Review: ‘Zappa,’ starring Frank Zappa

November 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Frank Zappa in “Zappa” (Photo by Roelof Kiers/Magnolia Pictures)


Directed by Alex Winter

Culture Representation: The documentary “Zappa” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) discussing the life and career of eccentric musical pioneer Frank Zappa, who died in 1993 of prostate cancer.

Culture Clash: Zappa spent most of his life and career challenging conventional norms, defying conservative mindsets, and trying to avoid mainstream success. 

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Zappa fans, “Zappa” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching an official biographical film about one of rock music’s most interesting and unique artists.

Frank Zappa in “Zappa” (Photo by Dan Carlson/Magnolia Pictures)

If you’re fan of eccentric musician Frank Zappa or an aficionado of independent films that make the rounds at film festivals and fly under the mainstream radar if they’re ever released, then you might know that there was a Frank Zappa documentary film called “Eat That Question” (directed by Thorsten Schütte) that got a limited release in 2016. It was an interesting but very conventional movie that was essentially a combination of archival footage and more current documentary interviews with some of Frank Zappa’s former colleagues. The documentary film “Zappa” (directed by Alex Winter) also uses the same format of combining archival footage with new interviews about Frank Zappa, who passed away of prostate cancer in 1993, at the age of 52. Neither film is as groundbreaking as its subject, but the “Zappa” film has a major advantage over “Eat That Question,” because “Zappa” has a lot of never-before-seen footage directly from the Zappa family archives.

That’s because the “Zappa” documentary was authorized by the Zappa family. Ahmet Zappa, one of Frank’s sons, is one of the producers of the movie. There’s a treasure trove of content in the movie that is sure to thrill Zappa fans who can’t get enough of seeing previously unreleased things related to the prolific artist. “Zappa” took several years to get made because the filmmakers first “began an exhaustive, two-year mission to preserve and archive the vault materials. When this was completed, we set about making the film,” according to what director/producer Winter says in the movie’s production notes.

How long did it take for “Zappa” to get made and finally released? Frank’s widow Gail Zappa, one of the interviewees who’s prominently featured in the movie for the “new interviews,” died in 2015, at the age of 70. (The movie’s end credits say that the documentary is dedicated to her.) Therefore, the movie looks somewhat dated, but it doesn’t take away from the spirit of the film, which is a fascinating but sometimes rambling portrait of Frank. (The “Zappa” documentary clocks in at 129 minutes.)

After the opening scene of Frank performing at the Sports Hall in Prague in 1991 (his last recorded guitar performance), the next approximate 15 minutes of the movie consists of a compilation of images depicting Frank’s youth, with Zappa’s voice from archival interviews as voiceover narration. He talks about his childhood and how he decided to become a musician. Diehard fans of Frank already know the story, but it’s told in Frank’s voice with a mixture of nostalgia and anger.

Born in Baltimore on December 21, 1940, Frank grew up as the eldest child of four children, in a fairly strict, middle-class home with his parents Francis and Rosemarie Zappa, although Frank describes their family as “poor” in one of the archived interviews. Francis Zappa worked at Edgewood Arsenal, a company that made poisonous gas during World War II. The family then relocated to California, where Frank’s father took a job at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey to teach metallurgy.

His parents did not encourage Frank’s interest in music. In fact, they downright disapproved of it because they didn’t think it was a stable way to make a living. Frank, who was famous for being iconoclastic, showed early signs of rebellion as a teenager when he says that he took some explosive powder and attempted to blow up his high school. It’s never really made clear in the documentary if that really happened, or if it’s just part of Zappa folklore.

It was while he was a teenager that Frank says he became obsessed with film editing. He would edit the family home movies by inserting quirky footage into it, some of which is shown in the documentary. (The home movies include Frank and his siblings dressed as zombies and pretending to attack each other.) As an adult, Frank directed many short films, music videos and some feature-length movies, most notably the 1971 musical film “200 Motels.”

One of Frank’s earliest musical influences was composer Edgard Varèse, who was known for his emphasis on rhythm rather than form. In a voiceover from an archived interview, Frank says about Varèse: “I wanted to listen to the man who could make music that was strange.” And that’s exactly how many people would describe Frank’s music when he eventually developed into his own artist.

By the time Frank was a teenager, the Zappa family had moved south of Monterey to the city of Lancaster, where Frank attended Antelope Valley High School. It was in high school that he met a fellow eccentric named Don Van Vliet, who’s better known by his stage name Captain Beefheart, who would become one of Frank’s most famous musical collaboraters.

