Because recorded music is as much science as art, inspired arrangements and searing performances can be left gasping without the aid of a good engineer. Tom Dowd was a good engineer. He became the house technician for Atlantic Records right when the Ertegun brothers were signing jazz giants like John Coltrane and R&B stars like Ray Charles, and Dowdwho'd been working in studios since the days when songs were cut directly onto discstook advantage of his new situation to push recording technology forward. He created a slide-fader mixing board when knob-faders were proving unwieldy, and he came up with a workable eight-track system so that he could isolate instruments and make sure that listeners heard every note played. Producer Phil Ramone says that Dowd knew "the microphone is there to capture, not to interfere."
Mark Moormann's documentary Tom Dowd & The Language Of Music provides a lively tour through Dowd's life, and through popular music from the '50s through the '70s. Extensive interviews with the gregarious Dowd and his loving colleagues alternate with amazing archival footage of artists like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and the Allman Brothers, all of whom Dowd helped make famous. The documentary was shot on film, and Moormann's snappy editing and subtly moving camera match the energy of the jump-blues and roots-rock that Dowd loved.
Some of Moormann's re-creations of Dowd anecdotes seem odd (and too reminiscent of the overpraised Standing In The Shadows Of Motown), and the decision to jumble the chronology of Dowd's biography means that stories about his college days and his work on the Manhattan Project don't really fit. But the loose structure allows Moormann to build to the movie's signature moment, when Dowd sits at a mixing board and takes the viewer through isolated tracks of Derek And The Dominos' "Layla." He breaks it down with obvious delight, talking about how Eric Clapton and Duane Allman played with "touch," while Moormann shows Dowd's own gifted hands dancing across the faders.
Moorman spent seven years making Tom Dowd & The Language Of Music, and completed a rough cut just before Dowd's death. Dowd hoped that the documentary would provide a legacy of sorts, since so much of what he contributed to music took place under the radar. That's what makes the string of warm testimonials from the likes of Clapton, Ray Charles, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Les Paul, and Gregg Allman so moving. At one point, Ramone calls Dowd "the most positive human being you'll ever meet." It's a pleasure to finally meet him.