By: TONY CONLEY
Prescient moments… this year has been full of them.
I’m on the phone with a friend who is in Southern California to see a collection of America’s greatest bluesmen together onstage. The bluesmen are a part of a documentary film in progress, a piece entitled, Once and For All, and it’s got plenty of star power from a band made up of Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Sugar Blue, Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and Bob Stroger. It may well end up being the next Last Waltz.
My friend tells me she’s having a chat with the film’s director – she thinks I should talk to him. I think she’s right, but the time is wrong. I think to myself that it’s not quite time to write about the documentary as there’s too much left to be seen, such as, will Keith Richards make a cameo at some point? But I do know my friend is right.
Filmmaker Scott Rosenbaum is about to be a very hot property. Turns out not that he’s just making a documentary that may rival Scorsese’s brilliant film of The Band’s epic final performance, but that prior to this he made a little movie called, The Perfect Age of Rock ‘N’ Roll. It’s a fictional account of a rock band, its members, and the foibles of this thing called rock and roll. I call it a little movie, but it paints a huge picture of the life of rock and rollers.
To be honest, about the last thing in the world I want to watch is a movie about rock, rock bands, or rock stars. There just haven’t been many worth watching, and the film industry at large hasn’t been blowing my skirt up of late, so I’m kind of cringing when my friend suggests I see the film and write a review. My gut is telling me to follow this trail that leads to Rosenbaum, but I hadn’t known the movie was what it was. So, I cringe, and I wonder what the hell I’d gotten myself into this time.
I did a little research and found out that the movie had won an award for Film Achievement at the Newport Beach Film Festival in 2009, and had gotten raves from audiences at the CMJ Film Festival. Still, concerns existed about how much I’d enjoy this type of film. I’ve been in, around, and of rock and roll for the last 35 years, and I knew that Hollywood was generally miles off the mark when it took on rock and roll.
Let me cut to the chase here, and say, this is one hell of a movie. It rang so true that I wondered if Rosenbaum had been down some of the same roads I’d travelled. I had feared a cliché ridden drama, but instead got a very realistic portrayal of the betrayals that all too often lie at the heart of the dream. Sure there are some broad-stroke moves, but that’s because they ring true. The too long in the tooth road manager, the two timing rock moll, the ego’d out lead singer, a crooked record exec, and a rhythm section that is so pedestrian that it’s almost transparent. These are cliches because they exist. And they exist here.
Kevin Zegers plays Spyder, a burnt out shell of an ex-superstar who walked across the soul of his best friend to make his dream come true. He made it, but it was all built on the songs written by his childhood friend Eric Gensen (played by an excellent Jason Ritter). Spyder had taken his friend’s songs, claimed them for himself, and become a star as his friend toiled in anonymity as a school teacher back in their hometown, embittered by his punk-rock legend father’s death, and his own fears of grabbing for the brass ring.
After a failed attempt to replicate the success of his pilfered debut, Spyder returns to his childhood home to rouse his old friend from a nasty pill addiction, a suburban existence, and the pain of teaching school children musical rudiments. He’s accompanied by an aggressive female manager (Taryn Manning) who is desperate to return to the top at whatever cost is necessary. She’s balanced by a grizzly old road manager (Peter Fonda), who is her seeming opposite, being concerned with the legacy of Gensen’s father (his old boss), and genuinely caring about the music and the musicians. It turns out that they’re really not so far apart, they just come from different genders and generations.
