Documentary Review — An Ever-Touring Pop Star’s Pandemic Project, “John Waite: The Hard Way”

You get a ways into “John Waite: The Hard Way,” and the inescapable feeling sweeps over you that this is a make-work project for a not-retired-yet pop star going a little stir crazy during COVID lockdown.

As a film, it’s very much a surface gloss, not really all that polished, not particularly thorough, mostly just the former lead singer of The Babys and Bad English, Mr. “Isn’t It Time” and “Missing You” himself being interviewed. There’s little of his personal life here, and no big rock star health, tragedy or addiction revelations ensue.

Then you pick up on one such addiction that has him in withdrawal. Then-pushing 70, Waite couldn’t can’t stand being idle, not singing. Longtime partner Joni Allen talks about how “He is very out of sorts when he’s not touring,” traveling with the band, singing and performing, his “bromance time” on the road disrupted for the better part of two years.

Shortcomings as a musical biography aside, “The Hard Way” is still interesting as we hear how this power ballad singing New Romantics era Brit rocker got his start, his early passion for all things cowboy, including cowboy crooner Marty Robbins. Even after Tommy Steele (a Tommy Steele branded ukulele was his first instrument) and later The Beatles came along, turning him towards the music that would make him, you sense the special thrill the mop-topped Waite got playing on a daytime American chat show where his first idol, Robbins, once performed — “The Dinah Shore Show.”

He can seem surly off-stage, only truly lighting up when performing. But when you’re recalling assorted deals with “those bastards” at this or that record label, listing the stunning successes of your first band, hit records and “American Bandstand” etc. showcases as “$6,000 for six years” and five albums worth of work, a little bile and bitterness is bound to come up.

Oddly, he signed a solo deal with the same label afterwards. That contradiction isn’t addressed by any follow-up question, nor is anything else particularly challenging introduced.

The narrow focus — just a few collaborators were interviewed, with footage of his assorted bands, touring with Ringo and playing and singing with Richard Marx and Alison Krauss — means we don’t get what one could call an intimate portrait of the man and what makes him tick.

For instance, music and gossip websites have him still in a relationship with bluegrass singer and player Krauss, but she only appears in their “Tonight Show” duet during the Jay Leno era. And the man has just enough of a “difficult” reputation that you wish that was a lot more about that in “The Hard Way.” Where are the bandmates, producers other than a flattering Neil Giraldo and the respectful but contradictory Ron Nevison, who would have made this doc something resembling authoritative? Which it most certainly isn’t?

But the stories of how he started out a bassist and had to be cajoled into singing, then had to “develop the ego” and swagger to be a singer/frontman, of how The Babys cut their first LP in Toronto in which a producer put “echo” all the way it, and “we all HATED it,” only to have it turn them into stars on both sides of the Atlantic, can be fun.

A little socially-distanced pushback in the interviews might have gotten deeper, set off more sparks and given us a less-guarded and self-mythologizing portrait of the man. If you’re not asking something he doesn’t want to answer, you’re basically making a promotional film. Even if he has a temper, if you want a compelling film, you can’t be scared of annoying your subject.

Still, I came away with a better appreciation of the voice, the talent and how his career was shaped around that, and how one perfect or perfectly performed song coming at the perfect time can change somebody’s destiny, and how much the women and men still hitting the road 40 years after their biggest hit feed on the routine, affirmation and paydays of life on the road.

Rating: unrated, some profanity

Cast: John Waite, Diane Warren, Neil Giraldo, Ron Nevison, Joni Allen, Richard Marx, Ringo Starr

Credits: Directed by Mike J. Nichols, scripted by Mike J. Nichols and Scott Wright. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 1:31

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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