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Tuesday, July 17 Living

‘Snuffy’ Walden: From rock world substance abuser to TV composing star

The Hearst Movie & A Martini group enjoyed a pre-release screening of a new music documentary, “Up to Snuff,” at the Bethel Cinema.

TV producer Mark Maxey makes his theatrical documentary debut with the film, and he came up from his Washington, D.C., home to attend the event, which was held in collaboration with the weekly FilmFest 52 at the Bethel venue.

Maxey profiles W.G. “Snuffy” Walden, who was a very popular rock musician in the 1970s, but fell victim to the excesses of that time. The film charts one of the wildest periods in popular music, much of which Walden spent touring with Stray Dog, the band that opened for Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

“People say I had a tendency to take off my clothes (in public), but I don’t remember that,” Walden says, laughing in one of his interview segments.

Walden was also one of the most prized members of Chaka Khan’s band during the 1970s, a gig which is illustrated by a terrific clip in which he riffs on the guitar while the singing star takes a brief break.

“We tracked that clip down from a German television show,” the filmmaker said, remembering the difficulty of finding good clips of Walden in action during his rock ’n’ roll days.

Several musicians who knew Walden during the 1970s talk about the pressures of touring and how easy it was to find solace in the alcohol and drugs that were considered performer amenities in those days.

Walden managed to achieve sobriety, however, and went on to a second career as one of the most popular television composers, starting with “thirtysomething” and moving on to series ranging from “Roseanne” to “The West Wing.”

“Everyone who knows him wanted to participate,” said Maxey, who lined up such on-camera interview subjects as Martin Sheen, Aaron Sorkin and Eric Burdon.

“I think I might have done the film just so I could interview Martin Sheen,” the filmmaker joked of “The West Wing” star.

In an era when so many music documentaries tend to focus on doomed stars such as Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston, it is refreshing to see a film about a rock world casualty who survived and then rose above his demons.

“Up to Snuff” is also an endorsement of second careers that can come out of left field. Walden tells Maxey that he never thought about composing music for TV and films until he took a shot at scoring “thirtysomething” (1987-1991). His simple acoustic accompaniment to the baby boomer drama revolutionized the field.

Walden first teamed up with Sorkin for the short-lived but much loved “Sports Night” and that led to their long collaboration on “The West Wing.”

Maxey shows the composer’s incredible collection of guitars, which Walden says he “casts” as the primary instrument in his various TV gigs. Like an actor, each guitar has a range and sound that can fit a particular role perfectly.

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“I wanted to show the impact of music on a TV show,” Maxey said of a powerful sequence in which we see a clip from “The West Wing” that starts with no music on the track until the president, played by Martin Sheen, gives a surprising and valuable gift to one of his staff members.

“Steven Spielberg once said that he could put a tear in your eye, but (composer) John Williams is the one who makes it fall,” the filmmaker told the audience.

jmeyers@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @joesview

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