Bad Reputation (2018)


Joan Jett is a rock and roll icon.

(2018) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna, Iggy Pop, Billy Joe Armstrong, Michael J. Fox, Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, Kathleen Hanna, Miley Cyrus, Ian MacKaye, Pete Townshend, Bill Curbishley, Mike Ness, Kristen Stewart, Dougie Needles, Alison Mosshart, Dana White, Sally Hershberger, Rodney Bingenheimer, Thommy Price, Carianne Brinkman, Cherie Currie. Directed by Kevin Kerslake

 

One of the problems we film critics have is that often with documentaries we have a tendency to review the subject as much as the film. I’m certainly guilty of that and the temptation to do that with an icon like Joan Jett is damn near irresistible.

You can’t help but admire Jett as a musician. In an age when most women were relegated to playing soft rock or folk music, Jett wanted to rock hard. She wanted to be like the boys onstage; like Pete Townshend, like Jimmy Page, like Clapton. People in the industry would look at her like she was from Mars. Girls don’t rock; they strum. They sing sweetly and they certainly don’t shriek

As a teen, Joan Larkin made her way from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles to chase her rock and roll dreams. She hung out in the English Disco, an all-ages nightclub where glam rock was worshiped by men and women wearing way too much make-up. Joan stood out in that crowd and met Sandy West, a kindred spirit who wanted to be John Bonham. They added guitarist Lita Ford, singer Cherie Currie and bassist Jackie Fox and were christened The Runaways. Joan took her mother’s maiden name as her stage name and under the aegis of promoter Kim Fowley (whom Iggy Pop described as “like Frankenstein’s monster, if Frankenstein’s monster was on Quaaludes”) they would go on to record four studio albums and one live album before breaking up acrimoniously.

The band was met by critical scorn and by outright hostility by male rockers who didn’t want to see their clubhouse invaded by girls yet performance footage (of which there is sadly far too little) show that the Runaways were as hard rocking as any male band of their time. When the band broke up, Jett was devastated. She self-medicated with booze and drugs, hanging out with people like Sid Vicious, Nancy Spungeon and Stiv Bators, most of whom as Jett puts it “are dead now.” She even thought of joining the military to get herself straightened out but it was rock and roll that saved her.

She was introduced to Kenny Laguna, a noted bubblegum pop producer who heard something in Jett. Putting together a backing band who became known as the Blackhearts, Laguna melded his pop sensibilities with Joan’s hard rock instincts to create a kind of hard pop. When no label would even consider them, Jett and Laguna founded heir own label, becoming a precursor to the DIY punk labels that started in the 80s. When pop mogul Neil Bogart heard their demo, he arranged to distribute their first album and it looked like a wise move when the first album did extremely well but Bogart died before they could follow up on that success and his label died with him. Undaunted, the band found another label to distribute their music and they hit the big time powered by constant airplay on MTV. While most of the band’s hits were covers (“I Love Rock and Roll,” “Crimson and Clover”) there were several that Jett and Laguna penned as well (“Bad Reputation”). Through the 80s, Jett became the Queen of Rock, a darker haired version of Ann and Nancy Wilson.

The rock business has always been notoriously cyclical and as label relationships soured, the Blackhearts were bounced from label to label but while Jett and her band would never recapture the popularity they had in the 80s they continued to have hits here and there through the 90s and into the 21st century.

Now so far I’ve reviewed the subject and certainly Jett is worthy of a documentary but the problem with this documentary is a lack of depth. It’s a bit more of a puff piece and Kerslake doesn’t seem inclined to examine some of the darker subjects, like the allegations  in Cherie Currie’s book that Fowley had sexually assaulted members of the Runaways – Jett is certainly aware of those allegations and you’d think in this MeToo era she would be at least wanting to comment on them, even if only to say “I wasn’t aware of that kind of thing going on so I can’t validate Cherie’s story.”

There is also astonishingly little detail in how the high school aged Joan got from Pennsylvania to the West Coast, whether she was able to reconnect with her former bandmates in the Runaways or even who her personal influences are as a musician. Watching this movie is very much like staring at a picture that has been put through a shredder and tossed in a trash can and then later reassembled at the city dump; there are lots of pieces missing and the ones that are there are incomplete.

Still, Jett is candid and engaging. She doesn’t address her sexuality – I don’t think she should have to – which has been a subject of gossip for decades. If anything, I think Jett is married to rock and roll and that’s the source of her sexuality and her creativity. It is her center and her savior, and often her curse. It is the greatest love in her life. And like all of our own relationships it has had its ups and downs but she is still loyal to it nevertheless. That’s pretty damn admirable if you ask me.

