Lost Edens, Unsung Heroes, and Metalheads on the Couch

Recent rock documentaries

Anyone who thinks that Elvis Presley was a clueless zombified hillbilly pillhead with no self awareness about the rut his career fell into has never seen his1968 TV special, where Big E curls his lip a couple of times at his bandmates and then says, “Don’t knock it, maybe, I made 28 pictures like this.” Presley, who went into movies prepared to take filmmaking seriously, found that he, and all the other rock heroes who spent some time in Hollywood pre-A Hard Day’s Night, weren’t taken seriously by the studio bosses and the hacks they put in charge of making sure the camera was running. Though a few great musical performances got recorded in the first wave of rock movies, they were stuffed like plums into some of the doughiest, most undercooked movies ever made. The movie (such as Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It) that even tried to stick a little entertainment in between was a rare duck indeed.

Things didn’t get any easier to take when self-important, wall-eyed rock counterculture filmmakers started filming rock concerts for posterity in the ’60s. For an astonishingly long time, it was the fashion in concert documentaries for the hand-held cameras to swing about as if the cinematographer was trying to work through an attack of St. Vitus’ Dance, and for the numbers to be intercut with boring backstage bullshit, trippy visuals and fantasy home movies, and what always struck me as the most head-scratching digression of all when I first tried watching these movies as a kid: shots of the fucking audience! In interviews, some directors explained that, instead of merely recording a performance, they employed these techniques to better convey the actual concert experience. If people in the ’60s actually went to see Hendrix or the Who and then missed half the show because they preferred to stare at the tie-dyed fellow alongside them having a spazz attack, they must have really been stoned out of their gourds. It wasn’t until such artists as Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme began applying themselves to concert documentaries that these clueless legions were forced to admit that if you actually just pointed a non-shaky, in-focus camera at the musicians and then edited the results so as to maintain a performance rhythm for the length of the movie, the results kind of worked. You just can’t beat getting to B by proceeding straight to it from A, though there will always be someone who thinks he’s found a cooler route.

It’s probably just a fluke of timing, but the past year has seen a steady stream of impressive and enjoyable rock documentaries. The most joyous is Festival Express, which at its best is simply a warm, sprawling snapshot of a turbulent time that not only seems far away but now looks, in this movie anyway, like a breezy day in the country. Directed by Bob Smeaton, Festival Express was culled from the filmed record of an ingenious experiment in the staging of rock festivals from 1970, when everybody and his sister was trying to get rich by mounting the second coming of Woodstock. The promoters acquired a train, shoved a small army of rock and blues musicians (The Band, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Delaney and Bonnie and Buddy Guy, among others) aboard, and set out across Canada for a week, stopping to perform at various locations — as somebody in the movie says, they were “bringing the mountain to Mohammed.” The movie features snippets of interviews with several of the survivors, all of whom testify to the sweet time they had; one of them says that the musicians had the great time on this project that the audience had at Woodstock.

The interviews don’t add a lot, but most of the movie consists of concert and home-movie footage shot during the tour itself. Not all the performances are great — any fans of Ian & Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird here? — though as someone who thinks that film captured aspects of Joplin’s presence that recording studios couldn’t quite get, I regard new footage of the lady at work as a rare and wondrous thing. (There’s also a jam session aboard the train, with Janis alternately harmonizing and staring at Rick Danko, clearly trying to decide whether or not he’s just too goofy to fuck. This is a look I myself know well enough to identify it when I see it. At this point, she had two months to live.) Joplin’s reputation has been on a slide in the last several years, and based on reactions to her here she may have to settle for being remembered as a divider, not a uniter. One friend summed it up for a lot of people when he described her presence here as both fascinating and embarrassing, but I found her stirring as a singer and easy to love as a camera subject, and her numbers here ought to at least put to rest the notion that she was some kind of racially confused blues parodist; whatever she was, it was self-generated and original.

