John Antonelli Discusses Inspiration Behind Sam Cooke

Posted on January 28, 2010

The ITVS film Sam Cooke: Crossing Over recently premiered on American Masters on PBS. The film looks at the musical and political significance of composer, performer, and pioneering pop music entrepreneur Sam Cooke and the circumstances that led to his murder. Beyond the Box recently caught up with producer John Antonelli to discuss his interest in the topic, why he approached ITVS for funding, and what he hopes viewers took away from the film.

How did you first get involved with filmmaking? Are there any specific topics that interest you? My production company came out of the experience of making my Jack Kerouac documentary in the early 80s. My partner Will Parrinello and I have been working together since then making a variety of films that focus on the environment, culture, and politics. The Sam Cooke program goes full circle back to producing a full-length documentary about a cultural icon. 
What made you interested in Sam Cooke? I've always loved Sam Cooke's music since I discovered it as a teenager back in the early sixties. When I read Daniel Wolff's biography You Send Me, I was quickly convinced that I should try and make a film about him. Wolff was supportive but wasn't interested in forming a partnership. At that point, I decided that I would make the film for PBS directly. We managed to reach many of Cooke's closest friends and relatives to do interviews for the film. 
Why did you approach ITVS for funding? I've always wanted to do a project with ITVS and have applied there with various films. I knew when I decided to do this project for PBS that I had two strong options for funding and distribution –– ITVS and American Masters. If ITVS were an individual, you could say that I was their stalker. I started applying to ITVS back in 1998 when I started making the film. I applied and got rejected, and as I had on previous projects, signed up for their feedback session. Although I didn't like hearing the reasons from different anonymous panel members why they didn't like the project, I also heard some encouragement sprinkled in with the criticisms. I then set out to improve the proposal and sample tape. Little did I know that this process of applying and getting feedback would take another nine years before it would get funded. The feedback–– almost as much as the financing –– is a big reason why I was able to complete the film. The feedback always gave me specific ways that I could make the project stronger. As far as I know, ITVS is the only entity in the documentary world that gives this kind of feedback –– it is something that every filmmaker should take advantage of.

What do you hope viewers will get out of the film? I want viewers to see how rich and complicated a character Sam Cooke was. He is often remembered as having a beautiful voice and for having died in sordid circumstances. Not very many people realize what a prolific songwriter, producer, entrepreneur and activist he was. Those are the points that I tried to bring home in the film. 

Can you tell us about other related work you've done? My Jack Kerouac documentary is the most pertinent piece of work that I've done. I also produce short documentaries about environmental heroes around the world for a program called Global Focus: The New Environmentalists, which is broadcast on PBS stations and on the Sundance Channel. It's narrated by Robert Redford. 

Learn more about Sam Cooke on American Masters >>

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