As a teenager, Frank became an enthusiast of R&B and blues music, with great admiration for musicians such as Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Elmore James and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Frank’s first band in the mid-1960s was called The Blackouts, and they played R&B and blues. The Blackouts were considered radical at the time because they were a racially mixed group of white and black musicians. The Blackouts mostly did cover songs, but Frank’s ultimate goal was to write and record his own original music.

He took a day job writing and illustrating greeting cards in his own quirky style. A few of his greeting cards from 1964 and 1965 are shown in the documentary. One of them was a “get well” card that said on the front, “Nine out of ten people with your illness …” and then inside the card it ended with the words “… are sick.” Another card said on the front: “Captured Russian photograph shows evidence of Americans’ presence on the moon first.” Inside the card, there was an illustration of a moon crater bearing a sign that reads, “Jesus Saves.”

A turning point in Frank’s life was when he bought a small recording studio in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and named it Studio Z. The studio (which had “no bathtub, no shower and no hot water,” he says in an interview) was mostly for music, but also rented out space for filmmaking. A group of men rented Studio Z’s services because they wanted to make a quasi-“stag film” with the men dressed in drag, but with no actual nudity or sex, according to Frank in an archival interview. The local police heard about the movie and arrested Frank, who says that he got sentenced to six months in jail (with all but six days suspended) and three years of probation.

Frank says in an archived interview that this negative experience with the law taught him all he needed to know about the political system. All he wanted to do was to make music, and he knew that living in a small town wasn’t suited for him. He eventually moved to Los Angeles.

In 1965, Frank founded the Mothers of Invention, the avant-garde rock band of rotating musicians that he performed with for the majority of his career. Tom Wilson (an African American producer) signed the band to Verve Records. The Mothers of Invention’s debut album “Freak Out!” (released in 1966) is considered a seminal recording for anything that could be considered “alternative rock.”

Frank’s quick courtship of Gail is described in the documentary as Gail being introduced to Frank by Pamela Zarubia, who was his roommate at the time, and a few days later Frank asked Gail if she wanted to have sex with him. (There’s archival footage of Zarubia describing this very fast and forward courtship.) Frank and Gail married in 1967 and had four children together: daughter Moon, son Dweezil, son Ahmet and daughter Diva. The children are not interviewed in the movie.

For whatever reason, the documentary never mentions Frank’s first marriage to Kay Sherman. (Their 1960 to 1964 marriage ended in divorce. There were no children from this marriage.) It could be a situation of the second wife wanting to erase the first wife from the family history. As is the case with authorized documentaries of dead celebrities, the filmmakers usually have to go along with whatever the celebrity’s family estate wants to put in the film and what they want to leave out.

At any rate, Frank was very open in many interviews by saying that he was not a monogamous husband and that his time spent away from home as a touring musician often took a toll on his family life. In the documentary, Gail comments on these difficulties in her marriage by sharing her secret to the relationship’s longevity when it came to any infidelity: “Don’t talk about it.”

Ruth Underwood, who was in the Mothers of Invention off and on from 1967 to 1976, says in the documentary that there were two sides to Frank: the doting family man and the raunchy rock star—something that she calls “a polarity of passion.” She elaborates: “He couldn’t fucking wait to get on the road. But then, he was very happy to come home, just to feel safe again.”

The Zappa family household, where Frank always had a home studio, became a hub of activity for the “freaks” of Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon when the family lived there in the late 1960s. One of the musical acts that he produced was an all-female singing/performance group called The GTO’s (self-described “groupies” whose band acronym stood for Girls Together Outrageously), who recorded their first and only album with Zappa. Pamela Des Barres, who was a member of The GTO’s, says that famous American and British musicians would always like to hang out in the Zappa home because of all the strange and interesting things going on there. “He was the centrifugal force of Laurel Canyon,” remembers Des Barres. “It was the center of the world at that point.”

However, things got too weird (even for the Zappas) when a group of hippies moved nearby: the Manson Family cult led by Charles Manson, who would later become notorious for masterminding the 1969 murders of several people, including actress Sharon Tate. Even though at the time the Zappa family lived in Laurel Canyon, no one knew how dangerous the Manson Family would become by committing these murders a few years later, Gail says in the documentary that these Manson Family neighbors always made her feel uneasy when she would see them. And so, the Zappa family eventually moved out of Laurel Canyon.

Several of the musicians who worked with Frank are interviewed in the film. They describe him as extremely prolific and talented but someone who was an unrelenting taskmaster (making band members rehearse 10 to 12 hours a day, several days a week, including holidays) who rarely gave praise and almost never showed any affection. He could be dismissive and sometimes cruel. By his own admission, Frank didn’t make friends easily, and he didn’t care about being popular. On the other hand, according to Gail, there were some people who earned Frank’s loyalty in his life, and he was very loyal to them in return—almost to a fault.

