Grits & Grace: Robert Mugge on the making of “Gospel According to Al Green”

By on August 18, 2017

Documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge gives Night Flight an exclusive look at his 1984 film Gospel According to Al Green, a 94-minute portrait of the 70s soul singer who reveals how he became a Pentecostal minister and began singing only gospel. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

Making my Gil Scott-Heron portrait for Andy Park at Britain’s Channel Four Television was a life-changing experience, and I hated to see the project end. Happily, as I brought him the finished film in the fall of 1982, he proposed that we produce another film together, this one on African American gospel artist Andraé Crouch.

I told him I’d be fine with that, but also said I’d prefer to focus on Al Green, the great 1970s soul and pop singer who had renounced his past hits, purchased a Memphis church building, installed himself as its preacher, and started recording and touring as a gospel artist.

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Andy gave me permission to reach out to Al, but doing so was a project in and of itself. As it happened, getting Al’s cooperation took a full thirteen months, during which time I spoke repeatedly with his well-meaning and appropriately named office assistant Hattie Angel, and actually traveled to see him four times – twice to Memphis, once to New York City, and once to New Orleans.

The latter trip came about because Al was scheduled to play Jazz Fest in the spring of ’83, leading Andy, who happened to be visiting the States at the time, to suggest we meet in New Orleans and try to see Al together. On that trip, we never did reach him. But we did have a good time hanging out.

Over that same thirteen months, I found time to produce Cool Runnings: The Reggae Movie about the 1983 Sunsplash Festival in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and then to premiere it in November at the London Film Festival. But by December, I knew I had to bring my ongoing negotiations with Al to a close.

A week before Christmas, he was scheduled to celebrate the seventh anniversary of his church with a three-hour service featuring two choirs and many of his touring musicians and backup singers.

As I learned at the time, in southern fundamentalist churches such as Al’s Full Gospel Tabernacle, the seventh anniversary is a significant milestone for both the pastor and his congregation, commonly known as “the pastor’s day.”

I therefore did not see how I could make a film called Gospel According to Al Green without documenting that service, and I communicated as much to Al though Hattie.

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The deal I had negotiated with Channel Four included a modest project salary for myself, a reasonable payment for Al and his musicians, and a thirty percent share for me of profits from any distribution of the film beyond Channel Four’s own U.K. broadcasts. I offered a third of that thirty percent share to Al, but his counter offer was that he wanted the full thirty percent.

Therefore, I had to return to Channel Four and ask for forty percent, in order that at least ten percent would be left for me. With only days to spare, Andy got Channel Four to agree, and Hattie got Al to agree, which, to everyone’s surprise, meant the project would actually happen.

At that time, my usual director of photography and Steadicam operator Larry McConkey was helping Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown develop the Skycam, a device that would soon revolutionize the televising of professional and college sports.

My longtime audio director Bill Barth also had a conflict. Therefore, I turned to younger cinematographer and Steadicam operator Erich Roland to serve as director of photography, supported by my long-time cameraman Chris Li.

In addition, Memphis-based filmmaker buddies Joe Mulherin, Steve Ross, and David Appleby helped me pull together a crew of talented locals, supplemented by veterans from Chicago and Nashville. The most notable of these was Nashville’s Joe Rosen who, along with second engineer Bill Saurel, trucked in his 24-track recording equipment to tape the audio of Al’s service.

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Early that Sunday morning (December 18, 1983), our small army of technicians descended upon Al Green’s’s church, unloading equipment, establishing camera positions, placing microphones, running cable, and setting up a table from which I could survey the room, study multiple video monitors, and communicate with key crew members.

Because the chapel was designed with rounded sides and a high ceiling, and because Al was known for taking off running while preaching, we also prepared for two key challenges.

First, we had to light the entire room so that, as our cameras followed Al, we would not lose him in the shadows.

Second, we had to attach a wireless mic to Al’s suit so that, as he left the microphone mounted on his pulpit, we would not lose his voice.

Although we recorded these events right on the cusp of winter, the intensity of Al’s “performance,” coupled with the heat of our lights, made the room feel downright tropical.

In fact, if you look at the footage of Al late in the service, you can see the back of his suit jacket grow increasingly damp. Although all such services have an expected ebb and flow, the emotional impact of this one – especially during the final hour – was simply overwhelming.

Highlights included male and female parishioners succumbing to the spirit, Al speaking in tongues, and the two choirs, three backup singers, assorted musicians, and entire congregation supporting Al in an absolute torrent of sound.

Incredibly, Rev. Green oversaw a second three-hour service later that night, after which I knew he would need a day of rest. So, Sunday evening and Monday morning, I bid most of my crew adieu, then, Monday afternoon, utilized a smaller group to shoot producer Willie Mitchell at his legendary Royal Recording Studio.

