This evening I had the great good fortune to attend the World Premiere of filmmaker Louise Panenker's splendid documentary "Family Band: The Cowsills Story" at the 2011 Rhode Island International Film Festival in Providence. For those under the age of 50 The Cowsills were an extremely talented and highly popular family recording act hailing from Newport, Rhode Island. The band scored several hit records in the late 1960's. The Cowsills specialized in tight harmonies and began performing and recording at a very young age. The group consisted of brothers Barry, Bill, John, Bob and Paul, little sister Susan and their mom Barbara. Their metoric rise to the top of the charts was the inspiration for the hit TV show The Partridge Family. Unfortunately the demise of the group would prove to be just as dramatic. "Family Band: The Cowsills Story" chronicles the life and times of a family that knew both the exhilaration of success and the pain of seeing it all slip away. I thought it was a very moving film.
The driving force behind The Cowsills was their father Bud Cowsill. The boys all started singing and playing instruments at a very young age. It quickly became apparent that this group had the potential to be something very special. Bud believed in his boys and was instrumental in getting them a recording contract. The Cowsills had three local hits in 1966 that got the attention of the folks at M-G-M records who signed the band in early 1967. Several months later The Cowsills released their first single for M-G-M called "The Rain, The Park & Other Things" (you probably remember it as "The Flower Girl") which made it all the way to #2 on the Billboard charts. Over the next few months the group would also score with a pair of hits "We Can Fly" (#21) and "Indian Lake" (#10). There were appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It seemed for all the world that The Cowsills would be a fixture on the music scene for many years to come.
But behind the scenes there was trouble brewing. To put it mildly Bud Cowsill was a tyrant. He was overbearing and abusive to his children. It was his way or the highway. The story might remind you of the saga of The Jackson Five. Furthermore, Bud Cowsill was extremely abrasive in his dealings with record producers, record labels and booking agents. He rubbed people the wrong way and as one of his sons points out in the film Bud was beginning to get in the way of the groups success. People just did not want to deal with Bud. In the spring of 1969 The Cowsills would manage one final hit record. "Hair" (from the rock musical of the same name) was kind of an accident. The record company wanted nothing to do with it but after the boys brought a demo to a Chicago radio station the song took off and within a matter of weeks The Cowsills once again had a #2 hit single. Shortly thereafter oldest son Bill and Bud had a falling out that resulted in Bud Cowsill firing his son not only from the group but as Bill tells it also from the family. It was heartbreaking to hear Bill discuss this in the film. The Cowsills had lost their lead singer who was the heart and soul of the group. I don't think Bill ever got over it. It was all down hill from there. It has been estimated that over a three year period from 1967 to 1970 The Cowsills raked in around 20 million dollars. To this day the members of the band have no idea what happened to most of the money. They certainly never saw it.
"Family Band: The Cowsills Story" goes on to document what life was like for everyone after the demise of the group. Each went their separate ways. It seems like Barry and Bill had the toughest time of it. Each was haunted by drug and alcohol abuse. Barry had moved to New Orleans just weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2006. Sadly, he was listed as ”missing” in the aftermath of the storm. His badly decomposed body was discovered in late December 2006. His siblings were devastated. Then just a few weeks later the family learned that brother Bill had passed away. It was all too much. Meanwhile, Bob, Susan and Paul continued to dabble in music with their own bands and would reunite and perform as “The Cowsills” from time-to-time. I found "Family Band: The Cowsills Story" to be a very engaging and entertaining film. The film is certainly not all doom and gloom as Louise Panenker liberally sprinkles in lots of joyous footage of the band’s performances during its peak years. When the credits finally rolled at the conclusion of the premiere showing the audience erupted with a standing ovation. Then Bob, Susan and Paul appeared on stage and performed several of The Cowsills hits. All in all, for me this was truly a night to remember. The Cowsills were a really big deal here in Rhode Island when I was a teenager. At this point no distribution deal has been worked out for this film but Louise Panenker did announce at the end of the evening that the film will be shown at festivals in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills later this month. If you ever have the opportunity I urge you to check it out. Very highly recommended!
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