In 1969, when Zappa decided to abruptly disband the Mothers of Invention’s original lineup, original band member Bunk Gardner says that the band didn’t even get two weeks’ notice. They were just suddenly informed that their services were no longer needed. Frank would later invite some of the original Mothers of Invention band members back into the group, but he always like to rotate the lineup and not keep it too permanent until the band ended for good in the mid-1970s.

Some of the musicians who were in the Mothers of Invention included Aynsley Dunbar, Terry Bozzio, George Duke, Jean-Luc Ponty, Adrian Belew, Peter Wolf, and The Turtles co-founders Howard Kaylan and Mark Volan. And the group performed with several guests, including John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Eric Clapton. (The documentary has footage of Lennon and Ono on stage with the Mothers of Invention in 1971.)

Ruth Underwood believes that Frank was seemingly insensitive to other people’s needs and feelings because “I think he was so single-mindedly needing to get his work done.” Later, she gets emotional and teary-eyed when she describes a touching moment she had with Frank toward the end of his life that showed how he mellowed with age and had to face his mortality after being diagnosed with cancer.

Despite Frank’s reputation for being a bossy and gruff control freak, there were some good times too, and the people who worked with him say that the music made it all worthwhile. Ruth Underwood’s ex-husband Ian Underwood, a Mothers of Invention member from 1967 to 1975, says about performing live as a member of the band: “Each show was like a composition.”

Steve Vai, who was in Frank’s band from 1980 to 1982, comments about his time in the group: “When I was in it, I was a tool for the composer. And he used his tools brilliantly.” Other former colleagues of Frank who are interviewed in the film include musician Scott Thunes (who worked with Frank from 1981 to 1988), accountant Gary Iskowitz, musician Ray White (who worked with Frank from 1976 to 1984) and engineer David Dondorf.

Gardner also remembers the camaraderie among the band members: “It was exciting in the beginning, but of course it was musically difficult … I’m not a weirdo or any of those other things. But when you get around people who are naturally funny that do weird things, I ended up feeling comfortable.” Mike Keneally, a musician was in Frank’s band from 1987 to 1988, remembers comedian Lenny Bruce as being a big influence on Frank.

Frank wasn’t a typical rock star in other ways besides his music. He was very vocal about his personal choice not to do drugs. And he had no patience for anyone who let their drug use get in the way of being at their best. (He was a heavy smoker of cigarettes though.) Frank didn’t go as far as preach to people not to do drugs, since he was firm believer in individual freedoms, but he made it clear that he looked down on people who used drugs that made them “stupid.”

And just like Frank himself, his fan base was somewhat hard to categorize. The documentary shows a 2006 interview with Alice Cooper (one of the many musicians who worked with Frank) commenting: “He had the freaks and the extremely intelligent and the very artsy people behind him. And there was the whole middle who just didn’t get it.”

Despite being known as an avant-garde creative artist, Frank was also very business-minded. He didn’t care about having hit records, but he did care about making enough money to fund his art. The documentary includes clips from several archival interviews of Frank expressing that belief in various ways.

He founded his own record labels (including Bizarre Records, Straight Records and DiscReet Records) and made a lot of money through merchandising, with Gail handling a lot of the business. Frank’s bitter late-1970s split from longtime distributor Warner Bros. Records is given a brief mention in the film. Although he worked with major record companies, he always had an entrepreneurial spirit when it came to releasing his music. And he wasn’t afraid to go outside of his comfort zone, such as recording and conducting classical music and other orchestral music. The documentary includes some footage of him working with the Kronos Quartet.

Gail says in the documentary that even though Frank believed that smart musicians should care about being paid for their work, he also believed that getting rich shouldn’t be the main motivation to make music, because most musicians can’t make a living as full-time artists. She comments on being a full-time musician: “You have to be out of your mind to begin with to take it on. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to earn an income. No one cares what composers do. And everything is against you, which makes the odds pretty fantastic.”

As for Frank’s talent as a visual artist, he wanted to design all of the Mothers of Invention album artwork from the second album onward, but he changed his mind when Cal Schenkel came along and ended up being the Mothers of Invention’s chief art collaborator. “They [Frank Zappa and Schenkel] created a world together,” says Keneally.

Another visual artist who was highly respected by Frank was claymation animator Bruce Bickford, who is interviewed in the film and whose work is included in the documentary. Bickford comments on Frank: “He was impressed with the number of figures I could sustain in animation in one shot.”

