21 weeks ago we closed our Michigan and State theater doors. I don’t know about you, but it’s still bewildering to us, so I think it’s time we let loose a little. Break out your most ragged denim jeans, find those vintage and worn band tees, let your quarantine hair down and check out CREEM: AMERICA’S ONLY ROCK ‘N’ MAGAZINE—this week’s programmer’s pick from our Virtual Movie Palace!
CREEM reminds us in every scene that once upon a time a band of misfit writers launched a nationwide publication in Detroit, Michigan that branded the city as the last chance for rock ‘n’ roll. Scott Crawford’s documentary, which premiered at the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival, feels like a much needed reminder to loosen up and see the humor and absurdity in art and in life.
Creem was launched in 1969 by publisher Barry Kramer, who recruited a band of irreverent, bohemian writers to give voice to the underdogs of the culture and music industry. Although Detroit was home to Motown, which was producing hit after hit just a few years earlier, and even with Bob Segar, The Stooges, Suzi Quatro and Mc5 emerging from the city at that time, it was becoming overshadowed by the nascent scenes in California and New York. This underappreciated spirit gave rise to a brand of writing that was punk, liberal, beatnik and smug all at the same time.
The soul of the publication was born from the contrasting voices of Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh. Even if you don’t recognize the name of Lester Bangs, you might know his character as portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, who dons Bang’s “Detroit Sucks” t-shirt in the film and gave a young Crowe the wise advice to never befriend musicians. While Bangs’ vision for the publication was to represent “bozos on the bus”, Dave Marsh had the vision for a political magazine to speak for the “soldiers in the counterculture army” (as described by Jaan Uhelszki) which accentuated the magazine’s scrappy flavor.
You also might not recognize Dave Marsh’s name, but he is often given credit for coining the term “punk rock” in Creem, even though there are some who dispute this narrative. Even the isolated talking head interviews in the documentary can’t seem to agree at times, an editing choice on Crawford’s part that gives you a hint at what it may have been like in that newsroom.
At a breezy 75 minutes, this documentary is perfect for a Friday or Saturday evening that still allows you to enjoy the last remaining bits of summer, combining themes of family, business, creativity, and substance abuse with moments of levity and fun. The film is flavored with unique (and probably drug induced) archival footage showcasing life inside the magazine’s headquarters, and completed with slick, R. Crumb-inspired animated visuals to manifest the stories that could not be captured.
For a publication that featured provocative, boundary pushing material blending serious journalism with tabloid-like media antics, in its 20 year life it attracted the attention of creatives in and out of the Detroit area. Many are featured in the film, such as Jeff Daniels, Ted Nugent, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Suzi Quatro, Wayne Kramer of Mc5, journalist Ann Powers, Michael Stipe of REM and Alice Cooper.
Jeff Daniels in fact gives the trailer-made line “Buying Creem was like buying Playboy”, and Chad Smith reads the cover of their publication, “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine,” while slyly extending his middle finger, summarizing the attitude of Creem.
After enjoying this documentary, you will be hungry for more. Here’s what I recommend: Suzi Q, which we opened just two weeks ago, is obvious next viewing if you have not yet seen it as she is featured in CREEM. The aforementioned Almost Famous is another great watch. An outstanding choice is a documentary that played at the State Theatre in 2015 about a similar, and yet completely different magazine called Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. Though the material of Creem and National Lampoon were different, the attitudes were very much the same and they influenced similar creatives with misfit attitudes who changed the landscape of popular culture as we know it. Rent it for a small fee on Amazon, YouTube, or AppleTv to name a few.
That’s all from me. I hope you enjoy the remainder of your week and what you see in our Virtual Movie Palace. As always, drop us a note on our social media or email to let us know what you’re watching and be on the lookout for some more great music documentaries rolling out soon like Jazz on a Summer’s Day this Friday, as well as Mr. Soul! and Vinyl Nation on August 28th, just in time for Record Store Day. Cheers!