Willie was a gracious host, patiently leading our Steadicam through his studio, speaking at length about his years producing and co-writing Al’s hits, and cooperating with time-consuming camera and audio setups. At the very least, this interview would serve as insurance, on the chance Al proved to be less forthcoming.

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Willie Mitchell in his office at Royal Recording Studio

Finally, Tuesday morning, we showed up at Al’s offices, praying he would agree to a long interview. But Al, though friendly, had returned to his elusive mode of the past thirteen months. I therefore asked if we could stage a sort of rehearsal in his studio, and he did agree to that.

At his instruction, in-house recording engineer Paul Zaleski and bandleader Reuben Fairfax contacted as many of Al’s band members and backup singers as were available, including Lawrence Lee, Jr., formerly of Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. And while we awaited their arrival, Erich lit the studio, and Nashville-based sound man Terry Hillman took an audio feed from the studio’s mixing board.

From the beginning, Hattie made it clear that Al would not perform any of his old hits, because he now wished to perform only gospel music. But I hoped that, feeling comfortable in his own studio and with his own musicians, he might at least agree to perform “Let’s Stay Together,” probably his biggest hit of all, and a song Willie Mitchell had discussed at length the day before.

Therefore, after Al and the band played several gospel numbers, I told him how much I loved “Let’s Stay Together” and asked if he would mind singing it for me. Happily, he did agree, and we continued to film as he taught his two female backup singers their respective parts.

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Al Green teaches “Let’s Stay Together” to female backup singers as Robert Mugge watches

Up until then, Erich had used his Steadicam to shoot all of Al’s gospel numbers, even though knowing I wouldn’t need them for the film. But now, as Al readied a song we very much needed (and Al presumably didn’t want us to have), I asked Erich to be as unobtrusive as possible in order not to remind him we were shooting.

As for myself, I would normally have moved behind the camera so as not to be seen. But on this occasion, I simply took a seat on a table near Al and tried to appear more caught up in hearing an old favorite than in having it filmed.

It’s likely, of course, that Al saw through our ruse from the beginning and knowingly gave us the song as an unexpected gift. However, what mattered most was that a level of trust was growing between us, as well as a sense of give and take; so much so that, as we finished shooting the staged rehearsal, he surprised us still again.

As the musicians began drifting out of the room, Al grabbed the guitar Larry Lee had been playing, sat in a chair at the side of the room, and started idly picking out chords and singing along with them.

Then, barely looking up, he asked if I’d like to do the interview now. Realizing he meant right then and right there, Erich rushed to reset our lights, as Al and I worked out how exactly we would proceed.

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In interviewing Al, I had several key goals. One was to have him provide as much personal history as possible; another was to have him address the same events Willie Mitchell had covered, so I could intercut the two of them; and still another was to have him play and sing excerpts from his classic songs.

But my biggest goal – the white whale of it all – was to have him address the tragic episode which, probably more than anything else, caused his return to the church. That is, I wanted him to discuss the incident in which a girlfriend, Mary Woodson, desolate from his refusal to marry her, reportedly attacked him with a steaming pot of grits, badly burning his naked back, then shot and killed herself with his own gun.

Even as the so-called “hot grits incident” had become one of the more salacious legends in modern musical history, Al had never discussed it in public. For that reason, I had no idea how he would respond to my broaching it now, and I feared saying or doing anything that could cause him to end the interview prematurely. Therefore, I held off asking about it for as long as I could.

To my surprise, when I finally did bring it up, Al seemed to take it in stride. Perhaps he’d grown comfortable with my allowing him to tell his story in his own way, or perhaps he simply wanted to clear the air. But whatever the reason, once we broached the subject, he was completely forthcoming.

In fact, it was Al himself who brought up Mary Woodson, mentioning her as someone who had pushed him to start a church of his own. Once he did, I knew I had my opening.

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Without doubt, this part of the interview was the most gripping for me, made that much more so when Al looked me straight in the eyes and said, “But now, the thing I want to ask you today, is that I really don’t believe today, if that actually happened. And I’m not joking. I’m asking you a question: Was that really true?”

Somehow, I resisted the pressure to answer, and was glad that I did, because that encouraged Al to continue with his riveting speculation: “Was she faking, or was she joking?” Pause. “I didn’t really believe that. And today, I have trouble with it. If I focus in on it, one on one, I have trouble believing that it happened.”

At some point, Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, the well-known Memphis guitarist, had joined us, and Al had turned the guitar over to him. Therefore, as Al told the hot grits story and a great deal more, it was Teenie playing guitar in the background, visible only briefly in his multi-colored sweat suit.

