Williams wrote the song with his Neptunes partner Chad Hugo for Netflix’s original film ‘The Black Godfather.’
Thirteen-time Grammy-winning artist and producer Pharrell Williams on Monday performed a new original song, “Letter to My Godfather,” for Soundcheck: A Netflix Film & Series Music Showcase presented by Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter.
Williams wrote the song along with his Neptunes producing partner Chad Hugo for Netflix’s original film The Black Godfather, which follows the life of music executive Clarence Avant. Featuring Williams’ Auto-Tuned vocals backed by a choir, the track honors Avant and the music industry greats he was responsible for ushering in.
“The people who gave me my opportunities were people that he walked into the game,” Williams told Billboard during a post-performance Q&A. “Teddy Riley, Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, these were, and still are, giants in our industry.”
The Black Godfather is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
Six of this year’s best doc contenders center on top artists from David Crosby to Linda Ronstadt and the behind-the-scenes locales that illuminated their stardom like The Apollo and Blue Note Records.
“I love your movie, especially the music,” used to be the best backhanded compliment you could pay a filmmaker. But when it comes to many of this year’s documentaries vying for awards, music is front and center as the star of the show, along with the artists and institutions that created the sounds that have defined American music through the decades.
There are mavericks like legendary music executive Clarence Avant and institutions such as Harlem’s Apollo Theater and Blue Note Records, not to mention legends like Bruce Springsteen and Linda Ronstadt, and David Crosby, the embattled member of the 1970s rock quartet Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Still, no matter the topic, the hurdles are the same — access, archival footage, clearing music rights and burning as few bridges as possible along the way.
“I wasn’t too sure how it was going to go for Crosby because he saw an early version of the film, which was really positive. But we had done some work since then, and there were definitely some corrosive elements,” says Remember My Name producer Cameron Crowe, who knows Crosby from his days as a journalist for Rolling Stone. “He asked me to get involved, and that was based on the trust we had, so it made it pretty easy for me. He was ready to talk, and that sets the ground for the best interviews. Nobody’s pulling teeth.”
David Crosby: Remember My Name director A.J. Eaton (left) with Crosby.
Tell that to filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who were turned down three times by the subject of their film, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (CNN Films). “She said she was bored to delirium talking about her past and surely we could find a more worthy subject,” says Epstein, whose film includes interviews with Dolly Parton, Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt. “She didn’t think there would be an audience for it.” Ronstadt, who is battling Parkinson’s disease, did not sit for an interview. “We finally convinced her that we didn’t necessarily need her participation if we had her goodwill.”
Finding footage of the multi-gold and -platinum album seller was hardly difficult, but clearing rights ate up a significant portion of the film’s budget. Roger Ross Williams, director of HBO’s The Apollo, had the opposite problem. For him, the issue was finding footage of the legendary performances that have graced the stage of the historic Harlem venue since the 1930s.
“It involved the producer literally going through peoples’ basements, whether it’s ‘Pigmeat’ Markham’s daughter’s house, or Jerry Kupfer, who introduces Amateur Night at the Apollo,” says Williams, calling the loose boxes of three-quarter-inch and VHS tape the unofficial archive of the storied theater. “Tape transfers from the ’70s, moldy old tapes — it was a process.”
He adds that he wished he could have found more of the Amateur Night performances. The series showcasing young talent launched in 1934 and has featured several names that would go on to become music greats, including Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, James Brown and Lauryn Hill. “There’s a long list of some of the greatest talent in America that won Amateur Night,” he says. “That footage either didn’t exist or was lost.”
For career-defining songs like “Respect,” by Aretha Franklin, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” by James Brown, and “Strange Fruit,” by Billie Holiday, the production paid a fee to Universal Music Group. “Otherwise, the music alone would be millions and millions of dollars, and we didn’t have that,” says Williams. “We had to be very creative.”
