This week’s film on the life, death and forgotten legacy of Sam Cooke is the latest entry in the eye-opening series
By David Browne
Read how Netflix’s ‘ReMastered’ doc series is presenting new perspectives on pivotal — and often harrowing — events in music history. Netflix, AP/REX/Shutterstock
Anyone who thinks making a music documentary is easy wasn’t in director Kief Davidson’s shoes when he was in Jamaica researching the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. Davidson and his crew were taken to sketchy neighborhoods in Kingston, where a police station had been shot up the night before. Arriving at a cemetery to see where one Jamaican gangster was buried, they found themselves in a midst of a turf war, surrounded by military brandishing automatic weapons. “You do exactly what the military says and you leave pretty quickly,” Davidson says. “I thought, ‘This will probably be the darkest Bob Marley film ever made.’”
That type of research and all-in reporting is one of many aspects that distinguishes ReMastered, a series of music documentaries that began rolling out on Netflix last fall. Targeting specific events and delving into what happened, why it happened and what outside forces were involved, the series brings fresh insight — and new interviews and documentation — to tales and myths we thought we knew.
ReMastered explores, among others, how Marley’s shooting was the result of the reggae legend being caught between warring political parties in Jamaica (Who Shot the Sheriff?), the shockingly sordid death and forgotten positive legacy of Sam Cooke (The Two Killings of Sam Cooke), the still-unsolved murder of Run-DMC’s DJ (Who Killed Jam Master Jay?), and the controversial and tangled bond between Johnny Cash and Richard Nixon (Tricky Dick and the Man in Black). “It was important not to just rehash information audiences already knew about famous musicians,” says Jeff Zimbalist, who, with his brother Michael, conceived and produced the series (working with executive producers Irving Azoff and Stu Schreiberg). “We want to advance the journalism and bring audiences stories they may not know about artists they do.”
The series, which continues Friday with the premiere of the Cooke movie, more than accomplishes those goals. Using rarely seen footage, the film recounts the night in 1964 when the suave and likable pop and R&B singer was killed — shot to death by the night manager of a motel where he had gone with a woman who turned out to be a hooker. But it also probes the way the music business of the early Sixties was threatened by Cooke’s evolving civil-rights consciousness as he became more of a crossover success and businessman (he owned a label and publishing company). One verse of Cooke’s momentous protest song “A Change Is Gonna Come,” for instance, was edited out when it was first released.
Using interviews with friends and colleagues as well as Smokey Robinson and Quincy Jones, The Two Killings of Sam Cooke explores a tragedy far greater than Cooke’s death: the way his tawdry murder came to overshadow his contributions. “Part of his legacy was hijacked by the way he died,” says director Kelly Duane de la Vega. “He was an incredible musical artist, but just as important was the way he contributed to the civil-rights movement and embodied the idea of an African-American artist having power in the record industry. It was a seedy end, and for some people, that’s where the conversation ended.” The film also chronicles the fabled 1964 get-together with Cooke, Muhammad Ali, football pro Jim Brown, and Malcolm X — and an FBI informant who was taking note of it all.
The often grim Who Killed Jam Master Jay?, directed by Brian Oakes, doesn’t shy away from the DJ’s murder in his Queens, New York, recording studio in 2002. According to the film, his shooting may have been the result of his involvement in drug trafficking (his way of compensating for the group’s declining record sales). Yet in a similar bigger-picture manner as the Cooke film, the film also connects the seeming indifference of local authorities to something even more troubling. “What was important was to point to a larger societal theme of sweeping these heinous crimes under the rug when they happen in certain communities,” says Jeff Zimbalist, “and particularly with hip-hop stars.”
To achieve their goals, the Zimbalists — and the different filmmakers who directed each episode — adhered to certain rules. No Behind the Music–style narration. No cheesy re-enactments. An emphasis on tracking down witnesses and not relying on third-party analysts to talk about the events. De-emphasizing sensationalism in favor of, as Jeff Zimbalist says, dipping into “the role of music and political musicians to use music as a vehicle for social change.”
As the Zimbalists and the filmmakers came to realize, chasing down those stories took some work. They discovered an unseen tape of Cash’s 1972 White House performance — but only in the Nixon library. Davidson found CIA paperwork on Marley amidst the recent WikiLeaks dump of government documents. In some cases, the filmmakers were dealing with sensitive topics and witnesses who weren’t always willing to go record and on camera; one interviewee in Who Shot the Sheriff?, for instance, is only seen in shadow and with his voice distorted. “It’s frustrating because you have information corroborated by multiple people,” says Davidson, “but there’s a sense of not exposing things because there would be repercussions. I never wanted to be a situation where footage I shot resulted in someone getting hurt.” Adds Michael Zimbalist, “We want to solve the mysteries, but that’s a sensitive line we have to walk.”
The Zimbalists are particularly stoked about two ReMastered entries on lesser-known but equally compelling topics. Massacre at the Stadium, which is already on Netflix, documents the 1973 torture and murder of Chilean folksinger and activist Victor Jara, and includes a rare interview with the man accused of killing him. The Miami Showband Massacre, which debuts March 22nd, documents the horrific story of a popular Irish touring band; in 1975, three of its members were killed in Northern Ireland when an attempt to frame them as IRA bombers backfired.
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