FAMILY BAND: THE COWSILLS STORY (2011) – The pain, The Cowsills, and other things

In the late 1960’s arose a musical genre known as “bubblegum pop” — rock music stripped of any thoughtful content, meant only as escapism. And it didn’t come any more bubblegummy than The Cowsills.

Originally consisting of brothers Bill, Bob, Barry, Paul, and John — there was another brother, which we’ll get to shortly — the group’s self-proclaimed manager, the boys’ father Bud, insisted on adding mom Barbara and sister Susan, both of whom were reluctant to join the act. Nevertheless, the premise of a “together” family singing hip songs in the late ’60s was the perfect exclamation point for the hippie era, and The Cowsills sold millions of records and were a hit in concerts and
TV appearances.

Sadly, the seemingly cheery family had tension constantly brewing offstage. Bud was a Navy veteran, and much like the character portrayed in The Great Santini, the only method he saw fit for running the family was the military way. He ruled with an iron hand, which he frequently applied to family members who showed the slightest form of rebellion.

There were two glaring examples of Bud’s bullying. One was Richard, the one non-performing Cowsill, against whom Bud had an inexplicable grudge. When Bill — whom the rest of the family regarded as the group’s de facto leader — tried to convince Bud that Richard would make a great drummer for the group, Richard instead nonchalantly sent Richard off to fight in Vietnam. A while later, Bill and Bud got into a physical confrontation in which Bill surprised himself by emerging victorious. The next day, Bud sent Bill a letter stating that his services were no longer needed for the group or the family.

All of this family turmoil, plus the group’s loss of popularity due to changing musical styles, is well-documented here. The movie is narrated by Bob, and he makes it quite clear that he is trying to make some sense of the chaos that befell the family. If the film has any fault, it’s that — already a pretty brisk 90 minutes — it seems a little padded by Bob’s aw-shucks narration, as well as moments where untitled music is expected to carry the movie along for a few more minutes. (Also, strangely, there are clips of The Cowsills appearing on Mike Douglas’ and Johnny Carson’s talk shows without identifying the hosts.)

But overall, this is a very insightful, not to mention bittersweet portrait of a family who might have made more of their success if not for their dysfunctionality. I always thought their song “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” was a bit treacly, but this movie definitely makes you see their music in a different light.

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