“Zappa” is told in mostly chronological order, so it isn’t until toward the end of the film that his 1980s fame is covered. Frank had the biggest hit of his career with “Valley Girl,” a 1982 duet with his then-14-year-old daughter Moon that was a parody of the teenage girl culture of California’s San Fernando Valley. Ruth Underwood says that the idea for “Valley Girl” came about after Moon slipped a preoccupied Frank a note underneath his door, asking him if he remembered her because he seemed too busy to pay attention.

In the note, Moon described the type of lingo that she was hearing from Valley girls and what was important to these teens: clothes, boys and hanging out at the Sherman Oaks Galleria shopping mall. Frank thought it would be a great idea to make it into a song recorded by him and Moon, who at the time, went by her first and middle names Moon Unit. And the rest is history.

“Valley Girl” became a surprise hit, peaking at No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song was also nominated for a Grammy. And suddenly, Frank and Moon became celebrities who could be heard on mainstream radio and interviewed on shows like “Entertainment Tonight.” The documentary has footage of the Zappa family doing a photo shoot for Life magazine around the time that “Valley Girl” was a hit.

The song inspired the 1983 “Valley Girl” film, starring Deborah Foreman and Nicolas Cage, but the “Zappa” documentary doesn’t include any mention of Frank’s unsuccessful legal fight to prevent the movie from being made. The Zappa family has nothing to do with this “Valley Girl” movie or the 2020 movie musical remake of “Valley Girl.”

Frank’s other notoriety in the 1980s came from being a very outspoken protester against the Parent Music Resource Center (PMRC) and its efforts to put warning labels on records that have sexually explicit or violent lyrics. During this period of time, Frank’s wild and freaky hair and clothes from the 1960s and 1970s were gone and replaced with shorter hair and business suits that he would wear when he testified in front of the U.S. Congress or when he would do TV interviews speaking about the subject. About his image change, he was honest about who he was: a middle-aged dad who needed to be taken seriously if he wanted to get his point across to politicians and other officials who were in charge of making decisions that affected the music industry.

Although the PMRC achieved its goal of having the music industry voluntarily place warning labels on records, Frank toyed with the idea of becoming a politician. He talks about it in a few interview clips shown in the documentary, and he seemed to have mixed feelings about running for president of the United States. On the one hand, he seemed open to the idea because he wanted to make big changes in American society. On the other hand, he expressed a distaste for how a lot of the government is run and not liking the idea of having to live in the White House.

He never did run for public office, but Frank’s 1990 visit to what was the country then known as Czechoslovakia was a life-changing experience for him. He was welcomed as a hero of democracy, and Czechoslovakia appointed him as a Czech ambassador for U.S. trade. Apparently, this appointment didn’t sit well with influential members of the U.S. government, because Czechoslovakia eventually rescinded that title from him.

Frank’s health problems are included in the documentary in a respectful way. He was confined to a wheelchair for about nine months after being physically attacked on stage by an audience member in 1971. The recovery experience made him “find out who my real friends are,” as he said in a TV interview that’s shown in the film. The documentary includes footage of Frank in the final two years of his life, in the studio and on stage, such as his last concert appearance in 1992 in Frankfurt, Germany, where he got a standing ovation that lasted for more than 20 minutes.

The “Zappa” documentary could have used tighter editing, but overall the movie is a fairly even-handed look at the life of a unique and influential artist. The movie doesn’t really reveal much about his life or his personality that Frank’s diehard fans didn’t already know about, based on all the interviews he gave over the years. What makes this film stand out is the rare footage of Zappa at home, in the studio and on stage, because this footage gives some meaningful context to the very full life that he led.

Magnolia Pictures released “Zappa” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on November 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine,’ starring Dave Marsh, Connie Kramer, Jaan Uhelszki, Alice Cooper, Chad Smith, Kirk Hammett and Cameron Crowe

August 8, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer) in “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

“Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine”

Directed by Scott Crawford

Culture Representation: The documentary “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” features an almost entirely white group of entertainers and journalists (with one Asian and one African American) discussing the history of Creem, a Michigan-based rock magazine that was published monthly in print format from 1969 to 1989.

Culture Clash:  Creem, which was considered the “edgier” alternative to Rolling Stone magazine, prided itself on being disrespectful of many artists; there were serious internal conflicts among Creem staffers; and Creem often had a lot of content that would be considered politically incorrect today.

Culture Audience: “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in rock music or the magazine industry from the 1970s and 1980s.

Barry Kramer, Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs in “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

The documentary “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” gets its subtitle from the slogan of Creem magazine, which had a raucous ride in monthly print circulation from 1969 to 1989. The movie includes interviews with numerous people who either worked for the magazine and/or considered themselves to be regular readers of Creem. It’s a nostalgic look at a bygone era when print magazines had more clout than they do now, when it comes to influencing music artist’s careers and shaping pop culture.

