Reviews, Views and Adventures in Content Creation

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Abuse, Fame, and Other Things - A Review of "Family Band: The Cowsills Story"


A lone musician in his early 60's carries his guitar into a small English pub in Woodland Hills, California.  Amidst the clatter of the restaurant, and the disinterested voices of patrons and bartenders alike, he begins his lonely set.  In a voice-over, the musician introduces himself.  Once he was part of a band, he tells us.  They were famous, and they had a handful of top hits by the time he was seventeen - but today, most wouldn't recognize their name.   So begins Family Band: The Cowsills Story, a documentary journey through the lives of a singing family whose songs became standards of the era, but whose lives were nearly destroyed in the process.   The lone musician is Bob Cowsill, and he guides us through his family's harrowing journey.

The Cowsills at the height of their fame / Pic from their website

For a very few years in the late 1960's, The Cowsills were a musical and marketing sensation.  The band, consisting of various numbers of brothers, a sister - and their mom,  created enduring and even iconic hits  ("The Rain, the Park and Other Things", "We Can Fly," "Hair," "Indian Like"), dominated teen fan magazines, appeared everywhere on television (including the Ed Sullivan Show, where they performed on the same stage on which their idols, the Beatles had played a few years before).   They were the direct  inspiration for the "Partridge Family" sitcom.  Their image was so wholesome that they served as national spokespersons for the Milk Advisory Board appearing in numerous print and television ads.   Then, as quickly as they rose to fame, they spiraled into oblivion.

After a recent Los Angeles screening of Family Band,
Susan, Paul and Bob Cowsill performed a set of Cowsills hits -
their voices are remarkably unchanged from the 1960's 

What happened to The Cowsills, and how they struggled to come to terms with the aftermath of their fame, is a dramatic, cautionary tale with direct relevance to today's celebrity-obsessed culture.  Their story offers much more than the typical  descent-into-madness tale common in this genre of music documentary.   Unfortunately, as presented, Family Band,  directed by Louise Palanker and apparently co-created by surviving family members, misses a golden opportunity to bring the tale to a contemporary audience far beyond their aging fan base.  

The Cowsills found happiness singing and performing together on stage; that much was true - but they lived a nightmare behind closed doors.  The same talented children and teens cheered by millions of fans lived in constant fear of their violent, tyrannical father.  While Bud Cowsill beat down proverbial entertainment industry doors to bring the band to the height of music stardom - he ruled his family with his fist, creating a personal and professional atmosphere that, they say, destroyed the family and left his kids personally and professionally damaged.   The Cowsill children crossed over into adulthood and found themselves deeply in debt, confused, and ill-prepared to face a "real world" they never knew. 

Family Band features interviews with all the Cowsill children (including archival interviews with Barry Cowsill, who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Bill Cowsill, who died on the day of his brother's memorial after years of illness and drug addiction.   Siblings of their late parents provide little insight, though other key participants in their lives (including legendary DJ "Cousin Brucie") provide a bit of depth and perspective (Cousin Brucie also blames changing times and tastes in music for the Cowsill's downfall).   

Even as Bob Cowsill acknowledges from the outset that people today don't know about The Cowsills, the film nevertheless assumes a level of familiarity that most of the audience simply doesn't share.   Many viewing the film will have difficulty connecting the archival photos and videos of teen and pre-teen Cowsill children to their much older selves.  Pivotal moments and personal breakthroughs lose their greatest impact without reference to their individual characters and personal journeys.  Who were these kids?  What were they interested in?  Did they have their own friends?  How did the experience change them?

While noting they only found happiness when they were on the road and singing together, the audience is denied a sense of what that experience was like.  Anecdotes that would have provided an important sense of perspective are few and far between.   Vintage video and photo montages of their tours and family life are generally workman-like in presentation - missing the chance to capture a sense of time and place.  

While we're reminded repeatedly that their father was an alcoholic and (as one son speculates) possibly bi-polar, we gain little understanding of the dynamic between their father and their mother (who, like Shirley Jones' interpretation on the Partridge Family television series, performed with the band).   How did she respond to her husband's abuse?   Did she ever defend her children?  Did she remain passive?  We're not quite sure. 

Where did all the money go?  The Cowsills, according to one estimate in the documentary, earned perhaps twenty million dollars - and their father - as their de facto manager, had lost it all.  How that might have happened is shrugged off as a mystery.  One might speculate that the Coswill siblings simply see no purpose in opening old wounds - but in the context of the documentary, it's an important part of the puzzle that is too easily dismissed. 

