Tom Dowd and the Language of Music

Tom Dowd and the Language of Music

3.5 2
Director: Mark Moormann

Cast: Mark Moormann


The entertaining and informative documentary Tom Dowd and the Language of Music lends itself well to DVD expansion, as like many such productions it relies on talking-heads interviews for much of its content. While Dowd's achievements as an engineer and producer in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s for the likes of See more details below


The entertaining and informative documentary Tom Dowd and the Language of Music lends itself well to DVD expansion, as like many such productions it relies on talking-heads interviews for much of its content. While Dowd's achievements as an engineer and producer in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Cream, Derek & the Dominos, the Allman Brothers, and Ray Charles were covered well in the original film, the DVD gives music geeks the chance to hear yet more stories of the era and the artists. This is because most of the DVD extras are additional interview scenes, not only with Dowd, but with several of the artists, record executives, producers, and engineers who also contributed memories to the original film. This gives room for some very specific commentaries that were perhaps felt too specialized, technical, or outside of Dowd's own story for the original cut, such as Dowd talking about the famous piano used on Derek & the Dominos' "Layla," Dickey Betts of the Allmans on Dowd's miking techniques, and Charles discussing his own musical influences. The disc is set up so that you can play just one isolated clip or all interviews with a certain figure at once, and while the information might be too in-depth to appeal to everybody (and not all of the stories are fascinating), aficionados will appreciate its availability for posterity. The few additional extras are hardly worth noting, including just a few deleted scenes of little consequence, a photo gallery, and other crumbs.

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Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble - Roberta Penn
Director Mark Moormann took seven years to make Tom Dowd & the Language of Music, a biographical documentary about a studio engineer who shaped the sound of recorded popular music for nearly 50 years. It is a meticulous piece, recorded on film and edited with an eye for detail. Moormann seamlessly mixes talking heads, still photos, and archival clips, often playing the music of the subject at hand under the interviews. Although Dowd died in 2002, Moorman had already put his effusive personality, good looks, colorful stories, and love of music to use by allowing him to narrate the film. Since most of his work was done behind the scenes as work for hire, there is little self-consciousness or ego in Dowd's onscreen persona. When he talks about jointly recording the Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy bands, he seems more eager to describe the technique he devised to capture the sessions than he is to crow about his face time with two jazz giants. Rather than dwell on his role in bringing Duane Allman and Eric Clapton together for the recording of "Layla," he dwells on the beautiful music they made together. To illustrate, Dowd sits at the console and deconstructs "Layla" so just the two guitars can be heard harmonizing. From early two-track to digital recording, Dowd was part of it all, at times being the first engineer to use new technologies. He was a tech head from the beginning: Before joining Atlantic Records in a one-room office and recording studio, Dowd was involved in testing the atomic bomb, which he describes as "terrifying." And he was more than an engineer, helping the musicians figure out rhythms, keys, and reworkings. For example, it was Dowd who helped Aretha Franklin take a tune that Otis Redding had previously recorded and turn it into the hit "Respect." The pieces that bring the engineer's history alive include archival footage of Dowd in the studio with Franklin, a recent clip of him reminiscing with Ray Charles, and concert recordings of Bobby Darin, The Drifters, Otis Redding, The Allman Brothers Band, and Booker T. and the MG's -- all beneficiaries of Dowd’s genius. Tom Dowd & the Language of Music is the story of a life well lived in the music business: Contrasted to the pain-filled lives of many of the musicians he worked with, his tale is an especially uplifting delight.
All Movie Guide - Richie Unterberger
As an engineer and producer on numerous classic records (many of them for Atlantic Records), Tom Dowd was an important and overlooked figure in the popular music of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. He was also one who, unlike some other producers of similar artistic stature, remained pretty faceless to the public, though he was well respected within the industry. This documentary does a good job of paying his accomplishments their due, though it doesn't make too much of an argument for Dowd being a compellingly interesting personality in his own right. The main attraction is the musical history that's recounted, and anyone with more than a passing interest in the likes of Ray Charles, Cream, Eric Clapton, Stax Records, Aretha Franklin, and the Allman Brothers will enjoy this on the grounds of the interesting musical history relayed (and numerous entertaining stories told along the way) alone. It certainly helps that there are interviews not only with Dowd, but also with the likes of Charles, Clapton, the Allmans, Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun, and producer/songwriter Mike Stoller. The records he worked on (and the stars he worked with), frankly, seem more interesting than Dowd himself, though he's a personable and entertaining enough interview in the sequences in which he's featured. The structure of the documentary is a little herky-jerky, switching back and forth chronologically at times, though the insertion of exciting archive clips of the artists ensures that no one gets restless for too long. In addition, there's little attention given to Dowd's post-'70s work, the unsaid assumption being that it was of little consequence compared to his previous activities. Yet it's a nice addendum to the archives of musical history, particularly as Dowd was no longer around to tell his stories by the time the film was released.

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Product Details

Release Date:
Original Release:
Palm Pictures / Umvd
Region Code:
[Dolby Digital]
Sales rank:

Special Features

Closed Caption; Over 90 minutes of extended interviews and deleted scenes; Previews; Web links

Cast & Crew

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Scene Index

Side #1 --
1. Who's Tommy Dowd? [5:59]
2. State-of-the-Art, 1947 [4:01]
3. A Master of Mixing [4:44]
4. Putting Atlantic on the Map [4:07]
5. Funky Soulful Records [6:04]
6. Atomic Research [7:21]
7. Recording in Stereo [3:33]
8. Les Paul & the 8-Track [3:32]
9. Ray Charles [4:46]
10. The 60th Street Studio [3:05]
11. Stax Records [7:17]
12. Aretha Franklin [3:50]
13. Eric Clapton [4:20]
14. The Allman Brothers Band [5:16]
15. Lynyrd Skynyrd [6:03]
16. Mixing Layla [6:03]
17. Digital Recording [6:29]
18. Credits [2:24]

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