The documentary (originally titled “Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine”) doesn’t gloss over the dark side of Creem’s history, but the overall tone of the movie is one that’s similar to how someone would look back on their rebellious youth. Almost everyone interviewed in the documentary was born before 1970.

One of the main reasons why the “Creem” documentary (directed by Scott Crawford) has an overall fondness for the magazine is because some of Creem’s former staffers were involved in making the movie and are interviewed in the documentary. Jaan Uhelszki, a former Creem senior editor, is one of the documentary’s producers, and she co-wrote the movie with Crawford. Connie Kramer, who used to be Creem’s associate publisher and was married to Creem co-founder Barry Kramer, is one of the documentary’s executive producers.

Another producer of the documentary is JJ Kramer, Barry and Connie Kramer’s son who inherited partial ownership of the magazine after Barry passed away in 1981. (Barry Kramer was not related to MC5 co-founder Wayne Kramer, who wrote this documentary’s original music score.) Susan Whitall, who was a Creem editor from 1978 to 1983, is an associate producer of the documentary.

It’s pretty obvious that the documentary was filmed over several years, because some of the artists look different now, compared to how they look in the documentary. However, their commentaries are insightful and offer the additional perspectives of people who were not only in the magazine but who also were fans of Creem. (Only a few of the artists interviewed in the documentary became famous after Creem’s publication ended in 1989.)

There’s an overabundance of people interviewed in the documentary, but the film editing is good enough where the soundbites aren’t too repetitive and each has something unique to say. The types of people interviewed for the documentary essentially fall into two categories: entertainers (usually music artists) and former Creem employees/other journalists.

The music artists interviewed include Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Kiss singer/bassist Gene Simmons, Kiss singer/guitarist Paul Stanley, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, former R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, the Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, music producer Don Was, Suzi Quatro, Destroy All Monsters singer Niagra Detroit, former J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf, Lenny Kaye, Mitch Ryder, Lamar Sorrento, Johnny “Bee” Bandanjek, Patti Quatro Ericson, Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, Joan Jett, Michael Des Barres, Scott Richardson, Keith Morris (founding member of the bands Black Flag and the Circle Jerks), and Redd Kross co-founding brothers Jeff and Steve McDonald.

In addition to Uhelszki, Connie Kramer and Whitall, the former Creem staffers interviewed in the documentary include Dave Marsh, who was Creem’s editor-in-chief from 1969 to 1973; Dave DiMartino, who was an editor from 1978 to 1986; Wayne Robins and Robert Duncan, who were editor-in-chief and managing editor, respectively, from 1975 to 1976; Ed Ward, who was West Coast editor from 1971 to 1977; Bill Holdship, who was a senior editor from 1980 to 1986; and Billy Altman, a reviews editor who worked for Creem from 1975 to 1985.

Creem alumni who were also interviewed include former staff writer Roberta “Robbie” Cruger, former editorial assistant Resa Jarrett, former staff photographer Michael N. Marks, former circulation manager Jack Kronk, former contributing writer Craig Karpel, former assistant to the publisher Sandra Stretke and former manager Toby Mamis. Other assorted journalists offering their comments in the documentary are Ann Powers, Legs McNeil, Scott Sterling, Ben Fong-Torres, Greil Marcus, John Holstrom, Josh Bassett, radio personality Dan Carlisle (who worked for Detroit’s WABX-FM during Creem’s early years) and photographers Bob Gruen and Neal Preston.

And there are some people from the worlds of art, movies or fashion who are included in the documentary, including artist Shepard Fairey, actor Jeff Daniels, former model Bebe Buell, fashion mogul John Varvatos and filmmaker Cameron Crowe, who started his writing career as a teenage music journalist in the 1970s for magazines such as Creem and Rolling Stone. Crowe’s real-life experiences as a beginner teenage journalist in the early 1970s became the inspiration for his Oscar-winning 2000 comedy/drama movie “Almost Famous,” which includes Philip Seymour Hoffman portraying Lester Bangs, Creem’s most influential writer.

Creem’s roots began in Detroit in 1969, when Barry Kramer (who owned shops in the area that sold music and drug paraphernalia) joined forces with a Brit named Tony Reay to co-found Creem magazine, with Kramer as publisher and Reay as editor. Rolling Stone magazine, which launched in 1967, was named after the Rolling Stones, the favorite band of Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Jann Wenner. In a cheeky nod to that idea, Creem was named after Reay’s favorite band Cream, the British blues-rock trio led by Eric Clapton.