But even when the music in Festival Express isn’t working, the movie is enjoyable and compulsively watchable as an amazing time capsule. The promoters lost money on the gig, partly because they did too well by the performers, but also because it turned out that a significant percentage of the Canadian hippie population decided that they weren’t going to put up with any counterrevolutionary bourgeois bullshit about paying for what was after all “the people’s music.” At the first gig, some jokers actually stood outside handing out flyers urging concert goers to boycott the event until it was made free to all, an attitude that the utopian idealists in the Grateful Dead can be seen trying, and failing, to get their minds around. A mini-riot ensued, and a young firebrand is seen taking the stage delivering a three-minute spiel in which he manages to use the word “pigs” something like 60 times, calling for violence to rain down on these fascist pig capitalists, even though from what’s shown in the movie, the Toronto cops look about as threatening as a plate of veggieburgers.

Finally the promoters and the cops put their heads together and came up with a solution: they took charge of a nearby park and actually threw a free concert there. Yet complaints about the ticket prices continued to dog the tour, and at the final gig in Calgary the city’s mayor, playing to what potential voting bloc I know not, demanded that the gates be thrown open and free entertainment be provided for “the children of Calgary.” At this point, the promoters swallowed deep and resorted to the closest thing they had to a weapon of mass destruction in their arsenal: they produced Sha Na Na, who to the horror of the Canadian rabble took charge of the stage and delivered a viciously self-negating rendition of “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay.” With the crowd now meek and broken, Bowser and the boys take their leave, as a voice announces over a loudspeaker that “they have to catch a plane.” The message is clear: we have access to air travel, and we can bring them back again if we have to! Suitably cowed, the Calgarians settle down and permit the festival to come to a satisfying if unprofitable close.

Two other new documentaries, David C. Thomas’s MC5: A True Testimonial and Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia’s End of the Century, a profile of the Ramones, apply a straighforward “story of the band” treatment to a couple of legendary groups who, for some reason, have yet to appear on “Behind the Music.” The MC5 movie, which is powered by surviving co-founder Wayne Kramer’s steady, cohesive rap, makes fascinating viewing alongside Festival Express, because the two documentaries cover roughly the same period in American pop but could have been filmed on another planet. “The summer of love,” one of the band members says, “didn’t come to Detroit.” Instead, the Five had their hands full just proving that they had the right to be on stage when it meant breaking away from the assembly line that seemed to be their birthright. Their music and politics were blunt, primal and angry, which, especially after they linked up with White Panther revolutionary (and currently, much-respected New Orleans disc jockey) John Sinclair, got them less attention from the record-buying public than the government; the well-fed young’uns hanging out whining for their free tickets in Festival Express may have kidded themselves that they were making some kind of political statement, but the MC5 can take pride in having the only rock documentary I know of that includes not just stirring performance footage but also FBI surveillance material. At the time, it might have seemed that the Five were trying to embody the politically charged spirit of ’60s street politics and failing, but now it looks as if, like Iggy and the Stooges, they were inventing punk before anybody felt a need for it or knew how to take it.

As End of the Century documents, the Ramones charged into the gap left behind by the dissolution of the MC5, the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground and the gradual drying up of the early-’70s glitter rock scene — a hole that somehow seemed to be there despite the best efforts of Pablo Cruise and the Bay City Rollers. They in turn provided key inspiration for the most politically minded British punks — a fact attested to by the Clash’s Joe Strummer, who appears here doing his best imitation of John the Baptist. Remembering a time when Johnny Ramone told him that their stage set had gotten two minutes faster, Strummer recalls only being able to respond, “My God!”) the Ramones were strictly aestheticians of a sort, hitting the stage “like the military,” as Debbie Harry puts it here, and stripping the music down to its loud, direct essence, the better to produce a sound that they could drive through a concrete bunker. In old black-and-white footage of their early days at CBGB’s, Joey spins his own one-man show at the center of the stage while flanked by Johnny and Dee Dee, who grind away at their instruments while digging their feet into the floor and setting their jaws as if they were standing on a beach defying a hurricane to knock them on their asses. They look built to last, and it’s a good thing they were, because it turns out that their failure to set the world on fire commercially did not go wholly unnoticed.

