Family Band: The Cowsills Story (2011)

“Talent and charm. Secrets and fear.” Even though they scored four hit singles during the late 1960s and served as the real-life inspiration for The Partridge Family TV series, NOBODY remembers The Cowsills. This rather cheesy but likable family pop group from Newport, Rhode Island, faded into obscurity as quickly as they skyrocketed to stardom with appearances on just about every TV variety show imaginable such as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, American Bandstand, The Johnny Cash Show and even Playboy After Dark (Hugh Hefner wryly suggested a round of milkshakes). Directed by Louise Palanker, this fascinating and sometimes disturbing documentary traces the group’s early triumphs and later tragedies. For instance, the family patriarch, Bud Cowsill, a former Navy officer and reportedly raging alcoholic, managed the group with an iron fist using methods that involved both mental and physical abuse. The band was formed in 1965 by brothers Bill, Bob and Barry who soon added another brother, John, to the mix. These kids had aspirations of being the next Beatles. However, before you know it, the group had expanded to include not only siblings Susan and Paul but mom Barbara (Bud’s idea, of course!). Not very cool to say the least! Another sibling, Richard, a potential drummer, was blocked from joining the group by Bud and ended up serving two tours of duty in Vietnam. Along the way, the group recorded such hits as “The Rain, The Park & Other Things,” “Indian Lake” and a catchy version of “Hair” from the hit musical, as well as the theme for the TV show Love American Style. They also appeared in their own rather bizarre TV special in 1968 called A Family Thing, which was hosted by none other than Buddy Ebsen. However, the band totally collapsed after Bud proceeded to burn bridges with record executives and producers alike, while making such staggeringly idiotic decisions as firing Bill from the band (he got caught smoking a little marijuana). In addition, all the money the band earned “mysteriously” disappeared. Tragedy was to strike the family again in 2005 when Barry, who was living in New Orleans, died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Bill, who had been struggling with health problems for years, died on the very day of Barry’s memorial service in 2006). The film starts with Bob setting up to perform at some dive bar and remarking to the disinterested patrons, “I had four hit records between the ages of 17 and 21 … I did!” Family Band: The Cowsills Story made its debut at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in 2011. By the way, John Cowsill is married to Vicki Peterson of The Bangles.

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