Here’s a British music documentary ostensibly about “The 27 Club,” that collection of famous musicians, from Brian Jones to Amy Winehouse and ever-onward, who indulged and died at the too-too young age of 27.
I say “ostensibly” because Simon Napier-Bell’s “27: Gone Too Soon” takes a stab at going much deeper into the reasons people like Kurt Cobain killed himself, and Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin drank and drugged themselves to death.
The flippant “conspiracy” title of that “Club” is just a jumping off point for discussions of “drink, drugs and depression,” disturbed musicians in a field of music where “If you haven’t made it by 27, you’ll never make it.”
Historians, music business professionals and British rock journalists like Lesley-Ann Jones and musicians revisit the ’60s, when this “club” seemed to go public (musicians dying too young predates that decade by many decades).
“Being a pop star is a very dangerous business,” one and all agree with survivors like Gary Numan. Throw in childhood trauma, “drama” within the dynamics of a group or a music scene, press scrutiny and fragile egos with an absurdly easy access to indulgences and the growing expectations of “living the lifestyle,” it’s a wonder anybody in that line of work who achieves fame gets out alive.
“Suddenly, you’re in a bedroom on your own. What do you do?”
These are people who equally “suddenly, can afford every vice.”
The music people place the subjects of the film within music history, the milieu these fabled figures lived and died in, but mental health professionals do a better job (than the speculations of music journalists and TV presenters) in laying out the personalities and backgrounds that built self-destruction into their short life stories.
Brian Jones is remembered as a guy from whom the Rolling Stones stole his band, his style (Jagger) and vibe (Richards) and his psyche, only to drown blitzed out of his mind in the pool at the house he owned where A.A. Milne (“Winnie the Pooh”) had once lived.
Jimi Hendrix had an upbringing “that was BEYOND Dickensian,” the experts interviewed here relate. Mom was “a child having a child,” a sister was born blind, from there into the military and into seriously regimented R & B bands.
Psychologist Martin Lloyd-Elliot sees Jimi’s search for “freedom” in his music, his love life and life in general as being the secret to his genius and his undoing. He weighs in “the layer of skin missing” from so many artists, fragile souls like Janis Joplin. Dr. Cosmo Hallstrom notes the speed of Jimi’s arrival, the rapid loss of grounding from his changing circle of friends as being “his rapid undoing.”
The “Swinging London” footage is vivid and fascinating. The Deep South Janis Joplin grew up in and the heroin-dosed London of Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain’s marriage to the Ultimate Enabler is skipped past. But not “the trauma that runs through” his family’s genetics. And Amy Winehouse’s relationship with her grotesque, cheating/enabling father isn’t similarly spared. Courtney Love is more litigious, right?
Janis Joplin, “tormented,” “once voted the ugliest man on campus,” was self-medicating from an early age, and clumsily overdosed, those around her have maintained.
One thing about the historical stuff, we’re reminded that “no one talked about ‘addiction,’ ‘rehab'” and these early deaths as being survivable with “intervention,” another buzz-word more popular now than way back when. “Dazed” radio and TV interviews underline her alcoholism.
I was a taken aback by old TV news footage starring the late ABC anchor Frank Reynolds, glibly leading an obituary with “The Jimi Hendrix Experience is over.” Damn. That’s cold. Diane Sawyer’s sensitive announcement on that same network decades later when Cobain died shows an erosion of the generation gap that is encouraging.
The documentary rattles through these assorted case histories, where Kurt et al fits within music history, unhappiness and death, so briskly that it at times feels TV quick and dirty in style, almost flippant.
Amy Winehouse, whose record label went to some lengths to save, did herself in anyway, and it’s worth arguing that “There’s some investment in chaos” in this business, that people like her thrive until they don’t.
But there’s new material here, arguments and counter-narratives that in light of the recent revelations about Robin William’s physical maladies that led to his suicide, make it all a little less coincidental, a little less mysterious.
MPAA Rating: unrated, drug abuse, adult subject matter.
Cast: Gary Numan, Lesley Ann Jones, Paul Gambuccini, Tom Robinson, Steve Blame, Dan Gillespie Sells
Credits: Written and directed by Simon Napier-Bell. A Vision Films release.
Running time: 1:10