Immediate Family does its job of bringing awareness to important but obscure musical figures, even if it does little more than that.
I was born in 1995, yet my varied musical tastes would often make you think I was somehow born in 1950, 1980, and 2000 all at once. Among other genres, I have a great fondness for the pop rock sounds of the 1970s, which means I’m familiar with a lot of the bigger faces that show up in the documentary Immediate Family, such as Phil Collins, Carole King, Stevie Nicks, James Taylor, and Don Henley. But the focus of this film isn’t necessarily them. Instead, Immediate Family centers around five talented backing musicians who have had their hands in all of those superstars’ careers, even if most people don’t know their names.
Danny Kortchmar, Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, and Steve Postell all meet up to discuss their careers as session and touring musicians. We’re taken through how they got into the business, the connections they made, what they brought to each record, how they evolved through the years, and ultimately what brought them to forming their own band, called Immediate Family. Interviews with them and the many other stars they’ve been associated with are also prominent throughout the film, as is footage of them playing and recording some of the most popular songs of their time.
A part of me wants to take Immediate Family’s advertising to task for giving such prominent billing to the big stars rather than … you know, the people it’s actually about. But not only would that draw basically no one in to check the film out, but considering how content these five musicians were with stepping to the side and letting others take the spotlight back in the day, maybe it’s fitting that they do the same within the film’s marketing. I’m not speculating over their attitudes there; they say how much they didn’t mind not being the stars of the show in the actual documentary, which makes for an interesting perspective you don’t see much in films of this nature.
I love a lot of the music that’s featured in Immediate Family, but I never knew the little ins and outs of how it was made or who worked on it. It’s tempting to lie and say I was already aware of the names in the titular group so I can look cool in front of my fellow twenty-somethings, but watching this documentary was my first time hearing of them. I also never knew that the same people were spread across so many different famous artists and songs. And, of course, I found myself happy to hear a lot of the familiar songs was being performed, either in a studio or on tour. Especially since I listened to a playlist full of them on the drive to see the film. If there’s one thing that can keep me sane driving through New York City traffic, it’s tapping the steering wheel to “The Boys of Summer.”
Every member of Immediate Family brings a fun, lighthearted energy to what they have to say, and it’s hard for it to not rub off on us. They utter clichés you’ve heard all the time about how their jobs are what they’ve always wanted to do and that they live, sleep, and breathe music, but it comes across as totally genuine from them. They’re very engaging storytellers and have many cool tales about moments in their lives, both big and small, but it’s also enjoyable to just watch them meet up with each other and shoot the breeze as old friends. (I also support the no-brainer decision to have a documentary with Carole King in it play “You’ve Got a Friend” when these guys’ friendship is in focus.)
If you want to hear these stories and learn about the more obscure names behind some classic tunes, Immediate Family works as a solid, charming enough educational outlet. But if you don’t really care that much about the subject matter going in, or if your knowledge of Phil Collins stops at the one famous drum break of “In the Air Tonight” (or maybe the Tarzan soundtrack), I’m not sure how much you’ll get out of the documentary. Not because the information is presented in a way that’s too obscure for the uninitiated, but because this is as straightforward and standard a documentary as you can get, which probably wouldn’t excite anyone who needs something more to hook them.
While there is an overall chronological progression to the storytelling, it’s very loose, and a lot of time is dedicated to the slice-of-life, anecdotal moments of the Immediate Family’s careers rather than more big-picture projects. Immediate Family is a very casual documentary with little structure and even less style. The few inserted pieces of creative animation and relevant illustrations leave so little of an impression that I can’t even remember any of them, outside of the opening one with a tree sprouting leaves with a ton of artists’ names on them. That’s cute and represents the Immediate Family’s impact on music well.
I was also disappointed by how relatively little we got of how the group adapted to the post-70s musical climate. There’s a decent chunk devoted to their outlook on the 80s and what they did to innovate there, but there’s nothing on any decade after that until the official formation of the Immediate Family as a band (which was very recent). What was their reaction to trends and changes like digital downloads, auto-tuning, specific artists of the newer eras, or the prominence of grunge and hip-hop in the 90s? What did they do in that time? I was fondly following their careers through their heydays, so to have such a huge gap missing in the film is unfulfilling. What, do you expect me to actually read about that stuff? The horror.
This is why I’d classify Immediate Family as more of an educational trip down memory lane for these musicians than an all-encompassing look at their time in the business. Even as far as that goes, it’s a bit crudely made at points, like when a few interviewees’ footage is of noticeably worse audio and visual quality than the rest. (Though to be fair, this was in production during the pandemic, so there probably wasn’t any way around that.) But the documentary still gives you more or less what its target audience is looking for, and it succeeds at its most important job: making viewers aware of a group of talented people they otherwise probably never would have known. I definitely have a newer appreciate for a lot of 70s and even 80s songs and how they’re more connected than I’d originally thought. So, I’m at least glad I saw the film, and I’m sure many who even care about it in the first place will be too.
Magnolia Pictures will release Immediate Family in US theaters for a Special One Night Only event on December 12, 2023, and everywhere from December 15, 2023.