In the first five minutes of Philip Di Fiore’s documentary Stranger, keyboard scientist Bernie Worrell is compared to Jimi Hendrix, Duke Ellington, Beethoven, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. He is praised to the point of hagiography by the likes of David Byrne, Mos Def, Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, Prince Paul, Bill Laswell, Bad Brains guitarist Dr. Know and his former bandmates, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins. He is credited with laying the foundation for hip-hop and influencing, directly or indirectly, some of today’s most commercially successful performers.
And yet, where is it that we first see Mr. Worrell himself? Rolling out of bed in a Motel 6, shirtless and hunched over, smoking a cigarette.
Yes, this is another “portrait of an artist unappreciated in his own time,” a strand of rock doc that is quickly becoming its own genre. As predictable as this formula is, though — man pioneers new musical frontiers, earns little fame and fortune, others borrow his ideas decades later and get rich, man has to wait until he’s dead for the acknowledgement he deserves — with Worrell, the lack of widespread respect is particularly egregious. He grew up a child piano prodigy — playing Mozart at age 4 and writing his first concerto at 8 — seemingly looking forward to a career as a classical pianist. Then, as a teenager, he started hanging around George Clinton’s barber shop. “This guy turned so far away from the path he was heading,” says author Larry Alexander, “it’s not even like turning and going backward, it’s like he disappeared and landed someplace else.” At 63, he has spent the past few decades as a journeyman, collaborating with nearly all the people interviewed here, but he made his legend with Parliament-Funkadelic, expanding the scope of the synthesizer in pop music and creating an entirely new sonic language — the sound of, in the words of Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun, “life in the universe.”
But even after all this, Bernie Worrell remains, in terms of the industry, an outsider. Some of the reason for that, it is suggested, is his own doing. He lives a life of extremes, says Bill Laswell. He drinks too much, alleges Tina Weymouth. “If Bernie … dressed in tailored suits and ties, people would take him more seriously,” says David Byrne, adding, “I don’t think he’s going to do that.” His biggest mistake, though, was to dare to push boundaries in a business that isn’t quick to honor innovation the way it should. “If you’re going to be innovative, what do you expect?” Byrne says. Sad but true.
Worrell himself hardly speaks. Not orally, at least. He does most of his talking through the absolutely scorching live footage, spanning from his days bringing down the Mothership to his stint with Talking Heads in the 1980s to more recent jams with anonymous backing bands in cramped nightclubs that prove to be as furious and out-there as anything he has done in the past. At only 40 minutes, Stranger is hardly long enough to provide an appropriate rendering of such towering genius. But it does spread the myth. And if that helps Worrell get recognized in his lifetime, then Di Fiore has done something admirable.