Rock on Film

The Annotated “Rock Docs” Radio Special

by Rick Ouellette

Last month, I was honored to be interviewed by DJ Bob Dubrow of WMBR-FM 88.1 in Cambridge, Mass. to talk about my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Why honored, you ask? Because Bob is not just your average guy blabbing with some local scribbler with a book to peddle. He interviews (on a regular basis) many of your favorite musicians from the Sixties and Seventies, which is the focal point of the “Lost and Found” show which airs on “the Big 88” every weekday from noon-2PM (Bob is usually in the Tuesday slot). Your humble blogger and indie author was preceded the previous week by Bob Cowsill of the famous singing family and was followed by Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) and Paul Rodgers (Free/Bad Company) the next two Tuesdays.

You can click the link below to hear the whole two-hour show or, if you’re pressed for time like most people, I will break it down into sections so you can jump ahead to certain interview segments or songs. Please note, however, that you can’t rewind on this slider. Also, check out Bob’s many great past interviews by visiting his MixCloud page at https://www.mixcloud.com/bob-dubrow/

For about the first four minutes, I get to talk a little bit about myself and how I came to write the book, while you become acclimated to my velvety radio voice 😉. Bob arranged the show to revolve around the work of various directors who have made the filming of rock music subjects a facet of their careers. I thought this was a good idea as it shows that from the beginning of the books timeline (1964) there were serious filmmakers recording performances and depicting real-life events of musical artists that were shaping a major cultural shift of the 20th century.


David (left) and Albert Maysles filming Mick Jagger during the making of Gimme Shelter.

First up, we discuss David and Albert Maysles (at the 5:00 mark) who were hired to film The Beatles First U.S. Visit only a couple of hours before the group’s plane landed in New York in February of 1964. The notion of rock mass-media was so new that the Maysles were giving full-access, sight unseen, by the Beatles management, giving us an up close look at this now-legendary event, which today would have a virtual army of handlers attached to it. The other two parts of rock’s great triumvirate (the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan) were also committed to non-fiction celluloid before 1964 was out: the Stones on The T.A.M.I. Show and Dylan at the Newport Folk Fest. Director Murray Lerner in fact, filmed at Newport for several years and compiled his highlights in the 1967 doc Festival!

At 14:10, Bob plays Dylan’s very plugged-in version of Maggie’s Farm from Newport 1965 that has gone down in legend (and is seen in the Festival! film). So many rumors have surrounded this watershed Dylan-goes-electric moment—did Pete Seeger try to cut the cord with an axe, was Bobby booed off stage—that Mr. Dubrow’s anecdote he learned from an interview with Newport participant producer Joe Boyd gives an fascinating spin on this famous tale.

Discussion of the work of Murray Lerner continues with his film Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (at 28:45), his outstanding doc of that 1970 event attended by 600,000 people but, because of funding issues, not released until 1997. Bob plays a song not seen in the original film, Leonard Cohen’s “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” preceded by some typically esoteric stage banter from the bard of Montreal.


Leonard Cohen at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival

The crucial role of documentary makers in preserving the counterculture experience for posterity—the good, the bad an the ugly—is discussed (at 28:45) in the section about the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter, about the Stone’s 1969 US tour that ended in the calamitous Altamont festival. At 32:15, Bob cues up the disheveled version of “Under My Thumb” during which the Hell’s Angels murdered a gun-brandishing audience member.

A discussion of the venerable American documentarian D.A. Pennebaker starts at 38:35. Pennebaker (like the Maysles) was an adherent of the new Direct Cinema and their fly-on-the-wall methods often yielded startling results, like D.A.’s bracing classic Don’t Look Back. At 38:35, Dylan’s defiant version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from his 1966 UK tour (also controversial with the folkie purists).

At 47:30, we discuss another Pennebaker film (and my all-time favorite rockumentary) Monterey Pop and after that Bob Plays a couple of songs from that beatific Summer of Love event, one at 51:27 from Buffalo Springfield (from a DVD extra) and one from the legendary set by Otis Redding (at 54:20). Also, he plays a song from a later Pennebaker film shot in 1973, the title song from the David Bowie concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.


Among the legendary performances captured by Pennebaker at Monterey Pop, the Who’s “smashing” version “My Generation” ranks near the top.

At 1:03:25 the name Peter Whitehead comes up. Though not a household name in the States, Whitehead produced several music videos for the Rolling Stones (as well as the first film about them 1965’s Charlie is MY Darling)
His most lasting effort is probably the free-form Swinging London opus “Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London From that film’s soundtrack we hear the part of a wild live-in-studio jam on “Interstellar Overdrive” by the original Pink Floyd (founder Syd Barrett was a friend of Whitehead).

Another British director, Tony Palmer, met John Lennon when the Beatles visited Cambridge University where he was a student. (Starting at 1:10:30) He ended up at the BBC where he used his Beatle connection to be introduced to many of the rock stars that would appear in his musical-sociological study All My Loving. He would film the final show of one of the bands featured. From Cream: The Farewell Concert Bob plays a great version of their hit “Sunshine of Your Love.”

The next filmmaker on the docket (at 1:27:30) is Michael Lindsay-Hogg, known for capturing England’s two most prominent bands at the end of the Sixties. From the Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus we get the one-night-only supergroup The Dirty Macs (with Lennon, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards) doing “Yer Blues” (at 1:29:50) and from the Beatles swan-song doc Let it Be Bob plays “I’ve Got a Feeling” from the rooftop concert.


The Beatles in “Let it Be.” Though the film depicts the fraying of the group’s unity that would lead to their breakup, the film is redeemed by the rooftop concert. From the book: Like a pack of squabbling brothers who find themselves in better temper after obeying a parent’s order to “go out and get some fresh air,” the mood of the film brightens as soon as the band emerges from the stairwell onto the rooftop. It may have been a chilly, overcast London afternoon but as soon as they launch into the remonstrative rocker “Get Back” the Beatles seem warmed up to the idea that they are out there to prove themselves. A month’s worth of studio work was not in vain.

Of course, no discussion about classic rock docs can be complete without Woodstock, which made Warner Bros. a ton of money while also being good enough to take the Oscar for Documentary Feature in 1970. It’s true, as Bob points: what hasn’t been said about this iconic film. But I hope, we added a few new insights here and there about these films in general. Hopefully, the time and care I put into making this book more of “journey” through fifty years of music and lives, transcending the (still useful and user-friendly) anthology format. So if interested, click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see the index and the first 20+ pages of the text.

You can check out the excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Rock Doc spotlight: “Chet’s Last Call: A Story of Rock & Redemption”

There was once a time and place for a man like the late Boston club owner Richard Rooney, then known as Chet to everyone in the city’s indie rock scene. A local guy from the Charlestown neighborhood, Chet in the early Eighties became the rather unlikely proprietor of a music room above an alleged Mafia bar called the Penalty Box in the nearby North Station area. Although his original idea was for it to be a place for jazz or blues acts, a friend fortuitously suggested he open a punk venue instead. From 1983-87, its open-door booking policy made Chet’s Last Call a virtual clearinghouse for Boston rock at a time when the scene was growing exponentially and hitting a creative peak that nearly matched the glory days of the town’s more famous punk dive, the Rat, back in the second half of the seventies.

Chet was the proverbial gruff-but-goodhearted guy who was a once common staple of older cities. He was a bear of a man usually stationed at the end of the bar, close by the entrance. Although you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side, any beef was usually quickly forgotten. Naturally, the joint wasn’t much to look at: a darkened flight of stairs brought you into a dim, smallish space (capacity was about 175) with orange and gold diagonal wallpaper for a stage backdrop and an incongruous iron railing around the dance floor. Rich Gilbert, guitarist for Human Sexual Response and the Zulus, reminds us that in those days Boston was still a “rough, edgy city” where, in the days before critical-mass gentrification, places like this could be left alone to flourish.


