Salty Air

Films trace rise and fall of BS&T, BlackBerry — Play It Again, Tim

Written by Tim Miller

There was a time, around 1970, when you couldn’t avoid Blood, Sweat & Tears.

If you were anywhere in the vicinity of a radio, you were bound to hear John Clayton-Thomas belting out one of the brassy jazz-rock band’s big hits: “Spinning Wheel,” “You Made Me So Very Happy,” “And When I Die.”

The album “Blood, Sweat & Tears” won the Grammy for best album in 1970 over “Abbey Road,” “Crosby, Stills & Nash” and “Johnny Cash at San Quentin.”

Yep, the group was pretty big.

Not long after, it fizzled out and essentially disappeared (even if it continued to exist).

John Scheinfeld’s documentary “What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” (112 minutes) provides an inside story of how political intrigue in the Nixon era might have affected the band’s demise. Woods Hole Film Festival will present the film at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 20, at Redfield Auditorium, 45 Water St., Woods Hole. (More info:

The film details how, at the peak of its popularity, the nine-piece BS&T becomes the first American rock band to perform behind the Iron Curtain. The tour, which includes dates in Poland, Yugoslavia and Romania, is sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Blood, Sweat & Tears members, from left, David Clayton-Thomas, Steve Katz and Jim Fielder. (Abramorama)

Keep in mind this is June 1970, a month after the Kent State shootings. The Vietnam War is still raging; Nixon is still in power. College students and youths have taken to the streets in protest of the U.S. government’s decisions. So why would a band – one that had played at Woodstock less than a year earlier, with members who had come out against Nixon’s policies – agree to take part in a government-sponsored tour?

The answer, according to Scheinfeld’s film, is blackmail. According to band members interviewed for the film, lead singer Clayton-Thomas, a Canadian, is about to be booted out of the country. By agreeing to the tour, the band presumably can keep him in the United States – and the group can survive. But not everyone – especially politically conscious guitarist Steve Katz – is happy about this tradeoff.

Still, the tour goes on, and, thanks to a film crew accompanying the band, footage of the trip is available and used extensively in Scheinfeld’s film. The doc details the tour itself (which includes concertgoers attacked by German Shepherds in Romania) and its aftermath, both of which have a profound impact on the band. It’s fascinating to watch – especially as BS&T is attacked by the political left and the political right.

As you might guess, this is no ordinary concert film. You definitely don’t have to be a Blood, Sweat & Tears fan to enjoy it (though, of course, it doesn’t hurt if you are). This is a story about a country in upheaval, with many people seeing things in black and white, and a group of musicians who find themselves struggling in the gray.

It’s unfortunate that Scheinfeld (“The U.S. vs. John Lennon”) doesn’t end the film by informing us what happened to the individual BS&T members. It would have provided a better sense of closure and would have better answered the question in the film’s title. Still, “What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” is a thoughtful look at political extremes, snap judgments and, for a hit-making band, a can’t-win situation. ***½ (out of four)

‘Always Sunny’ actor loses hair

Jay Baruchel, left, and Glenn Howerton star in “BlackBerry.” (IFC Films)

Glenn Howerton is best known as one of the stars of the uproariously deranged TV sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” After seeing Howerton as narcissistic knucklehead Dennis Reynolds for 15 seasons, you might find it jolting to see him as an entirely different type of character in the tragicomic “BlackBerry” (R, 120 minutes, in theaters). But he’s great in the role.

The film is about the real-life rise and fall of Canadian company Research in Motion (later BlackBerry Limited), which put out the BlackBerry smartphone and at one time dominated the market.

In the beginning, Research in Motion, or RIM, headed by Mike Lazaridis (a white-haired, barely recognizable Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson, the film’s director), has a small staff of fun-loving tech geeks who spend much of their time in the office playing computer games and holding movie nights. When resident whiz Lazaridis creates what will become the BlackBerry, he and Fregin start to shop it around in hopes of finally striking it big.

Along comes Harvard-educated, business executive Jim Balsillie (a bald, barely recognizable Howerton), who wants in. Balsillie is arrogant, abrupt and abrasive, and free spirit Fregin can’t stand him. But the meek Lazaridis, impressed by Balsillie’s business savvy, agrees to accept him as co-CEO.

Very quickly, Balsillie establishes himself as a demanding martinet. Playtime at RIM is over.

As it proceeds, the film shows what happens to a company and its employees when corporate bottom-line thinking takes over. It makes you wonder what, in the end, is the point of it all, what qualifies as success, if everyone is miserable.

While dealing with such serious, real-life issues, “BlackBerry” also has many funny moments, almost all provided by Howerton’s Balsillie. His foul mood and explosive temper are ready made for black comedy; he’s like a character out of a Coen brothers movie. When something goes wrong at RIM – and many, many things go wrong – the best part for the moviegoer is anticipating, and then watching, how Balsillie will erupt. He’s on the line of a phone call, for instance, which begins “You have a collect call from …” followed by Balsillie screaming “What the f— is happening?”

It’s hilarious, and it’s all thanks to Howerton.

The movie fails to build to a big finale; it merely wraps up the details of the story and just … ends.

But Howerton is amazing. ***

Where’s the Batmobile?

Ben Affleck appears in “Hypnotic.” (Ketchup Entertainment)

Speaking of funny, I found myself chuckling quite a bit during the sci-fi crime thriller “Hypnotic” (R, 92 minutes, in theaters). The thing is, it’s not intended as a comedy. At least, I don’t think it is.

Directed and co-written by Robert Rodriguez (“Once Upon a Time in Mexico”), it stars Ben Affleck as an Austin, Texas, cop, Danny Rourke, whose young daughter has disappeared from a playground. Now he’s investigating a bizarre bank robbery that involves mind control. The film should have a sign flashing the following in all capital letters: “ALL IS NOT AS IT SEEMS.”

During his robbery probe, Rourke talks to a “hypnotic,” Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), who explains that the mastermind behind the robbery is a super-powerful hypnotic, Dellrayne (William Fichtner), who can create “constructs” of alternative realities in the minds of others. Something like that.

Yep, this movie is a mind-bender that comes across as a blend of Christopher Nolan thriller (“Inception,” “Memento”), John Carpenter sci-fi action schlocker (“They Live,” “Escape From New York”) and an episode of “Law & Order: Weird City” (well, you get the idea).

Only, even allowing for the suspension of disbelief required by such films, “Hypnotic” lacks credibility almost from the start. Between the dismal dialogue (“He went rogue”), the laughable cliches (Rourke and Cruz, on the run, both wearing baseball hats and shades that scream “Incognito!”) and Affleck’s stiff acting (which includes an unconvincing, tired growl that would seem more appropriate for when the actor plays Batman), “Hypnotic” always seems off-kilter – and not in the right way.

That gives it some camp appeal, though, and the film is never boring. It’s just not very good. **

** Click here for  Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **

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Tim Miller

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is co-president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.

About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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