Premiering this past Thursday, October 23rd, “The Big Beat” was the closing film of the New Orleans Film Festival 2014. The selection of the documentary was a fitting one, the film providing an intimate perspective on the legendary musician Fats Domino and his collaborator Dave Bartholomew. The two men, now in their twilight years, are revered figures in the history of 20th century music and the city of New Orleans. For director Joe Lauro, encapsulating their legacy was a labor of love, the film taking fifteen years to complete from its inception.
Having produced several documentaries covering music icons such as Howlin’ Wolf and The Four Tops, Lauro professes a deep love for his subjects. “You could make a film every day about a contributor to musical arts,” he says. “That was my ambition all along: to grab onto these people who had not gotten the proper attention.” The documentarian professes a deep love for musicians and stresses that that admiration is what powers his work. “I'm not going to spend a year of my life making a film about someone I don't enjoy as an artist. When you make a film that's a labor of love, you gotta really like the subject in terms of their contributions."
He describes The Big Beat as comprised of four parts: Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, recording engineer Cosimo Matassa, and the city of New Orleans. Despite describing himself as “A Northern boy,” Lauro is smitten with Louisiana culture. “I’ve been enjoying [New Orleans] for many years, and I want to do my part in helping it along,” he says. His film is as much an exploration of the effect New Orleans has had on American music as it is an approximation of Domino’s career. The amount of attention paid to recording pioneer Cosimo Matassa is due to the studio head’s invaluable contribution to the preservation and clarity of Louisiana sound. “Cosimo was the guy at the studio who knew how to record it right,” Lauro explains. “He knew how to put it all down. Otherwise, it would have been lost to the ages."
The journey to make The Big Beat began in 1999 when Lauro was personally introduced to Fats Domino through a friend. He knew immediately that there was a great opportunity to make a film about the musician with an intimacy that had not been captured before. "There's been several films on Fats, but they've mostly just been recent performances with a little bit of biographical stuff,” Lauro says. “That's a testament to Fats, because up until recently he was always on his game. If you went to a 2006 Fats concert, it was going to be rewarding. But what was lacking was an in-depth look at his career and his relationship with Dave and their relationship with New Orleans."
Fats was initially not very warm to the idea. He has always been a private man and resisted interviews for most of his career. However, Lauro always harbored a hope to change his mind. “I felt like if I didn't do it, then no was else was going to," he says. "Especially while these gentlemen were still walking the Earth." Fats is 86 and Bartholomew will soon be 94, and their encroaching mortality spurred Lauro’s urgency to document them while they were still alive. It was the filmmaker’s persistence that eventually won the reluctant legend over. “I went the route of just getting to know him better, and I just never really went away. I just kept plugging at it."
The process of bringing the project to fruition was further complicated by attaining the necessary documentary materials. Lauro wanted footage of Fats that originated from France, which the owner was not willing to grant permission to use. “"That took another seven or eight years, to get this 85-year-old filmmaker to let me use his cherished footage,” Lauro reflects.
All of the drawn out, push-and-pull of pre-production would leave the filmmaker burnt out by the time the elements came together. It was reviewing what he had assembled that recharged his enthusiasm for the project, powering him through the year it would take to actually make the film, which was still in the process of being completed days before its premiere. “It’s just me and my editor trying to get everything licensed and finished,” he says, describing the exhausting process of applying the final touches. Indeed, even compiling all of the people to thank is an arduous task in the realm documentary film. “You look at Kevin Burns' recent documentary on the Roosevelts, and there's twenty minutes of credits,” Lauro jokes.
Now, after fifteen long years, Lauro’s passion project has been realized. When he reflects on The Big Beat, he admits that the thing that surprised him the most during the film’s journey was how different Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew proved to be, describing the as a volatile mixture of different personalities. “They are two men that are just two completely different beings. But they shared the drive to do the best they could with their music and create and respected one another’s contributions.” Both attended the film’s premiere Thursday, and it will be their opinion of The Big Beat that Lauro most values. "I don't care if 99% of the audience boos the film,” he told me, “as long as I please Fats and Dave and their families."
Rob Cameron Fowler is a writer, filmmaker and aspiring barber currently residing in New Orleans, LA. Raised in both the United States and the Middle East, he is a self-professed political junkie, cinema fanatic and purveyor of useless trivia. Follow him on Twitter.