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'The Changin' Times of Ike White': Film Review

Courtesy of Film

Daniel Vernon's documentary recounts the story of a talented musician who released an acclaimed album while still in prison, only to disappear for decades.

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. The description comes from Winston Churchill about Russia, but it could just as easily be applied to the subject of Daniel Vernon's documentary about musician Ike White. If you haven't heard of White, you're not alone. An accomplished singer, composer and guitarist, he released only one album, 1976's Changin' Times, which received critical acclaim but quickly lapsed into obscurity. But his music, as good as it is (you can hear the album in its entirety on YouTube) pales in comparison to his story, unearthed in this endlessly fascinating film.

White was notable not just for his musical talent, which prompted other musicians to compare him to Jimi Hendrix, but also for his circumstances. He recorded his album in prison, while serving a life sentence for the murder of an 85-year-old grocery store owner who was killed during a robbery. Music producer Jerry Goldstein (War, Sly and the Family Stone) heard about White and managed to arrange for a portable studio to be brought to the prison, along with two other musicians and a trio of female backup singers. During the recording of the album — a blend of funk, soul and R&B — Goldstein's 19-year-old secretary fell in love with White and married him while he was still incarcerated. As we eventually learn, she was hardly the only woman to succumb to the handsome and charismatic musician's charms.

It all seems like a fairy tale, especially when Stevie Wonder became a fan of the album and arranged for a new lawyer for White, who was subsequently released after serving 14 years. He moved in with his wife and infant child, but began to, as she describes it, "make choices that made things very difficult." CBS wanted to produce a television movie about his dramatic story, but the deal fell apart when White insisted on playing himself. Not long after, he disappeared.

Decades later, Vernon tracked White down. He was living in happy domesticity with a Russian-born wife, Lana (not a camera-shy subject), who also served as his manager, and had reinvented himself as a cheesy entertainer named David Maestro, or just Maestro, playing in Las Vegas lounges and at weddings and other events. The filmmaker interviews him at length, with White opening up about his past (he claims the killing was an accident, and that he was just a getaway driver) while smoking a joint, saying the medical marijuana, for which he has a prescription, "sort of smooths things out."

And then things get really weird.

To reveal more would essentially be a spoiler for nearly the entire second half of the film. Suffice it to say that the story is stranger than we ever could have imagined, and far more complicated than a matter of restoring the reputation of an unsung musical genius. And that unlike, say, the similarly themed Searching for Sugar Man, the ending is not a happy one.

Benefiting from copious amounts of home movies and old photographs (for all his air of mystery, White apparently was an obsessive chronicler of his own life), the filmmaker expertly leads the viewer through a complicated, time-shifting scenario that consistently upends our expectations. That television movie about White never happened back in the 1970s, but his story definitely seems ripe for dramatization right about now.


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