The type of place you didn’t tell your mom about: Chet’s side street entrance is seen next to the fire hydrant. The name of the super-sketchy Penalty Box downstairs bar was inspired by the Big, Bad Bruins who played across the street at the old Boston Garden.

“Chet’s Last Call: A Story of Rock & Redemption” is part of a new micro-documentary trend for music films in this age of more accessible equipment and crowd funding. It’s made for and by many people who were there at the time (it was directed by brothers Ted and Dan Vitale, the latter is the singer for long-time local ska-punk band Bim Skala Bim). That Chet was well-loved by the local rock community is pretty obvious from the film’s opening minutes. Boston rock personalities line up to be interviewed and many are seen in performance footage shot at a pair memorial “Chetstock” shows that took place not long after his passing in December of 2015. Veterans of the scene will love to see clips of the Classic Ruins, Pajama Slave Dancers, Harlequin, Bim Skala Bim, Dogmatics and others, as well as the fun interview segments with local rockers like David Minehan, Ed “Moose” Savage, Barrence Whitfield, Xanna Don’t, Linda Viens, and Kenne Highland—not to mention members of Chet’s family and the folks that worked for him.

The premier of “Chet’s Last Call” is on August 3rd at the Woods Hole Film Festival in Falmouth, Mass. Click on the link for ticket info. https://www.goelevent.com/WoodsHoleFilmFest/e/ChetsLastCall


Check out the trailer and see all your favorite Boston rock stars!!

Granted, this will all be a bit much for the uninitiated, even if the place did host the occasional out-of-town breakout act (Husker Du, the Beastie Boys) or have the odd rock-celeb hanging at the bar (Stones producer Jimmy Miller, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry). Chet’s Last Call was a provincial but supportive scene—and a rowdy one as well. “A playpen for drunken adults,” is how Ken Kaiser puts it. Ken is also seen in new footage playing with the other Ken (Highland) with the Hopelessly Obscure, whose defiant name and garage-punk power riffing is classic Boston.

Chet was Boston’s youngest club owner then and a savvy music fan, committed to empowering new bands and giving a platform to more outre acts like the Bentmen with their cultish persona (group member Chris Burbul was also part of the production team). With modest cover charges and a clientele that favored cheap Budweisers, Chet was not destined (or even looking) to make a killing. Neighborhood grousing, as well as the club’s lax ways with underage drinking and drug dealing, likely led to its closing in 1987 after a run of nearly five years. Chet became Richard Rooney again, going into rehab and, after re-emerging clean, he went back to school and became a substance abuse counselor. This problematic aspect of the music scene is not shied away from—several musicians like Al Barr from the Dropkick Murphy’s talk candidly about their own addiction-and-recovery experiences. This later part of Rooney’s life story is quietly inspiring and brings full circle the idea of the Boston music scene’s abiding spirit. It makes “Chet’s Last Call: A Story of Rock & Redemption” not just a fine tribute to the man but also to the lasting community he helped foster.

Have you heard about my book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey”? It’s an alternative history of rock ‘n’ roll, seen through the prism of non-fiction film, with over 170 titles reviewed. You can check out a 30-page excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Forever Underground At the Rat: The Rise, Fall and Long After-Life of Boston’s Legendary Punk Venue.

Above photo by Wayne Valdez

by Rick Ouellette

In its heyday, the Rathskeller club’s unassuming façade was tucked into a homely jumble of mis-matched stores, restaurants and nightspots in Boston’s Kenmore Square, where the tony Back Bay neighborhood met the Fenway district and Boston University. Once you crossed its perpetually darkened doorway you could head straight to the street level bar (and later, James Ryan’s popular Hoodoo Barbeque) or turn left and head down the stairs to the subterranean music room. Along with cigarette smoke and the vestigial smell of sweat and spilled beer, the dim interior featured black walls, overhanging water pipes, dodgy rest rooms, tilty tables and a low bandstand that was cheek-by-jowl with the narrow dance floor. From 1974 until it closed in 1997, the Rat (as it was universally known) featured untold hundreds of bands, from rock’s living legends to the lowliest also-ran punk combo. That means about 8000 nights of edgy good times where the music was more often than not delivered at fever pitch.

Twenty years to the month after it closed, a Rat reunion show and benefit auction event was held at Kenmore’s Hotel Commonwealth. The supportive vibe that owner Jim Harold provided over the years for so many local groups starting out was a common theme, as it is in the commemorative “Live at the Rat Suite” DVD (more on that in a bit). The event took place in the second floor function area of the hotel whose giant footprint looms over the space where the Rat once stood. On an evening where exclamations of “Long Live the Rat!” were heard more than a few times, this irony was noted by many of folks in attendance.


Willie Alexander and band in front of the Rat’s original backdrop sign. (Photo by author)

Performing that night were a handful of local rock mainstays. Willie “Loco” Alexander, a godfather of Boston punk since the days of his raucous Boom-Boom Band, kicked things off with a mini-set that included the anthemic “At the Rat.” This tune was the lead track of the 1976 compilation double live album of the same name, organized by Harold to promote the local scene (now re-mastered and available on CD). It proved as popular as ever, two decades after the joint was shuttered. “Thanks for being alive,” Willie said in parting. The Nervous Eaters, led by singer-guitarist-writer Steve Cataldo, are another local legend that came up in the Rat’s earlier days; their buzzsaw riffing and unbridled lyrics set the course for many groups that followed. Having long lived down the compromised album they made in 1980 for Elektra, the Eaters reverted to the tough-as-nails sound in subsequent recordings and gigs. Songs like “Last Chance” and “Loretta” are for many people as much of a Boston tradition as the Swan Boats and were welcomed accordingly.


Steve Cataldo (Photo by author)

Emily Grogan and her band were of a later vintage than the two acts that preceded her and her impassioned songwriting and vocals were just as well received. Emily also told a touching anecdote about her early days when she was a bandmate of the late Mr. Butch, the beloved dreadlocked street person who was dubbed the “mayor of Kenmore Square.” Closing out the musical festivities were the Dogmatics. They were a prime example of groups that came into local renown in the mid-80s with a sound now twice re-generated since the 60s when garage-rock royalty Barry and the Remains played the Rathskeller when it was differently configured. Led by Jerry Lehane, the Dogmatics were a popular act not just for the Rat and the similarly downscale Chet’s Last Call, but also for the gig parties they’d have at their Thayer Street loft. At the Rat party they faithfully lived up to their legacy with the punked-up garage riffing and raffish townie humor of such nuggets as “Pussy Whipped” and the Catholic-school testimonial “Sister Serena.” They were joined by another Dorchester-bred favorite, Richie Parsons ex of Unnatural Axe, for a few numbers including the always reliable “Three Chord Rock.”



Emily Grogan (above) and the Dogmatics’ Peter O’Halloran and Jerry Lehane w/ Richie Parsons. Photos by Sara Billingsley.

The night ended sentimentally with a few words from Jim Harold as well as from former Del Fuegos drummer Woody Geissman whose Right Turn addiction treatment center was the charitable recipient of that evening’s fundraising. (I chatted with another Del Fuegos drummer, Joe Donnelly, but if either of the Zanes brothers were there I didn’t see them).