In order to deal with their frustration, these rock and roll soldiers — Strummer compares them to “a piledriver” — at first turned on each other, often onstage. Clem Burke, of Blondie, recalls their habit of quarrelling during their performances as “endearing,” and indeed, the footage that’s included of them arguing over which song to do next is as cute as any scene of four guys from Queens telling each other to go fuck themselves is ever liable to be. To hear them talk now, they barely regarded each other as tolerable enough company to make arguments worth having. It probably says something about how deeply they cared about their music that the choice of which song to do next was regarded as important enough to inspire a conversation. The vulnerable, romantic Joey — who, it’s said, “made everything that was wrong about him seem beautiful,” as good a definition of the punk philosophy as any I’ve ever heard — eventually turned in on himself after Johnny stole and married his first serious girlfriend. (They were still together when Johnny died last September; she remains off-camera throughout End of the Century, though at one point she can be heard offering her opinions during one of Johnny’s interviews. Johnny and Joey never talked about this development, ever, though it is suggested that having this heartbreak dealt to him by the ultra-right wing Johnny inspired Joey to write the song “The KKK Took My Baby Away.”)

The Ramones were perhaps never as great as they had been after they made the misguided Phil Spector-produced album that lends this movie its name; the failure of that record to sell pretty much ended their idea that they’d ever make it into the clover, but they were loyal to their vision and to their audience and continued to tour and record for another 15-plus years. During that time — the bulk of their long career — the band members were often barely on speaking terms, and they went through drummers as if they were Spinal Tap. Yet they remained determined to give concert audiences their money’s worth and were capable of spitting out something as solid as Too Tough to Die or “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” as soon as word reached them that nobody was expecting another worthwhile record from them, ever. (Johnny, in particular, might have been put on Earth to prove, there are advantages to being the orneriest sumbitch who ever came down the pike.)

Unlike MC5: A True Testimonial, End of the Century includes fresh interviews with all the key players, though both films serve as toasts to absent friends. Dee Dee, whose desire to be a real New York rock star with a funny hair cut that didn’t match the funny haircuts on the other guys in the band and a heroin habit to call his own was the bane of Johnny’s existence, died of an overdose shortly after the movie wrapped with the Ramones’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Joey, of course, died tragically of lymphona shortly before the induction. The movie includes footage of that happy occasion, which was soured just a wee bit when Johnny used his speech to offer thanks to President Bush but not to Joey. He was a helplessly honest man. But now that he’s gone, too (prostate cancer), God’s probably giving him a stern talking-to.

At one point in Festival Express, Bob Weir says that one reason the bacchanalian atmosphere aboard the train was so festive and jolly was that so many of the pot-smokers and LSD enthusiasts aboard had just recently discovered this cool new thing called alcohol. I can remember a time when certain idealistic, working-class rockers cultivated their image as boozers as a mark of integrity, to set them apart from those decadent phonies who were off somewhere snorting heroin off the chest of a thousand-dollar-a-night hooker. In Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, what set out to be a document of the making of the band’s St. Anger turns into something more interesting when James Hetfield, fed up with feeling goaded about the quality of his recent work by his long-time partner Lars Ulrich, storms off and disappears into rehab for the better part of a year. Looking for a way to kill the time while Hetfield dries out (and his pals, or co-workers, wonder if they’re still a band), Ulrich files his infamous lawsuit against Napster — an act that, in the context of what else we see of Ulrich in the movie, can be seen as consistent with his self-made man, earn-what-you-own beliefs, though that didn’t stop about a million fans from denouncing him as a rich greedhead cut off from his hungry, adoring fans. By the time Hetfield returns to the fold, the band members and their producer, Bob Rock (who blanches in pain when told, during Hetfield’s convalesence, that James hasn’t been in touch with him during this difficult period because “he sees you more as representing the business side of things”), are in what amounts to group therapy with Phil Towle, a specialist in touchy-feely among rock groups supplied by their record company, which obviously has a significant financial stake in their mental health and ability to continue functioning together.

