December 31, 2006

Oscar and Sam: Documentary Portraits of Two Creative Artists

Sam Rodia perched on his Watts Towers, late 1940s. From Edward Landler and Brad Byer's 'I Build the Tower: The Life and Work of Sam Rodia.'

One artist who became an icon through his diverse work and another whose grandest work became iconic are the subjects of two current documentaries that accord much deserved recognition to both the men and their creations.

 "Doing a film about an artist is rather difficult," says donnie l. betts, in discussing his film Music Is My Life...Politics My Mistress, a profile of multifaceted activist Oscar Brown Jr. "How do you capture the essence of what they do?"

As a poet, lyricist, songwriter, composer, playwright, performer and political activist, Brown made his mark beginning in the late 1940s and running throughout the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s until his death at age 78 in May 2005.

The challenge betts faced was turning Brown's eclectic career, which spanned more than a half-century, into a comprehensive story of his life. "I didn't have the challenge of [telling the story of] a visual artist," betts admits. "I was lucky in that way."

Filmmakers Edward Landler and Brad Byer were not so lucky in their quest to tell the definitive story of the Los Angeles landmark the Watts Towers and its creator, Simon "Sam" Rodia, in their film I Build the Tower. "I felt film was one of the few media that could actually capture the essence of Rodia's intent," says Landler. "We were intent on showing the meticulous and exquisite craftsmanship of the mosaic-to go as close as possible and see the mosaic for itself in its own context and at the same time see it in the context of the whole structure. Only film can do that both in terms of the movement of the camera and the editing."

Getting up-close and intimate with a subject can be a challenge in and of itself when the subject rises almost 100 feet in the air. Coupled with the fact that the towers were surrounded by scaffolding for two decades made seeing the structures in their full glory impossible for the filmmakers--until the Northridge earthquake struck in January 1994, which necessitated the scaffolding to be removed so that the towers could be repaired.

 "That gave us the opportunity to do the full-scale shooting of the towers," Landler recalls. "The towers weren't damaged, but the scaffolding was."

One of the film's signature shots is a base-to-top tracking shot of the towers, giving viewers an otherwise unattainable view of Rodia's amazing creation. The Watts Towers, made of reinforced concrete embellished with bits of broken glass and tile, took 33 years to build.

"Everything is as meticulous and carefully done up on top as below," Landler says of the craftsmanship. "His selection of tile and his juxtaposition of images--well, the guy was a great artist."

Landler and Byer, whose maternal grandmother was Rodia's sister, spent 23 years researching, shooting and completing their film. The first interview Byer and Landler conducted for their film was with designer, architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, who placed Rodia firmly in the genius category. "Fuller said in the interview, ‘[Sam] was a great artist with a great poet inside of him, but he only knew one language and this language was structure,'" Landler notes.

Structure played a role as well when Landler and Byer were introduced to each other at a party just months before shooting Fuller's interview in 1983, and they quickly came to an agreement on certain elements they deemed critical to the project. "It was very important that we avoid as much as possible any kind of central narrator," Landler says. "But then, as we went carefully through the audio tapes that were available of Rodia, we wanted his voice to be able to tell his own story."

"We just wanted to keep the story as pure and true as possible," Byer adds. "With Sam telling it, we thought it just added a different dimension of genuineness."

betts also wanted his subject to tell his own story. "I made that decision after my first little rough cut, where I had narration, and I said, ‘That's really cumbersome,'" he explains. "It gets in the way of Oscar. I just wanted Oscar to carry the film. I looked at it this way: Let me let him do what he did best. Let him perform. I wanted to shoot him very intimately, because if you ever saw Oscar perform, people will tell you, that's his essence. He's so powerful a performer and so in touch and in tune with his audience that you walk away feeling like you know him."

First exposed to Brown while a college student after checking out a copy of Brown's first album, Sin and Soul, from the campus library, betts originally planned to frame his film around a concert of Brown singing and performing his powerful and often humorous spoken-word poetry, but the filmmaker quickly realized there was more to the story. "I'm not a real big fan of concert films," betts admits. "I like to find out about the artist. I want to know what makes them tick, what inspired them, what they're doing now creatively. Once I started to delve into his archives and have more conversations with him and his contemporaries, I realized this man is so complex and so underappreciated that I'm going to make the best film possible about his life, no matter how long it takes."

What resonated with betts about Brown as he embarked on making the film was similar to what had originally resonated with him as an impressionable college student many years earlier. "I knew he was in that same vein of artists who spoke out against injustices," he recalls. "That's why I was attracted to him. In college we listened to his songs as fuel. With this film, I wanted to let people know about his activism through his art."

From a technical standpoint betts and his editor, Dave Wruck, understood that the film, shot on DVC-Pro, Beta-SP and 24p Mini-DV before being bumped to HD, would be grounded in a distinct rhythm that grew organically out of Brown himself. "The pace of the film came from his walk," betts explains. "He had the coolest walk. A very fast walk. He walked on a beat."

Rhythm and music are elements of both films as Landler and Byer incorporate the records Rodia listened to extensively--Verdi operas--with styles ranging from blues to jazz to hip-hop. "We realized, in a way, that the progression of the musical styles could also reflect the historical progression of the story," Landler says. "The classical and jazz arrangements of Verdi tie everything together. The basic themes of the hip-hop song also come from the Verdi music." A CD of the music included in I Build the Tower is available online at, along with the DVD of the film.

While the Watts Towers can be captured on film, and while Rodia's philosophies can be translated into song, there are elements of such an artist and his art that are open for interpretation. "I think his story and his work reflect the things in his life that he had to redeem himself for; he was not a good man," Landler says of Rodia, who describes his alcoholism and abusive nature in the film. "As for what he was trying to say, well, that's up to every person who goes to the towers and tries to interpret them for himself."

Byer says many of his family members now see Rodia, who died mere weeks before the Watts Riots broke out in August 1965 (the towers were unharmed), in a different light: "For me the towers stand for freedom of the little individual--the freedom of initiative to create and effect change for the better in the world at large."

For betts, Brown's endorsement of the finished film came accompanied by his typical sense of humor following a festival screening. "At the end he leaned over and said, ‘You really captured me. Of course, it is about my most favorite subject--me.'" With a national PBS telecast scheduled for February 2007 for Music Is My Life, as well as a DVD of the film and a CD of poetry and songs Brown recorded for betts' project available at, Oscar Brown Jr's art can be discovered by a whole new audience.

"What he wanted to do was ‘edutainment'--education and entertainment together," betts maintains. "That's what he wanted his legacy to be. He said, ‘An artist has a social responsibility to the community not only to entertain but to educate.'"


Christopher R.C. Bosen is a freelance writer and filmmaker in the final stages of post-production (he hopes) on a feature-length documentary. He recently moved from Los Angeles to Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and almost-one-year-old son, Cameron.