Review: The Tedeschi Trucks Band Revives ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ in a Revelatory Documentary

Tedeschi Trucks Band and Friends
Learning to Live Together-The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen
(UME)
3.5 out of 5 stars

“Cocker Power” read the words on the side of the private airplane that shuttled the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour on a 50 date run. And that was no lie.

“For his spring 1970 tour, Joe enlisted producer Leon Russell to assemble a group of top musicians, lovers, children, a film crew, and a dog for an epic journey across the USA. They would forever be known as Mad Dogs & Englishmen.”

That’s the first line graphic appearing on this new film documenting both the first MD&E tour and the reunion of some of those participants with the Tedeschi Trucks Band to reconstruct the setlist and general feeling of companionship at a concert 45 years later. It took six years to create this hour and 50-minute film, some of that time spent acquiring the song licenses and artist approvals. But it’s finally here.     

The show celebrating the mammoth tour occurred at Virginia’s Lockn’ Festival in 2015. Cocker was in discussions of being included but he passed away a year before it happened. Still, a feeble, if generally game, Leon Russell signed on. He died a year later but with his presence, the floodgates opened. A dozen members of the original 30 plus person Mad Dogs aggregation of mostly session musicians signed on, including drummer Jim Keltner, keyboardist Chris Stainton, backing vocalists Claudia Lennear, Pamela Polland, and Rita Coolidge whose extensive interviews play a major part in the story. 

This project is meant to both inform an audience who may not know about the tour from 50 years ago (by cherry-picking clips from the movie made about it), and cover the new recreation of that sprawling rock and roll circus as some of those musicians join with the TTB for the Lockn’ gig. Leon Russell, the musical director (some called him the ringmaster) and co-star with Cocker of the first MD&E, is key to this movie’s success since his involvement was integral to the concept. The interview clips with him are the final ones he did on camera before his death which alone brings gravitas to the proceedings.

Director Jesse Lauter is clearly infatuated with the subject matter but tries to do too much in the time allotted. There are archival interviews and music clips from five decades ago mixed with footage of the now elderly twelve musicians greeting and rehearsing with the TTD. But the final Lockn’ concert that is the culmination of the journey is oddly and frustratingly under-represented. Teases of the show occur throughout with the closing 20 minutes capturing three songs. They include Russell performing a solo “Ballad of Mad Dogs & Englishmen” and a rousing climax of “With a Little Help from My Friends” with Chris Robinson and Tedeschi sharing Cocker’s vocal part. But the other two hours are disappointingly MIA.  

Learning to Live Together is nonetheless a fascinating and involving flick. It will stimulate the audience to dig up the original raw but riveting 1970 documentary, about a quarter of which is sampled here in various split-screen (think Woodstock) formats, and search out the associated CD, both easily available. Another missed opportunity though is that the music from the Lockn’ concert, which is the crux of this movie, is not obtainable, at least yet.  

The pressure of being the frontman and carrying the Mad Dogs & Englishmen cross country road caravan on his shoulders, mixed with a cocktail of excess drugs and alcohol, ultimately sent Joe Cocker into a downward career spiral that some claim he never recovered from. Conversely, it launched Leon Russell into superstar status. 

Rita Coolidge sums up the experience with “The fact that it was never meant to last gave it a sense of urgency.” That feeling exudes from both the 1970 and 2015 shows and is clearly communicated in a film that, even with its limitations, is recommended viewing. 

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