Documentary on TV Composer W.G. Snuffy Walden Leads a Strong Newport Beach Film Festival Music Program

Up to Snuff‘s musical subject. Photo courtesy Up to Snuff

The first time I recall reading the name W.G. Snuffy Walden was in the fall of 1987, in the credits for the then-new ABC drama series thirtysomething, which followed a group of friends in their thirties coping with love, careers and parenthood in Philadelphia.

I don’t recall now if I read the name because I had to find out who composed the beautifully mellow theme song that somehow managed to make pan flute sound cool, or if “Snuffy” rolling by my glazed-over eyes produced a WTF? moment.

In the years that followed, I would see Walden’s name pop up in credits for other shows: The Wonder Years, Roseanne, Ellen, Sports Night, Friday Night Lights and, the one that won him an Emmy in 2000, The West Wing. And each time, I’d say to myself, “Oh, yeah, the thirtysomething dude.”

I’d pretty much forgotten about him until earlier this year, when I was a volunteer screener for the Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF) that runs April 26 to May 3. I clicked play on a documentary called Up to Snuff, which as far as I knew could have been about snuff films or snortable tobacco. Nope, it was about the thirtysomething dude.

Early into the one-hour-and-19-minute runtime, director Mark Maxey makes it clear there is a lot more to the William Garrett Walden story than television composing. He was born in Louisiana, raised in Houston, and put himself through college in that Texas city in the late 1960s by deejaying on a late-night radio show and playing guitar in a strip club.

Walden eventually dropped out and tuned in to music full-time, forming the blues-rock band Stray Dog that would seek success in England, which was then ground zero for white musicians reinterpreting the blues of black musicians into what we called rawk, brother. Stray Dog was signed to Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s label Manticore, and Greg Lake even produced three songs from their debut record.

However, Stray Dog quickly flamed out and broke up, and Walden bounced around as a guitarist for hire in the U.K. for Free, the Eric Burdon Band and King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield. In 1975, Walden moved to Los Angeles, which was then ground zero for the pop and rock music industry. He performed with Chaka Khan, Donna Summer and Stevie Wonder while keeping his own regular gig at a Santa Monica club.

That’s where he caught the ear of television agents and producers, one of whom asked if Walden would be interested in scoring a new TV show. He was apprehensive but also saw his rock-god dream slipping away. So, he took the job that made him, you know, the thirtysomething dude.

As for his nosey nickname, you are going to have to see the movie. One hint: His middle name and his mother’s maiden name are Garrett.

Maxey, who before this project had a name for himself producing a long list of television specials honoring military veterans, got the idea for making a documentary on Walden from The West Wing’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, who appears onscreen to sing the composer’s praises. So do that show’s star Martin Sheen, co-star Joshua Malina (who also appeared on Sports Night) and writer/producer Lawrence O’Donnell (who is now better known as the host of his own MSNBC program, The Last Word). Also popping up are thirtysomething’s co-creator Marshall Herskovitz and co-star Timothy Busfield, The Wonder Years’ lead kid Fred Savage, Roseanne writer (and much more) Tom Arnold, and musicians Eric Burdon and Steve Lukather.

The film covers the ups and downs like a VH1 Behind the Music subject, although Walden comes across so nice, humble and brutally honest that you root more for him than you would a pampered rock star. Even with the warts and all, it would be unusual for this to come out as anything but glowing given its subject is also an executive producer on the film. As for its composer, oh, yeah, it’s the . . . you-know-who. (At Triangle Cinemas, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. Fri., 6:15 p.m. $15.)

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Up to Snuff is part of this year’s NBFF program of music films, which includes other documentaries, one narrative feature and a specially curated selection of music videos.

40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie is a documentary from veteran TV writer and producer Lee Aronsohn, who made it his quest to get the 1970s-era Boulder, Colorado, jam band Magic Music to regroup for one more show. As the movie’s tagline so aptly puts it: “They were going to be the next big thing . . . but shit happened.” (Triangle Cinemas; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. Sun., 2:30 p.m. $15.)

Actor Ethan Hawke directed Blaze, a bio-drama about Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey), an unsung songwriting legend of the Texas outlaw music movement that also spawned Willie Nelson. We witness Foley’s love affair with author/playwright Sybil Rosen, who co-wrote the script with Hawke; the musician’s final performance in a near-empty honky-tonk; and his last, dark night on Earth. Dickey won the Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting at the last Sundance Film Festival. (Triangle Cinemas; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. Sun., 7:15 p.m. $15.)

With Mad Hannans, documentarian Martin Shore set out to chronicle the reunification of brothers Sean and Jerry Hannan, musical geniuses who had walked away from each other amid a solid career touring the U.K., Ireland and the U.S. in the 1990s and early 2000s. They got back together in 2011 and rekindled the magic, but then life (and death) got in the way. Bring hankies. (Triangle Cinemas; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. Mon., 10:15 a.m. $15.)

The Jazz Ambassadors is a documentary about how African-American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. convinced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to counter the Soviet Union’s pervasive propaganda about American racism by sending jazz giants and their racially integrated bands on a world tour. Beginning in 1955, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck and their respective crews set out to change the narrative. However, as director Hugo Berkeley shows, these artists struggled with promoting images of tolerance abroad while Jim Crow segregation raged in the States. (Edwards Big Newport, 300 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach. Mon., 7:45 p.m.; also at the Lot, 40 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. Wed., noon. $15.)

With the Music Video Showcase, Senior Programmer Bojana Sandic seeks to celebrate music videos as a cinematic art form. That’s certainly on display with alt-J: 3WW, which—I don’t care what anyone says—is not a music video but a GODDAMN STAND-ALONE, SIX-MINUTE-AND-35-SECOND FILM! The black-and-white cinematography is outstanding, the editing that syncs Alt-J instrumentals with moving images could not be crisper, and the manipulation of the viewers’ emotions is amazingly effective. Director Young Replicant (Alex Takacs) was apparently given only the track and a Ted Hughes poem as an abstract brief, and boy, did he run with it.

Among the other artists whose music inspired the videos in the NBFF collection are: Poppy, Watsky, Indradevi, Chris Lake, Polo & Pan, Belle Game, the Regrettes, Reyna Tropical, Steady Holiday, Tomo Nakayama, Michael Kiwanuka, the Fuzzy Crystals, Silent Strike (featuring EM), Ghosted (featuring Kamille), and Angie Shyr/Jackie Highway. (Triangle Cinemas; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. Thurs., May 3, 8 p.m. $15.)

OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.

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