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Dumped by his girlfriend, with a career going nowhere and living depressed in a post-9/11 New York City, Michael Rubenstone packed his car and moved to California, blasting his favorite band, Sly & the Family Stone, the entire way.
It was a healing reacquaintance with an old friend Rubenstone first came to know through the band's performance in the classic 1970 "Woodstock" concert documentary, mesmerized by the presence of white-fringed frontman Sly Stone leading a force of 400,000 people in an exuberant call-and-response jam on "I Want to Take You Higher."
In that car, Rubenstone knew he'd be OK. "You can make it if you try," Stone sang to him.
"He spoke to me at a time when I really needed to hear him," Rubenstone says. "That's the beauty of music, to connect you to yourself and help you heal. He gave me a little bit of optimism going into the next journey of my life."
Once settled in Los Angeles and getting small acting jobs, a wild idea came over Rubenstone: Why not rent a video camera and interview Sly Stone?
Easier said than done. Stone has been one of rock's greatest recluses since the Family Stone hits dried up. Songs like "Everyday People," "Stand!," "Dance to the Music," "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and "Family Affair" were hugely influential on generations of funk, rock and soul bands. But cocaine and money problems doomed the band, and Stone essentially vanished for years.
"I wanted to see if I could find him and find out why he disappeared," says Rubenstone.
Thirteen years and more than 500 hours of footage later, Rubenstone got his answer, documented in "On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone," his film that's getting a world premiere at this year's Slamdance Film Festival starting Friday in Park City.
("On the Sly" screens Jan. 22 and 25 at the Treasure Mountain Inn, with all other Slamdance films. Go to slamdance.com for full details.)
That the film's title nods to the old Leonard Nimoy-hosted "In Search Of" TV series of the '70s, where the existence of Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster and UFOs was examined, is fitting.
"Sly is definitely a mystery man," says Rubenstone. "I think he likes that, it's part of his mystique."
Equal parts detective story and biopic, "On the Sly" begins as a superfan's labor of love, but grows darker as Rubenstone delves into Stone's troubled past. The concerts he never showed up for. The drug arrests. The bizarre three-minute cameo he made during a tribute at the 2006 Grammy Awards, where he showed up sporting a majestic white mohawk haircut and silver lamé suit, croaked a few words and walked off the stage.
"I knew his story got darker, but I didn't know how dark it went," Rubenstone says. "Stone has a history of bad press, and the drugs and all the negative exposure has really overwhelmed the legacy of the band, and it's a damn shame. While that's a part of it, to me, it will always be about the music they created, not all the crap around it."
In the film, Rubenstone ultimately decides that the only way to meet his idol is to book a Hollywood club gig for a reconstituted version of the Family Stone and hope that Stone turns up. Amazingly, he does, checking out the show from a balcony, but leaving before Rubenstone gets to say hello. After all that effort, you really feel for Rubenstone when you see him drowning in disappointment on a bus stop bench minutes later.
But Rubenstone's chase doesn't end there, and part of the fun of "On the Sly" besides, of course, the killer soundtrack and rarely seen vintage performance and interview clips is watching his pursuit play out.
"Sly is always trying to get away with something," says Rubenstone. "He's always trying to see how far he can take things, and not just with music, with everything. He wants to see how long he can keep an audience waiting before he shows up. But there really are two Sly Stones. There's the guy born Sylvester Stewart, the church boy who I think is a genuinely good person, and then Sly, who is sort of a created personality. Fame is a very difficult thing to deal with, and some people handle it better than others. I don't know how well Sly dealt with it, but I think he definitely fell into a lot of the rock-star pitfalls."
Rubenstone hopes to use Slamdance exposure of "On the Sly" to get a bigger foothold in the film industry. He currently does voiceover work in L.A. and has a goal of directing features, with a couple of projects he's developing.
But what's next for Sly?
"I don't know. You'd have to ask him," Rubenstone says with a laugh. "Try to track him down, let me know how you do."
'On the Sly' at Slamdance
The Slamdance Film Festival will hold screenings of "On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone" on Sunday, Jan. 22, 9:45 p.m. at the Ballroom, and Wednesday, Jan. 25, 8:15 p.m. at the Gallery. The screenings will be preceded by the documentary short "Richard Twice," director Matthew Salton's look at the mysterious singer-songwriter Richard Atkins of the early-'70s California psychedelic folk duo Richard Twice.
Slamdance runs Jan. 20-26 at the Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St., Park City. Passes and individual tickets are available online at http://www.slamdance.com.