Only the Strong Survive Movie Review
There's not a lot of setup for why this film is made -- though the half-assed reunion concert that concludes the brisk film comes off as even sillier than the one in Standing in the Shadows of Motown. In the beginning, our narrators state simply that they wonder what happened to pioneering soul singers like Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, Jerry Butler, and The Chi-Lites. Turns out there's not a lot of mystery to it; they're still alive and kicking, and judging from the footage in the film, they're doing a lot of radio appearances. The exception is Isaac Hayes, who would go on to renewed fame by voicing the role of "Chef" on the South Park TV show -- and in fact it's Hayes that gets more screen time here than any of his compatriots.
With low-end digital videocameras and hit-and-run interviews, Only the Strong Survive is a real budget affair, giving you the impression of a movie that was dashed off over the weekend and slapped together on an iMac. The truth is buried in the backstory: Producer (and journalist) Roger Friedman enlisted the veteran directors to make this ode to soul on his behalf. Friedman tags along to do the interviewing; if his writing is anything like the softball drivel he throws at Mary Wilson and Sam Moore, it doesn't deserve to be read. By the end you get the feeling that Hegedus and Pennebaker couldn't care less about soul music. (Friedman makes up for some of this with the DVD release, which is crammed with bonus footage and extra videos, plus a commentary track from the subjects of the documentary.)
The highlight of any music-oriented documentary is invariably the music, and Only the Strong Survive succeeds mildly in giving us a few warmed-over hits, performed by their stars. You'll get an equal experience by listening to any R&B radio station or by trotting yourself out to Vegas to catch one of these performers in a revival show. And if you do that, you won't have to sit through Friedman fawning incessantly over their greatness.