Given what kind of band Metallica is, or has always tried to be, the ironies are rich and glaring, but the filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (who met the group while negotiating the use of their music in their Paradise Lost documentaries) don’t let them overpower the people on screen, who come across as confused but sincere guys who want to continue to grind out angry, anarchic noise yet also want to find a way to manage their lives as they lurch into middle age. (Both Hetfield and Ulrich have very young children they’re just beginning to learn to bond with, and Ulrich was also caught up in what turned out to be the death throes of his marriage — he and his wife seem happy enough from what we can see, but they split up shortly after the movie opened.) Of all these films, Some Kind of Monster is the skimpiest in the performance-footage department, which is fine by me, since Metallica is one of those bands that I’ve always appreciated in theory but like best when I don’t have to listen to them. But the movie is fascinating for its picture of aging, idealistic metalheads trying to find the right balance between serving their lives and their fans, and doing right by their art and what they’re honest enough to see as their corporate responsibilities. And though I’m not one to romanticize failure, it can leave you feeling that by missing out on success, the Ramones and the MC5 did get to avoid some stuff that they weren’t ideally equipped to deal with. (“Miss Winthrop, would you please send in the backup anger management therapist? Johnny just threw the first one out the window.”)

One of the most deliriously squirmy scenes in Some Kind of Monster comes during Hetfield’s rehab disappearing act, when Ulrich and the rest of his tiny core group are persuaded to have a parley with Dave Mustaine, a former member of Metallica who was booted from the band — for overindulgence in alcohol, of all things — and responded by forming Megadeth, a metal band with a slim fraction of the critical respect paid to Metallica but a solid mass crowd of paying fans. At the time of their meeting — the first they’ve had since Mustaine was rudely kicked to the curb — Ulrich and the others in Metallica’s camp are feeling anything but cocky; they don’t even know if they’re still a band, and they go in clearly dreading having Mustaine make them feel worse by waving his sales figures in their faces and cackling triumphantly, probably while snorting coke off the chest of a thousand-dollar-an-hour hooker. But it turns out that Mustaine wants to talk about His Issues. It’s been years since they dropped him, and to hear him tell it, none of the success he’s known since then has lessened the pain one iota; every hit record and good review and pumped fist that Metallica have inspired since then have been like a knife in his heart, and none of the cheers echoing in his own ears have done anything to stop him from brooding over what might have been. That kind of neurotic love-hate rivalry is at the core of Ondi Timner’s Dig, which started out, sometime in the mid-1990s, as a documentary on the alternative rock scene. It got shanghaied by one of Timnor’s early subjects, Anton Newcombe, the auteur of the band The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who also introduced the camera to another struggling new band, the Dandy Warthols, who Newcombe saw as his pop revolutionary brothers-in-arms. Dig covers a span of more than half a dozen years, during which the Dandys signed to Capitol and slowly, in a one-step-forward-two-steps-back kind of way, made it to mass-cult stardom, while Newcombe and his band self-destructed.

Dig is powered by Newcombe’s flaming-moth charisma and the questions that are raised by the contrast between his music and career and that of the Dandys and their leader, Courtney Taylor. (Taylor, who now goes by the too-too handle Courtney Taylor-Taylor, has given the movie his seal of approval by narrating the footage in voice-over; Newcombe has denounced it for what he sees as its “Jerry Springer-ization of my nature.”) Basically, it invites you to decide, what is rock and roll — a form of pop music or a way of life? And if it’s a way of life, does the fact that it can inspire people to see you — for a while — as a prophet without honor make up for the fact that it’s a dissolute, non-productive way of life? It may seem odd to describe Newcombe as “unproductive,” given that he plays a variety of instruments and seems to make records compulsively whenever he can scam a few days of studio time. Yet when he’s finally gotten his band signed to a rich label and been given an in-home studio to play with, he quickly sinks into hard drugs so deep and so fast that the manager who got him the deal is floored; recognizing that Newcombe literally can’t produce the album he’s now contractually bound to deliver, this seasoned veteran of the L.A. rock scene can only marvel at his failure to recognize “how far gone Anton was” before going to bat for him.