I moved to Boston shortly after the Blizzard of ’78, somehow getting my meager possessions from my hometown of Salem, Mass. to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. I began checking out the notorious Rat as soon as the snow banks started to recede. In the last few months of the apartment me and my older sister shared with rotating cast of third bedroomers (we had moved back there, unimpressed with Ft. Lauderdale where our family had re-located) a few albums had circulated that changed my musical life. I had purchased “Talking Heads ‘77” and Television’s “Marquee Moon” pretty much on the strength of reviews (both were revelations) while a roommate owned the equally eye-opening “Rocket to Russia,” the Ramones third album. Elvis Costello’s debut record was also making the rounds. But the first time I ventured down into the occluded interior of the Rat it was a misfire: it seemed to be an open-amp night for suburban bands whose mountaintop was the first Pat Travers album—-it was like they wanted to send me back from whence I came.


The Talking Heads at the Rat in ’77. By the time I first saw them they had graduated to the Paradise club, which had a higher capacity but less exposed plumbing.

Determined to right this wrong, I went back a few nights later when the Romantics were headlining. These guys, in their pre-red shiny suits day, had a buzz about them esp. after getting a positive notice in Creem magazine’s recent review of the Detroit scene. After a couple of pumped-up power pop numbers (where most everyone stayed seated) the singer presumptuously suggested that this was the place “where all the dancing girls are at.” As soon as they launched into the next song, two sets of young ladies emerged from either end of the bandstand and met in the middle of the dance floor. It was like some vision from a half-remembered rock ‘n’ roll dream. The jig was on: soon after I was going to the Rat every weekend.

I say “half-remembered” because in its original form that what it was all about: the small venues, the dancing, the aspirational groups, the chance encounters. By the time I was old enough to go out to shows, rock music’s economy had changed. My early experiences ranged from the precipitous old Boston Garden down to the 2800-seat Orpheum Theater. But at the Rat (capacity about 300+), the close quarters meant the physical and physic space between performers and audience was reduced or overlapped. I saw dozens of great local groups in this hothouse atmosphere and many of them have remained highly-regarded here even though only a few acts “made it big.” This is evidence of the staying power of a community of outsiders, sort of like why you see Harley-riding guys of Social Security age still riding around in packs.

1983, Boston, Massachusetts, USA — Rock band R.E.M. performs at The Rat in Boston. Band members include, left to right, Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and (not pictured) Bill Berry. — Image by © Laura Levine/Corbis

Do Go Back to Rockville: R.E.M. were one of the last of the really big names to play the Rat. Others who came before them included the Ramones, the Runaways, Talking Heads, the Replacements, the Jam, the Police, the Stranglers and the Boston-based Cars. And few who were there will ever forget the Plasmatics’ three-night stand in March of 1979. I deny all rumors that have my hand brushing Wendy O. William’s derriere moments after she put down her chainsaw at the end of their set.

“The Sound of Our Town,” to borrow the title of Brett Milano’s excellent history of Boston-bred pop music, is ably laid out in the “Live at the Rat” album. It was a dynamic scene that was second only to CBGB on the east coast. Willie Alexander is out front with three tracks, leading a line-up that includes frenetic rave-ups by mid-70s staples like the Infliktors and Thundertrain as well as a fistful of bands known for their distinctive front men: Jeff “Monoman” Conolly (of DMZ), John Felice (the Real Kids) and Richard Nolan (Third Rail). These outfits were definitely the type of the times—with razor-edge riffing that would often build to cathartic peaks that sent the kids on the dance floor into a pogoing frenzy. But the three of them were also savvy songwriters, as were people like Frank Rowe of the Classic Ruins, who Milano suggested was the Randy Newman of punk.

This was a direct result of Harold’s policy of giving a chance to most any band that played their own material—or at least it served to unlock a lot of latent talent. Many bands that came along a little later in the late 70s or early 80s (the Neighborhoods, La Peste, Human Sexual Response, Pastiche, etc.) turned out to have quite a knack at evoking the urban milieu of the times. And what was that like for those who weren’t there or whose memory is getting a little hazy at this point? The “Live at the Rat Suite” DVD, produced and directed by David Lefkowitz, does a good job at hashing out that side of the story in the interviews interspersed with the stripped-down performances in the Hotel Commonwealth suite festooned with the club’s memorabilia. Doing songs are the same performers from the Rat party plus John Felice, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, Billie Connors and the good ol’ Dropkick Murphys (worthy youngsters 21CF cover La Peste’s “Spymaster”).


At the Rat reunion party, it was like old times in front of the stage. In the background, “Live at the Rat Suite” is projected on the wall (Brett Milano is interviewing Al Barr of the Dropkick Murphys). Photo by author

It’s great to hear your old faves in this cozy setting but also illuminating are the relaxed conversational segments, conducted by a trio of former Boston Globe music writers (Milano, Jim Sullivan and Steve Morse) along with local radio luminaries Oedipus, Carter Alan and John Laurenti. To Alexander, the supportive management and undemanding surroundings (“We were lucky if there was a door on the bathroom,” notes Willie) left a space that was a focal point where a scene could grow on its own. He says the kids, you know the artsy and non-conformist types you see in most every town, found a place of their own and a symbiotic relationship with the new bands that continues to this day. But while it may have been our clubhouse it was not the excluding type: also in the mix were adventurous suburbanites, post-game Red Sox fans and B.U. students.


The back cover of the DVD shows the partially-demolished Rat, while the front shows the well-meaning Rat-themed suite where you can have an “authentic experience” for several hundred dollars a night.

Ah, yes: Boston University. That’s where our story starts to fall apart. The school was always a convenient whipping boy for hometown rockers, ever since Jonathan Richman, in the early proto-punk days of the Modern Lovers, told his girlfriend to “Put down your cigarette and drop out of B.U.” But the ever-growing institution, under the presidency of the irascible John Silber, bought up large chunks of the Kenmore district. The eventual eviction of unwanted elements, whether it be leather-jacketed rock ‘n’ rollers or the hodgepodge collection of mid-century business, was almost an afterthought to the manifest destiny of outsized colleges, block-long hotels and chain stores (a similar fate has befallen Harvard Square).


Rat owner Jim Harold with some parting words and (on the left) Woody Geissman, whose Right Turn treatment center (“A Creative Place for Recovery”) specializes in the substance abuse issues of performing artists. Photo by author

In the photo at the top of this article, local musician Linda Viens stands in front of the Rathskeller, a quiet moment on a snowy day. A tip of the cap to Wikipedia for making this simple but remarkable shot by Wayne Valdez the featured image for their article on the club. All the loud music and edginess have fallen away, and the Rat’s tiny frontage is squished between a vintage clothing shop, a hairdressing school and the pre-Internet bank of pay phones. Viens’ casual pose suggests a kinship (even protectiveness) with her town’s most famous rock club. But not ownership. There’s less of a place nowadays for a “bon vivant” right-place-right-time proprietor like Jim Harold, who had the knack to know when to let something just happen. And boy did it ever. In the 21st century, the Boston rock scene has moved to nearby cities like Cambridge and Somerville where a vibrant blend of veteran bands and newer acts light up venues like the ONCE Ballroom. (I recently wrote about Linda’s new band Kingdom of Love and that abiding sense of musical community here). It’s the idea of the Rat that lives once the wrecking ball has cleared the way for the monolithic streetscapes of today’s gentrified cities. We plant the flag elsewhere and rock on.


Video by John Doherty

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is the first anthology of non-fiction rock films, covering the years 1964-2014. To see a 30-page excerpt click on the link here or contact me thru the comments section below. http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

“Rock Docs” Sampler #5: Pop Music’s Long & Winding Road

Rock and roll as a named art form is more than sixty years old. For a musical genre made for and by the young (at least originally) it is a little strange to think that the biggest worries in life have gradually gone from being worried that you might get grounded to whether you have enough savings to retire. Plus, categorical mortality has shifted from tragic plane crashes and overdoses to the sad reality that a certain percentage of people will die from various health issues in their 60s and 70s. But before everyone gets depressed let me say that one of the things I came to realize while writing my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is that the youthful energy of classic pop music helps sustain the spirit even as our Social Security years approach or are reached. As Freda Kelly, the Beatles’ secretary and fan club president pictured above says at the end of Good Ol’ Freda, “Although there’s a fifty-year gap since I started, I still like to think that I’m back where I was in the beginning.”

