Film about Northside Tavern, Atlanta’s legendary blues bar, draws applause and tears
By John Ruch
A documentary film about Northside Tavern, Atlanta’s legendary blues bar, drew applause and more than a few tears from a crowd of regulars at its Dec. 13 premiere.
“Northside Tavern: The Mostly True Account of the Golden Age of Atlanta’s Most Exquisite Blues Dive” is the work of Decatur-based filmmaker Hal Jacobs. At the premiere at Poncey-Highland’s Plaza Theatre, he described the film as an exploration of how the Howell Mill Road venue – an old roadhouse now surrounded by gentrified mid-rises – has survived and how long it can.
“And the Northside Tavern is like a little time capsule,” Jacobs said. “It’s like a little ‘Twilight Zone’ episode in there.”
“What it is, is a family, and you all are part of my family, unfortunately,” added executive producer Terri Capote, widow of Atlanta blues legend Carlos Capote of the Breeze Kings, to laughter and applause from the crowd.
Jacobs specializes in documentaries about Georgia artists and social justice issues. His previous films cover such topics as the Common Good Atlanta prison education program, novelist and Civil Rights proponent Lillian Smith, artists’ retreat pioneer Mary Hambidge and sculptor Michael Murrell. Jacobs has been a fan of the bar for two decades and his son Henry is a blues musician.
Jacobs’ film covers the bar’s origins as a gas station in a remote corner of town to a lone survivor of gentrification surrounded by almost cartoonish mixed-use towers. The heroine of the story is the late Ellyn Webb, who took over the bar from her father and oversaw its transformation into an epicenter of the city’s blues scene. Her brother Tommy, the current owner, was in attendance and was heavily applauded. In part a community effort, the film drew on crowdfunding and got support from such organizations as the Atlanta Blues Society.
The film features such stars as Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, Sean Costello and Danny “Mudcat” Dudeck, along with bar characters known by nicknames like Magic Mike and Unknown Vincent. A love letter to the bar’s blues era, the film captures several people who died before the premiere, such as Lola Gulley, known as the city’s “Queen of the Blues,” who passed earlier this year.
Jacobs warned the crowd that seeing such people again on the screen could be tough. “But I think that’s part of the blues, too,” he said.
While the bar’s regulars and musical stars are unique, the sense of community among misfits and music lovers translates easily to anyone who loves other genres’ dive venues. And in the era of development threats to such similar places as the MJQ/Drunken Unicorn and the Star Community Bar, so does Ellyn’s refusal to sell out in favor of her chosen family.
Indeed, Jacobs reached out to SaportaReport about the film in the early days of the Star Bar battle. In an artistic irony, one of the film’s interviewees, Chris Faussemagne, at the time was an executive of Third & Urban, the developer that later threatened Star Bar. Faussemagne had been involved in creating the Westside Provisions mega-development across the street from the Northside Tavern and, in the film, recounts how he told Webb that the bar is exactly what developers wanted to remain as the cultural “draw.”
“I hope it applies to little music clubs everywhere. I hope it gives them a boost,” Jacobs said of his film and Webb’s efforts to keep it going. “Maybe she’s a role model for other people who are holding on for the community.”
The film does not yet have a release date, as Jacobs intends to enter it into film festivals, where distribution rights may be picked up. He plans to do a little more editing as well. Another early screening at the Plaza is scheduled for Dec. 19 but is already sold out. Jacobs said a special “online viewing party” may be held late this month as another sneak preview. For more information and updates, see the film’s Facebook page.
As for the Northside Tavern, it’s still located at 1058 Howell Mill and still plays the blues seven nights a week. See its website for the latest.
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