"Only the Strong Survive"

Along with the strong, the blessed also survive, as Sam Moore describes himself in this sweaty film from experienced documentarians DA Pennebaker (Monterey Pop, Ziggy Stardust, Don't Look Back, 101) and Chris Hegedus (Down from the Mountain, Startup.com). This film definitely feels like one of Pennebaker's concert films and less like a documentary proper. While there is nothing wrong with seeing concert footage of some amazing performers, it was hard to not feel let down by the lack of depth to this documentary.


The enjoyable moments in this film come from the soulful footage of rhythm and blues superstars such as Isaac Hayes, Mary Wilson, Jerry Butler, and Carla and Rufus Thomas. It was impossible to avoid some foot-stamping and seat-dancing while watching these artful crooners belt out their hits and bust a move on stage, despite their advancing years. This film focuses on where the stars from yesterday are today, but unfortunately doesn't explain what happened in between. How the strong survived, we can only guess, we just know that they do. Only the Strong Survive is an enjoyable viewing and listening experience for any music lover, but its presentation lacks cohesion and historical perspective. We jump right in to Memphis and start talking to some legends, joining in on their riotous anecdotes and heartfelt homages to their peers, but the main issue is never truly addressed.

As with any window into the performances and careers of stars who are out of the spotlight, this film definitely had it's unintentionally saddening moments. All too often did the directors leave the crowd out of focus, or zoom in on a few faces, to obscure the fact that there were many empty seats. Furthermore, seeing soul icons like Carla and Rufus Thomas performing in a Hooters-like bar in their hometown was a bit disappointing. Overall, the film is good for the performances that should please any soul music fan. However, don't expect to really learn much about the individual artists and their struggles, because the filmmakers truly dropped the ball.