Everything - The Real Thing Story Review
Success for Black British musicians in the UK was pretty rare until the last quarter of the 20th century, with the likes of Winifred Atwell and Shirley Bassey breaking through in the '50s and '60s for others to eventually follow. Atwell was the first black musician - male or female - to have a UK No.1 with Let’s Have Another Party, but it took until the long, hot summer of 1976 for the first all-black group to grab the top spot. That group was The Real Thing, four pioneers from Liverpool whose emergence played a key role in changing the musical landscape on these shores.
Simon Sheridan’s documentary, Everything – The Real Thing Story, lets the surviving members of the group tell their own story, recalling their rise from the tough streets of Toxteth in Liverpool, to winning over hundreds of thousands of fans across the UK. But it’s one that has to be told against the background of overt racism during the ‘70s and ‘80s at time when racial tensions were boiling over due to constant incitement by right wing neo-Nazi groups.
Up until the '80s, it was usually presumed that any Black musician arriving in the UK charts hailed from across the pond. The Real Thing’s soul sound played up to that misconception and it wasn’t until they were interviewed off stage that the truth came to light (even the likes of Trevor Nelson admit to being shocked). Because they hailed from the same city as those ‘other four guys’, the British press of the time lazily dubbed them the ‘Black Beatles’. Yet ironically, Paul McCartney gave them their first break in their early guise as a vocal harmony band and later '70s pop star David Essex would offer further exposure allowing them to provide backing vocals on his albums and stage shows.
Narrated by Game of Thrones actor Jacob Anderson, Sheridan’s film follows the usual music documentary path, recounting the group’s career chronologically. After their manager Tony Hall took inspiration from Coca Cola’s tagline to give them a new name at the start of the ‘70s, Chris Amoo, Dave Smith, Kenny Davis and Ray Lake served as the original line-up until Davis left the group to be replaced by Chris' brother, Eddy. Lake’s troubled upbringing is recalled by his former wife and the Amoo brothers, who remember how a youth spent in children's homes would go on to haunt him throughout his career, eventually leading to his tragic death in 2000.
Once Hall began managing the group they were quickly on the rise. They won Opportunity Knocks (the Britain’s Got Talent of the day) and secured a deal with EMI, but they struggled to capitalise due to a severe lack of knowledge in the UK music industry about how to market Black music. Their work with David Essex ensured more industry exposure (although their vocals were removed from Jeff Wayne's 15 million selling album War of the Worlds) before they struck gold with, You To Me Are Everything, which remained at number one for three weeks. It seemed like the perfect fit for the American market, but its success was limited due to a number of cover versions released at the same time.
Chris and Eddy Amoo (who passed away in early 2018) drive the narrative, with talking head contributions from the likes of Trevor Nelson, actor Paul Barber, radio DJ Angie Greaves and journalist Kevin le Gendre. Mostly they offer context for what it meant growing up and witnessing an all-black British group achieving such success and the doors it opened for Black musicians (such as Billy Ocean who also had a number one later the same year) to come. And while the group’s follow-up number two hit, “Can’t Get By Without You”, is the closest they came to reaching the same heights, they continued to push boundaries in other areas.
Released in 1977, their 4 from 8 album was a far more serious and sombre affair, with “Children of the Ghetto” the standout track. It was inspired by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder’s socially conscious music of the time and proudly recalled their childhoods and experience of being Black and British in such a racially divisive time. It is surprising to hear EMI fully backed the concept and done all they could to promote it, but ultimately the subject matter wasn’t one the commercial white market wanted to hear and the album flopped. Their next long player was more disco inspired and saw them get back into the Top 5 although the arrival of punk, Two-tone and new wave meant they weren’t able to keep up with the changing times.
Everything – The Real Thing Story doesn’t reinvent the documentary wheel but puts a spotlight on a group whose contribution to the Black music scene in the UK has been largely forgotten. Awkward use of actors stitched in-between the talking heads doesn’t help to soothe the rather plain aesthetic and it feels like a film that will feel more at home on the small screen. Perhaps someone like the BBC will pick it up and place it on their iPlayer where it can reach a much wider audience. The group can feel satisfied that over 40 years later the legacy of The Real Thing lives on - and now they've had a chance to remind us of its importance.
Everything - The Real Thing Story opens in select UK cinemas on January 24. Click here for the full listings.