I recently saw a list of albums and musicians from the 1970s voted most important by a group of rock critics and music fans. Joe Cocker didn't make the list, which is shocking given that in the early 1970s, he was arguably the hottest male rock singer in America. The fact that he's so easily forgotten - and that he's not even in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - is a reflection of his decade-long meltdown and all those highs and lows are wonderfully chronicled in the documentary "Joe Cocker: Mad Dog With Soul."
Cocker's career exploded when he recorded a balls-out, screaming version of The Beatles tune "With A Little Help From My Friends." He forever changed the song in listener's eyes and he performed the same magic on The Box Tops hit "The Letter." He was a man of immense talent and by all accounts a warm and articulate man. Up until the point he decided to launch his first tour of America. He hired Leon Russell to put together the band and the music and the result was a circus called the "Mad Dogs & Englishmen" tour. There were sometimes as many as 40 people onstage and when the tour was over Cocker found himself in Los Angeles. He was broke, addicted to heroin and drinking non-stop. And while his career later recovered, he battled addictions most of his life.
Unfortunately, Cocker died in 2014, so the documentary doesn't have any recent interviews with him. But "Joe Cocker: Mad Dog With Soul" does have lots of vintage performance footage, backstage interviews and comments from just about everyone Cocker ever worked with. There are also some great comments from Cocker's longtime wife of 38 years, who paints another side of Cocker in those rare times when he wasn't on tour. They owned a rambling ranch in the mountains of Colorado and the photos of Cocker, covered in dirt and showing off some tomato he grew in his garden is pretty amazing.
There are tons of touching stories in the film, but the one that stuck with me was one from a former friend and bandmate who lost touch with Cocker after his mid-1970s meltdown. "I hadn't talked with him in a couple of years. I'm out of the business and on the radio I hear him singing 'You Are So Beautiful.' I just pulled the car and cried."
If I have one complaint about the film, is that for whatever reason it doesn't include the memorable "Saturday Night Live" performances by John Belushi. By the time Belushi was doing his impressions of Cocker, the singer was a bit of a joke in the industry. He had a reputation for missing concerts or not being able to perform when he did show up. Belushi did this spot-on impression of Cocker and after a couple of the appearances on the show, Cocker showed up one night to sing with Belushi in some surreal Battle-of-the-Cockers. The fact Belushi was able to do Cocker better than the man himself is perhaps the clearest indication of just how far he had fallen by the late 1970s.
But aside from that one small criticism, I can't think of a better legacy for Joe Cocker than this documentary. It's honest about Cocker's flaws, but it also provides ample reminders of just how magical he was at the height of his talent.
"Joe Cocker: Mad Dog With Soul" is available now on Netflix.