First-Time Filmmaker Searches For Reclusive Funk Legend Sly Stone

Oct 20, 2017

First-time filmmaker Michael Rubenstone is in Wichita to discuss his new documentary "On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone." The film will be shown on Friday and Sunday as part of the Tallgrass Film Festival.

Earlier this week KMUW's Carla Eckels spoke to Rubenstone about his adventures in making the film and seeking after the reclusive funk legend.

Interview highlights

Carla Eckels: When was your first introduction to Sly Stone?

Michael Rubenstone: You know, I would have to say it was probably the Woodstock film. That was really the film that kind of turned me on to the whole '60s movement and era and music and the people and the vibe. Michael Wadleigh’s documentary on Woodstock not only highlighted the incredible bands that were playing but it also highlighted the people and the feeling that anything was possible in that late '60s period, and then Sly Stone comes on at 3 o’clock in the morning, gets everybody out of their tents, and just lights the place on fire.

I’d never seen a performance like that. I’d never seen charisma like that. [The] costumes and just this multiracial, multi-gender band that seems to inhabit everything the '60s represented and I went crazy. I’d never seen anything like it and I went out the next day and I bought the “Stand” album, which is just practically a perfect album of music and then just became a fan. I started collecting everything I could find of his, and I continue to collect everything I find of his.

You know, I think about when he was singing “Higher” and I think about that costume of his. It was almost like he had eagle’s wings, if you will. I mean, it was amazing to actually see it.

A still from the documentary "Woodstock" shows Sly Stone performing the band's song "I Want To Take You Higher."
Credit Youtube

Oh yeah, that image, just to see it, it’s the greatest image in the film and it’s an image that has an indelible mark in my brain, in my soul, because it’s not only a beautiful image, it’s a very poetic image. I think Cornell West talks about in the film, Sly really was really able to create that space for everyone -- black and white, men and women, every sexual orientation, whatever. I think they were trying to create a higher ground where we can all get along through music.

You’ve said Sly’s voice spoke to you when you couldn’t find your own. How so?

When I started making this film, I lived in New York. I had broken up with my girlfriend and I was there for 9/11. I was in a very dark place, and I when I decided to move out to California, I threw on some Sly and I hadn’t listened to Sly and the Family Stone in a long time and it just got me out of my funk. It really did. It really, really helped me, and it was this joyfulness and this beautiful message and this rhythm and this bass that just kept me going all across the country. That’s the power of music.

It’s interesting that you said when you started this documentary -- I know it took you 12 years to complete this documentary on Sly, your musical hero -- that you were surprised that there was little information on Sly.

Filmmaker Michael Rubenstone
Credit michaelrubenstone.com

I was, I was. I really thought the band was right up there with the Doors, Jimmy Hendrix’s experience and all those icons from the '60s and I really found that wasn’t the case. It was really hard to find material on Sly. [There are] articles. There’s one book, no documentaries, very little archival footage that I could find at first and even some of his albums were tricky to find, some of the rare albums. You know, they have the greatest hits and the album called "Stand" and "There’s a Riot Going On," so I was just shocked. I couldn’t believe that such a monumental artist of that period had very little documentation and I just figured, well, the hell with it. I’m going to make my own doc if I can’t find one, and that’s really what I did.

It was quite a quest when you think of 12 years of searching for Sly Stone.

Well I decided to go search for Sly Stone and film myself doing it because I really didn’t think I would ever be able to do the documentary on the band. I had no film experience prior to this. I just didn’t know what I was doing, and I never thought that I’d be able to meet the members of the band, let alone Sly, but I just kept grinding. It was a grind, and every year I seemed to make a little bit of progress and before you knew it, I had met the band, I had met people in the music industry, and I had [met] friends of his and I had met TV hosts and I somehow got Cornell West to give the historical context and before you knew it I had a movie.

And then it became, what movie do I make, what story do I tell? Do I tell the story of me trying to find Sly or do I tell the story of this incredible band? And I went back and forth on it for a long time -- made hundreds of cuts, and I always thought if I can find a way to make both of those story lines work, it would just be amazing, and I eventually got there.

David Kaperlick, who was Sly’s manager and head of A&R at Epic records, says Sly and the Family Stone’s records were a healing energy on the planet. What are your thoughts about that?

I couldn’t agree more. David Kaperlick is really the soul of my film, and he was the guy that discovered Sly and believed in him the most and believed in the band. He had a mission to get that music out there and heal a really troubled society with music and I sort of had the same goal. I really wanted to get this music back out there because I thought it was fading more and more in the public’s consciousness and I still believe that. I’ve been around the world with this film this past year and it’s still surprising how little people know this band or even know who Sly Stone is, and I think David wanted to get this message out there and I’m trying to do the same thing. I really, really feel that this music has the power of healing, and certainly in times of turmoil like we are in right now Sly’s music can really help a lot of people.

What would you like the audience to take away from this film?

I would say the real message of the film is you can make it if you try. It maybe cliché and it may be a Sly song, but it is the truth. You can make it if you try but you have to try.

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Carla Eckels is interim news director and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.