A better question for the youngsters might be, “Who the hell are Blood, Sweat & Tears?” In the late 60s/early 70s, this pioneering rock-jazz ensemble was huge. If you were bar mitzvahed in 1969, the chances are good you received their Grammy-winning second album as a gift (it beat out the Beatles’ Abbey Road for Album of the Year). It’s the one with their biggest hits, “You Made Me So Very Happy,” “And When I Die,” and “Spinning Wheel,” whose lyric, “What goes up / Must come down” doesn’t begin to answer this documentary’s title question.
The original lineup of Blood, Sweat & Tears earned counterculture cred with its eclectic debut album, Child Is Father to the Man, which became a staple of underground radio and is ranked by Rolling Stone among the 500 greatest albums. But it was a commercial flop. Their mainstream crossover gave them the clout to become the first rock band to play Las Vegas, smashing Frank Sinatra’s attendance record. But they found themselves in the crosshairs of the political right and left when, at the height of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s State Department recruited the band to agree to become the first rock band to play behind the Iron Curtain as part of an international cultural exchange. Blackmailed is more like it, according to band members, who reveal that the State Department threatened to revoke the green card of dynamic frontman David Clayton-Thomas (who replaced the band’s original founder, Al Kooper).
In their recollections, the tour plays out like a cross between a James Bond thriller and a Peter Sellers comedy. Thrilling performance footage (culled from a proposed concert film that the State Department later scrapped) captures the band in peak form, but also the highs and lows of musical détente. A highlight is audio of a preconcert meeting in which the band must decide whether to agree to the Romanian government’s repressive demands after the previous night’s crowd became too riled up. One Romanian concertgoer recalls, “It was a sign for all of Romania that outside the borders there is life, and it is a very free one.” What the Hell is long overdue vindication for the band, about whom Donn Cambern, director of the ill-fated concert film, succinctly states, “They really got screwed.” 112 min.