I watched a fascinating documentary last night, “What The Hell Happened To Blood, Sweat & Tears?”
It’s more than just a history lesson about a band that was so hot in the late 1960s that its eponymous second LP beat The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” for Album Of The Year at the Grammys (one of five it won that year). It’s also about how the band was blackmailed by the US State Department into going on tour behind the Iron Curtain to perform in Poland, Romania, and what was then called Yugoslavia.
The whole thing started when lead singer David Clayton-Thomas was threatened with deportation because of some trouble he’d had as a teenager in Canada, his home country. The State Department stepped in and said he could stay in the US with a green card if Blood, Sweat & Tears would perform in Eastern Europe as part of a cultural exchange program. Other artists (e.g. Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Benny Goodman) had been making such trips since the 1950s, but BST would be the first rock band to go.
Faced with losing their frontman at the height of their popularity, the band acquiesced and made the trip, with a film crew capturing over sixty hours of footage — but none of it was seen until 2023 because of the reaction of attendees in the second country they visited, Romania. While there, BST witnessed the very real oppression by the totalitarian state headed by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, including armed guards and dogs attacking concertgoers who were having too much fun and chanting, “USA! USA!”
The camera crew also captured fascinating behind-the-scenes meetings in Bucharest with US embassy personnel appealing to the band to change their show as per demands from Romanian authorities. It’s because of those incidents — and the lack of cooperation by the band and filmmakers — that the State Department, which had financed the tour, took the film cans and buried them in a drawer for more than fifty years, worried about the impact they would have on attempts at detente with Ceausescu.
Fortunately, director John Scheinfeld managed to get his hands on enough of the footage to weave it into this documentary — and reveal the unexpected fallout for Blood, Sweat & Tears when they returned to the United States and talked about what they’d seen. In a 1970 example of what we now call “cancel culture,” they were lambasted by conservatives for speaking out against the Vietnam War and by liberals for representing Richard Nixon’s administration. Though there was no social media at the time, the counterculture and underground press denouncing BST had an impact on the band’s diminishing fortune in succeeding years.
In addition to the concert footage, Scheinfeld got almost all the living members of BST to talk about the whole adventure, and even tracked down some concertgoers who had seen the band on that tour of Yugoslavia, Romania, and Poland. More than a half-century later, it’s moving to watch them get emotional when recalling the night they experienced American rock and roll in a society where it was banned.
It made me think of when I took my morning radio team to Moscow for a series of live broadcasts in June, 1989, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the lifting of the Iron Curtain. In the rare moments we had with Soviet citizens away from the prying eyes of our KGB minder, they all wanted to know about rock and roll, chewing gum, and blue jeans — none of which were allowed under the oppressive regimes they had grown up with. I told some of those stories in a series of posts you can read here.
One of the other things I learned watching “What The Hell Happened To Blood, Sweat & Tears?” was how great the band sounded live, making me wish I’d had the chance to see them in concert. Technically, I suppose I still could, as there have been multiple versions of the band touring and recording over the last 50 years. According to Wikipedia, “the overall number of BS&T members since the beginning is up around 165 total people.”
“What The Hell Happened To Blood, Sweat & Tears?” had a limited run in theaters in the spring and was live-streamed (one time only!) last night on Veeps — a platform I wasn’t familiar with until this weekend. I hope some other streaming service will pick it up so you get a chance to see it, because I really enjoyed the film.
I’m giving “What The Hell Happened To Blood, Sweat & Tears?” an 8 out of 10 and a place on my Movies You Might Not Know list.