The character of lead singer Spyder is portrayed eerily accurately by Zegers. His startling good looks are interrupted by a blind eye and scars inflicted by his abusive father, but his disfigured face lends a Marilyn Manson-esque visage to his glam rock antics. He’s angry, self destructive, maniacal, chemical, and egotistical, yet there is a glimmer of vulnerability that reveals the mask he wears to hide his pain and shame. He knows only too well who and what he is, and it is revealed to the careful eye by his choice of reading material in his home. The tomes of Daniel Pinchbeck and William Cooper, 2012: The Return of Quetzequatl and Behold A Pale Horse – books that reveal the essential corruption of mankind by tyrannical forces and point the way to redemption – are displayed casually in his living room, but told me reams about his character. A brilliant move by someone – this is great filmmaking, when even a subtle set design gives greater meaning to a character’s character. Spyder is torn by this split reality of the egotistic star and damaged child – the makings of many a great rock and roll front man.
Spyder cajoles Eric Gensen back into the fold, but Gensen insists on doing it his way, writing a record while on the mythical path of Route 66. The organic, soulful nature of such a sojourn is an anathema to the jet set style of Spyder and his manager, who are under the gun to get a record out yesterday. Their urgency clashes with the ideals of Gensen and his father’s old friend, and the tension is such that a love/hate scenario manifests and threatens to derail the partnership.
Under the direction of a less knowledgeable, less skillful artisan this could lead to the movie being just another standard cut drama, but I’m thinking that screenwriters Jasin Cadic and Rosenbaum have seen their share of broken bands and maybe even the deaths of a few rock dreams in their own travels. It rings so true I was a little unnerved at times, having either been in or around so many nearly identical situations. I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with or for a great collection of musicians, including Iggy Pop, Bobby Womack, Michael Schenker, and Robert Pollard – I know a bit about the minds, actions, and spirits of great musicians and tortured souls, and this movie shows the gritty underside brilliantly.
The nature of a theatrical film demands that a whole bunch be crammed into a little space, and Scott Rosenbaum has done a masterful job of conveying a tremendous amount of goings on into a brief space, and doing it without being overly sensationalistic, or far-fetched. Everything that happens here I have seen happen. I’ve had friends so addled by ego and addiction that they could only make 18 shows in 16 years, then return to see greater productivity than ever and true redemption. I’ve also seen a young guitarist go through a few million and end up dead of AIDS and heroin in a space of ten years. Without giving up an ending, I will say that what happens here will surprise the hell out of you, but it is by no means unlikely.
Rosenbaum even manages to place the band in the age old situation of joining a blues band for a jam while driving through the Delta. And he does it in a way that had me shaking my head and saying, “I’ve actually done that, and he pretty much nailed it.”
Movie cliches and generalizations are a lot like the licks that make up rock and roll and the blues. There is only a slight difference between the great and the mediocre, but it may as well be a million miles. Scott Rosenbaum is the Muddy Waters of the music movie set. He’s taken what could easily have been a terribly hackneyed story, and infused it with the soul and reality of greatness.
There are a couple of performances here, namely Zeger’s, Fonda’s, and Ritter’s that could be beckoned for Oscar duty. Luke Haas is also excellent in a brief role as a journalist from Revolver magazine. This is an awesome debut for a filmmaker, and while this movie hasn’t yet been released, I can’t wait to see where Rosenbaum goes next. The best directorial debut since Liev Scheiber’s Everything is Illuminated.
There are several plot threads that I have left out for fear of giving up too much to those who will eventually see the film. The mysterious third record, the love/sex scenario that always rears its ugly head, in film and life, and whatever happened to Eric Gensen. Just let me say that it all rings true, but still makes for a helluva story. Yeah, this is the way it really happens. There is nothing in this film that made me cringe due to unreality – it is the real deal, not always pretty, but hey, life’s like that.
I knew when my friend called me from the lobby of that Santa Ana theater that something was happening, and it turns out again that I have been honored to preview a great piece of work before its general release. I’d like to thank Scott Rosenbaum for having the nerve to send a copy of a rock and roll film to a guy who hates rock and roll films, and Libby Sokolowski for the phone call, the invitation, and the introductions. I gotta tell ya, I was sweating, hoping that I wouldn’t hate this guy’s film. Thank goodness it’s a brilliant movie, and I can again say, this is great art – support it.