This year when November rolled around, I was especially happy to find the Starz Film Festival in high gear and to learn that Gary Keys was here with a new documentary film.
Gary Keys is known as the Woody Allen of documentaries, says Denver’s film guru, Ron Henderson, who started the first Denver film festival in 1978. Henderson first met Keys in 1981, the year he premiered the Duke Ellington documentary. The New York City advertising executive, is a favorite guest and comes back often enough that if he’s not here at the Annual Starz Denver Film Festival each November, be assured everyone is worried about him.
In 2009, Keys debuted his spectacular documentary 42nd Street: River to River, which documented the history of the theatre district between First Avenue and 12th Avenue, 42nd Street and Broadway in New York City. Keys won my affection with that excellent film. He has a rare talent for getting people to tell their story. Such as Mickey Rourke’s animated commentary in 42nd Street, explaining his life in the run-down theatre district, his history with thugs and dealing drugs, fighting, friends and, eventually his break into acting.
For the last two years, Keys has worked with producer, Emily Morse to create a documentary film about the legendary Drinkard Singers. This large family of vocalists includes Dionne Warwick, Sissy Houston, Whitney Houston, numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins who have been integral parts of this historic musical performing family for 40 years.
When Keys first met Dionne Warwick, she was touching on fame. This was before the highly marketable duo of Warwick and Burt Baccahrach. Keys loved her voice and began to produce her concerts. Starting in the 1960s, he was attending her concerts in New York and New Jersey with a video camera. He was able to capture footage of this great talent a good twenty years before MTV. And, he was there to watch Warwick go from star to super star. His legendary footage became the foundation for this extraordinary documentary on Divas (The Drinkard Singers).
The rare footage of the extended Drinkard Singers family (Dionne was there, but no Whitney. Was she too young then?) during a studio recording session is remarkable. Their candid talk, laughter, love and intimate insight into their innate talent is well worth a ticket to this film.
I asked Keys about the journey he’s taken with The Drinkard Singers and how it has influenced his work, especially The Wonderful Family of Divas.
“When Dionne’s ‘Walk on By’ hit the streets it was big. I loved it. I went to see her concerts and started taking my video camera. I had an advertising agency back then. I knew about The Drinkard Singers (it was made up of Dionne’s mother, Sissy Houston who is Whitney’s mother, uncles, aunts and cousins, all members of this well-known gospel group who performed in New York and New Jersey). I knew enough about their widespread talents, that eventually I knew I wanted to film the family. As the years passed, I had shot enough footage to think about a documentary.
“That’s when Emily and I started work on gathering and editing film for this year’s film festival. She’s been a gift to me. She is bright, pleasant and a joy to work with. I have to credit her with getting this one ready for 2011. When I come in to the office in a bad mood, she smiles and gets to work.
“It took almost two years to put the documentary together.
“Did I tell you it’s not finished? When we stopped production I still had an agreement with the girls: Dionne, Whitney and Sissy would sing for me. That would be the final cut, then I could say the Divas docu was finished. As it happened, when it was time to insert another clip, for the last act, Whitney was in rehab and so was I...I now call this my work in progress. One of these days I’ll get that final footage.”
Keys is a snappy, handsome guy who’s been around a New York block or two. I asked him to tell me his thoughts on the film.
He quickly responded, “If I tell you how I feel about the film it’d be like inviting you to dinner and telling you how the meal is going to taste.”
A foot note of interest. Sissy Houston was singing in church when she was barely old enough to talk. She has been Dionne and Whitney’s inspiration, closest friend, mentor, mother and aunt. In the film one sees the love and admiration they have for each other and the sincere affection they share for Sissy, who’s still singing.
The Wonderful Family of Divas, tells the viewer about Sissy Houston’s long and successful career. After the Drinkard Singers married, died, had children and started careers and families indepently, Sissy started the Sweet Inspirations group. This well-known group among recording artists sang back up on hits from all the greats including Elvis, Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. Next time you hear Browned-eyed Girl - listen. You’ll hear the distinct voices of the Sweet Inspirations.
From 42nd Street to gospel divas, Keys and his side-kick producer, Morse, have again brought an exhilarating, premier documentary to Denver where audiences left the theater with a smile on their face. Divas entertained as evidenced by the sold out screenings during the festival. As a seasoned professional and media darling, Keys let the film do his talking as he quickly told the audience his history with Warwick and her family. The film tells how The Drinkard Singers were gospel singers who brought and rekindled the authenticity to one of America’s original art forms, the spirituals. Through every generation of this large and multitalented family there is one common thread - the love of music.
Gary Keys is the producer of numerous documentaries: Count Basie, 42nd Street, The Wonderful Family of Divas (2011), Cuba-Island of Music, Gospel, Good Times Sunday, and a documentary on Autism. He’s a film maker non pareille, who brings history, performance and social issues to the forefront in the name of unforgettable documentaries.