Robert Crumb, also known as underground cartoonist R. Crumb, was recruited to come up with Creem’s original artwork, which included the magazine’s famous Boy Howdy mascot resembling a bottle of milk cream. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Creem offered to pay Crumb’s medical bills in exchange for his art services. Crumb’s illustrations and Creem’s irreverent humor often resulted in people describing Creem as the Mad magazine of rock’n’roll.

Reay’s stint as Creem’s founding editor didn’t last long, because he and Barry Kramer didn’t see eye-to-eye in the direction of the magazine. According to former staffers interviewed in the documentary, Reay wanted Creem to be a niche publication for blues-rock enthusiasts, while Barry Kramer wanted Creem to be a slick magazine that reached a wider rock audience. Reay parted ways with Creem, which hired Marsh as the next editor-in-chief in 1969, when Marsh was just 19 years old and had no previous experience editing a magazine. Marsh certainly didn’t take the job for the money, since he says that his Creem salary at the time was only $5 a week.

Marsh comments in the documentary “I had a vision for what the magazine could do for kids who were out there being ridiculed and beat up … The idea I had about Creem was that even in rock’n’roll, it had come to pass that there were stuffy ways of dealing with people. And I thought part of your job as a human being was to oppose that.”

Several artists interviewed about Creem in the documentary make comments essentially saying that Creem’s primary appeal was that it was a magazine made by and for rebels and misfits. Creem and Rolling Stone both considered themselves to be counterculture magazines when they first launched. However, Rolling Stone (which was originally based in San Francisco before moving its headquarters New York City in 1977) had aspirations that were more highbrow and more glamorous than Creem had.

It’s noted in the documentary that Rolling Stone co-founder Wenner (the magazine’s longtime editor-in-chief/publisher) loved hanging out with rock stars and other celebrities, which had an effect on the type of coverage that Rolling Stone gave to certain artists who were considered Wenner’s friends. Creem was the type of magazine that identified more with the fans who paid for albums and concert tickets. Bangs famously advised other music journalists to never make friends with rock stars in order to keep journalistic integrity, but it’s mentioned in the documentary that Bangs sometimes broke that rule himself.

Bangs, who was a freelancer for most of his career as a music writer/editor, is described by many in the documentary as a brilliant but fickle writer who was addicted to meth. Marcus says that when Bangs started writing for Creem in 1970, Bangs “turned [Creem] into a playground [with] … a wonderful sense of mocking everything.”

Crowe comments on the frequent conflicts between Bangs and Marsh: “Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh were like the two people that, within their collaboration, what they got to argue about is why and how to love the thing they loved. And what came out of that was desperate, reckless, raw, unforgettable coverage of this thing they were both in love with.”

Several people in the documentary comment that Creem’s “outsider” attitude had a lot to do with the fact that the magazine was based in the Midwest state of Michigan for most of its existence, instead of a big city on the East Coast or West Coast. The documentary gives a great overview of the Detroit music scene in the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, to provide necessary context of why Creem’s Detroit origins were crucial to the magazine’s original tone and outlook. Creem embraced subgenres of rock that Rolling Stone tended to dislike in the 1970s, such as punk and heavy metal.

Although Creem was known for championing a lot of artists who were ignored or bashed by other rock magazines, Creem was notorious for its vicious insults directed at artists and other celebrities. Sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and body-shaming comments were not unusual in Creem. And the magazine probably would’ve had a lot of racist comments too if not for the fact that white artists got almost all of the coverage in this rock-oriented magazine. Creem was also known for having female artists and models pose in sexually provocative pinup photos, while nude (but not pornographic) photos of women and men were not unusual in Creem.

Uhelszki admits that much of Creem’s content would be considered problematic or offensive enough that people could get fired it for today. “Everybody was politically incorrect,” she says of Creem’s staff at the time. Uhelszki remembers that back in Creem’s 1970s heyday, the inflammatory comments in the magazine were all part of Creem’s rebellious image.

Uhelszki also says that it wasn’t just the men on the male-dominated staff who wrote the misogynistic comments, because she wrote a lot of sexist content for the magazine too. “It was a boys’ magazine. It was meant for teenage boys,” Uhelszki comments in the documentary. “Did girls read it? Sure, they did. It was only sexually provocative when it was funny.”

While Creem was stirring up enough controversy where it was considered an inappropriate magazine for very young children, several former Creem staffers say in the documentary that there was chaos behind the scenes too, as Creem employees partied like the rock stars they gave coverage to in the magazine. In other words, drug-fueled behavior was part of the craziness. Creem’s original headquarters on Cass Avenue in Detroit was also in a run-down building in a crime-infested area, where it was not unusual for the female employees to be sexually groped on the streets on the way to and from the office.