You likely won’t respect Jett as a musician any more after seeing this than you already do – or do not, if you are of that mindset. You may find yourself respecting her more as a person as I did. Overall I’d have to say that while Jett is indeed a rock icon who deserves every accolade she gets thrown her way, I might have wished for a better biography of her than this. She’s earned better.

REASONS TO GO: Jett is a marvelous subject; she’s candid and engaging.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit Music Documentary 101.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief nudity, sexual references and gestures, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jett celebrated her 60th birthday just four days before the film was released.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaways
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.

Advertisements

Lambert & Stamp


The debonair Chris Stamp.

The debonair Chris Stamp.

(2014) Musical Documentary (Sony Classics) Chris Stamp, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Hemming, Terence Stamp, Kit Lambert (archival footage), Heather Daltrey, Irish Jack, Richard Barnes, Robert Fearnley-Whittingstallt6. Directed by James D. Cooper

Few bands have had the impact that The Who have had in their career. It can be argued that of all the bands in rock and roll, only the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys have had the kind of influence on the medium that they have had. Guitarist and principle songwriter Pete Townshend is considered one of the best songwriters in the history of rock and their rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia expanded the art form and of course their songs continue to be staples of classic rock radio even now.

Once upon a time, though, they were a scruffy band playing in dingy clubs to crowds of diffident Mods. There, they were discovered by nascent filmmakers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who met as assistant directors at Shepperton Studios. Both were devotees of French New Wave cinema in general and Jean-Luc Godard in particular and both aspired to become great directors in their own right. They hit upon the idea of filming in London’s rocking underground club scene and focusing on a single group, which after seeing their wild performances they hit upon a band called the High Numbers.

The film never came to pass but the band so impressed the two filmmakers that they were inspired to become their managers and  this fortuitous encounter would lead to some of the most potent rock and roll in history. Lambert, an Oxford-educated homosexual (in an era where it was illegal in England to be one) and Stamp, a rough and tumble Cockney who was a ladies’ man couldn’t have been more different if they’d tried but somehow they meshed together well; Lambert furnished Townshend with classical recordings to help his songwriting form while Stamp helped their stage show become one of the more talked about of its time.

All the elements are here for a documentary film that should have been absolute amazing; the film taken by Lambert and Stamp of the band in their High Numbers days alone would be enough to recommend the movie. Sadly, though, the film is overloaded with talking heads. Stamp, who passed in 2012 after his interviews were recorded, is a pleasant enough raconteur (and looks the part, dressed in a tux for Townshend and Daltrey’s Kennedy Center Honors) but just watching him talk is not in and of itself compelling enough.

Most of the interview time goes to Stamp, Townshend and Daltrey – Lambert died in 1981 after years of drug problems which would lead to the pair being fired as manager and an extended estrangement between the band and their former managers. Strangely, Lambert’s death is implied through the interviews and nothing concrete is really said about his death or its effect on Stamp or the band. Even Keith Moon’s untimely death was only mentioned in passing as reference to a legal meeting between the Who and their former managers. Considering the importance of Moon and bassist John Entwhistle to the sound of the band, it is kind of odd that they get very little attention in the documentary.

Given the richness of the source material and some of the really amazing archival footage, this is a disappointment. The movie is at its best when delving down into the creative process of the band, and when we got to know them (and their managers) more personally; Stamp talks about a notorious fistfight between Daltrey and Moon onstage that nearly splintered the band early in their career and how he intervened in getting Daltrey to find other ways to resolve conflicts rather than using his fists. We also get a sense of how wounded Stamp was when the band chose Ken Russell to direct a film version of Tommy, once again frustrating his dream of being a film director (he and Lambert assumed they would get the job). There is also footage of a young Townshend playing an acoustic version of “Glittering Girl” for Lambert and Stamp, both nodding approval as he plays.

Don’t get me wrong; there are some wonderful anecdotes, like friend John Hemming joking that chain-smoking Lambert only used one match in his entire life – the one that lit his first cigarette. Moments like that are swamped by endless discussion of minutiae that will only be of interest to diehard Who fans, who admittedly are going to love this movie a lot more than those viewers who aren’t into the band as much, which is a shame because there’s a whole generation that would benefit from discovering their music, which is some of the best rock and roll ever made. When the interviewees talk facts and figures, you’ll find yourself nodding off. When the interviewees open up, so does the movie. Sadly though that doesn’t happen enough to make this a memorable film.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful subject. Some great archival performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Unforgivably boring. Too many talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rough language, a bit of drug content and one scene of brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Stamp is the younger brother of actor Terence Stamp.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75 /100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kids are Alright
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets