TOM DOWD & THE LANGUAGE OF MUSIC (director: Mark Moormann; cinematographer: Patrick Longman; editors: Tino Wohlwend/Mark Moormann; cast: Tom Dowd, Ray Charles, the Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton, Ornette Coleman, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Les Paul, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aretha Franklin, Joe Bonamassa, Tito Puente Jr., Ahmet Ertegun, Arif Mardin, Phil Ramone, Mike Stoller, Al Schmitt; Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Mark Moormann/Scott Gordon/Mark Hunt; Palm Pictures; 2003)
“This highly enjoyable documentary makes sure that Dowd’s contribution to the music business will not be forgotten.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Mark Moormann presents a venerating biopic documentary about Tom Dowd, the legendary good-guy sound engineer for jazz and rock musicians, who passed away at age 77 in 2002. It’s a well-deserved tribute, taking seven years to complete, to such a sensitive and wise technical artist, who comes off as likable, unpretentious and a culturally sophisticated hipster. The effervescent Tom became the house technician for Atlantic Records simultaneously when the studio heads, Ertegun brothers, were signing jazz legends like John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk and R&B singers like Ray Charles and the Drifters. Tom made his mark in the field at that time, and worked at the craft for more than fifty years.
Tom began his career in the music business when he recorded Eileen Barton’s smash hit, “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake” for National Records in 1949. He joyfully reminisces about his craft (a mixture of science and art), the many star musicians he worked with (the movie’s signature moment has Dowd at a mixing board going through various tracks of Derek And The Dominos’ “Layla”), and how when he was a Columbia University student aspiring to be a physicist he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in 1945–but became alarmed in 1946 when he realized the potential dangers of the atomic bomb experiments. When returning to Columbia, he decided to drop-out of college because his involvement with the top-secret mission would not be transferred as college credits for national security reasons and, also, he was 10 years ahead in the field of physics than were his professors. He therefore could see no advantage of continuing in that path and studying what he already knew.
Turning full-time to recording records, first on wax, then two-track tape, then eight-track, he gained a reputation as someone who knew both music and technology, and he gained the trust of a variety of musicians who found it easy to work with him. They also realized how special was his knowledge, and many speak of him in awe when telling of his contributions in making them better artists by sharing his innovations and fine musical sensibility. The artists ranged from Aretha Franklin to the Cream to the Allman Brothers. Tom’s story connects with the popular artists and the hits that they recorded, even though to the public he remains an unknown figure who stood in the background of the music business. This highly enjoyable documentary makes sure that Dowd’s contribution to the music business will not be easily forgotten.
REVIEWED ON 11/16/2004 GRADE: B +
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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