People would also use the office as a “crash pad” to sleep and bring their personal lives to work with them, since the office would often be a battleground for arguments between employees and their significant others who didn’t work for Creem. And several of the employees mention that the staff had a love-hate relationship with Barry Kramer. Whitall comments, “Barry was an explosive editor … but he also had a sense of fun.”

The increasingly unsafe urban environment of Detroit became too much for the head honchos at Creem, so they decided to move to a completely different work environment. Creem’s headquarters relocated to a rural farm commune in Walled Lake, Michigan, where the magazine was based from 1971 to 1973. Creem’s crucial staff members lived and worked on the commune.

At the commune, the lines between personal and professional lives continued to blur for some staffers. In addition to Dave and Connie Kramer being a couple, some of the staffers were inevitably involved in co-worker romances. Marsh and Cruger were a couple, while Uhelszki was dating Charlie Auringer, who was Creem’s art director at the time.

Connie Kramer says in the documentary: “The women in the house … were much more monogamous than any of the men.” Uhelszki says of Creem’s Walled Lake headquarters, “It was a horrible place to be. And we were there for two years.”

Creem then relocated again in 1973. This time, it was to the Michigan suburban city of Birmingham, where the magazine experienced what many people consider to be the peak years of Creem. Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Smith, who grew up in the nearby city of Bloomfield Hills, remembers that when he was a kid, he was so excited to find out that Creem’s head office was close to where he lived, that he rode his bike to the office, and one of the first people he saw come out of the building was Alice Cooper. Smith says he was naturally star-struck.

The documentary includes some archival 1970s film footage of Creem staffers at headquarters, as well as many great photos from past issues of Creem. There’s a short segment on Uhelszki’s article “I Dreamed I Was Onstage With Kiss in My Maidenform Bra,” from Creem’s August 1975 issue. The article documented Uhelszki’s experience of getting to put on stage makeup with Kiss and joining the band on stage for a concert. It’s the type of article Rolling Stone magazine would never do, since Rolling Stone despised Kiss at the time. Kiss members Simmons and Stanley remember how the band argued about which member of Kiss would be the one Uhelszki would portray when she got her stage makeup done for the article.

The Boy Howdy mascot was such a part of Creem’s identity that the magazine got rock stars and other celebrities to pose for photos with fictional Boy Howdy beer cans. (A Boy Howdy sticker would be placed over real beer cans to make it look like Boy Howdy beer was real.) Not everyone was a fan of these promotional stunt photos. Longtime rock photographer Preston comments on the Boy Howdy beer cans: “The whole Boy Howdy thing was completely cheeseball, and I was mortified anytime I had to ask anybody to shoot with them.”

Another popular Creem photo feature was Star Cars, with each issue having a different celebrity posed with one of the celebrity’s vehicles. In 1977, Aerosmith lead guitarist Joe Perry notoriously posed for Creem with his mangled 1967 blue Corvette that he crashed in a car accident. Also included is a documentary segment on Creem’s Profiles, a one-page feature inspired by Dewar’s Profiles. Creem’s Profiles weren’t full-length interviews but were lists of artists’ likes, dislikes and other thoughts on various subjects.

The documentary also includes a segment about Creem’s famous section for reader mail, in which reader comments would be published next to sarcastic responses from Creem editors. Uhelszki says that the most famous reader letter they got was from Jett, the co-founder of the Runaways, who reacted to Creem’s extremely misogynistic review of the Runaways’ 1976 self-titled first album. In the review, Creem writer Rick Johnson said of the all-female Runaways: “These bitches suck … Girls are just sissies after all.”

In the documentary, Jett remembers her reaction to the review: “I was infuriated.” She says she was so angry that she showed up at Creem headquarters looking for Johnson, but he wasn’t there. “I bet he ran out the back door,” Jett quips in the documentary, which includes her voiceover reading of her letter that was published in Creem. The letter, which is directed at critic Johnson, says in part: “Since you seem to know that girls are sissies, come and see us sometime, and we’ll kick your fucking ass in.”

Just like what happens to a turbulent but successful rock band, the more popular Creem became, the more there was turmoil behind the scenes. The documentary details the main feuds that would eventually tear apart Creem’s original “dream team” senior-level staff. There was Barry Kramer vs. Marsh, who disagreed over editorial coverage and had fist fights over it. There was Marsh vs. Bangs, who also had physical altercations with each other and clashed over the direction in which the magazine should go. And there was Barry Kramer vs. Connie Kramer, who says that their marriage was ruined by cocaine addiction.

