When Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone sang, “You can make it if you try” in 1969, he probably didn’t know that those words would inspire one filmmaker to embark on a 12-year journey to create a documentary film about the band.
Michael Rubenstone moved to Los Angeles in 2002 to pursue his dreams of becoming an actor.
Although he’s made appearances on sitcoms such as The Goldbergs and Grandfathered, the Glenside native also sought other means of creative nourishment. So that got him thinking about what inspires him.
The answer: Sly and the Family Stone.
But there was one overarching question that went along with it. Namely, where the heck is Sly Stone now?
Rubenstone went to find out in his documentary, On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone, which just had its world premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 22.
“This really came from my passion for music. I’ve always loved the music of Sly and the Family Stone,” said Rubenstone, who grew up attending Congregation Adath Jeshurun.
“It was inspired by the performance I saw in the Woodstock documentary [Woodstock, by Michael Wadleigh] and when I arrived in Los Angeles, it sort of occurred to me, where did he go? And maybe I should try to find him,” he said with a laugh.
Stone (born Sylvester Stewart) is famous not just for his music, but also for being a recluse. A Vanity Fair writer got him for an interview in 2007 after searching for nearly the same amount of time as Rubenstone. In 2011, the New York Post found him living in a van in L.A. He famously showed up to the 2006 Grammy Awards, which was his first major public appearance since 1993 when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But public appearances by the “maestro of funk,” as Rubenstone called him, have been scarce.
So 12 years ago, Rubenstone set out to find this recluse and used the film to chronicle his search, as well as the history of the band. Along the way, he met with various characters of the rock ’n’ roll world and pop culture, such as Paul Shaffer, Cornel West and Bobby Womack.
Also featured are members of the band itself, like Freddie Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Vet Stone, Greg Errico and Jerry Martini.
For Rubenstone, highlighting this band in particular, known for their many, many hits — such as “Dance to the Music” — is important because of the impact they had even when they started.
“To me, they were a multiracial, multi-gender band that came to fruition in the late ’60s when our country was very divided,” he said. “First off, they were just emblematic in their makeup as a band, but then their music, songs like ‘Everyday People,’ ‘Stand,’ ‘You Can Make It if You Try’ — these were all songs that are still anthems to me. That music, I wouldn’t say it’s political, but … it makes a statement and it is inspiring music, especially today.”
Though the film took a dozen years and there were times the first-time filmmaker wanted to just give up, the timing for its release couldn’t be more fitting.
“It’s very timely that this film is finally reaching its culmination premiere at Slamdance in 2017 because our country just changed, and it’s also the 50th anniversary of Sly and the Family Stone — their first album was released 50 years ago,” he noted. “Sly is nominated for two major awards this year from the [Recording Academy] — he’s getting a Lifetime Achievement Award and a songwriter award — and my little film kind of found its way, so it’s quite a year for the band.”
In addition to the cultural timing, he also felt it was time for the band to receive the recognition he believes they deserve.
“They are an incredible band, and they did not receive the recognition I feel they deserve comparatively to some of the other major acts of the late ’60s — your Doors, your Janis, your Jimi and all those guys,” he said.
Of course, 12 years is a long time and for Rubenstone, who worked with Philly producers and buddies from his days at Adath Jeshurun, Todd and Dan Shotz, every day was a learning process.
Learning how to use filmmaking tools and how to create proper lighting, among other technical tasks, was a challenge, but one that ultimately paid off — which was evident by the cheering crowds at the two sold-out screenings at Slamdance.
“There was something that kept me going and I believed in the music and I believed in what I was doing,” he said. “I thought there was some sense to this search for this lost man that resonated in me, and I just stuck to my guns and just kept working at it.”
There were some moments that were more rewarding than others along the way.
For instance, Rubenstone even got Sly out of hiding for a night when he produced a show with Sly’s sister, who has a Sly and the Family Stone cover band, and Sly himself came out to watch and hear his music performed live for the first time, in what Rubenstone guessed was a “long time.”
The overall theme of the documentary aligns with the band’s popular hit: You can make it if you try.
“That’s what this film sort of means to me in a lot of ways,” the Germantown Friends School alum said, “because if I didn’t try, I wouldn’t have made it, and that’s the message I’d love to give to all young filmmakers or anyone with a dream, and I think that’s the message of Sly’s music: You can make it, but you have to try. If you don’t try, nothing’s going to happen.”
He hopes that the film will honor the band’s legacy as well as introduce their music to a new generation, like millennials who may have never heard of them. Or the people along the way who asked him if he meant he was looking for Sylvester Stallone.
“I just hope that they look at his lyrics and see that he was talking about everybody,” Rubenstone said. “That’s what ‘Everyday People’ is about, is the acceptance of everybody — not who you’re married to, not what color your skin is. We’re all everyday people and we’re all trying to get by. And that’s not the only song that espouses those ideals.
“The music of Sly and the Family Stone is inspiring and inclusive and it’s important right now. So from that sense, metaphorically, I hope they take away a vision of America that Sly had in mind in those late ’60s.”
Though, of course, if a viewer has a more physical reaction to the music, that’s also part of Rubenstone’s intention.
“I hope they get down on the dance floor, because it’s the funkiest s— out there, still to this day,” he enthused.
“This band is a monster, and I hope they just turn up that bass and let their freak hang out for a minute.”
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