Director Robert Mugge reminisces about the time he made “Gospel According to Al Green,” screening at VIFF Vancity Theatre tonight for Music Monday…
“Thanks to Nou Dadoun for the reminder that my 1984 film GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN will screen at 8:50 PM tonight at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver, Canada. I have to say that this brings back a pretty crazy set of memories. In May of 1986, I flew a small crew to Tokyo, Japan to film the world premiere of Sonny Rollins performing his Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra. We were there for a week, and only then did Britain’s Channel 4 Television finally fax over a contract for me to sign, and funding for the film. After that week of shooting all around Tokyo, my crew flew home via New York City, but I flew to Seattle where I screened three films at the Seattle International Film Festival: GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN, THE RETURN OF RUBÉN BLADES, and COOL RUNNINGS: THE REGGAE MOVIE. Probably the highlight of that visit was getting to meet director Jonathan Demme and musician David Byrne as they premiered STOP MAKING SENSE.
From there, I flew on to Vancouver, where the Vancouver International Film Festival was to screen the same three films. As soon as I arrived, the festival placed me on my own in a cottage out back of the suburban house of people who were away on a trip. I had no phone, because this was before most of us had cell phones. But the next day, I managed to take a bus to Expo 86, essentially a world’s fair celebrating Vancouver’s centennial, and spent the entire day walking around and viewing exhibits. Late that afternoon, I took a crowded rush hour bus back to the cottage, and as I was trying to get out at my stop, somebody smashed into my extended right leg. I fell out of the bus in pain and limped to the empty cottage. Over the next few hours, my knee swelled up like a grapefruit. When someone from the festival finally picked me up for that night’s screening, I told her I would go with her to introduce the film, but then I needed to go to a hospital. An hour or so later, at a first-rate clinic, doctors x-rayed my knee, then informed me I had torn ligaments and would need surgery. They also gave me crutches, and this being Canada, the great medical care was free! The next morning, I was squeezed onto an early flight back to Seattle. At the airport there, my next flight was delayed for four hours due to a “mechanical.” By the time we finally made it to our stopover at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, we had missed our connection, so they put up everyone in a hotel at the airport. I had no pain medication and therefore barely slept at all. The next day, I finally was flown home to Philadelphia. Then, over the several days that followed, I received arthroscopic surgery on my knee, got married on crutches and in a tuxedo in my parents’ back yard in Silver Spring, MD (my first and worst marriage, I like to say), then flew to Australia for three weeks for a honeymoon and to show three films at the Sydney Film Festival, and four (also including SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE) at the Melbourne International Film Festival. I continued to be on crutches the whole time, of course, which was frustrating. But I still got to scuba dive along the Great Barrier Reef, which was a joy. Also, one evening in Sydney, I did a radio interview and got to meet folksinger Dave Von Ronk who was also being interviewed. After three weeks of Australian winter, we stopped in Honolulu for two days, which was a nice contrast. While there, I first got to see and hear authentic Hawaiian music and dance, which was a thrill. That led to my returning six months later to show a week’s worth of films at what was then called the Honolulu Academy of Art, and then to making successive films on Hawaiian music and dance over the next three years, while also making ENTERTAINING THE TROOPS with Bob Hope in between. As I say, it was a crazy period.
But bringing all of this back to Al Green, my wedding was actually supposed to take place among the ducks on the roof of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis with Al officiating. But two things happened which caused me to get married in my parents’ back yard instead. First, Al was supposed to join me for the New York premiere of GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN. But on his way to the airport on a Saturday evening, he suddenly decided he wanted to preach the following day, and so never flew to New York. Then, that same spring, he asked me to fly a crew to Memphis and direct videos for a few songs on his new Willie Mitchell-produced gospel album. I agreed and gave him a budget, which he approved, but he kept failing to wire me the money. Finally, I gave him a deadline, which he said he’d meet. But he still didn’t wire the money, so I cancelled the shoot. After that, I decided I couldn’t ask friends and family to fly to Memphis for a wedding without being sure the esteemed preacher would actually show up. Fortunately, though, at more or less the last minute, my parents offered their back yard, which was fine, though marching down the aisle to “Let’s Stay Together” was not exactly a good predictor of how that marriage would work out. All of that aside, I believe this is the first time GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN has been screened in Vancouver since the festival screening in May of 1986. The cinema where it’s being shown tonight is programmed by the festival which screened it before, so everything is coming full circle. If you happen to be in Vancouver and choose to attend tonight, I hope you have a great experience. I’m told it’s a lovely theatre.”