According to Uhelszki, Bangs wanted Creem to have more of a satirical edge, while Marsh wanted Creem to have more serious political content. Both Marsh and Bangs would eventually leave Creem: Marsh in 1973, and Bangs in 1976. Marsh went on to write for Newsday, Rolling Stone and other publications, while Bangs continued his freelance career and died of a Darvon overdose in 1982, at the age of 33. Even though Bangs was a known hardcore drug addict, several people in the documentary remember how shocked they were to hear about his death, because he had recently completely a stint in rehab.

Connie went to rehab and left Barry, because she says that he did not want to stop doing cocaine. They divorced in 1980. Barry tragically committed suicide by nitrous oxide suffocation in 1981, at the age of 37. Connie still seems to be experiencing denial and shame over his death because she says in the documentary that Barry “didn’t commit suicide” but “he wanted to end his life.”

Connie Kramer eventually sold Creem to Arnold Levitt in 1986. The magazine relocated to Los Angeles in 1987 and then ceased its monthly publication in 1989. Because this documentary is meant to showcase Creem before it was sold to Levitt, there’s hardly anything in the movie about the last few years of Creem. The magazine, licensed to a group of investors, was revived as a New York City-based bimonthly publication from 1990 to 1993, but that revival ultimately failed. The movie doesn’t include the legal disputes during the 2000s and 2010s over the Creem name and archives.

“Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” gives the impression that its candid look at the good, bad and ugly aspects of this magazine’s history is precisely because the magazine is no longer in business and former employees can speak more freely about people who are no longer their co-workers. It’s a much grittier and more honest portrayal of the wild and wooly days of 20th century rock journalism than, for example, HBO’s “Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge,” a glossy 2017 documentary celebrating Rolling Stone’s 50th anniversary. Although the artists in the “Creem” documentary have important perspectives, the magazine’s former staffers are the ones whose behind-the-scenes stories resonate the most.

Greenwich Entertainment released “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” in select U.S. cinemas on August 7, 2020.

Alice Cooper’s ‘Welcome to My Nightmare Special Edition’ gets long-awaited DVD release

July 11, 2017

Alice Cooper - Welcome to My Nightmare Special Edition
(Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

The following is a press release from Eagle Rock Entertainment:

Alice Cooper’s “Welcome To My Nightmare Special Edition” DVD will be released on September 8, 2017 via Eagle Rock Entertainment. The DVD features the 1975 TV special “Alice Cooper: The Nightmare,” now available on DVD for the first time, along with the 1976 “Welcome To My Nightmare” concert film.

Aired on ABC in the US, “Alice Cooper: The Nightmare” showcases every song from the legendary ‘Welcome To My Nightmare” album, which had just been released at the time. With Cooper taking on the role of Steven, and Vincent Price serving as The Spirit Of The Nightmare, this special was a unique introduction to his new album, drawing fans even further into the dark fantasy.

Melding horror, theater, and rock music, Alice Cooper’s “Welcome To My Nightmare” was a stage show the likes of which was never seen before. Hits and classics songs like “School’s Out”, “Only Women Bleed”, “Billion Dollar Babies”, “Welcome To My Nightmare”, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, “I’m Eighteen”, and “Department Of Youth” were backdropped with giant spiders, skeletons, a cyclops, and the voice of horror royalty Vincent Price. This groundbreaking theatrical presentation scintillated, horrified, and thrilled audiences, delivering an experience unlike any concerts at the time. He truly brought spectators into a living (or unliving) nightmare, and they loved every minute of it.

The combination of the “Welcome To My Nightmare” concert film and “Alice Cooper: The Nightmare” TV special demonstrates the true genius of Alice Cooper. He is beyond music, and beyond horror – Alice Cooper is an experience, who continues to frighten and thrill audiences to this day.


“Welcome to My Nightmare”

1) The Awakening

2) Welcome to My Nightmare

3) Years Ago

4) No More Mr. Nice Guy

5) I’m Eighteen

6) Some Folks

7) Cold Ethyl

8) Only Women Bleed

9) Billion Dollar Babies

10) Devil’s Food

11) The Black Widow

12) Steven

13) Escape

14) School’s Out

15) Department of Youth

“The Nightmare”

1) Welcome to My Nightmare

2) Devil’s Food

3) Some Folks

4) Only Women Bleed

5) Cold Ethyl

6) The Black Widow

7) Years Ago

8) Department Of Youth

9) Years Ago (Reprise)

10) Steven

11) The Awakening

12) Ballad of Dwight Fry

13) Escape

14) The Awakening (reprise)