The Changin’ Times Of Ike White


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Changin’ Times Of Ike White
"Daniel Vernon’s film is one of those meandering documentaries that starts out trying to do one thing and ends up going in directions that nobody involved seems to have anticipated." | Photo: Glasgow Film Festival

In 1976, a remarkable album was released by a man whom serious music critics spoke of in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix, an astonishing young talent whose ability as a composer was eclipsed only by his ability as a musician. What made it more remarkable is that he recorded it from his prison cell. “ A small cell just big enough for a keyboard and a guitar,” an old friend remembers. It was enough. Volunteering clean up the gas chamber, he got permission to take his harmonica and guitar there, taking every opportunity he could find to make music. But The Changin’ Times was his only hit. What became of him?

Daniel Vernon’s film is one of those meandering documentaries that starts out trying to do one thing and ends up going in directions that nobody involved seems to have anticipated. It begins by looking at the discovery of Ike’s talent and reflecting on his past, using multiple accounts which converge on certain facts but invite us to question the way they came into being. The killing that put him in jail. 85 year old grocery store owner Johnny. He was nineteen at the time. It was only supposed to be a robbery; the rest was an accident, he maintained. They gave him Murder One, but somehow he did just 14 years, not a heavy sentence by US standards. And fame still had its rewards. During that time he met and married one of his fans, a shy Midwestern teenager who bore him a daughter.

Then he came out of prison. He lost his musical focus. He failed to hold down a regular job. His wife left him, came back, left him again, and so on. He started sleeping around. After 2,000 women he stopped counting. Inevitably, there were other children as a result, parallel stories of love and hope and an unfair share of tragedy by anyone’s standards. And then he disappeared.

Vernon delves deeper into his past. The butterfly shaped birthmark on his leg, the kind that prompts old women to foretell special destiny. His father’s dabbling in music; Ella Fitzgerald visiting the family home when he was just a child. Later, another brush with history, marching beside Martin Luther King. Give some of the stories, one might imagine one was dealing with a fantasist, but he collected a huge personal archive of photographs, videotapes, letters and other mementos that littler the film. Women who loved him get together to remember him. they don’t contradict one another’s accounts. There’s a warmth between them such as one finds between hobbyists with a shared passion. Even when they talk about the times that he lost his temper.

That Vernon finds Ike again, living under another name, married to a doting Russian blonde and signing in cocktail lounges will come as no real surprise – the man himself is the only logical source for some of the stories we have already heard. But there are stranger stories to come. Former neighbours remember an elderly woman who adopted him in his forties; they lived together for a while as mother and son. The mother of his youngest son talks about their trips to Vegas, their wild ambitions, her as a showgirl, him as a born again star. The Russian shows us the art he made when not experimenting with music – the sculptures, the psychedelic chandeliers. Everything full of colour, everything pointing to some tremendous talent that never quite found its focus. There’s a sense that he was too big for the world or at least that he was good at getting others to believe that.

Does Vernon believe it? It’s dangerously easy to be seduced by a subject like this. Behind the glamour, however, we glimpse the rough edges of a man. Vernon is there for the whole ride. Even the ending is carefully staged. Who was Ike White? That, for all the film’s rich detail, remains a mystery.

Reviewed on: 29 Feb 2020
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A documentary about the man behind the first ever commercial album recorded inside an American prison by an inmate, charting his journey out from prison into industry adulation and life as a free man, eventually leading to his reinvention as a performer for hire.

Director: Daniel Vernon

Year: 2019

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: UK

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