Many of the newer rockumentaries in the book focus on the long trajectory of rock history, from the perspective of musicians, fans and people behind the scenes such as Freda. Below are four related excerpts.
To purchase and/or sample the first 30 pages of “Rock Docs” click on the link below or the book cover image on the right.
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

From the entry on Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Drew Nicola’s film has a certain shadowy quality that sustains Big Star’s mythical essence. The band had friends handy with an SLR or home movie camera so there are some early images that survive like half-remembered dreams. But it’s on disc that their legacy rests and Nicola profiles many of the band’s most beloved songs like “Ballad of El Goodo,” “September Gurls,” “Daisy Glaze” and “In the Street.” It’s the universality of yearning (“Years ago my heart was set to live,” begins “El Goodo”) that in the end is as big a reason as any for Big Star’s durability. So is the patina of tragedy—especially in the case of Chris Bell, who died in a car crash in 1978 at twenty-seven while he was trying to figure a “way into the future” with only one solo single to his name (the exquisite “I Am the Cosmos”). He had been working in the kitchen of his family’s restaurant. Both Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel passed away in 2010. As Lenny Kaye says at another point in Nothing Can Hurt Me: “They were there waiting, like a little jewel in the earth, for me to dig them out.” This sense of personal discovery is central to the rock and roll experience.

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From New York Doll

In an age of comforting singer-songwriters and technically-savvy arena acts, the New York Dolls’ raucous flamboyance failed to translate from the demimonde to the heartland. Of course, by the end of the decade, they would be more widely recognized for their trailblazing role but by then the band was defunct. There was no second act for bassist Arthur Kane. When this film opens in the early 2000s, we find Kane working at the Mormon Family History Center in Los Angeles. He joined the Latter-Day Saints after his life bottomed out by the late 80s-early 90s. A failed marriage, a fruitless attempt at an acting career and alcohol abuse was followed by a suicide attempt—a jump from a second story window that left him with minor neural damage. Now he’s a slightly addled fifty-something in white shirt and tie, complaining about the long commute to work caused by an inconvenient bus transfer. Pausing on the street, Kane gets us caught up, explaining that he is single and “eligible to go out on dates.” But he has to be careful now because of his religion (“No more wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am”). It’s no secret that for “Killer” Kane (named after a villain from the old Buck Rogers serial) the fondest memories of his life will be his platform-booted heyday with the New York Dolls. His ride comes along and he takes a seat in the very last row. With a wry smile he confirms that “I’ve been demoted from rock star to schlep on the bus.” Director Greg Whiteley has fashioned an eloquent and bittersweet documentary on Kane’s rise, fall and fleeting redemption in the form of a New York Dolls reunion concert in London. It is one of the leading entries in what has become a mini-genre: films centered on fringe figures floating out there in the vast rock and roll firmament (others would include The Nomi Song, Best of the Beatles and A Band Called Death).

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From Standing in the Shadows of Motown

In the middle of this film, musician and author Allan Slutsky tells of meeting Detroit-based guitarist Robert White for dinner in 1993. As they were about to order, the blissful opening guitar lick to the Temptations’ 1965 chart-topper “My Girl” spilled out from the restaurant’s speakers. White’s face lit up and he was about to tell the waiter that that was him playing the guitar, but checked himself. When Slutsky later asked him why he didn’t say it, an abashed White suggested that the server would never have believed a “tired old fool” like himself. Slutsky admits he was floored that a man who played “one of the top five all-time guitar hooks” had “lived for thirty years this close to his dream and yet instead of being inside the dream looking out, he was on the outside of the dream looking in.” This sad anecdote neatly summarizes Standing in the Shadows of Motown, developed from Slutsky’s book of the same name, that profiles the interracial group of instrumentalists (often referred to as the Funk Brothers) who provided the infectious grooves to scores of Top 40 hits for Motown Records but who were largely left behind when the label left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972.

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From Good Ol’ Freda

The seventeen-year-old Freda Kelly got to know the Beatles as only one can who was part of the band’s original fan base. She can tell you the best place in the Cavern to watch (second archway on the left), tells sweet anecdotes of Paul walking her to the bus stop and still calls Ringo “Ritchie.” In 1962, the Beatles new manager asked the incredulous teen if she wanted to work for the band. It was a canny move. As both Epstein and Kelly realized, she was a fan but not a fanatic and could directly relate to the band’s famously ardent female supporters, which would grow into numbers unimaginable back then. She held the job for a decade and still dutifully replied (on her own time) to the back log of fan mail even after the band broke up; a process that took some three years. In an archive news clip from around the time of the Beatles breakup, we see Freda Kelly somewhere in between, as a young woman asked what she missed most about the early days. “The closeness,” she says, a reply all the more poignant when we later see the roll call of those involved who have passed on, starting with John, George and Brian Epstein. Approaching seventy years of age, she agreed to be the subject of Ryan White’s cameras so that her grandchildren will grow up knowing who she once was. Although good ol’ Freda would likely be too humble to say so, she was not just a bit player in rock and roll’s greatest success story but a person who was symbolically very near to the heart of it.

The Asbury Park Music and Film Festival: Think Globally, Rock Locally

by Rick Ouellette

The 2017 Asbury Park Music and Film Festival, its third annual installment, took place April 20-23 in the Jersey Shore city long known as the breeding ground of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and many others practitioners of the area’s soulful, unpretentious brand of rock ‘n’ roll. This edition was notable for a Friday night spectacular held at the venerable Paramount Theater on the boardwalk. First up was the premier of the documentary “Just Before the Dawn,” an affectionate tribute to the town’s famous music scene. That was followed by a mix-and-match jam session of musicians whose roots in the area go back as far as a half century. You could almost feel a jolt of electricity charge through the crowd when the curtain lifted to reveal Springsteen, Southside Johnny and E-Street alumni Little Steven Van Zandt and David Sancious leading the large group of players and singers. It was Glory Days redux especially for the New Jersey faithful who dominated the sold-out audience. But as the film that preceded the concert showed, this is part of an often sobering rise-fall-rise narrative.


Childhood music education is a great cause supported by the festival and spotlighted in the film. At the all-star jam, the Boss gives his seal of approval to one of the kids from the local Lake House Music Academy.

Asbury Park was already famous as a mid-century, Mid-Atlantic vacation spot dominated by amusement-park attractions when a vibrant music scene grew up around it: by the late Sixties there were more than 70 nightclubs in a one square mile area. (The Ferris wheel, Tilt-a-Whirl, Tunnel of Love and Madam Marie’s fortune-telling booth all made it into the Springsteen lexicon). But as filmmaker Tom Jones points out early on (backed up by interviews with several long-time residents), this is a tale of a city that was divided literally by the train tracks that ran through the middle of town. On the other side of those rails, away from the beachfront, was a largely African-American district that forever felt left behind by the city fathers. That neighborhood had its own lively music scene: in addition to its homegrown talent, it attracted performers like Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King and Duke Ellington. In fact, for a place of about 16,000 residents Asbury attracted an impressive of top-line acts: the boardwalk’s Convention Hall (adjacent to the Paramount) hosted the Rolling Stones, Byrds and Doors in the same era.


