It’s not easy to wrap your head around Ike White. He was a gifted musician at a time when gifted musicians had currency. As one colleague says, “He was in the pocket.”
He was also in jail—serving a life sentence on a first-degree murder charge. But that didn’t stop record executive Jerry Goldstein: He rigged up a recording studio in a van, wheeled it into the California Men’s Colony prison in San Luis Obispo, California, and cut a record, Changin’ Times, in 1976. It caught the attention of Stevie Wonder, who helped White get a new lawyer, and two years later, at the age of 32, White walked out of prison and into the arms of Deborah White, his wife.
Deborah wasn’t White’s only wife. Hell, Ike White wasn’t even White’s only name. But Changin’ Times was his only record, though he continued to perform, mostly under the name of David Maestro.
The story of White/Maestro is one of flux, and director Daniel Vernon found himself at the right place and the right time to tell it in The Changin’ Times of Ike White. The doc starts on stable ground—archival footage, animation bolster by voiceover, talking heads interviews—and then takes a sharp left turn, leaving Vernon in a lurch.
To give away the game would be a disservice to the documentary, so let’s just say that where Changin’ Times of Ike White begins is no indication of where it will end. And at 77 minutes, the story moves briskly through several decades and characters without giving any of them short shrift. That’s a credit to Vernon and editors Paul Dosaj and Adam Finch, who play the movie’s cards close to the vest while leaning on documentary shorthand to give the set-up a rote sensibility. It’s a disarming act, and it works beautifully.
Documentaries about musicians are a dime a dozen these days, and their popularity breeds a formula. The life of Ike White allowed Vernon an opportunity to break free of that formula. I’m glad he took it.
The Changin’ Times of Ike White (2020)
Directed by Daniel Vernon
Produced by Rachel Hooper, Vivienne Perry
Kino Lorber, Not rated, Running time 77 minutes, Opens virtually Dec. 4 at CU-Boulder’s International Film Series.