Sam Cooke: Legend is far from the best movie you'll see at the Northwest Film Center's Reel Music Festival (a glut of music-related films showing throughout the month), but it could have the best subject. With perhaps the most mellifluous singing voice in the history of popular music, Sam Cooke could have just made recordings and the world would have noticed. But he also happened to be devastatingly handsome, endlessly charming both onstage and off, and as a black performer and recording artist, was an industry revolutionary in that he wrote his own songs, produced his own albums, and refused to play for segregated audiences. On top of all that, he fused his gospel roots with popular R&B, creating what we now call "soul," and delivered it to a mass international audience.
Music writer Peter Guralnick's documentary lays out, in just over an hour, exactly why Cooke ruled, but doesn't do much else. A master researcher and interviewer, Guralnick is not so much a writer as he is a streamliner of massive amounts of information. In his recently published Cooke biography, Dream Boogie, a fascinating and ultimately conflicted view of the man emerges through hundreds of pages of quotes and records from those who knew him well—but the film version is an extremely annotated version of that, and without mounds of details to hide behind, Guralnick's storytelling comes off as pretty bland.
Shot and edited Behind the Music-style, Sam Cooke is a TV-quality race through the singer's accomplishments, providing a mildly interesting, but totally surface-level timeline from his childhood through to his tragic 1964 homicide in Los Angeles. What resonates are the testimonials from many of the still-living characters from the book (mainly Sam's family and musician friends, including Aretha Franklin), and archived footage from Cooke's performances (including an incredible spontaneous number with Cassius Clay for a talk show), which are spectacular and—much like Cooke's life—all too brief.