The independent producers of Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes had no such luck with their film on the pioneering music label launched in 1939. It nurtured some of the most influential musicians of the midcentury — Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock, to name a few. “Every little bit we had to clear. Blue Note gave us a break, but it was still a substantial part of the budget,” says director Sophie Huber, whose production, financed mostly by Swiss public funds, paid a flat fee for access to the photo archive.
Director A.J. Eaton of Remember My Name was surprised to find so little footage of Crosby, Stills & Nash, one of the hottest concert tickets of the 1970s. Luckily, one of Crosby’s friends, Bobby Hammer, shot footage of them on Crosby’s boat, the Mayan, with his 16mm camera. Thanks to FotoKem and Technicolor, the production was able to get a 4K digital strike out of a can of film found in Hammer’s garage. “If it would have stayed in that garage for a couple of more weeks, the people at FotoKem and Technicolor told me it may have not been playable. We would have lost it forever,” says Eaton.
Remember My Name has more than 60 music cues, but Eaton and Crowe found most of the musicians amenable to giving them the rights despite raw feelings for Crosby, the iconic musician known as a founding member of both The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash who has strained relationships with some of his past collaborators. “It’s funny, they still kind of feel a kinship, even if it’s a tattered one. So they were pretty good about letting us have their song,” says Crowe, noting that each cue has its own contingencies.
For Netflix’s The Black Godfather, director Reginald Hudlin found himself calling in favors not on his own account, as the Oscar-nominated producer of Django Unchained, but on account of his subject, fabled music executive Clarence Avant. “You don’t lead with my name when you go into a meeting. The name you lead with is Clarence,” says Hudlin. “Everyone wanted to cooperate to make it happen.” Everyone included Avant, who contacted Hudlin through his daughter, former U.S. Ambassador Nicole Avant (who is married to Netflix’s Ted Sarandos), with the idea of making the movie.
The Black Godfather himself, Clarence Avant, sought out director Reginald Hudlin.
While opportunities don’t come easier than that, none of the filmmakers in the category had it like Thom Zimny, co-director of Warner Bros.’ Western Stars, the concert film of Springsteen performing his latest album of the same name with a 30-piece band. Zimny, a longtime collaborator of Springsteen’s who most recently directed his Netflix concert special, Springsteen on Broadway, was given full access while filming over two days in Springsteen’s private barn in New Jersey with about 15 of the music legend’s closest friends.
“The beauty of working this close with Bruce is that I have the trust. So Bruce would be open to using home videos or stills from his own collection,” says Zimny. “I had the advantage of being open to the spontaneity that comes with having all the years together.”
Springsteen, who has co-directing credit with Zimny, is presumably happy with Western Stars, but what about the rest of the subjects? Epstein was nervous to hear what Ronstadt would think of The Sound of My Voice. “She came and sat in the back row. So we couldn’t really see her response as we were watching the film,” recalls Epstein. “But afterward, she said, ‘You did a good job. I don’t usually say this, but I don’t have any notes.’ “ Clarence Avant called Hudlin periodically asking about The Black Godfather. “What’s taking so long? What’s in it? I don’t want to know,” he told the director, who didn’t show him the film until it was locked. Then, over lunch: “You guys got me,” Avant told him. “I dropped a tear.”
Eaton and Crowe were unsure how Crosby, 78, would react to their film right up until its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019. “The film ended, and I was a few feet away and I was looking at him and I really did not know how it was going to go,” Crowe recalls. “He shot me one look that was really fierce. He gave me final cut, but I knew there was stuff that might piss him off. You kind of want that moment because if everybody’s real happy with the way they came off, you might be looking at an EPK. But the audience wrapped their arms around Crosby, and from that moment on, he became our greatest voice.”
As she prepares to release her debut film Queen & Slim, producer, actor, and screenwriter Lena Waithe reflects on the monumental power of black unity.
“‘White heavyweight?’ The words don’t even go together. It’s like saying ‘black unity’.”
That’s a quote from the film The Great White Hype, directed by Reginald Hudlin. The movie hit theatres in 1996, but for some reason that joke has always stayed with me.
