Review: The Ventures: Stars on Guitars (2020)

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Everybody has heard The Ventures at some point or another. Their versions of Wipeout, Walk, Don’t Run and Hawaii Five-0 among others have turned up in so many places over the years it’s impossible not to hear them. But outside of surf music fans not that many people know much about them.  The Ventures: Stars on Guitars aims to change that.

Writer/director Staci Layne Wilson (Shevenge, Fetish Factory) is the daughter of Ventures co-founder Don Wilson. This means that the film had excellent access to many of the people involved as well as footage and other memorabilia. It also means The Ventures: Stars on Guitars isn’t exactly an unbiased look at the band either. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to keep in mind.

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The Ventures were formed in 1959 in Tacoma, Washington by Don Wilson and Bob Bogle after the two met at Don’s father’s car lot. In another family connection, Don’s mother, Josie not only suggested the name The Ventures but was their original manager and publicist. The film highlights her contributions to the band’s early successes.

The Ventures: Stars on Guitars starts with these rather humble beginnings. It follows the band from its forming and first gigs in the Tacoma area. The addition of Nokie Edwards, first on bass and then lead guitar, helped cement the band’s sound. It’s amusing that their first single was the innocuous “Cookies and Coke”. I can only chuckle at what a song with that title would be about today.

Of course, it was their second single a cover of Walk, Don’t Run that not only made them stars but also revealed the formula that would ensure that they stayed stars. Not so much covering, but re-interpreting, or “Venturizing” other artist’s songs with their own unique sound.

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Some of my favourite parts of the film are the ones where they explain the techniques and equipment  they used to achieve some of that sound. Musicians will probably know most of this, but others should learn a few things. And I doubt even most musicians knew the launch sound from their version of Telstar was done with a fire extinguisher.

Also of interest was how popular the band was, and still is, in Japan. At one point they were selling twice as many albums as The Beatles there. They were also the subject of a feature-length concert film. Which makes me wonder if they ever did a version of Alphaville’s Big In Japan. Don’t laugh, according to The Ventures: Stars on Guitars they did a disco album, so anything is possible.

The films ends up around the time of the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I know people have very divided opinions on the Hall, but they did get voted in while a lot of other great bands are still waiting. There’s also a quick look at the band’s current line-up to bring things up to the present.

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Along the way we hear from a wide variety of musicians from Jimmy Page and John John Fogerty to Tim Polecat and Waddy Wachtel to Marky Ramone and Josie Cotton (anyone remember Johnny Are You Queer?). Even film composer Lalo Schifrin is on hand to praise them.

All in all, The Ventures: Stars on Guitars does a good job of fitting sixty years of rock and roll history into ninety minutes. It’s an obvious choice for fans of the band and/or surf and instrumental music. General music fans should enjoy it as well.

Vision Films will release The Ventures: Stars on Guitars on DVD and VOD December 8th. You can check the film’s website and Facebook page for more details.

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