Have you heard of acute alcohol-induced pancreatitis? In 1993, when Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan lay on the floor naked and sweating, curled in a panicked ball, as a burning sensation ripped through his insides, neither had he. When a friend managed to drag him to the hospital, McKagan learned that his Herculean daily drinking—a half-gallon of vodka, plus bar-hopping with the bandmates, every single day for years—had engorged his pancreas to the size of a football. That morning, it had finally ruptured, leaking enzymes into his gut and scorching it with third-degree burns. As doctors tended to him, he could only gasp out two words, over and over: “Kill me.”
This moment marks a decisive turning point in McKagan’s life, and so too in the new documentary about him: It’s So Easy & Other Lies, directed by Chris Duddy, a seasoned cameraman and cinematographer who is now debuting his first documentary as director. The film, adapted from McKagan’s best-selling autobiography of the same name, traces the superstar bassist’s life from his early days in the dope-soaked punk and metal scenes of 80s Seattle, to the formation of GN’R (he answered an ad), to the psychotic drug and booze benders that accompanied Guns N’ Roses’ rise to global superstardom—which almost cost McKagan his life. The movie brings us all the way into the present, and includes chapters on McKagan’s moment of redemption and his path to sobriety (assisted by intense martial arts training), his brief relapse during his Velvet Revolver period (prescription drugs are bad, guys), and a return to school to learn finance. Miraculously he also found time to get married and have kids along the way.The movie is a fairly straightforward adaptation, but the concept for how it would be made came about by a circuitous route. McKagen is both Duddy’s LA neighbor and friend, so after he convinced the bassist this project was a good idea, Duddy traveled with him on his book tour, shooting B-roll and hunting for ways to frame his story on film. As part of the tour, McKagan performed what he called “book-reading shows”—delivering excerpts accompanied by a live band, playing GN’R tunes to give the proceedings a dramatic flair. McKagan was only testing them out, but Duddy was “blown away” by what he saw at one rendition in Cleveland.
“It was really kind of raw,” he tells me. “It was a sold-out house, and I remember just shooting the audience watching him, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, people really are responding to this on an emotional level.’ People were tearing up, crying. And people were laughing and cheering.” When Duddy returned to LA, he knew he’d found the through-line for his movie. “It was just kind of a godsend to me, as a filmmaker,” he said. “It was really the difference between making the movie or not.”With McKagan on board he proposed they film a performance in his hometown Seattle, booking the historic Moore Theatre, securing a string quartet, and assembling a line up of musical friends to contribute throughout. The reading that night was more fleshed out and elaborate than anything from the book tour. “Duff doesn’t want to do anything that’s mediocre,” Duddy said. “It’s like, if you’re going to do something, make it fucking cool and interesting. So that’s the genesis of how the movie happened. It was incredible.”Shots from this performance form the narrative backbone of the film, with McKagan’s sweet, charismatic narration serving as the voiceover to other scenes. The whole production is a daring collage of performance shots, interviews (including with Slash, Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx, Matt Sorum of Velvet Revolver, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, and more), archival footage, and full-on animated scenes adding literal color to the arc of McKagan’s life. The cheerful style of the cartoons may seem an odd counterpoint to the unfolding, often-grim events, but McKagan’s levity in the telling makes his story work. This is a tale of dark times, but with a happy ending. And McKagan is not bashful about divulging some of the more morbid details with a smile on his face. “When you do a documentary about someone's life, it can be a little scary because you're revealing stuff,” Duddy said. “But Duff was super honest about his dark side, and the dark part of his success.”
Duff’s darkness is very dark indeed and his openness allows the movie to plumb depths in an interesting way. The pancreatitis scene is an early climax of the film, coming at the end of harrowing sequence based around a particularly nasty bender during the Appetite for Destruction tour. Everything on screen is distorted and the sound becomes warped, as McKagan describes himself backstage somewhere demanding “vodka, vodka, vodka,” barely cognizant of where he is. Suddenly he snaps to attention and does a bump to sober up and play an hour and half set. Snippets of interview and animation fade in and out. Although these experimental, collage-style devices do recall Brett Morgan’s Montage of Heck, they’re still a welcome departure from traditional doc narratives.Another unusual aspect of Duddy’s doc is that the band that made McKagan famous is not the film's focal point—this was a very intentional move by Duddy. “Of course, Guns N’ Roses is a big part of Duff’s life, and continues to be,” he said. “But it was a real challenge for me, because the easy thing to do is just go, ‘Oh, well, it’s about Guns N’ Roses.’ But no, there’s more layers to it than that.”As the movie rolls, McKagan’s period with the band appears as just one chapter among several, flouting most viewers’ probable expectations. It’s an admirable choice, especially since Duddy had a hard time explaining the direction to baffled money people while trying to secure financing: “I got asked that a lot: ‘So, it’s a Guns N’ Roses doc, right?’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no. Did you read Duff’s book? If you read Duff’s book, that’s what the movie’s about.’”
Indeed, addiction and recovery, rather than the music-industry star cycle, are the movie’s real themes. The fact that the affable, sinewy McKagan we see onstage is still living and breathing is a miracle. “I think Duff pushed it as far as anyone can humanly push it,” his doctor tells us at one point in the film. “It’s interesting that he’s still alive,” Duddy admits with a laugh.Nevertheless, these days addiction narratives are rarely unique, and It’s So Easy is no exception. If the movie as a whole lacks the kind of meat that makes for a really compelling music documentary, it’s not due to McKagan being uninteresting (he’s not). But whatever makes Duff Duff, and not the million other aging rock stars with similar stories, is missing. “Duff’s got a master plan that only he knows,” says Duddy. For all his openness, at the end of the movie, we still feel that whatever makes McKagan tick remains unexplored.A possible anchor for the movie would have been a much bigger focus on McKagan’s actual craft: playing the bass. The only problem with making It’s So Easy… very much not about Guns N’ Roses is that it’s a movie very much not about music, either. This, finally, is the one unfortunate way that It’s So Easy… is a lot like other music docs: it obsessively foregrounds personal struggle, particularly the salacious details of fame-fueled addiction, leaving McKagan’s actual art—the very thing that gave him a life worth writing an autobiography about and making a movie about, in the first place—in the dark.What is unique to McKagan’s story, of course, is not his dickhead-drunk-to-redeemed-dad rock-star fable (versions of which we’ve all heard many times), but the music he and a few other guys created that defined a genre and to an extent, a generation. You wouldn’t need to make a movie about GNR to at least talk a little bit about McKagan’s personal relationship to those creations. You get a deeper insight into the man reading about his 80s Japanese Fender bass in the “Equipment” section of his Wiki than in the entire film about his life.That being said, we are living in the age of music-as-biography; we’re just more interested at the moment in the psychology and story behind a song’s creation than its sonics. In a documentary based on a memoir, certainly a great deal of focus on personal life is expected, warranted, and necessary, and It’s So Easy… handles the task of conveying that focus competently. But it’s perhaps a sign of the times that a documentary about a musician can get away with not offering a glimpse into its star’s attitude towards the art that—through a long tumultuous path—made him so important to millions.It’s So Easy & Other Lies is out now and on VOD/iTunes release 7.5.Follow Joseph Staten on Twitter.