The top floor of the building on the left, 702 Cookman Avenue, is the location of the legendary Upstage club.
(Photo by author)

But as we find out in “Just Before the Dawn,” the local music circuit was an integrated scene. A large chunk of the film focuses on the downtown Upstage club, a narrow windowless two-floor walk-up that, without a liquor license, came into it’s own after hours when the bars had closed for the night. Even viewers not well-versed with names of players like Jeff Kazee, Ricky DeSarno, Billy Ryan and Ernest “Boom” Carter will be taken by the sense of discovery of a scene coalescing. With the narrow walk-up not conducive to people lugging heavy musical equipment, the owner of the Upstage constructed a recessed wall-of-sound system where several guitar players could plug in at once and likely did, judging from the archival photos (check out that long-haired hippie Bruce!). In a great scene of rock ‘n’ roll archaeology, the filmmakers lift the steel grate at 702 Cookman Ave. and head back up the stairs into the long-vacant space (still painted in day-glo psychedelic colors) to interview Little Steven.

The interior of the Upstage has been vacant since 1971. There has been talk of renovating the building as a combination performance space/museum/cafe. (Photos by Billboard.com)

It came as a surprise to many of the musicians when Asbury Park erupted into several days of rioting starting on Independence Day, 1970. (Fittingly, a snippet of Springsteen’s beloved ballad “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” plays at the start of the film). The era’s inner-city rage that ignited bigger places like Detroit, Newark and Watts came home to the Jersey Shore in a spasm of fire and violence that gutted the black business district, much of which was never re-built. That and the changing shopping and vacationing habits of Middle America put Asbury into a tailspin from which it has taken many decades to recover.

The hopeful part of that narrative, a city once down on its luck being rejuvenated by an incoming creative class, a refreshed music scene and a growing LGBT community, is spelled out at various points during the film. While some of this spills over into PR boosterism, you only needed to walk around town to see for yourself. Much of the festival’s screenings and other events take place on or near Cookman Avenue, now a haven of the city’s burgeoning creative class, with the arthouse cinema House of Independents as the key venue. But a very affordable Gallery Pass wristband let festival goers sample films that screened at many of the galleries and artist workspaces that line the street along with the funky little shops, record stores, etc.


The “Upstage All-Stars” doing chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny.”

While the live shows are a big drawer for the APMFF (this year saw Marshall Crenshaw, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Mike & the Mechanics among others), for me it’s often the smaller, labor-of-love documentaries that make an impression, especially the ones that show rock music’s great global reach. “What We Did was Secret” was a real eye-opener of a film from director David Alvarez about the activist Madrid punk scene of the 1980s. In a Spain that was only a decade removed from the death of fascist dictator Franco, the high stakes game of political mobilization from the members of groups like Sin Dios, Armpit Smell and Kortatu is a terse warning for our own time. More pleasantly, “Nihao Hamtai: Magma, First Chinese Tour” is a gratifying video diary of the way-out French jazz-prog band Magma finding an audience in the Far East more than 40 years after the release of their first record. The festival also featured several blocks of short films on a dizzying array of subjects. I especially enjoyed the bittersweet portrait on the aging issues of the semi-famous English singer Carol Grimes (“The Singer’s Tale”) and the amusing portrait of the plaid shorts-wearing Jersey covers band whose appeal is summed up in the title (The Nerds: A Rockumentary”).

In my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, I emphasize how the look of rock music—with its endless array of colorful characters and emphasis on dynamic live performance—is nearly as integral to its appeal as the sound of it. And with a half-century of history to draw upon, the time is ripe for this sort of music-centric film festival. (Other examples are L.A.’s Don’t Knock the Rock and the ongoing Doc ‘n’ Roll series in London). With its wide-ranging programming, strong local support and ability to book a variety of impressive live acts (not to mention its iconic, and convenient, location in the middle of the Northeast Corridor), the future success of the Asbury Park Music and Film festival looks assured. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year.
Bookmark their website and keep abreast for the 2018 edition. http://apmff.com/

My latest book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available! And now you can try-before-you-buy, click on the link below to go to my author page and view a 30-page excerpt. http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

A Shaggy Dog on a “Rainbow Bridge”: Calling in Jimi to Save a Movie From Itself

Rainbow Bridge
Directed by Chuck Wein—1971—125 minutes

Develop a rough idea for a film project, gather together some people to be in it, and then switch on the camera. While this may be a viable plan of action for first year film-school kids, it’s not usually recommended for a high profile project. But amazingly, the motion picture division of Warner Bros. greenlighted two such counterculture projects in 1970: the first was the stillborn documentary “Medicine Ball Caravan” the fascinating backstory of which was my first ever blogpost HERE. The other was the similarly fuzzy “Rainbow Bridge.” Of course, WB had just hit the hippie jackpot with the Woodstock film, which was a box-office smash and eventual Oscar winner for best feature documentary. But to think one could replicate that success without minimal effort was indicative that Hollywood hadn’t evolved its thinking about “youth movies.” When the producers of “Rainbow Bridge,” who included people involved in the management of Jimi Hendrix, saw what they had in the can after burning thru their initial $450,000 budget, they practically begged the legendary guitarist, already on board for the soundtrack, to appear in some specially-arranged concert footage as well. But it would not be enough to save it and the days of the flower-power genre were numbered.


Jimi Hendrix at the Rainbow Bridge concert in Maui, July 1970

“Rainbow Bridge” starts with a blank black screen and a deep important-sounding male voice telling us how the “New Young” are going to bring peace to our planet. Instead, all we get are the inconsequential wanderings of a bright but unremarkable woman named Pat Hartley, who we watch cavorting aimlessly around Los Angeles. Both Hartley and the director, Chuck Wein, were associated with the Andy Warhol Factory scene but what we end up with here is worlds away from the NYC demimonde. The story arc, such as it is, has Hartley flying to Hawaii, where the bumming around re-commences. She ends up at the Rainbow Bridge Occult Research Meditation Center and the inane pseudo-New Age babbling begins. I won’t bore you with the details, as you can bore yourself silly by checking it out yourself: the film is currently available in nine separate parts on YouTube. But a typical eye-roller is when one of the gurus claims he feels “heavy reincarnation vibes from everyone in this room. “ As if one go-around weren’t enough with this crowd. Primarily, “Rainbow Bridge” seems to exist is to confirm the suspicion that no matter how earnest the striving for enlightenment, communal life among the Sixties crowd were just as often marked by petty in-fighting and major dope deals.


Pat Hartley

An hour and twenty minutes of this seems like two lifetimes, so maybe the reincarnation angle isn’t far off. During this stretch, the only highlights have been a few Hendrix songs on the soundtrack (notably “Dolly Dagger” and “Ezy Rider”) played to the antics of a free-spirited Pat Hartley or the wave-catching activities of some surfing/meditating hash freaks. With two-thirds of the film gone, Jimi shows up to lend some much needed credibility to the proceedings. And some entertainment value, too: I enjoyed the scene where our rock star hero play acts a scene where Hendrix brandishes a rifle then shoots one of the self-proclaimed “wizards” from an upper floor window. Adding up that scene, the concert sequence and a stoned conversation he has with Wein and Hartley, Hendrix is only present for probably a little less than 25 minutes of this interminable movie.


This is about all you would need to see of the film. The man himself, playing and rapping back at the house.

But luckily for us in the Internet and home video age, the live performance can be picked out piecemeal from the rest of “Rainbow Bridge” which is more than can be said of the poor ticket-buyers during the film’s original (and brief) theatrical run.Because of the windy conditions that day on the slopes of Maui’s long-dormant Haleakala volcano, a lot of Hendrix’s set was deemed unusable but what remains is well worth seeing, at least in isolation. Accompanied by Mitch Mitchell on drums and Billy Cox on bass, he plays a vigorous set for the few hundred appreciative freaks who got word of the hastily-arranged free show. Highlights are “Voodoo Chile,” “Hear My Train a-Coming” and “Purple Haze,” the latter featuring one of the better displays of Jimi playing guitar with his teeth.