I think it’s because it spoke to the idea that the only thing crazier than black people being united was the thought of a white guy becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. Back then I thought it was funny, but now it shakes me to my core – mainly because I know there’s nothing more powerful than black people coming together as one.
During slavery, it was illegal for a group of black people to gather without a white person being present. Imagine how frightened slave owners must have been to make such a law. They knew that as long as we didn’t come together – as long as we didn’t share ideas, as long as we didn’t see ourselves in each other – slavery would never end. That’s how powerful we are when we come together.
When the Million Man March happened, I was only 11 years old. I was too young to understand how significant that moment was. But I do recall seeing it on TV and being completely transformed by it. I had never before seen that many black people in one place. That day, I understood that being black wasn’t just a part of my identity, it was a privilege. Of course, it’s not lost on me that the event had its problems – women were excluded, and it wasn’t that inclusive of the queer black community, either, but at the time it was revolutionary. Some might say it was a phenomenal moment, so what happened next? What did we do, as a community, to maintain that sense of togetherness? I don’t have the answers, but I do know there are millions of black people in America and we are not a monolith. Even though we are connected, we are all individuals. And we have the right to live, love and worship however we see fit, even if other black people don’t agree with it. No one champions individuality more than me – but how can we be individuals and still be united?
What is black unity anyway? What does it look like? What does it feel like?
Does it mean black people have to support black people all the time? Does it mean black people hold each other accountable more than usual? Does it mean black people only date other black people? I apologise for having more questions than responses.
I know that seems odd, because as a black person in the public eye there’s an expectation for me to have all the answers, to always do the right thing – particularly within my own community. There’s a pressure on all black people to be perfect.
From left to right: Director Melina Matsoukas, Lena Waithe, and costume designer Shiona Turini
It sometimes feels like we put that pressure on each other. It’s a habit that isn’t necessarily our fault. It was embedded in us through our ancestors. If a slave didn’t show up to the cotton fields on time, they would be beaten. If the work wasn’t done perfectly, they could be sold to another plantation. Even if a slave fell ill they were still expected to work from sunup to sundown with very little food and in horrific living conditions. They were expected to be strong and work their fingers to the bone with no complaints. As a community, we still carry that trauma within us. This need to never show flaws is something that still wrestles in our spirits.
When I think about black unity, I think about the complexities of some slaves who were forced to watch over other slaves and make sure the work got done. It was used as a way to divide us. The master was saying to one black person that they were better than another. Darker-skinned slaves were forced to work in the fields, while fairer-skinned slaves often worked as domestics. Again, this caused a rift between people who were all suffering under the same American flag.
When I sat down to writeQueen & Slim– a story about black love while the world burns around you – all of these thoughts and questions swirled in my mind. I thought about blackness and unity. I thought about how every black person is connected – whether we like it or not. Our ancestors came to this country on slave ships. The quarters were so cramped that they became one. Even when they were split up and sold off to different plantations, the connective tissue was still there.
Every time I look at another black person, I can’t help but wonder if our ancestors were in love. Did they run away together? Did they teach each other how to read? Did they work together to plan a revolt? Were they friends who became separated by the slave trade and never saw each other again? We’ll never understand just how united we really are.
I’ve come to the conclusion that even if I can’t stand another black person, I will never have the capacity to hate them. We don’t have to be friends, we don’t have to agree, we don’t have to walk through the world with the same stride – but I do think that we should honour our ancestors by at least acknowledging each other’s presence when we pass on the street. Maybe that’s what they would’ve wanted.
I still believe that we as a people are stronger when we stand united than when we stand alone. But how we choose to be “united” will be a never-ending journey. I’m not sure what that looks like, but whatever it is, I know it won’t be easy. It won’t be neat. And chances are it won’t be something that everyone will agree on. But whatever it is that leads us back to each other, that’s a journey I’m willing to take.
Queen & Slim is in cinemas on 31 January, 2020.
This article was originally published in the November 2019 issue of British Vogue.