Is rock dead?
The question, seemingly an early point of new documentary “Long Live Rock…Celebrate the Chaos,” only works rhetorically.
Of course, it’s not dead. Not from the establishment, conservatives, parents, disco, New Wave, Tipper Gore, Satan, flammable hair, electronica, file sharing, and on and on. The Rolling Stones are 130 years old and were still selling out stadiums, last anyone checked. So, who are these people, and why do they still behave this way?
That’s the question director Jonathan McHugh finally addresses in this low-maintenance, non-demanding film, which debuts March 12 as a Watch Now @ Home Cinema Release, via distributor Abramorama. It’s simply a love letter to the hard rock festival circuit and its role in connecting bands and their fans, a point that materializes nicely after a few false starts.
You won’t walk away learning anything new. But you may remember that feeling piling too many people into the same vehicle and heading to a music festival way too early because nothing in the world seemed as important.
McHugh, a TV and film producer in the director’s chair for the first time, seems pulled in four or five different directions before finding his groove. “Long Live Rock” isn’t as fun as the “Decline of Western Civilization” documentaries, which isn’t really a fair comparison, anyway.
No, it’s not entirely clear why we really need to hear Eddie Trunk expand on why we shouldn’t trust first impressions of rock fans. I know the world probably doesn’t need Dr. Drew Pinsky’s cringey conclusion that hard rock is similar to tribal music, bearing more than a passing resemblance to patronizing and somewhat racist clichés from 1950s parents.
But speedbumps aside, “Long Live Rock” makes clear that not only is rock music not dying, it’s massive and mainstream … and has been for decades. It’s healthy and brings people–even families–together, forming McHugh’s hypothesis.
The film has a couple strong factors going for it: earnestness and timeliness. There’s nothing new about raunchy musicians and the superfans who love them. It’s like the oldest boy meets girl story in the world. But it still works because we want it to. Most of these people, with day jobs and mortgages and children, really mean it.
Even if there is a strangely disproportionate amount of screen time devoted to crowd surfing, who can’t feel hopeful watching a wheelchair-bound fan getting carefully picked up and passed over the scene by otherwise wild, drunk metal fans?
Of course, we see the big-name festival veterans, like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. But McHugh also brings us plenty of lesser-known acts featuring women (and families), like Halestorm and Skillet. It’s always been a sorely underrepresented demographic in hard rock, and McHugh does a nice enough job with it to make one wonder why this wasn’t the entire film’s focus. Especially when valuable time is spent on old cliches (the kids in the backseat holding their fingers in the ears because rock-mom was playing loud music was right out of a Twisted Sister video). The lack of narration may have contributed to the wandering focus, but likely worked in the long run to give the fans’ the film’s biggest voice (though the brief segment devoted to the frontline security guards was fascinating).
At times “Long Live Rock,” wanders and labors a bit too much. At times it feels like a documentary that should’ve been made 35 years ago, when we didn’t seem to know so much about hard rock festivals. One can appreciate the film’s before-and-after efforts at making real people with real jobs seem extraordinary when it comes to their love for music. But watching middle-aged people be very aware of the camera, using words conveying their own sense of freedom and craziness while buying more beer feels a bit forced at times. The juxtaposition of a trauma nurse doing so is just weird. It’s not clear if these are supposed to be ordinary, or extraordinary, people.
But “Long Live Rock” works, if for no other reason than the timing is perfect for a deep love letter to concerts and the communities who love them. Hopefully, they can get re-acquainted sooner rather than later.
Follow music critic Tony Hicks at Twitter.com/TonyBaloney1967.