How do you secure Fats Domino’s blessing for your documentary? If you’re filmmaker Joe Lauro, you ply him with rare footage of the boogie-woogie piano players he idolized.
In the years before Hurricane Katrina, Lauro, whose directing and producing credits include films about Louis Prima, the Supremes and Sam & Dave, approached the reclusive Domino about a similar project. As Lauro recalled recently, “He looked at me and goes, ‘I don’t want anybody documenting me.’”
During the multiyear courtship that followed, Lauro utilized the library of his company, Historic Films Archive, which licenses vintage music footage. He assembled a VHS compilation tape of Albert Ammons, Meade “Lux” Lewis, James P. Johnson and other pianists of the 1930s and ’40s, and sent it to Domino. “It had a very profound effect on him,” Lauro said. “He liked me a lot after that.”
Domino even rechristened him “Video Joe” — and agreed to cooperate with his documentary.
The result, “The Big Beat: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll,” makes its broadcast debut on Friday — Domino’s 88th birthday — via PBS’s “American Masters” series. It airs locally on WYES at 9 p.m. Shanachie Entertainment has also released a DVD with the hour-long PBS version and a 90-minute director’s cut.
Relative to the tens of millions of records he’s sold, Domino is chronically undocumented. No authoritative biography existed until the 2006 publication of local writer Rick Coleman’s “Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
Because Domino didn’t generate tabloid headlines, he is not nearly as well known as many contemporaries.
“Unlike Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, he led a life not full of public drama,” Lauro said. “There was tragedy in Fats’ life and trouble that he got into. But he was never one to talk about it or exploit it. He was so much more private about it.
“Fats did his music and was happy to go home and be with his family and be in the city that he loved. Because of his shyness, his aversion to interviews, and that he just wanted to live a simple life, he’s kind of been forgotten.”
Domino’s longtime friend Haydee Ellis introduced him to Lauro. Convinced that Domino deserved a documentary, Lauro still didn’t know if he had enough compelling performance footage. Domino, like other black rock ’n’ rollers of the 1950s, was not often filmed in his heyday. Then, a friend of Lauro’s who works for Shanachie came across footage of a complete Domino concert at the 1962 Antibes Jazz Festival in France.
“This was his band at its absolute peak,” Lauro said. “This was the holy grail of rhythm & blues and early rock ’n’ roll.”
For “The Big Beat,” Lauro interviewed Dave Bartholomew, the New Orleans trumpeter and bandleader, now in his 90s, who produced and co-wrote the majority of Domino’s hits. Naturalized New Orleans keyboardist Jon Cleary, who won his first Grammy Award earlier this month, serves as a guide to technical aspects of the Domino sound. Longtime Domino saxophonist Herb Hardesty also shares his recollections.
Pianist Mitch Woods supplied Lauro with interview footage of the late Earl Palmer, the great New Orleans drummer who played on thousands of recordings locally and in Los Angeles. Old and frail at the time of the interview, Palmer remarks on New Orleanians’ unique relationship with rhythm: “It’s the only place in the world where everybody, even white listeners, clap on two and four, instead of one and three. Right away, you can tell if a white dude is from New Orleans, when you hear him clap. He’s on the beat. That’s kind of a natural thing with New Orleans people.”
(Lauro found that quote to be particularly amusing. “When you talk to people when they’re in their 80s, they’ve got nothing to lose. They’ll say whatever they want.”)
Ultimately, Domino himself couldn’t contribute much to the film in terms of fresh interviews. “By the time I was shooting, Fats had become quite forgetful,” Lauro said. While he could still reel off songs on the piano, “if I asked him a question about his career, he had very few words.”
Instead, Domino’s voice is heard on audiotapes Coleman — who is credited as one of the film’s producers and writers, and also appears on camera — recorded before Katrina as part of his research. Coleman’s book proved invaluable to Lauro: “I was able to cut to the chase because I had Rick’s book as a guide. Rick helped me greatly on the project.”
Domino also is seen in brief black-and-white snippets from decades ago, when he played to packed, sometimes over-exuberant audiences. In one vintage clip, a no-nonsense, off-camera interviewer asks a young, smiling Domino what he thinks about how “this rock ’n’ roll music seems to be under an awful heavy attack from all over the country. There’s been riots, it’s been banned in certain parts of this country and abroad. You know of any reason for that?”
“Well, as far as I know, music makes people happy,” Domino replies. “I know it makes me happy.”
“The Big Beat: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll” premiered during the 2014 New Orleans Film Festival. Much to Lauro’s surprise, Domino turned up for the Oct. 23, 2014, screening at the Carver Theater in Treme, sitting alongside Dr. John and Bartholomew. It was, to date, one of Domino’s last public appearances.
Lauro hopes his film helps make up for some of Domino’s reluctance to publicize himself. Outside of New Orleans, “nobody really knew much about the man,” Lauro said. “The story is just so fascinating, and so tied into the culture of New Orleans.
“He knew what he wanted, more than so many people. He knew what made him happy and comfortable, and he achieved it.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.