The film outlines the factors and incidents leading to the demise of the group, but the definitive end of the group - if there was one - isn't discussed.  When did this most family of family bands call it quits?  How did the kids take the end of their dream?  How did the demise of the band impact the dynamics of the family itself?   Surprisingly missing in a film about the Cowsill family is any exploration of post-band relationships with the Cowsill parents.   We learn of their deaths in the end credits, but nothing of the intervening years.

Family Band: The Cowsills Story,  will be most appreciated by those familiar with the Cowsills - but it lacks the depth of detail to successfully appeal to a wider base.   It's a shame, too, for their story offers so much more than the overplayed musician-descends-into-madness genre.  This, above all, is a story of family.

Though flawed, this documentary does leave the viewer with a sense of appreciation for a talented family whose music not only left an indelible mark on music history - but whose survivors have finally realized that they didn't quite lose it all - they can still find happiness singing together.  

14 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review - I am interested in the movie, and do have some Cowsills memories (mostly, I'm afraid, from the milk commercials and for being the inspiration for the P Family).

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  2. All I can say about the Cowsills, as far as my childhood is concerned, is that I remember the music - my older sister was really into them for a while. I don't think I really gained a sense of who they were until maybe five or six years ago.

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  3. This review pretty much sums up the general MO (telling phrase) of the family in general. Lot's of show and when one digs further beyond the crust... quite a small amount of visceral substance.

    Not interested in seeing it, but will be curious as to what words of wisdom my late, blow-hard Father had to say in his last basking of limelight before he kicked.

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    1. Doesn't seem like you had a good relationship with your father Bill.

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  4. I remember seeing the Cowsills on the steel pier in Atlantic City, when I was about 14 years old. Walking home with my grandmother down Atlantic Ave., I saw John Cowsill through the windows of a hotel lobby at the soda machine. Alas...the missed oppotunity to talk to my teen idol!!! Boo Hoo!

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  5. Great headline! This film broke my heart, those poor kids. Talented beyond belief and even the recordings -- "Hair" in an 8-track studio? Wow!

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  6. I have seen “Family Band” numerous times and it is such a sad story. I had a crush on John and Barry back in 1968 and I loved the Cowsill’s music. I had no idea what hell they were all going through. I agree with this review that the documentary doesn’t answer a lot of questions that are brought up. I think that there is a lot of family shame and sorrow that the family probably can’t face right now. This is a really fascinating story. I wish a really good biography could be written by someone like Bella Stumbo who could dig for some answers to questions like where did all the money go and why did the Cowsills seem to have such horrible luck at every turn.

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  7. I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
    Maya Angelou
    The Cowsoll's music made me feel good!

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  8. In some other interviews, more of the physical and mental abuses are revealed: fatherly beating sessions that went on until the kids faces and bodies were bruised black and blue. Meanwhile Momma Cowsill stood by watching in her bathrobe smoking cigarettes. When their father sexually abused young Susan, the solution was to send Susan away to live with her big brother, leaving Papa to go on to abusing friends and cousin. This story is not unfamiliar to many who endured the same experience growing up in that contradictory generation of smiley faces and Vietnam.

    It is unfortunate that the Cowsills are/were not more forthcoming with their painful experience. Many of us grew up watching shows like the Partridge Family thinking THAT was normal while in the shadows of our own homes, suffered horrific abuse. It would be helpful to some to know that they were not alone in the suffering. Even the Cowsills/Partridge kids were being tormented by their parents.

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    1. Unfortunately, like most people that are abused, children and wives, they were afraid to say anything. Back in the day I read they had lost their money cause their dad was investing heavy in commercial real estate and didn't know what he was doing and that the old man ruined the Partridge family deal cause the bigshots hated him. He was a tyrant. There was another son that for some unknown reason he would not allow to be in the band

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    2. I remember and like their music. The kids and mom should have ganged up on the old man and kicked his ass but good.
      I was abused as a child and then as a wife. But I got out. And I fight back.
      Travis, God bless you. Please don't be so hard on your dad. He was a talented, sensitive human being who was put through hell. Hell changes us, if we are so unfortunate as to go there.

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  9. I remember seeing them in Tiger Beat magazine every week and thinking how lucky they were. Guess they weren't. How sad

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  10. I didn't get to see the documentary. Wanted to but don't have that station. Poor Mrs. Cowsill died at the age of 58, I think. They had since divorced and she had worked in a nursing home for a number of years scrubbing floors before she died. Never heard about him. Never cared

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  11. Travis, try not to be so hard on your dad. Those kids grew up in a horrific situation and your grandmother didn't have it any better. We had began reading about this and hearing stories since the early 70's of his abuse. He basically ruined their careers because no one was willing to work with them because of him. They were scared to death of that man. I was abused by my mother so I know the pain and I was 50 years old before I came to deal with it. I hope you have a good life now and maybe remember at least a few good times with your dad. Best wishes to you.

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