Also worth mentioning is that, midway through Al’s mesmerizing testimony, Erich’s last camera magazine ran out of film. In those days, we shot 16mm film, and each magazine held ten to eleven minutes worth of stock. We’d had at least three magazines loaded up as the interview began, but then Al and I talked at length.

I guess we didn’t have a camera assistant along that day, so no one was unloading and refilling the magazines as Erich finished with each one. As a result, we had to stop the interview at the most delicate point possible so that Erich himself could load another magazine or two.

Fearing that Al would lose interest and want to leave, I engaged him in conversation, trying to keep his focus on us. Fortunately, Erich reloaded in record time, so we weren’t on hold for long.

In fact, as Al saw Erich aiming the camera again, and without waiting for my signal, he resumed his story, which is why someone was caught walking between him and the camera right as he spoke the immortal words, “I went over, after being full of grits, and jumped in the shower…” To say the least, this made for a storytelling transition like no other.

We concluded the interview with Al speculating on his future as an evangelist, and then I asked if he’d be willing to do a quick solo performance for us. Apparently, he was still enjoying himself, because he took the guitar back from Teenie and improvised a gem we later titled “I Love You.” When I asked if he’d mind playing it again, just to be sure we had it, he performed a second version even better than the first one.

Finally, pushing my luck, I asked Al to play it one more time as Erich filmed his tapping foot, and he actually gave us a third version of the same improvised song.

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I loved that Al performed the initial version of “I Love You” as a straight-out love song, while directing the second one to his “savior.” That allowed me to open the film with the first one, and then to close it with the second, thereby suggesting Al’s progression from singing love songs to women to singing love songs to God. Both versions also happen to be among the most intimate performances I’ve ever witnessed, whether in person or on screen.

As my crew packed up our equipment for the day, I chatted with some of Al’s longtime musicians who had been listening from the control room. Never, they said, had they heard some of the stories he had just shared with me. And of course, I felt blessed that we had managed to shoot a complete church service, a rehearsal, a solo performance, and long interviews with both Al and Willie Mitchell.

And yet, because Al performed differently for his fans than he did for his congregation, I knew this portrait of him would not be complete until we also filmed him in concert.

By a stroke of luck, it turned out that, in February, Al was scheduled to perform at military bases in both Washington, D.C. and Dover, Delaware. So, I quickly arranged to shoot his concert at Bolling Air Force Base in D.C.

Thanks to the funding provided by Channel Four’s Andy Park, for the concert, I was able to afford four cameramen (including Erich, Chris Li again, and Chris’s friend David Sperling, who had first worked with us in Jamaica the year before), as well as my usual sound man Bill Barth.

In addition, I had been impressed enough with the work Johnny Rosen had done recording Al’s church service in Memphis that I had him drive in from Nashville again with his truck full of 24-track recording equipment. As expected, from start to finish, Al’s performance that evening was soulful, sexy, and spiritual in ways that perhaps only Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye could have equalled, and my crew captured every enchanting minute of it.

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From the beginning, Erich and I sought a kind of film noir look with this film, which we would later repeat with my 1991 film Deep Blues.

Such a look felt right for the turmoil expressed in Al’s storytelling, as well as the soulfulness of his performance.

But somewhere along the way, I realized something more was happening. In nearly all the key scenes we shot, the color red was prominent – red flowers, red lights, red carpets, red walls, red tablecloths, etc. – causing me to recall an interview I’d read with Swedish director Ingmar Bergman in which he said that the reason he’d used so much red in his 1972 film Cries and Whispers was that he believed red was the color of the human soul.

In the same way, I came to realize that our moody lighting, coupled with the recurring color red, suggested not only the romance of Al’s early pop career, but also the soul and spirit of all yet to come.

While editing the film at my apartment near Philadelphia, and mixing the concert and church service music with Johnny Rosen in Nashville, I also arranged to film commentary by Philadelphia Inquirer music writer Ken Tucker (later the longtime TV critic for Entertainment Weekly and periodic record reviewer for Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” radio program).

Ken summarized Al Green’s place in the evolution of American soul music and outlined the ongoing conflict between the secular and spiritual sides of pop music. It was, I felt, all of the context we needed for Al’s career.

And yet, I knew Andy also wanted me to explore the larger notion of religious art. Therefore, I returned to D.C. to interview Howard University Choir Director Dr. J. Weldon Norris and Howard University Divinity School Professor Dr. Henry Justin Ferry, each of whom contributed powerful insights. In addition, I had Erich film me at my 16mm editing table, contrasting traditions of American gospel music with those of religious painting in Europe. It was too much, and I knew it. But I also was thrilled to have a major TV executive pushing me to try new things. So, I included it all, and Andy seemed happy with the results.

