Film Reviews / Indie Film

Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock n Roll review: Dir. Tom Jones (2019)

Guest Reviewer Steve Bent, check out his superb music blog over at Steve for the Deaf

Any documentary that opens with the intro to Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band’s Growing Up and has a title like Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock n Roll is going to win me over right off the bat. Beautiful lush modern cinematography is juxtaposed with archive images given that 3D (Searching For Sugarman) style animation as an A list of Hall of Famers lead by The Boss himself eulogise about this New Jersey answer to The Big Easy.

For the most part APRRR is a long overdue document of a moment in rock and roll history where black and white, rock and soul, gospel and blues all mixed in an all-night unlicensed venue for what could well have been the first time.

While America dealt with it’s dark heart and deep issues during the civil rights movement a teenage love of Elvis and Chuck Berry didn’t see colour, it heard unity in the clubs and bars of Asbury Park. This once puritanical district sat sandwiched between hard workers and their hard drinking and the big money and their high rolling ways.

As the people who were there recall the vibe, the rules and the scene leaders of their youth this documentary gives you an insight in to the formative years of the E Street Band. The meet cute story between Steve Van Zandt and Bruce feels like the sort of tale cool parents retell when they’ve had a couple of drinks at a wedding. A rich seam of vintage concert footage sees everyone from blues, jazz and soul pioneers to 60’s legends of rock pass through. Don’t mistake the clips of The Who and The Doors for the real gold though. It’s the Up Stage Club’s Jam Night photos that show rock royalty looking the way they did in their high school yearbooks playing the music that influenced them for the sheer love.

The stories Bruce told on stage in his recent book and Broadway run (& the Netflix filmed version of it) are fleshed out with the Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s all getting to add their details for the first act of the movie. Just when the film feels like it may be getting too self-congratulatory it happens. The inciting incident of July 4th 1970 turns a holiday weekend turn into a full on race riot. The musos we’ve been hearing from for the last 40 minutes are now talking about their integrated crowds hanging out one night and being in different worlds the next. As the skies of this seafront town turn black with the smoke from burning buildings and car loads of petrol bombs are seized by state troopers it’s clear the dream is over. The truly heartbreaking aftermath images of indiscriminate destruction show that Asbury Park would never be the same again. The community lost its prosperity in one week of unrest and this bustling seaside town becomes a slum and a ghetto for decades to come.

When the films’ talking heads turn to political corruption and exploitation keeping the town down it is unflinching. The injustices that kept Asbury Park from rising again from its repeated set backs are named and shamed. Among this long dark night of no soul there is a light. One sanctuary survived. The Stone Pony. The Asbury Dukes section of the film tells it like a comeback story. Names like The Ramones, The Grateful Dead and Boz Scaggs play second fiddle to the house band and their legendary residency. The Pony was the lone survivor from which any future had to grow.

Rock docs often play to the gallery. You don’t get much from that Rush documentary if you can’t bear Rush, you won’t hang on the details of any episode of Behind The Music if you haven’t put in the hours in front of it. The salvation of this city lies in another kind of integration. The spirit of the place must be coming up from something deep in the geography. The battles of the civil rights movement have evolved since the 60’s. So has this wonderful district. Scene luminary Nick Addeo nails the essence of what makes the Asbury Park sound and places like the Up Stage Club and The Stone Pony so important early on when he says – “If you want to see true integration just hang out with Musicians Man”

Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock n Roll opens globally on 22 May.

Guest review from Steve Bent, check out his superb music blog over at Steve for the Deaf and check out the trailer:

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