It’s an understandable mistake. Anton may or may not be an artist, but he’s unmistakably a star. With his wild, fiery eyes and unruly black locks of hair, he wouldn’t look out of place swinging a sword in The Lord of the Rings, and though he’s often see acting strung out or simply demented in the course of the movie, he’s never at a loss for words. He specializes in brash pronouncements about his own greatness and, ominously, his plans for destroying “this fucked-up system.” People in the movie, the Dandys included, talk up his genius, which is supposed to be a matter of “pastiche”: he’s said to have mastered the rock of the past, especially the ’60s, and turned it into something new. From what we hear of his work in the movie, it all sounds pretty good, but none of it stayed with me, and I suspect that the transformation never really occurs but that some listeners must think it does — probably Newcombe’s mastery of other peoples’ musical stylings moves them because it reminds them of when they were moved by the sounds he’s appropriating and imitating.

By contrast, the Dandys aren’t nearly so ambitious, and Taylor, though he’s a good-looking, plausible rock-star type — he looks like a less intense, more willowy Billy Zane — doesn’t grab your attention anywhere nearly so insistently as Newcombe, though he might like to. They’re unapologetically a pop band, though they mean to be smarter and fresher than most and to construct their own “Dandy Warhol world” of sound and pop-art imagery. And they succeed at it pretty well. Their last album may not have been anything to rewrite the record books over, but it was a fine slice of entertainment, and in the movie it earns them a flattering drop-in visit from the Breeders’ Kelly Deal, which will certainly do in lieu of Cobain and Lennon making it back from the other side just to shake Taylor’s hand. The major-label connection doesn’t seem to do them as much good as you might think. (And their big video shoot, helmed by David LaChapelle, is a beyond-This Is Spinal Tap moment, especially when the junkie members of the Brian Jonestown Massacre stop by the set to see the Dandys playing alongside dancers high-stepping in syringe costumes.) But they get a big fat career boost when their “urban bohemian” courtship song is picked up and used in a cell phone commercial — a modern pop success story if ever I heard one.

Naturally, the success of his old disciples fills Anton with something besides undiluted pride and satisfaction. He takes to writing songs mocking the band and denouncing Taylor by name, then moves on to stalking and oblique death threats. Newcombe later informs the Dandys that this is part of a scheme to get both bands some press attention by creating the appearance of a “Beatles vs. Rolling Stones,” “Blur vs. Oasis”-type feud, and given Newcombe’s flair for conceptualizing and hype this seems plausible. In view of Anton’s mercurial nature, the Dandys seem right to be unnerved by his behavior: it also seems plausible that he might have started the feud as a joke and then forgotten that he didn’t mean it. (Anyway, Anton’s way of reassuring the Dandy’s token waif, Zia McCabe, that he means her no harm is to tell her that if he really wanted to kill her, he’d have done it by now.)

By this time, the BJM’s live dates have begun to dissolve into violent, name-calling brawls that might have inspired even Johnny Ramone to counsel Newcombe to get some therapy. After a very public, on-stage breakup, Newcombe continues to grind on as a solo artist, but based on the last performance footage we see, Taylor isn’t kidding when he says on the soundtrack that the fans are coming out not for the music but to see what crazy shit Anton will do next. Strumming and singing onstage, Anton is so deep into his music that it takes him a while to notice that the audience is pelting him with food; one would like to think that he’d learned something by now about cooling out unpleasant situations rather than trying to take them to the next level, but his response — "Why don’t you throw a glass? Why don’t you pull out a gun and shoot me?" — cannot be called encouraging. A final super-title informs us that Anton, who was virtually orphaned by a drunken father (who appears here, looking and sounding contrite, and who subsequently committed suicide) and a mother who explains that it was the police who put him in the system when he was a teenager, all she did was refuse to claim him after his arrest for breaking curfew, now has a son of his own, who he is not permitted to see. He may still have his heart set on achieving musical greatness; viewers will most likely concentrate on hoping that he someday soon achieves a measure of peace.