Later, while preparing the film for broadcast over Channel four, I also arranged a number of film festival screenings. For instance, Andy and I both attended the world premiere screening at the Munich International Film Festival. The audience there was quite respectful, probably because the summer of 1984 was not long past the peak of New German Cinema (Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, et al), and German festival goers were therefore used to unusual cinematic
approaches.

But the next screening was at Filmex in L.A., an event then run by my good friend Ken Wlaschin, the former longtime head of the London Film Festival. Unlike the German screening, this one would prove enlightening, if painfully so.

At Filmex, both screenings of the film took place in a large theater, and both were sold out. Moreover, ticket-buyers racing to fill seats were enthusiastic, and even celebrities like Cybill Shepherd, a Memphis native, were in attendance.

As for myself, I could barely contain my excitement. However, that excitement quickly faded as scattered audience members began hooting the film’s more “scholarly” segments.

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Instantly, I understood the problem. People had gathered that day to see and hear Al Green talk and sing, and they had no interest in hearing others, no matter how learned, analyze Al’s appeal.

On the plus side, though, the audience as a whole never lost its enthusiasm. Therefore, when that first screening was over, I approached the microphone and thanked everyone for their patience, as well as for showing me exactly what needed to be cut, including myself. I said this, and I believed it, in spite of the fact that our L.A. reviews were extraordinary, especially David Chute’s over-the-top rave in the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

Once I returned to my editing table, I decided to leave Ken Tucker’s comments intact because, even though brief, they expressed what I considered to be the most important points about Al Green’s career.

I did, however, delete all of the segments featuring myself and the Howard University professors. No, that was not fair to Dr. Norris or Dr. Ferry, in that they had given me exactly what I wanted. But the audience had decided what truly mattered here, and that was the chance to see and hear Al Green in all his glory. So, anything else was a distraction.

I also contacted Andy Park and asked him to make the same cuts in Channel Four’s copies as I’d made in my own. He wasn’t happy, but he was kind enough to follow my lead.

As we learned, sometimes films find their own forms, and it’s best not to ignore an artist’s most fervent fans.

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Coolidge Corner Moviehouse theatrical premiere

Of the many other screenings that would follow, two are most memorable for me, if only because Al attended both of them. The first was a screening at the Rochester Institute of Technology, with Al seeing the completed film for the first time. What I remember most is Al sitting next to me in the audience and slapping my knee whenever something in the film tickled him.

The second was the film’s theatrical world premiere which took place at Justin Freed’s Coolidge Corner Moviehouse in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. After each of two screenings on opening night, Al sat alone on stage with a guitar, telling stories and singing intimate solo versions of his best-known hits. In other words, he did for the audience in Boston something he wouldn’t do for me during the making of the film. This was frustrating for me, of course, but it also resulted in a night like no other.

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Al Green and Robert Mugge at Coolidge Corner Moviehouse (photo by Justin Freed)

Over the years, whenever I’ve been present for public screenings, I’ve always introduced Gospel According to Al Green as follows:

“This is a film about love, about the connections between soul music and gospel, and about a man who flew too close to the sun, got his eyeballs burned, and has been singing ever since with fire coming out of his mouth.”

More than three decades later, I stand by that description.

©2017 Robert Mugge

Check out Gospel According to Al Green in our collection of Robert Mugge documentaries over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Robert Mugge

Robert Mugge has been making feature-length documentaries and music films for the past four decades. According to France’s Libération, “Mugge is nothing less than the best music filmmaker on the planet." Among the better-known of his 34 films to date are DEEP BLUES, GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN, SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE, BLACK WAX with Gil Scott-Heron, SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS with Sonny Rollins, ENTERTAINING THE TROOPS with Bob Hope, HELLHOUNDS ON MY TRAIL: THE AFTERLIFE OF ROBERT JOHNSON, THE KINGDOM OF ZYDECO, BLUES DIVAS with Morgan Freeman, and NEW ORLEANS MUSIC IN EXILE. His latest productions are ZYDECO CROSSROADS: A TALE OF TWO CITIES and STEVE BELL STORYTELLER: A NEWSMAN LIVING HISTORY. Since 2005, his production partner has been Diana Zelman, to whom he is now married. For five years, he was an Endowed Chair Professor at Ball State University, and for two years he was Filmmaker in Residence for Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Many of his films, both old and new, are currently being released on Blu-ray or DVD by MVD Visual. Much more about Mugge's career is available at www.robertmugge.com.