On its surface, the story of William Garrett “Snuffy” Walden plays out like an expertly written drama. The innocence of youth, the tragedy of rock ‘n’ roll, the demise, the about-face and finally, the triumph.
But as evident in Up to Snuff, a documentary shown at the Newport Beach Film Festival, the heroic arc of real-life protagonist Snuffy is actually a much twistier tale that depicts an American musician and composer who would ultimately create—and still does—some of the most memorable music to sound across our television screens. (If you’re counting, there’s 42 tracks played in the film from start to finish.)
Director Mark Maxey does a masterful job slowly building a case for the genius of Snuffy, revealing personal anecdotes about him as if dribbling them through an unseen sieve. Most of the film is a series of talking-head interviews given by famous faces—Aaron Sorkin, Tom Arnold, Martin Sheen, Ed Asner—and musicians with an unending lexicon of t-shirt-worthy phrases. (“There’s a lot to this cat.”)
Snuffy himself appears throughout the documentary, as does his instantly loveable wife, Deb, and two lookalike sons.
The film moves at a steady clip and in chronological order, beginning with Snuffy’s down-and-dirty beginnings playing electric guitar at bygone Texas landmark, the Cellar Club.
In his early 20s, Snuffy—dubbed “the new Hendrix”—joins a band called the Stray Dog, and so begins a life of long-haired excess: world tours, drugs, women and most damaging, alcohol.
“He had a penchant for taking his clothes off,” one Stray Dog bandmate explains, though Snuffy says he can’t remember his apparent nudist tendencies. He was too drunk.
In Up to Snuff, the connection between alcohol and rock ‘n’ roll is thoroughly established. From asides given by veteran musicians, there’s a sense alcohol soothes the crash-and-burn of stepping off a spot-lit stage watched by thousands into the shadows of an empty hotel room, alone and far from home.
Though Snuffy never explains exactly why he drank so much, there’s no question he did.
After a particularly damnable night of blacked-out debauchery, Snuffy describes sitting in an airport bar Christmas Eve 1982, downing one drink, ordering a second then looking in the mirror and not recognizing the face looking back.
“The worst moment of my life,” Snuffy says. That would be the last sip of alcohol he’d ever taste.
The resurrection comes next, when Snuffy returns to L.A., cuts his hair and cleans up his act. He even starts playing with R&B superstar Chaka Khan. (During the Q&A with Maxey that followed the film’s Newport Beach Film Festival debut, the director said footage of Chaka Khan and Snuffy was taken from a 1985 German TV appearance; it was no easy feat getting licensing rights for the clip.)
So now Snuffy is sober, in love and thriving when he’s approached to compose music for a new show called Thirtysomething.
“I got into this without having a clue what the job was,” Snuffy says.
But what he lacked in experience, he made for with vision. Acoustic guitar in hand, Snuffy would pen an opening for the fledgling drama that hit all the right notes.
Jobs rolled in after that first one and notably, Snuffy soon finds himself crafting the score for Wonder Years, a coming-of-age ode to young romance.
Wonder Years star Fred Savage explains Snuffy “gave [the show] a soul.”
Onscreen, we see Snuffy play Winnie’s theme song from Wonder Years and the music appears to move him as much as it moves through him. His fingers slide across the strings with a virtuoso’s touch. During the screening, audience members audibly gasped as Snuffy strums his guitar.
A quick fade and Aaron Sorkin fills the screen. The two would work together on several projects before Sorkin asks Snuffy to create an orchestral opening for a show he was writing called West Wing.
“What he wrote would always be right and great,” Sorkin describes, explaining how Snuffy’s soundtrack could heighten the emotional textures of practically any scene. “Music has a way of communicating with us that language doesn’t,” Sorkin says.
At this point in the film, we’re complete believers in Snuffy’s greatness but like a layer cake fully baked now ready to be frosted, there’s more convincing left to do.
Friends describe how during the Malibu fires, Snuffy went to check on their homes without hesitation. Tom Arnold explains how Snuffy counseled him during a tumultuous marriage to Roseanne Barr and got him through community service on the side of a California freeway.
In the end, Up to Snuff closes with just Snuffy and his guitars. He reminisces about a five-decade-long career and the uneasiness he still experiences when confronted with the blank page. “I always felt like everybody knew how to do this but me,” he says.
There’s something unendingly inspirational about the greatest television composer (probably ever) admitting that he came into the business without a lick of experience beyond the licks he could play on his guitar.
UP TO SNUFF
- DIRECTOR: Mark Maxey
- PRODUCERS: Mark Maxey, Gino Scofidio
- CINEMATOGRAPHER: Shawn Grice
- EDITOR: Gino Scofidio
- MUSIC: W.G. Snuffy Walden
- LANGUAGE: English
- CAST: Aaron Sorkin, Martin Sheen, Tom Arnold, Timothy Busfield, Fred Savage, Joshua Malina, Ed Asner, Lawrence O’Donnell
For viewing information, visit uptosnuffmovie.com/screenings.