This is the trailer to “Rainbow Bridge.” Consider that a fair warning.

Contrary to the trailer’s claim, this was not exactly Hendrix’s last concert on U.S. soil (he played a gig in Honolulu a couple of days later) but anyone aware of the chronology knows the end is near for one of rock’s greatest icons. Hendrix has barely six weeks to live as we hear him talk of an out-of-body experience. The risky hedonism of a drug-suffused counterculture is of course not a subject to be reckoned with in a film such as this, making the “Rainbow Bridge’s” semi-documentary intentions a bit of a joke. At the end, we are stuck again with the sanctimonious seekers, meeting with a woman who claims to have met with some liberating space aliens and that they “approve of LSD.” Whereas once upon a time this may have elicited whispers of “oh wow” there are many more nowadays ready with a raised hand and quick riposte of “Bye, Felicia.”

My latest book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available! And now you can try-before-you-buy, click on the link below to go to my author page and view a 30-page excerpt. http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html
Thanks! Rick Ouellette

Revisiting Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels”: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like

200 Motels
Directed by Frank Zappa and Tony Palmer–1971–98 minutes

Rock star movies from the Sixties and early Seventies that used fictional frameworks have a bit of a checkered history you might say. This notion came back to me while I’ve been going thru sheets of handwritten reviews that I didn’t use in my new book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” because they didn’t exactly fit the documentary definition. The Beatles peaked out this sub-category way back in 1964 with the tack-sharp “Hard Day’s Night” and slid pleasantly downhill from there with “Help” and “Magical Mystery Tour.” Other famous pop groups of the era also had their “juke box movies” (of which HDN is famously the “Citizen Kane” of) but by the late 60s the heavy psychedelic age was upon us and self-conscious curiosities like “Head” and “Rainbow Bridge” were unleashed on the world. The farthest-out of these (not necessarily a compliment) may be 1971’s “200 Motels” co-directed and written by Frank Zappa with British documentarian Tony Palmer, who is also credited with the “shooting script” (a little more on that later). The zany cast include Zappa’s band the Mothers of Invention, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Theodore Bikel and various side characters.

By the time of his death in 1993, Frank Zappa had long solidified his status as an envelope-pushing rock music icon, but seldom has there been one with such wide-ranging sensibilities. He was one of the most accomplished guitarist-composers in the genre’s history and certainly one of it’s more iconoclastic: a man equally at home writing and arranging instrumentals inspired by the greats of 20th century serious music while also penning lyrics whose humor often veered off the road of social criticism into the ditch of childish bad taste.


The one and only… Fringo??

In “200 Motels,” shot on an extensive soundstage at Pinewood Studios in England, you get both of these Franks—but only sort of. That’s because he only appears in the performance sequences and in his stead has Ringo (made up to look like Zappa) wandering through the sets in the role of the story’s narrator. That story, such as it is, involves the trials and tribulations of a rock group that has been on the road too long (meh) and are being subtly manipulated by a tyrannical bandleader (guess who). This is the incarnation of the Mothers featuring wiseguy vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (AKA Flo & Eddie), late of the Turtles. The band also included Anysley Dunbar, Jimmy Carl Black, Ian Underwood and George Duke. With that kind of line-up, one can be forgiven for wanting more performance segments they we get here. Instead, the guys spend too much of the film’s running time holed up in a Middle American bad dream of a stage-set city called Centerville, filled with establishments like the Rancid Boutique, Fake Nightclub and Redneck Eats Café.


Spot the Moonie. I’d say “Spot the Loony” but that would be too easy.

Here, they caustically contend with the various absurdities of modern society and are confronted at regular intervals by a nutso government agent played by Bikel. It basically amounts to a feature-length series of naughty non-sequiturs, over-baked satire, distracting “special” effects and unpleasant sight gags, occasionally enlivened by a musical performance or a topless GTO girl. Oh yes, and some Stravinsky-influenced symphonic interludes by the in-studio orchestra conducted by Zappa (about the only time he’s on camera).

Frank was famous for the facetious attitudes he expressed towards not just straight society but also to the prevailing hippie ethos of his own general demographic. But “200 Motel’s” Dadaist indulgences are just as overripe as the flower-power excesses he chafed against. Kaylan and Volman, in the absence of Zappa himself, shoulder a lot of the blame here. Their raunchy lyrics and high-pitched vocal mannerisms do yield a few funny moments, but few save for the diehards would see any lasting value in such routines as “Penis Dimension,” “Half a Dozen Provocative Squats” and “Dental Hygiene Dilemma.” And those are more like routines. The real rock numbers are few and far between, the best being “Magic Fingers” with finally some lead guitar from Frank and a twisted monologue at the end by Kaylan that pointed to the material they would do on the “Just Another Band from LA” album, released the next year. So jump right in Zappa completists, or those interested in seeing Keith Moon dressed as a nun while being trained as a groupie or even those curious to see what came next in Ringo Starr’s filmography after “The Magic Christian.” All others are warned.


Founding member Jimmy Carl Black may not officially have been in the Mothers lineup by 1971, but he does appear in the film, performing “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” and calling bullshit with one of 200 Motels few straightforward lines: “Where’s the beer and when do we get paid?”

It is curious looking back why a band even as incorrigible as the Mothers of Invention, having secured funding for a motion picture of their very own, would squander it on something as utterly impersonal as “200 Motels.” There isn’t a single moment in its 98 long minutes that’s smacks of any real human connection. If that’s kinda the point then it’s not well taken. Even adventurous viewers will be exhausted by the finale, a decent take-off on the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” broadcast, if they get that far. In later years, Zappa seemed defensive and claimed that the film was carefully planned and also suggesting that Tony Palmer—who had made films of bands like Cream as well as of the modern composers that Frank loved—had to be let go towards the end of production. In the 2009 DVD edition, Palmer broke his silence and said that he saved Zappa from himself, making some sense of the loose sheets of production notes that he was given and also for securing the services of London’s Royal Philharmonic players on a few weeks’ notice. Whatever the truth, “200 Motels” is destined to remain an oddity and a good example that while the counterculture era was an adventurous time, the unchecked permissiveness that was its flipside was a slippery slope all too ready for sliding.

Further looks into Woodstock-era films that combine fictional storylines with rock performances (yes, “Rainbow Bridge” I’m looking at you!) coming soon. In the meantime if you would like to view a 30-page excerpt of my “Rock Docs” book click on the link here: http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

“Rock Docs” Sampler #4: When Winners Are Losers

It’s a bit of a mixed blessing, being a fair-minded kind of guy with wide-ranging tastes in music and film. On the one hand, they are good qualities to possess when writing a book like Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey because I was easily able to give a fair shake to a broad spectrum of rock subjects and directorial styles, allowing me to reflect consensus opinion while blending in my own outlook on things.

But let’s face it: writing bad reviews is so much fun! Maybe it’s because I spent so many years reading Creem magazine with their famously smart-aleck record reviewers. How about this zinger from a write-up of Foreigner’s “Head Games” album: “I’ve listened to this album ten times and I still don’t care whether singer Lou Gramm gets laid or not.” Or consider this scholarly assessment of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Works, Volume 1”: “It ‘works,’ but only as a Frisbee.”

