Suzi Quatro never gained much traction as a rock star in her home country. The Detroit native is still best known for her three year stint on “Happy Days” over here.
And as with anybody you haven’t heard a peep out of in decades, one can be excused for wondering “Is she still around?”
The proto-punk glam rocker turned 70 the first week of June, so the answer to that is “Oh yes.”
Then you listen to her songs, remember her hits, recall evidence of her success — 55 million records sold. You hear testimonials from legions of female rock performers, from Deborah Harry (Blondie), Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads) and Cherie Currie (The Runaways) followed in her early’ 70s wake.
You see her shag haircut and leather jumpsuits and remember, “Oh yeah, Joan Jett had that look.” And maybe you chuckle watching Jett sheepishly try to avoid admitting that yes, she copied her idol, top to bottom, and became a veritable Suzi clone.
Members of ’80s bands The Go-Gos and L7 add to the chorus of fans. Any singer tough enough to growl “The Wild One” was sure to get an impressionable teen’s attention.
Perhaps at some point you think, as I did, “Wait, Joan is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Stevie Nicks is in the hall, TWICE.” And Suzi Quatro isn’t?
The new documentary “Suzi Q” (out on VOD, DVD and streaming the first of July) leaves the viewer to ask that question to oneself, because nobody here shakes their head over this obvious “snub.”
“Suzi Q” has Quatro, her family, colleagues and famous fans tell us the story of career, from her Grosse Pointe, Michigan childhood to her move to the UK, the recording success there that made her famous all over the world and the reasons her early ’70s sound never caught on in the U.S.
And in filling in the blanks for what happened in her life after 1975, “Suzi Q” leaves clues as to how she might have lost the respect that motivates insiders at that hall to plead the case of overseas stars less known here, of performers whose notoriety lies in the legions they inspired to follow them.
Quatro traces her passion to the night, age 5, when she and her family saw Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” through the neighborhood hand she formed with her sisters and other teenage girls in their neighborhood.
The Pleasure Seekers might not have broken through, but people noticed “we didn’t play like girls,” that they had something many of their contemporaries lacked. Like fellow Motor City proto-punks The MC5, they had an edge.
“They couldn’t get the Detroit outta them,” Alice Cooper says.
That band changed names with the times, becoming Cradle. But when a British producer/manager Mickie Most (The Animals, The Jeff Beck Group, Herman’s Hermits) noticed them, it’s the “tiny tiny” teen playing the great big bass that he noticed the most. Suzi was lured to London and eventual stardom.
The funniest interviews in “Suzi Q” are also the bitterest. Her sisters, Patti and Nancy, never got over that. There’s even a family Thanksgiving cassette that the Quatros recorded and sent to Suzi in London, a tape filled with criticism and dismissal of her potential.
Quatro still has that tape, not that Suzi holds a grudge or anything.
“I was in bits that I was leaving,” she says. “But I still went.”
We hear how producer/song-writer Mike Chapman found a sound that worked for her and how Quatro came up with her leather jumpsuited look, the one copied by The Runaways, Runaways alumni Jett and Lita Ford, by Pat Benatar and others.
Hit records — “Can the Can,”“48 Crash” — chart toppers in the UK Germany, Norway, Australia, Spain and Italy. She and the band toured the world. She endured the “build her up, knock her down” British press and cruelly sexist TV chat shows, the grind of touring and self-promotion (radio station visits).
When Suzi and her new band came to America, she made the cover of Rolling Stone. And she and the band were the perfect opening act for Alice Cooper, then reaching his own peak, back in 1975.
And then, damn. Here’s Quatro, producer Garry Marshall and co-star Henry Winkler talking about her decision to do “Happy Days.” If there was anything a cool rock chick probably shouldn’t have done just as punk was blowing up, it was joining a popular but singularly-uncool family-friendly TV series — for years.
Her biggest American pop hit, “Stumblin In,” might have followed. But when MTV happened, it was Benatar and Jett and even Lita Ford who got their leather jumpsuits on the air. Quatro was forgotten.
The most surprising thing about “Suzi Q,” a conventional but revealing pop star/rock star bio-doc, is learning how the influential rocker spent the decades that followed. She’s an American with a following and show business notoriety in Britain, where she remained. Family (given short shrift here), musical theater (shocking), TV chat show hosting, books, all fill in those “missing years.”
Through it all, Quatro comes off as “I did it my way” defiant, a fascinating survivor still looked up to by women who were motivated to get into music, thanks to her.
“A lot of girls picked up guitars, drumsticks, because of Suzi Quatro,” as Jett says. It might be nice if the repository of rock history, in Cleveland, acknowledged that.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, some profanity
Cast: Suzi Quatro, Patti Quatro, Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Alice Cooper, Deborah Harry, Mike Chapman, Henry Winkler, Rodney Bingheimer, Lita Ford, Len Tuckey, Tina Weymouth, Garry Marshall
Credits: Directed by Liam Firmager. A Utopia release.
Running time: 1:39