On the final day of the 25th annual New Orleans Film Festival in October 2014, Joe Lauro sat next to a musical legend, a man synonymous with the city where music is a way of life. At the Carver Theater, Mr. Lauro’s documentary “The Big Beat” — a detailed look at the rise of boogie-woogie sensation Fats Domino — was set to premiere.
Mr. Lauro, who’d begun pursuing the project more than a decade earlier, looked on nervously as the film began.
“Think about it,” he recalled. “You’re basically showing somebody their life.”
Fats Domino, who was born Antoine Domino Jr. in 1928, has long been known as a reserved individual and in recent years has rarely spoken or appeared publicly. It was one of the challenges Mr. Lauro — who owns Historic Films Archive in Greenport — faced in creating the film.
After earning Fats’ trust over several years, Mr. Lauro had finally reached the pinnacle that night, his film ready to be viewed by the legend himself.
“He came to the film with [producer] Dave Bartholomew, his partner, and [musician] Dr. John. The three of them sat together in the first row,” Mr. Lauro said.
Their emotions through the 90-minute film were evident.
“[Fats] held my hand and he just kind of squeezed it,” Mr. Lauro recalled. “Dave was crying. And Dr. John gave it a one-word review: ‘Slamming!’ ”
That was all Mr. Lauro needed to hear.
“After that night, I said, my work is done. I don’t care if anybody likes it as long as those guys liked it,” he said. “Because they’re the ones that lived it.”
Mr. Lauro’s film was in the spotlight again last week when a condensed version aired on PBS as part of the series “American Masters.” It was titled “Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
In an interview last Thursday, Mr. Lauro said the “American Masters” series was the ideal venue to showcase the film to a national audience. The documentary, which he both wrote and produced, received advance publicity from a variety of major media outlets, including The New York Times and USA Today — more so than any of his previous projects.
The film began to take shape more than a decade ago, around 2000, when Mr. Lauro was screening an earlier film, “Louis Prima: The Wildest.” Haydee Ellis, a friend of Fats Domino, recommended that he pursue a film about Fats. Mr. Lauro met the famed musician that same weekend, although the project didn’t gain traction until several years later.
“I continued to visit him and talk to him and send him good stuff that he liked,” said Mr. Lauro, a musician himself, known locally for his work with Gene Casey & The Lone Sharks and other bands.
Another problem Mr. Lauro encountered was a lack of footage from the 1950s and ’60s, when Fats Domino was a star rhythm and blues performer. It wasn’t until he discovered film from a 1962 Fats Domino concert in a French archive that the project took off.
“That kind of rejuvenated me,” said Mr. Lauro, who lives on Shelter Island. “At that point is when the production really began.”
The documentary focuses on Fats Domino’s career up to about the mid-1960s and mostly steers clear of the behind-the-scenes stories common to life as a musical star on the road. Mr. Lauro said he wasn’t interested in those kinds of sensational stories.
“A man that sold 60 million records, that alone is enough of a story,” he said. “I felt that in long run, in hopefully 100 years, if somebody wants to know about Fats Domino, they’re going to go to my film.”
The documentary tells the story of Fats Domino’s first major hit, “Ain’t That a Shame,” followed by classics such as “I’m in Love Again” and “Blueberry Hill.”
In 1957, Fats Domino traveled 30,000 miles touring the country to play at sold-out venues, the documentary says. His performances always ended with the same New Orleans classic: “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
The film recounts that “Ain’t That a Shame” was the first song John Lennon learned to play and reports that was Elvis Presley once described Fats as the king of rock ’n’ roll.
The film begins with black and white footage of an interviewer asking Fats how rock ’n’ roll got started.
“Well, what they call rock ’n’ roll now is rhythm and blues I’ve been playing for 15 years in New Orleans,” he responds with a big smile.
Mr. Lauro saw Fats on stage for the first time at the House of Blues in New Orleans in 2000. He performed with a full orchestra at the 1,000-seat venue, and it was unlike anything Mr. Lauro had seen or heard.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “The sound was just so intact.”
Photo Caption: Joe Lauro, left, pictured with Fats Domino. (Credit: Courtesy of Haydee Ellis)