But out of about 170 reviews in my book, I could only muster up four pannings and a footnote for this thumbs-down sampler (mixed reviews don’t count here). Unchecked narcissism, unearned cultural annexation and the over-praising of marginal figures are a few of my rockumentary pet peeves. They all get an airing out below:

For a 30-page excerpt of “Rock Docs” and purchase info, please click on the link below.
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

From the review of Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)

At its best, pop music–like most other art forms, you would think—-reaches an optimal state when it becomes an inclusive and evolving community of practitioners spinning out a self-sustaining supply of good ideas that are built on and modified over an indefinite period of time. And then there’s Madonna. The former Miss Ciccione, who found fame in the early Eighties, was certainly not the first self-obsessed pop star to come down the pike. Born in 1958, she emerged from the 70s as a perfect embodiment of the so-called Me Decade, drawing all attention on herself and becoming the Material Girl without a whiff of irony. Along with her legions of fans, this self-consciously naughty “Queen of Pop” had her share of detractors—nowadays we would say “haters.” But if one of this latter group wanted to advance the premise that Madonna’s rise had something to do with the downfall of mainstream music, he or she would only need to point at this 1991 vanity project. Truth or Dare shows us a type of stardom that has little reason to exist beyond its own perpetuation.

The movie basically consists of two distinct and alternating elements. The concert sequences, usually featuring complete song performances shot in living color, are often quite striking and can reasonably appeal to more casual observers. These show Madge during the 1990 aptly-named Blonde Ambition tour, pretty near or at her career peak. The balance of Truth or Dare is comprised of black-and-white footage, mostly from dressing rooms and hotel suites, that self-reveal Madonna as a manifest destiny ego-tripper, playing indulgent den mother to her troupe of dancers, allowing other famous people to fawn over her, ratting out her brother as a drug abuser and patiently explaining to viewers her lingering vulnerabilities despite the fame and fortune. For those who are not rabid fans, these segments may prove to be an endurance test.

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From U2: Rattle and Hum (1988)

The core appeal of U2 is not hard to figure out. They reflected the renewed musical excitement of the late 1970s without the abrasive clatter, had a sweeping sense of spiritual redemption and global concern (even if hazily defined) and made full use of grandiose gestures—all these elements found wide acceptance with kids coming of age in the 1980s. But they have to be one of the strangest examples of a “populist” band ever. True, they seized the moment at Live Aid when Bono climbed down from the stage to embrace fans, somehow capturing the essence of the mega famine-relief event. But a couple of years on, it seems like that kind of closeness is not part of the U2 business plan. When asked by director Phil Joanov at the start what this film is to be about, they can barely give him an answer except that it’s some sort of “musical journey.” Unfortunately, this means a trip that smacks of ego-tourism, traipsing across America, performing with a church choir in Harlem, pressing into Graceland and Sun Studios in Memphis, cornering B.B. King for a duet, staring soulfully at the Mississippi River while a song called “Heartland” plays on the soundtrack—all the while looking like they’ve become bigger than that which spawned them.

Most of this will hardly detract from the enjoyment factor with true-blue fans though viewers with a more discerning eye may find themselves exasperated. Even when the music was soaring something came along to dampen the mood: Was it really necessary that Bono should deface the Vaillancourt Fountain while doing a surprise outdoor concert in San Francisco—especially when he spray paints it with the humdrum phrase “Rock & Roll Stops the Traffic”? Despite their level of fame, Rattle and Hum only did so-so at the box office while setting into motion a cottage industry of Bono jokes that persists to this day (“Breakfast with Bono is the most self-important meal of the day” etc.).

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Under Africa Skies (2012)

Paul Simon’s landmark 1986 album Graceland, partly recorded in apartheid-era South Africa, may be considered a landmark in the annals of cross-cultural pop music, but its making has always been dogged by controversy. This fact hangs over Joe Berlinger’s film about Simon’s return to the radically-changed country for a twenty-fifth anniversary event. Paul admits to not caring much “what the internal debate was” when he went there in ’86 without getting the blessing of the black liberation movement in the form of the African National Congress, despite being advised to do so by friend Harry Belafonte. This apparent disregard of the cultural boycott still sticks in the craw of people like Artists Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo, who calls Simon’s original visit “counter-productive” to the cause.

But while Simon’s album and the subsequent tour may have enlightened Westerners to a vibrant but terribly repressed population, Under Africa Skies’ repeated moments of black musicians saying what an honor it was to play with Paul hints of white entitlement and that gets tiresome, if not borderline offensive, long before the film’s 100-minute running time has elapsed.

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The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

Early on in this film, when Daniel Johnston is introduced at a 2001 gig as “the best singer-songwriter alive today” those for whom this praiseful documentary was made will nod their heads while neutral observers may well start scratching theirs. His braying voice and incongruous philosophizing is guaranteed not to be to everyone’s fancy, but still director Jeff Feuerzeig lets stand numerous favorable comparisons that have Johnston right up there with Bob Dylan, the Beatles and even the greatest classical composers. Not long after he shouldered his way into an MTV special, he was befriended and/or championed by members of Sonic Youth, Nirvana and the Butthole Surfers among others. The Devil and Daniel Johnston may prove an uncomfortable experience for those not already converted as Johnston’s schizophrenia has led to violent and extremely reckless behaviors that have endangered himself as well as friends and families. Director Jeff Feuerzeig doesn’t tackle those kinds of issues, leaving his film to look like a vanity tribute to a hipster mascot.

So there you have it. The post probably would have been a little longer if it weren’t for the fact that were a few films (like the execrable Air Guitar Nation and the unfortunate Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Wild Man Fischer) that were so bad I couldn’t get through them so I just left them out of the book. Maybe I’ll just have to embrace the hate and do a whole post on the “best of the bad”, if I can only bear to watch

“Rock Docs” Sampler #3: Salute to the Seventies

Oh, to have grown up in the Seventies. That’s not a hypothetical, because I did. To me, the later baby boomers got a bit of the best of both worlds, musically speaking. At the start of the decade, we had just graduated from the kids table and many of the best Sixties performers still going strong, while the glorious excesses of newer rock gods like Led Zeppelin were on the vanguard. If the music scene seemed to be a bit on the wane by the middle Seventies, that was OK. By the time we were off to college or moved away to the big city a couple of years later, the punk and indie-rock movement was just taking hold. In my new book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, I examine this ever-shifting and regenerating rock history through how it was captured in concert and documentary films. For a 30-page excerpt and info on how to purchase, please click on the link below. Also available on Amazon and from other online book retailers.
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

From The Song Remains the Same (1976)

Jimmy Page’s fantasy sequence, the most conceptually fine-tuned of the four, arguably holds up the best. It comes during the twenty-eight-minute, nuclear-option version of “Dazed and Confused,” the fame-making psycho blues from the band’s first album. The concert incarnation of “Dazed” featured several sections not heard on the studio original, most notably the unearthly interlude when Page took a violin bow to his guitar, fed it through an echoplex, and played to the crowd like a modern-day Merlin. Then the scene switches to his property near Scotland’s Loch Ness where he had recently (and un-coincidentally) bought the former home of occult figurehead Aleister Crowley. The atmospherics are just right (full moon and a light snowfall) as Page climbs an escarpment in a near re-creation of the “Stairway to Heaven”-suggestive gatefold illustration in Led Zeppelin IV. At the top he meets the same Tarot-deck hermit but it’s actually himself in advanced old age. In a special effects shot that always got a cheer from theater audiences, the hermit’s face then morphs back in time, eventually revealing Page in his Yardbird days, as a schoolboy and as a young tot—suggesting, as Page said in a 2007 magazine interview, that enlightenment “can be achieved at any time in a man’s life.” To top it off, the hermit’s staff turns into a multi-hued light saber.

