"Melody Makers" is a new documentary film about the magazine Melody Maker, based around the pictures of their chief contributing photographer, Barrie Wentzell. The film was directed by Canadian Leslie Ann Coles, her first full length film in that role.
After showing in North American US film festivals, "Melody Makers" received its UK première on 24 September as part of the Raindance Film Festival. Coles and several of the interviewees were in attendance for a Q&A session after the film.
After briefly introducing the magazine's beginnings as a trade publication in 1926 for jazz musicians, the film focuses on the period from the mid-sixties to the end of the seventies, more or less when Wentzell worked there and the magazine's glory days, when sales were high, musicians dreamt of being on the front page and the journalists could drive opinions. But the film is also the story of the music of that period, the two being intertwined, from how they championed The Who early on, to Pete Townshend being given his own column because he kept writing in to the letters page so much, to David Bowie having to lend two Melody Maker journalists the money to get back home after a trip to Paris that they had taken to (successfully) catch him away from his management.
Melody Maker were supportive of prog, and many prog artists are among the interviewees, particularly Ian Anderson, but also Sonja Kristina, Alan White, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Steve Nardelli, and Roger Dean. (The credits at the end thanked Jon Anderson, Benoit David, and Oliver Wakeman, but they don't appear.) Some of the anecdotes will be familiar: Nardelli tells his usual Hendrix story, White his usual Lennon story. Others were novel: Squire talks of the magazine's support for Yes, while Howe talked about being so often on the cover and the difficultly finding interesting clothers to wear for this! Many of Wentzell's photos are of prog musicians, with some nice Yes photos from 1969 and 1972, King Crimson in 1972 and several of Ian Anderson and Peter Gabriel. The soundtrack relates to the music of the day, with a bit of "Close to the Edge" and some Ian Anderson in the mix. The film was several years in development, with many interviews done 6-8 years ago, thus Squire's inclusion.
Alan often tells the story of John Lennon ringing him up to ask him to play the Live Peace in Toronto show and Alan just presuming it's a friend trying to prank him. The bit I hadn't heard before was how Alan's then band were annoyed because they had a gig booked the same night and needed the money, so they tried to persuade him that going off to play with John Lennon would be a bad career move. He disagreed!
While some of the history of the music will be very familiar to the hardcore fan, Coles' decision partway through filming to focus more on the magazine is welcome as this brings fresher perspectives. I believe the project began with Coles meeting Wentzell and it is sort of his story, told by him in interview and well as through his photography. He and Chris Welch, one of the main journalists at the time and known for his writing since (including perhaps the most successful Yes biography), often worked as a duo and we got lots of Welch interviewed as well. Another key Melody Maker figure, Chris Charlesworth, is probably the third most often on screen.
The story of the magazine is, in some ways, of a more innocent age at first, musicians coming to the offices to be interviewed, alone, not accompanied by PR; of journalists respecting musicians' confidences and not reporting on their bad behaviour on tour; of the staff promoting the music they liked, and seeing it as a joint enterprise with the artists to promote good music. Musicians avidly read the magazine themselves and saw themselves through its lens when they got famous. Perhaps press and bands were too in cahoots at times. Headlines were sometimes concocted for publicity. Ian Anderson tells of his horror at seeing a headling that Jethro Tull had splitt up, invented by his manager.
But as the years pass, we hear more tales of excess and money flowing, then egos and drugs getting in the way. The film has something of a maudlin end: it follows a generation of Melody Maker staff who left around the turn of the '80s and they are scathing of the magazine's subsequent direction. The story ends with much lamenting of today's music scene, before a coda about Wentzell's own experience moving to Canada and getting re-involved in music.
Throughout the film, the visuals are mostly of Wentzell's photos. These are lovely to see, although sometimes just there, unconnected to the narrative, shoved into montages. Stand outs include a lovely photo of Roger Waters with his three cats, a photo of a haunted Syd Barrett as he descended into paranoia, a very pretty photo of Yoko Ono, some relaxed photos of Bowie in Paris... there are many. We also get spreads from the magazine, although often moving too quickly to read more than a headline. The best of which is surely: "Robert Fripp... Super Stud?"
As is the fashion with modern documentaries, there is no narration. I asked about this in the Q&A, and Coles replied that a producer early on had suggested it, but she felt the photos and the interviewees told the story eloquently themselves and she made that choice early on. I don't entirely agree. If I have a criticism of the film, it is that the flow of the story is sometimes lost. There is a tendency in places to go off into lightweight rock anecdote when I wanted to hear more about the publishing world. There was also the occasionally annoying decision made to interleave two unrelated anecdotes, cutting between the interviewees telling these separate stories, which added to neither.
The Q&A after the film included Coles, Wentzell, Kristina and others. Steve Howe had been advertised, but his absence was hardly surprising given the recent and unexpected death of his son, Virgil Howe. Again, there was more lamenting about things today, although Kristina gave a spirited defence of the value of the Internet for promoting music.
In all, an enjoyable film, worth seeing, with great photos, telling an interesting story of music journalism through the period, with some touching moments (like Wentzell's clear affection for Hendrix), if in a few places a more rambling narrative than I prefer.