Enthusiastic, irreverent to the point of rude and delivered in clips and quips edited into rat-a-tat-tat bursts, “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n Roll Magazine” is a documentary that mimics its subject to a T.
Sacred cows from its legend are celebrated, then skewered, feuds are revisited with the rockers who came under its Detroit Rock City gaze, and everybody remembers the good, not-quite-clean fun they had writing it, reading it and being in it.
“It was the ’70s,” writer/editor (and the documentary’s co-writer) Jaan Uhelszki deadpans in her best “Sorry-not-sorry.” “Kill me!”
Fans from Jeff Daniels to Michael Stipe, Gene Simmons and Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith wax lyrical about it.
“It was like buying Playboy,” actor and Detroit native Daniels recalls. “You didn’t want your parents to find it!”
And, like the National Lampoon magazine documentary, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” it’s nostalgic. “Creem,” unlike the AARP set interviewed here, didn’t stick around long enough to get old. It only published from 1969-1989, with the first dozen years being the ones that made its legend.
Director Scott Crawford lines up legions of on-camera talkers — the surviving senior staff, former editors in chief from Dave Marsh on down, writers from future film director Cameron Crowe to Roberta “Robbie” Cruger, Rolling Stone mainstays Greil Marcus and Ed Ward.
There are plenty of women staffers here to admit “It was a ‘boy’s magazine,” and to confess that many of the leering, sexist and innuendo-laden headlines and photo captions were produced by the ladies who answered the phone, “Creem your jeans, boys and girls!”
And there are the rock stars — mostly white, after a few early years when it was more Motown-Detroit friendly, mostly heavy metal, pop metal, glam, etc. — who filled its pages.
Joan Jett remembers her nuclear letter to the editor come-back for a bad review of her first band, The Runaways. Simmons recalls the stunt of dolling up Uhelski like a fifth member of KISS, and bringing her on-stage for a story.
Mitch Ryder and Suzi Quatro, Ted Nugent and Wayne Kramer of the MC (Motor City) 5, remember the way the record store that spawned the magazine set the town for an all-embracing entrance to the “scene” of late ’60s Detroit. Smokey Robinson made the cover, the MC5 were ridiculed for “not knowing how to tune their instruments.”
“That hit close-ta home,” Kramer admits with a grin.
And then there’s the middle chapter on the most famous writer to grace its pages during its heyday, Lester Bangs. Wilder and more the enthusiast than Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal in Crowe’s autobiographical “Almost Famous” film, Bangs was loved and hated by Marsh (who appears here) and every rock star and rock band who came under his critical eye.
“He called our first record ‘a tragic waste of plastic,'” Alice Cooper laughs.
Bangs is portrayed as both a tragic figure — he overdosed a year after the magazine’s founder and publisher — and as a Freudian cliche of a critic. He ridiculed stars until he became pals and drinking buddies with them, something Crowe remembers Bangs expressly warning HIM not to do when he first started writing there.
“He always saw the irony of the situation,” Crowe offers.
Bangs pushed for the magazine — which published from a communal, dysfunctional hippy-style farm for a bit, everybody under one roof and coupling up — to be rock’n roll itself, “like a band putting out a magazine.” Marsh saw it as the political conscience of a generation. It’s only natural that he’s the writer credited with coining the phrase “punk rock.”
The magazine’s glory years, up to Bangs’ death, earn most of the attention, shortchanging its last decade and creating a sense that the movie, like the magazine, kind of peters out.
Nobody defends the homophobia that drove a lot of the early humor, shots at Steven Tyler and Freddie Mercury and story after story with “f—-t” jokes. And nobody NOBODY apologizes for the nuclear takedowns of Springsteen and the other Rolling Stone-proclaimed titans of the era.
“U.F.O.s, Hitler and David Bowie” headlined one “appreciation” of the Brit. “John Denver is GOD” another cover cartoon was captioned, while “Springsteen” most certainly “isn’t.”
And they all hated Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone like poison, taking a Mad Magazine approach — eternal outsiders, mocking one, mocking all.
“Either you’re in on the joke, or you ARE the joke.”
MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, a little skin, some discussion of drugs
Cast: Dave Marsh, Jaan Uhelszki, Suzi Quatro, Alice Cooper, Joan Jett, Chad Smith, Wayne Kramer, Gene Simmons and Ted Nugent.
Credits: Directed by Scott Crawford, script by Jaan Uhelski and Scott Crawford. A Greenwich release.
Running tine: 1:18