films on eccentric and innovative musicians in a number of genres, including jazz, soul, reggae, gospel, salsa and contemporary classical. If good subjects inspire good documentaries, great subjects inspire better documentaries. And Mugge has trained his camera on some of the most intriguing figures around.
*"Black Wax" (1982) may be familiar to Washingtonians, since it deals with local poet-singer-songwriter and pop provocateur Gil Scott-Heron, but three films will be making their Washington premieres: last year's "The Return of Ruben Blades" (tonight at 6:30 at the Kennedy Center's AFI Theater), 1983's "Cool Runnings: The Reggae Movie" (Saturday at 8:30), and 1984's "The Gospel According to Al Green" (Sunday at 8).
Also showing will be a double bill of "George Crumb: Voice of the Whale" and "Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise" (Monday at 8:30), and Mugge's first major film, "Amateur Night at City Hall," a feature-length documentary on former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo that looks at politics as show business (Tuesday at 6:30).
"I purposely picked eccentric musicians because they're just interesting people, and one of the things I try to do with these films is tell interesting stories," Mugge says. "Also, the people who are usually the most innovative, most progressive in what they're doing and who are challenging conventions are often people who haven't been totally socialized themselves. They've been able to hold on to some qualities that many of the rest of us abandoned in youth . . . the ability to be spontaneous and to constantly question how things are done. It often makes for wonderful art, and sometimes makes them a pain to deal with."
A Wheaton-Silver Spring native who attended progressive Kennedy High School before going on to Temple University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Mugge, 36, makes music portraits that have been called "the thinking man's alternative to MTV." His films are straightforward yet kinetic, adroitly mixing performance and interviews even as they examine the dynamics of pop culture and the obsessive lives of artists on its cutting edge.
Most of his subjects are not simply proponents of their form; they have created a synthesis, "taking something and putting it together with something else or with a whole bunch of other things. With Rube'n Blades, it's taking the Latin dance elements of salsa and putting them together with social, political and even poetic lyrics . . . replacing the horns with synthesizers . . . bringing Latin music into the '80s, into the league with international pop music . . . With Al Green there's the obvious combining of R&B elements into gospel and taking gospel elements into R&B. With Sonny Rollins, on top of everything else over the years, here's the greatest living jazz improviser experimenting with a classical symphonic orchestra . . .
"Either directly or indirectly, I chose these individuals because they allow me a leaping-off point to deal with assorted issues. It's no coincidence that five of my films have dealt very directly with racism, and more than that involve blacks or Latins. In fact, all of the ones that are being shown at the AFI have minorities of some kind. There's a spiritual side to a number of them, be it Sun Ra or Al Green, or parts of the Sonny Rollins thing now. The Frank Rizzo and Gil Scott-Heron films are almost reverse images of each other -- one is about the politics of show business, and the other is basically show business as politics . . .
"There's all these connections running through them," Mugge adds, "and that's the other key thing that I try to do with the films -- I want to be able to talk about certain social, political, esthetic and even spiritual issues through these artists. It's so boring sometimes to find yourself falling back on all the cliche's of the 'art versus life' thing. One of the constant challenges for me is finding new ways to make that fresh, because you're dealing with something that's real essential there. Obviously the art affects the life and the life affects the art, and you can make a really benign film around that if you aren't careful."
Though Mugge's films have been exhibited around the world, gathering praise and awards, he's not always found stateside funding (his 60-90 minute films typically run to $150,000). In fact, three of the films being shown at the AFI were funded by England's progressive Channel 4. The Rollins film, he says, "is the first time since the late '70s that I've gotten any money for a project in the United States. I've tried numerous times getting money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and always got turned down. Lots of other people whose work I respect get turned down too, so I'm not the only one, of course."
For the most part Mugge has avoided the time- and energy-consuming grant cycle ("even assuming that we were going to turn over a new leaf and start giving out grants again in this country"), preferring the quick turnaround of commissioned films. But "there've been a couple of times over the last 13 years that I've had to move back home with my parents because I've run out of money on this or that project."
He begins a project with a script of possibilities but, in '60s fashion, tends to go with the flow once filming begins. Making "Black Wax," Mugge was struggling with form when Gil-Scott Heron "came around with a tape that had the beginnings of a new song, 'Washington D.C.,' and we worked out a whole thing around that," with Scott-Heron offering a counter-Cook's tour of Washington with a shouldered boom box beating out the song.
Mugge criticizes the current state of music videos, saying they've become "busier and busier, more and more hollow, centered on flashy special effects and mindless mimicking of music. The result is a really embarrassing phenomenon of musicians' mimicking their own music. More and more I found myself simplifying my own approaches, trying to go more and more for meaning, for ideas, for communication, even if that's to the detriment of my own sense of self-expression or my own sense of imposing a really forceful, blatant style on the work. I'm hoping to a very great extent these films appear as the antithesis of an MTV video clip."
Indeed, his name is more often linked with West Coast documentary filmmaker Les Blank, "because the two of us make more music films than anybody else," Mugge says. "There's a real ethnographic side to his films, which tend to use people more as representatives of musical and ethnic subcultures, while my films tend to be more about the individual genius or individual creator. Although it's gone out of style, I've maintained my own romantic notion of the single dynamic, brilliant creator. To me there's only one Al Green. There's a lot of similarities to Sam Cooke and any number of other people, but I made a film about Al Green because I thought that he in particular was important, not just because he was representative of a number of guys who've made both soul music and gospel music and who've gone back to the church after freaking out in their R&B and pop days . . .
"At the same time, what I'd like to think distinguishes my films from some others is the emphasis on ideas. You try to find ways to bring those ideas through quick juxtapositions, through juxtaposing certain visuals with certain different music, certain different interviews and all that. Hopefully by the time the Al Green film is over, you have been made to think about the connections between soul music and gospel, about the ironies of Al Green's career . . . you have questioned in your own mind his guilt or innocence in certain situations in his life that came up . . . you've hopefully done a lot of exploring on your own."