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Hot Docs Toronto: The Bells – an Intimate Portrait by Jessica Edwards

The Bells was a band known for signature vocal harmonies and the hit songs “White Dove” and “Stay Awhile”.

In 1965 South African sisters Jackie and Anne Ralph were performing with their trio in small town Quebec when they first laid eyes on Cliff Edwards and his band.

The electricity was palpable. The girl’s manager thought pairing Cliff’s band with the sisters would be a good idea. It was, The Bells was born and tasted spectacular success in the States.

They performed on The Tonight Show, The Merv Griffin Show and American Bandstand and some of the most prestigious rooms in the US. But at home in Canada, they were unknowns.

When The Bells finally “arrived” at home the pressures of work, emotional entanglements and family were too much and the band dissolved. Anne and Cliff’s daughter filmmaker Jessica Edwards finds out what went wrong in her intimate and moving documentary 45 years on.

The Bells makes its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival Friday, April 24, and screens exclusively April 27 with Cineplex Front Row Events in 25 theatres across Canada. We spoke with Edwards about the project and what was a brave project.

How did you fare with some of the sensitive things you learned about The Bells, that is, your mother father and aunt? Jackie was jealous when Anne married Cliff. Cliff was too controlling. Anne abandoned her family. These are huge private things and they’re out there now.

I knew from my family we’ve all gone through some tough times I knew ahead of time I knew I would go there. You have to go there and so I knew that there would be some tough things to talk about but I was definitely overwhelmed by their wonderful emotion and openness.

The film is actually a pretty devastating. Did you get their “temperatures” when it was done?

Yes absolutely. I showed them a cut before the locked picture and my siblings and I individually sat down separately with my father, mother and aunt and the band and we had a very emotional time together.

Some of the things in the film have said to me that they haven’t said to each other. It was hard to hear some things; the perspective is different than what they expected. There was hard stuff.


Did they feel somehow cleansed after being so forthcoming
?

I think they all have cheered up immediately. Truly it does chronicle the times and offers audiences an intimate portrayal of their achievements but as it got deeper.

At the end of all this they wrap themselves around each other and there is a dialogue. They have real love for one another. And they all made each other the men and women they are.

Jackie and Ann had such beautiful voices, and Cliff was a talented leader. They had good songs, so why weren’t they better known at home in Canada?

At the time when they were starting to really focus on their singing career, the big venues were in the States and there was a community and foundation being established there.

The Copacabana in New York and the Miami Americano Hotel paid musicians really well and they were global stages. They stayed at those hotels and those bars and there was support for their music.

As years went on Can Con (CRTC rules requiring media to broadcast a certain percentage of Canadian talent) changed everything. Their songs became huge hits in Canada overnight, but only after those songs had broken in the US.

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Canada used to be tough on its talent, forcing artists to go south. Would they agree that that was true?

They would agree with that. At that time the way to finds a career in music in Canada was to get to the States first.

The Band, Joni Mitchell an d quite a few others were playing at incredible venues abroad and then Canada finally caught up. But I also think it was a lack of funding and community Canada.

Fame has odd impacts on people. A psychologist said instant fame is like being in a car accident or suffering a traumatic physical injury. Do you see that?

I do, I think that’s why it was important to capture some of those stories because all of a sudden my mother was at the farm with my brother and sister and at home watching this fame happen to my aunt and father and the band.

They were getting great recognition and Playboy offered a layout to Jackie (which she refused) and she had that sexy voice. My mother was truly feeling alone and missing her sister.

She had struggled with the limelight, and my father was now trying to leave the band and start a solo career. He was a true entertainer and had a whole other career after The Bells as a solo artist and it strained a lot of relationships.

And Cliff had a television show for three seasons.

That was an interesting way to grow up! I was on the show, that tiny girl with a mic in front of her –ridiculous! That was my childhood. He was the one bringing in all the money for us and then we all performed as a family including mum. That was a different time.

Then what?

It got obvious he had to make a decision. He’d been away; he was struggling with the dynamics inside the band and to make more hits at that level.

He was questioning the shelf life of the band, perhaps he quit too soon but at the point the shelf life was there. The solo career was liberating but very, very tough.

He didn’t have the success of Stay Awhile and he was trying to find out the person he was through that, the musician who is standing alone with a different style without that success.

Jackie continued with The Bells and it was wonderfully liberating for her but the managers said it wasn’t The bells anymore. The harmonies were gone. The moment Cliff left they all sort of slowly stopped their careers.


You set the film so well into its timeframes, the turbulent sixties when music was so important.

It was important for me to make sure the music acted as narrative and the lyrics of those songs. I started the film literally with my record player, a bottle of wine and listened to every Bells album.

It was unbelievable. I didn’t have any desire to hear their music when I was younger but I’m older and I’m going down this avenue and I fell in love with their music.

Do you think The Bells might reunite?

They won’t your for health reasons, going across the country adds another layer of complexity. I don’t want to say never but perhaps they would perform again a time or two if the demand is there.

Once the film comes out in theatres and on iTunes, it might create a buzz and get them to do something big.

Award-winning writer and reporter Anne Brodie has covered film and filmmakers on television, print and online for more than 30 years. 20 year member of... read more

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