The Pitch: In the late 1960s, Blood, Sweat & Tears were at the top of their game. Arguably the biggest band in the world – with their monumentally successful 1969 self-titled record and hits like “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and “Spinning Wheel” – they managed to strike a chord (likely a seventh chord) with both critics and general audiences. Their somewhat prescribed “hippy” vibe and classic rock and roll attitude also made them a symbol for the counter-cultural movement – perhaps unwittingly so.
The band was less political at the time than fans might have expected, with only select members vocalizing their positions on the issues of the day. And yet, even the less politically inclined members knew that partnering with the United States government for a tour behind the Iron Curtain might not be the best idea. Thanks to what one member explicitly calls “blackmail,” however, Blood, Sweat & Tears felt forced to accept the offer.
What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? follows that infamous tour and the backlash the band faced upon returning to the states. Featuring interviews with the band, members of the touring crew, and music critics, it’s a music documentary that ultimately becomes too obsessed with its Cold War backdrop.
The Hook: Perhaps only second to Blood, Sweat & Tears themselves, the political landscape of the Cold War and the American counterculture movement it inspired are the main driving forces of the documentary. A majority of the screen time leading up to the tour paints a picture of the peace-loving, free-love, anti-establishment fanbase the band attracted — while, surprisingly, the band spends a considerable amount of time separating themselves from that image. Once in Europe, it’s all about culture shock as the band slowly becomes more sympathetic to America’s position.
Which is all to say, What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? doesn’t cover a whole lot of new ground. Anyone who passed their freshman-year history course will struggle to find any information that might make them look at that time period in a new way. Its perspective is firmly rooted in America, and it rarely asks deeper questions about the actions of any governmental force portrayed in the film, be they foreign or domestic.
But, of course, that’s just the setting. It’s a film about the band Blood, Sweat & Tears, right, not a history lecture? And the documentary certainly fares better when it embraces what it is — an oral history of a tumultuous time for the band.
With the number of cookie-cutter biopics that have hit Hollywood in the past decade, it’s refreshing to have the actual band tell you how everything went down. Yet, as the documentary itself points out, the backlash they faced after returning from the tour killed any lingering momentum. Blood, Sweat & Tears would never again reach the same heights after making it back stateside. So, even though the film compares the band’s notoriety to that of the Beatles, the appeal for What The Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? doesn’t quite match, say, Get Back.
How does the film make up for that fact? Beyond appealing to established fans, it introduces a deep-state conspiracy: the aforementioned blackmail. It’s the moment of interest in the film’s trailer, complete with a dramatic sound cue and beat of silence, and one would expect it to be a major aspect of the story. Well…
The Conspiracy: The conspiracy angle is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of What The Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? If you’re going into this project expecting the tale of a band intertwined with Cold War espionage, hoping to learn the “secret truth” that the band has never been allowed to talk about, you’re going to be left wanting quite a bit more than what you get.
The blackmail in question relates to Blood, Sweat & Tears singer David Clayton-Thomas’s citizenship — as a native Canadian, the status of his green card was in question. So, the band struck a deal where they would agree to the run of shows, and the State Department would ensure Clayton-Thomas would be allowed to remain in America.
At the risk of diluting what was assuredly a stressful time for the band, it’s a little lame as a viewer, especially since it really only matters at the beginning and end of the film. Marketing the documentary around this aspect leads one’s mind to conjure crazy ideas: a massive drug cover-up? A kidnapping? A framing? Crazier things have happened (see Mötley Crüe manager Doc McGhee’s motives for his own “behind the Iron Curtain” showcase for more).
Instead, those with little investment in the band are left watching a series of tour stories, from shows gone right to shows gone wrong.
The Verdict: What The Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? wants to be more than it is. The Cold War framing suggests that its ambitions lie in revealing just as much about 1970s geopolitics as it does about Blood, Sweat & Tears. But the film finds no such profundities beyond the obvious: The U.S. was eager to get any leverage over communist nations and some of the governments in Eastern Europe were repressive. Also, would you believe that rock and roll was popular in the ’60s and ’70s?
Which sounds harsher than it should. Take away the delusions of grandeur, and the film is a perfectly acceptable – even enjoyable – tour vlog of a particularly interesting set of shows. There have certainly been much worse tour documentaries than What The Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?
All of this is to say, know yourself before sitting down with this one. Are you a big fan of the band’s jazz-rock epics? Got “And When I Die” on repeat? Then you’ll have a great time. Can’t name one of their songs? Don’t care about Blood, Sweat & Tears? This film isn’t likely to convince you to start.
Where to Watch: What The Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? hits theaters on Friday, March 24th.