It was about twenty four years ago when I saw a brilliant Spike Lee documentary, produced by PBS about a capella music. Not only because the subject was interesting by itself, but also because the story created was pretty cool too.
It began with Spike at his office talking to great names in music: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Branford Marsalis, Roberta Flack, Hugh Masekela (whose son is nowadays a famous ESPN X reporter) and – not exactly a musician – David Dinkins (mayor of New York at the time) playing what seemed to be some kind of harmonica.
Then, the documentary is divided in two parts: first he and Debbie Allen (Emmy Awars winner choreographer) go out in the streets of New York as if they were scouting a capella groups for a show Spike wants to hold at the BAM (Brooklyn Academy Of Music) theater. That’s when we first got acquainted with Rockapella, True Image, The Mint Juleps and The Persuasions.
The second part is the gig itself with all the groups plus performances from Take 6 and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Interesting enough, those last two were who achieved more notoriety after the movie. By the way, if you remember the opening scene in the hilarious Eddie Murphy movie “Coming to America”, those voices in the background are Ladysmith Black Mambazo, two years prior to the Spike Lee documentary. At that time, nobody cared.
Curiously, two of those groups vanished and it’s hard to find something else of them even on you tube: The Mint Juleps and True Image. The Mint Juleps are the most curious of all of the groups in the documentary. They are six British girls (four sisters and two friends) singing a very American type of music. And they are just marvelous. Their duet with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (a song that went on to become a hit years later due to The Lion King movie) and their version of “Higher and Higher” are both breathtaking. True Image are also brilliant and one of my favorite moments are their rendition of “Under The Boardwalk” with Rockapella.
But my favorite of all is definitely The Persuasions, often cited as precursors of acapella music and a huge influence on all other groups. Their first appearance singing “Looking For An Echo” is almost tear inducing, their live version of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Up On The Roof” better than any other you’ll ever hear, including James Taylor’s.
Overall, it’s another work of art made by Spike Lee and in my humble opinion his greatest. I remember a lot of late nights when I was a teenager watching my LD copy of “Do It A Capella” trying to memorize all the lyrics (remember, there was still no internet back then). And what was most intriguing, was that at that time I was a radical metalhead! But something about those tunes touched me and still touches today.