From 1950 through 1962, New Orleans’ Fats Domino sold 60 million records. During most of that time, trumpeter, producer and band leader Dave Bartholomew played the essential role of creative partner to the piano-playing star.
“The Big Beat,” including extraordinary concert footage from the French National Archives, chronicles Domino’s and Bartholomew’s remarkably successful collaboration.
The closing night film for the 2014 New Orleans Film Festival, “The Big Beat” will be shown at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursday at the Carver Theater. Director Joe Lauro, editor Anthea Carr, writer Rick Coleman and other special guests will attend the world premiere.
Bartholomew, 93, gave the New York-based Lauro an extensive on-camera interview for the film. Interviews with the 86-year-old Domino, a famously shy man offstage, are more often heard in voiceovers than seen.
Lauro mused about doing a Domino documentary as long ago as 1998. Years later, while doing early research for a potential film, he learned that a 45-minute concert film featuring Domino, Bartholomew and their band is housed in the French National Archives.
“It’s astounding that it exists,” Lauro said from New York. “It really made me want to make this documentary. I said, ‘OK. Now this can be an amazing film.’ ”
The band that backs Domino in the French concert film, shot in July 1962 in Juan-le-Pins, France, includes many of the New Orleans musicians who worked as session players at Cosimo Matassa’s French Quarter studios, where dozens of classic rhythm-and-blues and rock ’n’ roll recordings were made.
“Not all of them, but most of them,” Lauro said of the studio musicians. “Dave’s playing trumpet. Lee Allen and Herb Hardesty play tenor sax. Cornelius ‘Tenoo’ Coleman is playing drums.”
Most of the performance footage in “The Big Beat” comes from the French Archives concert film.
“No one has seen this stuff,” Lauro said. “It’s the real thing.”
The performance footage isn’t extensively used until well into the documentary’s 87 minutes. The film’s first 45 minutes are set largely before 1950.
“I’m fascinated by the early story of Fats and Dave,” Lauro said. “Where they came from, where they learned to play music, what their influences are; who were their contemporaries and how did the music develop from rhythm and blues into rock ’n’ roll. That’s the story we’re telling.”
Lauro shares “The Big Beat” producer and writer credit with Rick Coleman, author of the award-winning 2006 Domino biography, “Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
“Rick did a wonderful book about Fats,” Lauro said. “I did my own interviews and research and found some different things, but Rick’s book served as a marker for a lot of what we told. No one else put it all together like Rick. I could have made the film without him, but I embraced his work. I knew it would be difficult, at this late date, to get the detail Rick got from Fats.”
Unlike Coleman, Lauro didn’t attempt to tell Domino’s entire life story.
“We tell certain stories,” he said. “These types of films are a patchwork. I can’t recreate things with actors. I have to tell these stories through the reminisces of the survivors, the biographers, the research we’ve done, and the photos and footage we unearthed.”
No stars, such as Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt and Robert Plant, make talking-head cameo appearances in “The Big Beat.” Instead, Lauro interviews Domino band members and session players Earl Palmer and Herb Hardesty, for instance, and road manager Billy Diamond.
“People who were really there, witnesses,” he said. “Because Keith Richards’ story about Fats Domino is just like anybody else’s who grew up in that generation, who was influenced by rock ’n’ roll. I don’t need a star. My focus is the serious end of the music story and the people who really mattered.”