Mayor of the Sunset Strip, a candid portrait of L.A. disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer that was directed by George Hickenlooper (who co-directed one of the best behind-the-scenes documentaries about moviemaking ever, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse), isn’t about a rock artist but about the life on the edges of the stage and the star-making machinery. Bingenheimer was apparently fated from birth to live on the sidelines of the entertainment industry. His late mother, starstruck and apparently unstable, one day had him pack his suitcase and dropped him off at Connie Stevens’ house; his father and stepmother, who seem to think that the most impressive thing about Rodney is that he’s had his picture taken with such big wheels as Kato Kaelin, respond to Hickenlooper’s asking them why they’re so interested in celebrities as if he’s asked them why persist in breathing.

Bingenheimer is short and small and, once upon a time, broke into minor celebrityhood by auditioning for The Monkees and getting a job doubling for Davy Jones. (“From the back,” remembers Jones, “we looked a lot alike. And then he would turn around, and oh …”) Back then, in the wake of the Summer of Love, the semi-famous Bingenheimer did have a lost-little-boy cuteness working for him; apparently he had to beat the women off with a stick. (And the fact that he had a cloud of women surrounding him greased his entry into the halls of real celebrity; he wasn’t a panderer, exactly, but he was happy to share.) In 1976, after stints as a fan-mag columnist and discotheque owner, Bingenheimer landed a gig at the then-new radio station KROQ (“Rodney on the Rock!”), from which he built a reputation as a starmaker and champion of punk and “New Wave.” (Not that he loved, or was loved, by every hot band with an edge: the first time I ever heard of the dude was when he was name-checked, unflatteringly, in an Angry Samoans song.)

Today, Bingenheimer has a face like a bowl of lumpy gruel, with huge bags under his eyes and a perpetual sad-looking half-smile, topped off with a haircut like a bad Beatles wig. He talks about Andy Warhol early on and is in fact compared to Warhol, for his affectlessness and worship of celebrity and strange, sexless aura. He’s weird in a way that’s kind of creepy and kind of touching, and the impression that the movie ultimately gives is that he’s hanging on by his fingernails. The station has cut him back to a couple of hours every week in a Sunday late-night slot, and it’s probably true, as someone is tactless enough to suggest, that the only reason he has that is that the station is afraid to just fire him; he’s an “institution” that can be swept under the rug. Part of the creepy feeling you get from Mayor of the Sunset Strip comes from just staring at Rodney’s mask and wondering if it’s really a mask or the whole man is really there — a little disappointed with his current station but too polite to complain, just floating along. He sits next to Nancy Sinatra, his smile fading and returning and fading again as she explains that it’s awful how people in L.A. use each other, and what’s great about her and Rodney’s friendship is that they’re able to use each other without either one minding it, and you just yearn to know what’s going on inside his head.

What kicks the movie into a different gear is a scene between Rodney and his protégé, Chris Carter, who used to lead one of the great unheralded bands of the 1980s and early ’90s, Dramarama (Cinema Verite, Hi-Fi Sci-Fi). For those of us who think that the failure of a band like Dramarama to fully break through sums up what’s worst about the American pop scene and that Chris Carter ought to be spending his days shoveling fresh royalties into his money bin, the news that he’s now an L.A. DJ might seem like a comedown. But Rodney, who brought Carter into the radio business when his own position seemed secure, and now sees him rising as his own stock is falling, Carter’s “success” feels like a stab in the back, and he finally pulls him aside to scream that Carter is “stealing” his on-air style and then hurtles up a flight of stairs, yelling at the camera, “I am not a part of this film!” Adding to the confusing swirl of mixed emotions and misdirected anger is the fact that it was Carter who proposed the idea for this documentary to Hickenlooper, and that he wound up taking a producer’s credit. Carter, in fact, probably shows more real concern and affection for Bingenheimer than anyone else in the movie — certainly more than the current woman of Rodney’s dreams, a statuesque brunette musician who sits next to him on a bed looking as terminally bored as Keely Smith on ’ludes as Rodney talks about how wonderful he thinks she is, then starts mumbling about her boyfriend.

The movie leaves you with a strange, sad feeling. Rodney’s limelight-dependent existence seems so depleted by the end that you half expect to hear that he vanished from the face of the Earth after the end of the closing credits; yet in fact, the movie can only extend and enhance the current state of Bingenheimer’s celebrity. It’s just not easy to tell for sure whether that’s a good thing.