If you are a music fan, it’s more than likely you are a least a casual one of The Ventures. If you love movies like Pulp Fiction, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Pawn Sacrifice, Zoolander, American Pie, and loads of others, and you enjoyed the soundtracks, well, you probably dig The Ventures. The band, an instrumental rock outfit formed in 1958 by Don Wilson and Bob Bogle, is something more than just an icon. While they may not always be in the same conversation as classic artists like The Beatles or Led Zeppelin, or even The Beach Boys, they remain one of the most important musical acts of the last several decades. They’ve released well over two hundred and fifty albums with one hundred and fifty singles, hit after hit, and they’ve been able to tackle nearly every single musical genre by bringing their style to every cover song they’ve recorded. After all, their first hit, “Walk, Don’t Run” was originally by Johnny Smith in 1954, and covered by Chet Atkins in 1956 for his album “Hi-Fi in Focus.” However, The Ventures, with their wild guitar riffs and colorful sound made it completely original in 1960.
This year, we’ve seen a few fascinating examinations of music in film with Alex Winter’s provocative Zappa and the exceptional Beastie Boys Story, directed by Spike Jonze. Thankfully, cinema is still rocking and rolling with a brand new documentary called The Ventures: Stars on Guitars, and what an engaging work it is. The film examines that surf rock sound with a few familiar faces including Billy Bob Thornton, Eric Roberts, Josie Cotton, Jimmy Page, John Fogerty, Marky Ramone, Wayne Kramer, and a ton more. It’s a celebration of a band that is still popular today. Much of that is because of their shockingly massive success in Japan, and the fact that their sound is unlike anything else. It is timeless and will still rock your socks off. While they continue to play by recruiting new musicians to keep the music alive, they have cemented their legacy forever in the annals of music history. And what’s all the more exceptional about this wildly entertaining documentary? The personal connection between the filmmaker and the band.
Written and directed by the very talented Staci Layne Wilson – and yes, daughter of Don Wilson – this enlightened tale does more than just celebrate music. It’s an education on the creation of the sound, as well as a gleeful history lesson on how they created the music and how people continue to respond. Ms. Wilson shares a deep love and admiration for her father and his amazing achievements, so much so that she can go deeper into their story than others may have been able to do. While the documentary rarely deals with exploring the more personal aspects of the subjects’ life, its emphasis on their legacy is so very satisfying. It helps that the band’s eclectic discography is explored throughout, and trust me when I say you won’t even notice that you’re probably tapping your feet or maybe even slightly moving to the beat thanks to the awesome tunes.
One of the best aspects of the film is how deeply it explores not just the sounds, but how they are created and the history behind the music. From the guitars themselves to the way they crafted the “surf rock” vibe, any musician will be enamored by this. While the detail in the instruments may go over less musically inclined viewer’s heads, it’s done in such an entertaining way, you’ll find yourself trying to figure it all out and wanting to play along – even if you can’t play guitar at all. It’s almost impossible to believe that a purely instrumental rock outfit would become even remotely this successful, but when you see the level of knowledge and the creative way the music was brought to life, it’s not at all shocking that The Ventures have become an inspiration for so many others musicians and artists alike.
It’s a difficult task to explore well over six decades in under 90 minutes, yet there’s a ton of coverage here. Wilson keeps this story moving at a lightning pace, with amazing stories from nearly every interviewee involved. Perhaps the most engaging for me is cool and collected Billy Bob Thornton who is also a musician. Yet the film’s fire sparks listening to the many members that have played along with Wilson and Bogle. Even though the band still lives with brand new members, the legacy that these inventive musicians started remains alive and well. The goal? To keep The Ventures’ name alive for as long as they can, and what a beautiful thing that is.
Staci Layne Wilson presents a personal and wildly entertaining look back at the fellas who made “surf music” so cool. Even today, The Ventures are still a recognizable force in the music industry thanks to all those they have inspired – and a ton of hit records. You can see their influence not only in music but cinema as well. Stars on Guitars is a lively, energetic look at the group of fellas that loved to get crazy on a Jazzmaster, a Precision Bass, a Stratocaster, or whatever instrument worked. And for those of you that can’t find your way around the chords and notes, you can just enjoy the amazing music and engage in these incredible tales of rock and roll that is still inspiring today. If you love music, you won’t want to miss The Ventures: Stars on Guitars which is currently available on your favorite streaming service. Turn it up and let the music move you!