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From Soul to Soul (1973)

Ten years after becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence in the post-colonial era, Ghana celebrated in part by staging a huge cross-cultural concert event. Featuring local performers and an array of mostly black soul, pop and jazz musicians from the U.S., this was an age before a word like “multiculturalism” was part of everybody’s vocabulary and there is a real sense of discovery here on both sides, though the solidarity is touched with befuddlement at times. The biggest star to the 100,000 fans is clearly Wilson Pickett, whose bravura performance inspires a giant mosh pit.

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From The Kids are Alright (1979)

Despite the Who’s tendency to tomfoolery in interviews, in the end all you need is in the music. Jeff Stein made his best directorial move in cajoling a reluctant band to go back on stage at Shepperton Studios and give him one definitive take of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for the record (there was an invited audience of about 500). Townshend’s eight-minute manifesto of self-determination in an unreliable world is one of rock’s great galvanizing classics and the fired-up band pulls out all the stops. The years of hard living were catching up to Moon (as they would with John Entwistle in 2002) and he showed up for rehearsals overweight and out of practice. But coming out of the song’s electronic keyboard interlude (with its 2001-inspired laser light display) Keith nails the thunderous drum cadenza and Roger lets rip rock’s most histrionic “Yeah!!” while Pete leaps clear across the stage, landing in a knee slide straight at the camera. Yes, rock ‘n’ roll does matter despite the Who’s self-conscious protestations.

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From The Filth and the Fury (2000)

Julien Temple started filming the Sex Pistols from their earliest gigs in 1976. He starts The Filth and the Fury with a bracing montage of British social upheaval, discontent and rioting in the mid-70s that left the country ripe for the Pistols’ confrontational and chaotic revolt. It is the ex-Rotten John Lydon who gets off a lot of the best lines in the contemporary interviews, during which group members are shown individually and in silhouette, as if in witness protection, still somewhat menacing. Lydon recalls his life and times as a “damn ugly fuck-up” who emerged “brain-wiped” after being in a coma for a year with a bad case of boyhood meningitis, then realizing at age fourteen he had only a short time left to escape a third-rate fate. By the end, Lydon tears up at the memory of the ill-fated Sid Vicious, admitting to his inability to pull his childhood friend off the dismal path to junkiedom—it affords Sid a humanity rarely allowed to him by both detractors and idolizers.

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From Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Never mind the Jawas: an open-ended life quest, in the end, is concept enough for Rust Never Sleeps. Never as overtly confessional as some of his singer-songwriter contemporaries, Young connects with his fan base using a more loose-ends type of questing poetry. It’s the type that is easy to project oneself into even when the language gets elaborate and impressionistic. Is the Dylanesque “Thrasher” a beguiling manifesto of creative and personal independence or a thinly-disguised dissing of his former and future colleagues named Crosby, Stills and Nash? Of course, it could be both and more, and the imagery (“Where the eagle glides ascending, there’s an ancient river bending/Down the timeless gorge of changes, where sleeplessness awaits”) of escape and discovery are universal. Rust Never Sleeps, both the film and his then-current album of the same name can be seen as an end-of-decade mission statement.

Ralph Bakshi’s “American Pop”: Where Musical Dreams Go to Die

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Ralph Bakshi, the iconoclastic animator/director who is still probably best known for the 1972 film “Fritz the Cat,” has certainly had a curious career. Born in 1938 to Jewish parents living in Haifa, Israel, his family emigrated to avoid World War II and Ralph grew up on the gritty Brooklyn streets of mid-century New York. A keen interest in illustration and cartooning developed at Manhattan’s School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design) lifted him above his self-admitted feckless teenage years, but the streetwise demeanor seemed to stick with him. After breaking into the business with the Terrytoons animation studio (creators of Deputy Dawg and Mighty Mouse), Bakshi worked for years to develop his own projects and when he did it met with instant success. “Fritz the Cat”, based on the R. Crumb’s racy comic strip, kickstarted the modern movement of adult animation, with a visual look of stylized realism and blatant themes of sex, violence and drug use that earned Fritz an X rating, which in turn only helped to boost the film’s profile. After that, though, Bakshi seemed content to coast on that initial hit, either re-treading the urban-jungle setting (Heavy Traffic) or indulging in the burgeoning animated fantasy genre (“Lord of the Rings” and “Wizards”). But with 1981’s “American Pop”, where he took on the far-reaching subject of American popular music, he created his biggest fantasy yet: that he knew anything about the topic he was making a movie of.

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“Hey man, what is this shit? You’re pulling Houdini and she’s pulling freak-out city!” “American Pop’s” hapless hippie band get saddled with a lot of the film’s tin-eared dialogue.

During the film’s 96 gear-grinding minutes, Bakshi traces the history of this vast genre from mediocre vaudeville performers in the 1910s to a coked-up poseur doing a hatchet job with Heart’s “Crazy on You” to an arena crowd at the end of the Seventies. Authenticity leaks through only occasionally, and inadvertently. The director uses the potentially interesting idea of tracing this musical chronology through four generations of one family. However, hardly anyone in this clan seems to have much talent, having more success as hoodlums and dope pushers than they do as songsmiths. The patriarch starts out as a Russian emigrant kid in New York City who somehow transforms into a Sicilian gangster—he doesn’t have time to learn an instrument but does hang out in nightclubs. He marries a run-of-the mill chanteuse whose affection for home-delivered pretzels leads to tragedy (don’t ask). But this is not before they produce a son who is supposedly a “genius” but never seems to advance past the piano lounge in his daddy’s restaurant. He in turn has a son named Tony (still with me?) who, despite being a dim-witted layabout, somehow manages to compose the classic songs “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Maybe Bakshi figures that no one will care very much that Tony’s accidental inspiration in late-60s Haight-Ashbury comes several years after some guy named Bob Dylan wrote those songs in “real life.”

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I’m sorry, pal, but could you move? We’re trying to shoot the “Physical Graffiti” album cover.

Actually, Tony is almost likable in his unwavering ineptitude. He chafes against the conformity of post-war suburban America and, dressed like James Dean and talking like Brando on sedatives, he goes cross-country, unfortunately impregnating a corn-pone Kansas girl along the way (this progeny turns out to be the “Crazy on You” guy). In a brief lyrical moment, Tony jumps a train and performs a harmonica duet with a black hobo, a rare nod that Bakshi makes to pop music’s great indebtedness to African-American culture. Later, Tony finds himself fed up with the latest in a long line of dishwashing jobs and tells his boss he’s going to keep “moving out West” before being reminded that he’s already in San Francisco. That this applehead is writing a masterpiece like “Hard Rain” only moments later is perverse proof that America is indeed the land of opportunity that his grandfather fled czarist Russia to find.

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“American Pop” is based on such a lazy, checklist aesthetic that the only reason I can think of for its initial 1981 box-office success is a long-lingering “oh wow” factor left over from the Sixties. Just let it happen, man! Bakshi’s visual style still had a certain audience-drawing flair, though many elements (like the clunky “punk” montage see above) come across as third-hand information that should be laughable to any real rock fan. Pop history does matter so if you’re going to make a whole film about it, try to get within a mile or two of credibility. Instead, we’re asked to go along with the notion that Jimi Hendrix would open for the squabbling Frisco flunkies that are the movie’s excuse for a hippie band. (OK, Ralph, I heard you got a good price on the rights to use “Purple Haze” but really!). I get the feeling, though, that many of the true-blue fans I mentioned would have mentally checked out by then, long before “American Pop’s” absurdly anticlimactic, fist-raising concert finale. That would leave plenty of time to ponder just why Bakshi felt he needed to foist this clueless cartoon on the world.

My latest book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, is available now in paperback from Amazon and other online retailers, including from my author page at BookLocker.com. Click on this link for a 30-page excerpt:
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