By: John Dorschner
For the Miami Herald
Eric Clapton thanked him for making his music better. So did Ray Charles. And the Allman Brothers. And Aretha Franklin.
And many others. It was only the general public who hasn’t heard of Tom Dowd, the late Miami master of studio engineering and music producing.
That’s about to change. Mark Moormann, a movie maker from Hollywood (Florida, that is), is bringing Dowd’s life to film, in a 90-minute documentary set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 19 and next month at the Miami Film Festival.
The movie has been a seven-year journey for Moormann, 39. ”I was turned down by every investor, grant and foundation I could think of,” he says.
He first met Dowd in 1995 while filming a music video and became intrigued by the man’s personal history of music making, going back to the late 1940s, when he worked in New York with Atlantic Records to record a plethora of black talent — John Coltrane, Ruth Brown, the Drifters, the Coasters.
Atlantic’s driving forces, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, worked hard to get black music out of the category of ”race records,” but it wasn’t easy. During those early years, Dowd told Moormann, “people were using our records as demos for white artists.”
Moormann, a cinematographer by trade, spent most of 1996 trying to get financing for a documentary. The state gave him a $5,000 grant, and that was all.
He decided to start it on his own, assisted by friends in the industry who were willing to work for deferred payment. “It was done on a shoestring.”
Dowd was patient and happy to tell his stories. Followed by cameras, he returned to Criteria, the North Miami studio where some of his greatest work was recorded in the 1970s.
JAMMING AT CRITERIA
It was at Criteria where Dowd produced Layla, thought by some to be the greatest rock song of all time, performed by Derek and the Dominoes — a union of two super guitarists, Clapton and Duane Allman.
Dowd was the man who brought them together. Clapton had been in Miami for a recording session, and Allman came here to do a concert. The Brit said he had always loved the Southerner’s slide guitar. Dowd took Clapton to the concert, introduced him to Allman afterward, and the pair soon were jamming together at Criteria.
Throughout the film, Moormann uses Dowd’s narration and the music he engineered as a way to describe the technical advances in music making.
Starting with a single microphone and a needle etching the sound directly to disk, Dowd moved up to quarter-inch tape and two tracks of stereo, expanding to four tracks, then eight. Each track gave the producer more flexibility in manipulating the final product.
Dowd always wanted to be on the cutting edge. In the late 1960s, he said in one interview, he was astounded to learn that the major Beatles recordings had been done on three or four tracks — when Dowd had been using eight tracks for a decade.
From the beginning of the project, Moormann says, he wanted to do a first-class job with the production — super-16-millimeter film, professional lighting, top-quality cinematography that sometimes used a camera mounted on a remote-control crane.
”We didn’t compromise the vision,” says Moormann, which means that even a ”shoestring” budget can be expensive.
Example: Moormann knew that to get distributors interested, he needed to get some big names on camera talking about Dowd.
For four months, he pestered Clapton’s manager for an interview. ‘Then suddenly he calls me on a Wednesday and says, `It’s going to be Friday!’ ”
With a 36-hour deadline, Moormann arranged for a film crew in London and bought a transoceanic ticket — not cheap on such short notice.
The Clapton encounter was worth the trip, he says. ”He really opened up.” The guitarist talked about how he first met Dowd in New York, when Clapton was with the rock group Cream, recording Disraeli Gears in Atlantic’s studios. At the time, Clapton said, he didn’t have much use for techies like Dowd, but that changed as he worked with him.
‘LIKE A FATHER’
”He knew how to bring out the best in you,” Clapton told Moormann. Dowd became “kind of like a father.”
Moormann was ecstatic about the Clapton interview, but expenses were mounting. Altogether, he says, he and a couple of investors spent $100,000 during the early stages of the filmmaking in 1997.
By the end of the year, he had no money to complete the project. As personal debts piled up, he took freelance cameraman jobs, many for California dot-coms that had big marketing budgets. “Many were corporate demos thinly veiled as documentaries for public television.”
When he had time, Moormann filmed more interviews. He could have completed the documentary on the cheap, but he refused: He wanted the money to give it a first-class soundtrack, buy the rights to film clips of the music stars at the time Dowd was working with them, and produce a professional, color-corrected film. “You either do it right, or you don’t do it at all.”
Finally, he found some investors willing to put up $400,000 to finish the movie. “They’re people who thought the world should know who Tom was.”
Last October, when Dowd was terminally ill with respiratory problems, Moormann visited him at the hospital on his 77th birthday and gave him a rough-cut video of the movie.
“Later in the week, he called me to say how much he enjoyed the film. Three days after that, he died.”
Tom Dowd and The Language of Music was supposed to be finished last week and at festival headquarters in Park City, Utah. But Moormann is still scrambling to complete the final mixing, putting in 16-hour days at Cineworks, a Miami production facility.
”That’s part of making movies,” he says of the last-minute rush. “We’ve got to have it done by Wednesday.”
The fresh money from investors has allowed him to hire a publicist for Sundance, where the film will be shown five times. Moormann knows the festival could be a make-or-break for him, as distributors decide whether the movie is worth a theatrical release — never a sure thing for a documentary.
”We’re hoping for at least a limited theatrical release,” says Moormann, but the seven-year odyssey to get the film produced and the final crunch to finish, he says, means he no longer can envision himself being nervous when the film debuts.
”Not anymore,” he says. “I’m so beat up.”