The documentary This Time has been positioned as an antidote to the showbiz-fairy-tale-focused mythology of the current American Idol era, a look at “the flip side of the music business,” where talented people struggle on for years with little recognition or monetary success. It’s a nice idea in theory, though the truth is, most people probably need look no further than their own family or friends to find at least one person who’s tried and failed to make it as a musician. Not only does the film lack focus in its chosen spectrum of likeable performers, it also feels short of any kind of structure or arc, leaving its subjects to toil along in place for an overlong runtime with no end in sight.
Director Victor Mignatti (who also helmed chapters of “Trapped In The Closet”) follows three musical acts with little to tie them together other than a lack of current celebrity. Bobby Belfry is a cabaret singer who’s never really broken big, and who supports himself by working at an Upper East Side piano bar. Pat Hodges was once a member of the ’70s soul group Hodges, James & Smith, but starts off the film homeless. And the Sweet Inspirations were a go-to backup group for Elvis, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, and others, though they had just one major hit themselves, and their most famous member, Cissy Houston (Whitney Houston’s mother), left to pursue a solo career in 1969.
The Sweet Inspirations could have fueled their own film, and they probably should have—these women, some in their 60s, are exuberant and funny, have seen it all, and still sound magnificent in their harmonies. They also possess the closest thing to a coherent story in This Time, as they record their first album in 23 years and struggle to find a place for it in the current market. But as the film jumps from their interviews to Hodges’ performances to Belfry commuting in from Nyack to work, it’s difficult to understand what’s film-worthy about these people, or why their stories have been joined. What do they hope will happen with their music, which is so little like the music currently airing on the radio? Do they still aspire to traditional hits? This Time doesn’t offer any easy tales of success, but Mignatti can’t have intended to make such a strong case for throwing in the towel.