Frank Sinatra had “My Way.” Billy Joel “The Piano Man” and Joe Cocker had “With A Little Help from My Friends.” Legendary songs and performances that have forever connected the artist to their muse. The song that each of them not only ‘owned’ but in many ways lived. Cocker’s memorable version of the Beatles’ song from Sergeant Peppers was not only was his international breakthrough but also a fitting explanation for the life he lead. A life that is canonized in the new Netflix documentary, Joe Cocker; Mad Dog With Soul directed by John Edginton.
To many Cocker was John Belushi’s best parody. To others that spastic guy at Woodstock and then to some the Adult Contemporary voice who had that sappy hit song with Jennifer Warren and still to others an artist who could have been so much more had it not been for numerous addictions and self abuse. Joe Cocker was all of those and then some and though their isn’t significant depth to this film about the why he suffered internally so much, there is a great new appreciation for his on stage performances and his endurance as an icon of music.
The title of this rockumentary says it all. Cocker was a mad man but man he also had soul. In the movie, Rolling Stone Magazine journalist Ben Fong Torres credits Cocker’s trademark energy and physical interpretations of songs in concert as the invention of air guitar. Cocker’s stage presence was mesmerizing and though this documentary could alway use more footage of his performances, it’s a small quibble with this much needed anthology of Cocker’s numerous rises and falls as an entertainer. The film, like the best Cocker songs, starts slowly marking his time growing up as a child of few resources, but soon picks up speed with Cocker’s trancelike performance at Woodstock. A performance Billy Joel credits as one of his main inspirations as performer himself.
It’s at Woodstock that Cocker meets one of the unsung heroes of his life and one of the many revelations to me personally in this movie, when he befriends Michael Lang. Most rock trivia students recognize Lang as the promoter of The Woodstock Festival. What they may not know for I certainly did not, was how important of a role he played in Cocker’s phoenix like rise back to stardom after a drug fueled collapse from the music scene. Lang, who still to this day is often an oversight when Cocker’s life is detailed, managed Cocker back to on his meteoric rise to glory crowned with a Oscar for “Up Where We Belong.”
However, it’s what lead to the crash that adds intrigue and makes this film a rewarding experience. From the legendary Mad Dog’s and Englishmen tour of 1971 to his tumultuous recording sessions that followed, Cocker’s fast paced life of song is captured the same way he performed-to its fullest. There is the rapid ascent followed by the numerous stumbles only to be reincarnated again and again until his death three years ago at the age of 70 as a Colorado resident and friendly neighbor to many.
Cocker lived the life of a gifted rocker and his first appearance on the charts was with his legendary version of the Beatles’ song that became his calling card. This movie follows Cocker’s climb from that high to the temporary lows in the ash heap off forgotten stars back again to the Academy Award stage. His talent was unmistakeable and his trance like performances are as engaging now on film as ever. But it also makes a truism of his first international hit. Cocker did indeed get by, but it took a lot of help from his friends, both for the good and bad of his health.