“Blessed are those who cannot see, who have faith. That’s kind of what I’m chanting to myself at times like this,” says New York cabaret singer Bobby Belfry during one especially grim, lonely moment about halfway through This Time, a three-ring music documentary that juxtaposes the careers of two acts who flirted with fame decades ago and are now trying to reinvigorate their musical careers against the plight of a fresh-faced, open-hearted crooner approaching middle age without having tasted real success. Director Victor Magnatti, perhaps aware that his subjects don’t particularly have much in common other than the song in their hearts and the pennies in their pocketbooks, focuses on faith as the siren song that seduces those who ought to know the score.
Faith is what keeps gritty, guttural soul singer Pat Hodges going despite having arguably the toughest lot of anyone depicted in the movie. Homeless, in poor health, and (though Magnatti often edits around it) often too easily winded to really put her weight into the downright aerobically paced dance tunes she’s recently had moderate success singing, Hodges is shown apparently maintaining a positive outlook. And yet, her faith has thrown her into an interesting situation, one which highlights one of the movie’s slow-emerging but unmistakable connective elements: sexuality, and the messages transmitted through songs. Hodges admits to having reservations about singing to almost exclusively gay audiences, flirting with biting the hand that feeds her before pulling back and musing, albeit presumptuously, that the hardships she faces might not be so very different than the ones faced by her audience, and that music is a way for both to transcend their situations.
Similarly, very early in the film, the Sweet Inspirations are shown working through the changes in a song by Angell called “I’m Coming Out,” which, despite its obvious lyrical implications and trashy, gay club-friendly beat, Angell insists on describing in the most generalized terms. “The song is about realizing your own personal power and getting out there,” he explains. Off camera, the girls mock, “Oh, sure,” well aware of how they are tasked with serving as mouthpieces for a very catered demographic. Conversely, Magnatti all but ignores Belfrey’s life beyond his musical aspirations, and when long after most audience members will have likely stopped caring he casually tosses in a scene showing Belfrey with his boyfriend, their conversation still focuses in on his musical aspirations. (The better half insists on being referred to as Belfry’s “manager,” in addition to being his boyfriend.) This after his vocal coach is shown demanding Belfry always be mindful of knowing who he’s supposedly singing to and what message he’s intending to send to that person, which suggests Magnatti is more comfortable with loud and proud, and perhaps a tad suspicious of insinuation and circumspection. Which, of course, doesn’t even begin to explain why This Time, at 111 minutes, refuses to get to the point.