CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine (2020)

Boy Howdy! Another rock-doc about Detroit? We’re still coming down from the high of Detroit’s Suzi Quatro’s career chronicle with the Australian-made Suzi Q. And how can we forget Louder Than Love, the chronicle on Detroit’s famed The Grande Ballroom?

Before the D.I.Y punk ethos of Britain in the late ’70s, that D.I.Y spirit began in the late ’60s with a staff of overworked and underpaid writers, editors, and photographers back by a mascot—Boy Howdy—a faux beer label designed by Robert Crumb, the underground comic book artist behind Fritz the Cat. (Crumb’s life and career is preserved in 1995’s Crumb; you can see Crumb characterized on film by James Urbaniak in 2003’s American Splendor.)

Originally known as Boy Howdy: The Story of CREEM Magazine, this Scott Crawford-directed rock doc chronicles the seminal music magazine from its 1969 launch in Detroit to the untimely death of its publisher Barry Kramer in 1981—and to the magazine’s 1989 demise. And the tale began in a ramshackle office in a burnt-out building in 1967 post-riot Detroit (when it ended: 43 people were dead, 342 injured, nearly 1,400 buildings had been burned and 7,000-plus National Guard and U.S. Army troops had been called into service) as the underground, counterculture newspaper rose to national prominence to go head-to-head with the “sellout” rock publication, Rolling Stone magazine. CREEM covered the bands the mainstream press dared to touch and gave said bands their first national coverage.

December 1974 issue of CREEM featuring Iggy Pop and Ray Manzarek with Jim Morrison’s fabled “ghost,” the Phantom.

While we get to see archive footage of the iconic Lester Bangs (portrayed on film by Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2000’s Almost Famous; Patrick Fugit was Cameron Crowe), along with those in the CREEM bunker and Detroit trenches with writers Crowe and Dave Marsh, along with Alice Cooper, Wayne Kramer of the MC 5, and Suzi Quatro—as any film on Detroit should—we get a little bit too much of the impressions and “what CREEM meant to me” insights from its musician-readers, such as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament, Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Chris Stein of Blondie, and the J.Geils Band’s Peter Wolf.

Sure, those musicians played shows in Detroit and the magazine supported their early careers, but the film needed a little less of them and more from the Detroiters—regardless of their obscurity or lack of national fame—in the proceedings. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS also offer their insights; however, not only was Detroit a major tour stop for—and early supporter of—the band, Simmons was a part of the “scene” as result of his clandestine recording sessions at Detroit’s Fiddlers Music with that studio’s engineer, Scott Strawbridge. (Scott Strawbridge discusses his Detroit reflections in the Medium article “Happy Dragons, Phantoms, Fiddlers, Rockets, and Spliffs: The Career of Scott Strawbridge.”) And do we really have to mention that KISS song?

While some of the Detroit scenesters I’ve spoken with from back in the day have their passionate qualms about the film, as to whom was in the film and who wasn’t, it’s my feeling those omissions are the result of the unavailability (and sadly, deaths) of those individuals and not cinematic ineptitude—not when one considers the filmmaking pedigree behind the film. Plus, I’d have to add: Clevelanders I know—who were close friends with the late Stiv Bators—were none too happy with Stiv (2019), the document on the late Dead Boys’ singer; in fact, MTV’s Martha Quinn, who dated Stiv Bators in the ’80s, was absent from the film.

And so it goes . . . you can’t please everyone when it comes to rock docs. There’s always going to be detractors who feel the film is “incomplete,” one way or another.

Screenwriter Jaan Uhelszki, an American music journalist who was the co-founder of CREEM, was one of the first women to work in rock journalism. Uhelszki’s August 1975 feature article, “I Dreamed I Was Onstage with KISS in My Maidenform Bra,” documents the night she performed in full costume and makeup with KISS—the only rock journalist ever to do so. She also traveled with Lynyrd Skynyrd for a feature article about their second-to-last tour (be sure to check out our review of the 2020 Lynyrd Skynyrd bio flick Street Survivors). And I’d have to point out: Jaan Uhelszki was born and raised in Detroit and worked as a “Coke Girl” selling sodas at The Grande Ballroom—yet, she does not appear in the documentary Louder Than Love about the Grande. (FYI: Suzi Quatro also started out as a “Coke Girl” at Detroit’s Hideout Ballrooms operated by Bob Seger’s manager, Punch Andrews.)

You’ve seen Jaan Uhelszki’s film work before with the absolutely stellar documentary about the tragic, unsung career of Chris Bell, along with Alex Chilton, with Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012). (You can catch the film as a free-with-ads stream on TubiTV.) You can spend more time with Jaan and look through her photo archives at her personal website.

Director Scott Crawford made his feature film debut with the worldwide, critically-acclaimed document, Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC 1980-90. If you’re a fan of Bad Brains, Minor Threat (Ian McKay of Another State of Mind), and Scream (Dave Grohl’s band before Nirvana), then that film is a must watch. Crawford grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and published his own CREEM-inspired ‘zine in his teen years; he understands the mid-western D.I.Y ethos that also drove the punk scene of his hometown.

This is a truly great, American Rock ‘n’ Roll Movie about America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine. Watch it.

You can learn more at the film’s official website and you can stream it at Amazon Prime, You Tube Movies, and other VOD platforms. For the hardcopy version, you can check out CREEM writer Robert Matheu’s 2007 book of the same name, available on Amazon.

Update: As of November 24, throughout the U.S. and Canada, you can purchase the DVD of CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine through Kino Lorber. You can learn more about Kino Lorber’s complete roster of films at their official website and Facebook, and watch the related film trailers on You Tube.

From the Shamless Plugs Department: Since we’re on the subject of Detroit rock ‘n’ roll and honoring those fading memories of the musicians and the times: I wrote two books about the 1974, Detroit-born mystery and myth of Jim Morrison’s etheral doppelganger, The Phantom—with the books The Ghost of Jim Morrison, The Phantom of Detroit, and the Fates of Rock and Tales from a Wizard: The Oral History of Walpurgis. Both books are available worldwide through all online retailers for all eReader platforms, and as Amazon-exclusive softcovers.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies and publishes on Medium.

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