filmmaking

A New Documentary Explores the Work of Legendary Rock Photographer Mick Rock

Barnaby Clay on 'Shot! The Psycho-Spirtual Mantra of Rock,' his new film about the rock'n'roll photographer.

by Nathaniel Ainley
07 April 2017, 1:04am

Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Over the years, the rock documentary has become an increasingly lampooned genre of filmmaking, giving rise to such parodies as Hard Core Logo, Brothers of the Head, and Documentary Now's Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee Part 1. Tomorrow, VICE Documentary Films and director Barnaby Clay fire back with the release of Shot! The Psycho-Spirtual Mantra of Rock, a new film profiling the life and work of iconic rock and roll photographer Mick Rock. Growing up in London during the 60s, Rock was quickly embedded into his community's booming music scene. He went on to spent the next two decades running around London and New York, snapping what have become truly emblematic photos of stars including David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Queen.

The story is told entirely from Rock's perspective, the filmmaker even prefacing the film with the decree that all its materials used came from the "mind, body, and soul of Michael David Rock." With the exception of a few audio recordings taken in conversation with David Bowie and Lou Reed, Rock's voice is the only one heard throughout the whole film. In fact, the very first scene is a staged reenactment of a cocaine overdose he suffered in the mid-90s. The photographer is shown in present day form looking over the body of his younger self, as he lies splayed out on the operating table of some sullen hospital floor.

The dreamlike sequence is emblematic of a greater theme that runs throughout the film: self reflection and internalization. After spending his life documenting the lives of others, Rock takes a step back and looks inward, narrating each step that got him to where he is today. Intimate studio interviews, never before seen archival footage, and original stills trace Rock's cinematic adventure through the dazzling glam rock scene, the grit of NYC punk, and the excesses of the 1980s.

Shot! is thus a considerable departure from the traditional "rock doc." Creators recently spoke with Barnaby Clay to try and get better sense of his process:

Creators: How you were first introduced to Mick's work? How did you get involved with the film?

Barnaby Clay: I've been familiar with his work since my early teens. My sister owned Transformer, the Lou Reed record, and played that a lot when we were growing up. Its a very striking image. I remember just seeing that ghostly face staring out at me as a kid. I was like, 'Who is that?' I flipped it over and theres another crazy picture on the back cover with that guy with the big bulge in his pants, and the leather cap. At my age these were pretty intense images.

A couple years later at school I started getting into the Stooges and discovered Raw Power. Seeing that image on the front of Raw Power that Mick took was again something that really stuck with me. Then maybe in my early 20s I went to a show in London of Mick's that was primarily his Syd Barrett pictures from the Madcap Laughs Sessions. When I found out he shot all these other covers, I realized the breadth of his work, and the iconic imagery from that period that he's responsible for, but I would say it was really those two images from Raw Power and Transformer that really stuck with me from the beginning.

Years later in New York I came across Mick"s manager, Liz Vap. We became friends, and she introduced me to Mick a couple of times but really just in passing. And then I got a call one day saying that he was trying to make a film. He'd been talking about it for years, and I think he finally got to the point within himself where he was ready to actually do it. So they were looking for directors. I was kind of, in a way, a director-for-hire at that point, and got interviewed for the job. He had already met a bunch of people, but I think we hit it off because we came from the same part of London, we both really focused our careers on music imagery, worked within the same sort of genres, and both had made this type of transatlantic journey that started off in London and ended up in New York. For him I think those factors were all very important because it just meant that I could get him and his story, so thats really when he said, "Yeah, let make this."

So you set out to make the film. What was it like working with him? Did he have his own vision of how he wanted it to look or was it more of a collaborative process?

When it came down to putting it together, concept-wise, I was given a lot of freedom, and that was really important to me because, as much as I am a huge fan of Mick and his work, I don't consider myself a documentarian. I'm somebody that's made music videos, commercials, and a lot of short films but really wants to make narrative feature films more than anything else. My one prerequisite when I signed on was that I could get to do this my way. Everyone was fine with that.

Obviously we had to agree on a concept, though, and I came up with a number that I pitched to him and the financiers. I remember in a very early meeting he told me about his near-death experience and how after many years of cocaine abuse he ended up nearly dying. And he talked about how that was such a big thing for him and how we should obviously go into that. So we did but this actually became a bit contentious further on down the line. He had this image of himself that he remembered where he was just lying there in the hospital basically waiting to have open heart surgery after experiencing a series of heart attacks. When he told me about it, he was like, "Yeah you should have some of that in the film," and to me that just suddenly stuck out as an image and I thought, "Whoa. That would be great!" To have somebody on their deathbed recounting their life to themselves seemed like an interesting concept and a fun one.

We had a lot of discussion within the edit about things which he deemed too far, and I'd push and he'd pull, and it went on for years basically. I love documentaries and I definitely like ones on music, but I just feel like so often they're just the same kind of thing. We've all heard about people who have got on to the fame wagon and it just going horribly wrong from riding too fast or whatever. For me, my job was to try and tell that in a way which was somehow exciting and different.

You wanted to create something that distinguished itself from the canon of rock documentaries.

Yeah, I mean, I just don't see enough of that in documentary these days. They used to risk more, like British filmmaker Ken Russel did back in the 60s. They're like music videos basically, just totally over the top, packed with incredible imagery, and I just really admired him for going there and trying to do it that way. There's a million ways to tell a story like this and it would be very simple for me to have done a straight-up 'talking heads' thing but I just didn't want to do that.

Another thing which became very important within the film was the idea to tell this entirely from Mick's perspective. He's the only voice within the film apart from the two recordings of Bowie and Lou Reed because for me I am more fluent to the idea of poetic truth and rock and roll myth. Some of these facts that he comes out with, or stories that he'd tell, might not be 100% reliable, but at the same time it's his version of the events and I like that.

As I'm sure Errol Morris would tell you, the idea of having one person telling the story is really difficult—it becomes soporific after a while. Those sequences with the hospital, the operating theater, they became very useful as breaks from hearing Mick's voice. They provide a little kind of pause or relief and then he carries on the story.

How would you say his photography and videos impacted your art direction? Would you say you were trying to recreate his style in your own film in a way?

I wasn't trying to recreate his style, but we totally drew from his work. I was really drawn to the aesthetics he came from, which is like glam rock, Bowie, Lou Reed, Rocky Horror Picture Show... all those guys created this slightly dark but also very theatrical and slightly over the top imagery, which I wanted to infuse within the film.

At the same time, it's a film about a photographer and you want his work looking good. So yeah I did sit down with my cinematographer Max Goldman, and looked at a lot of his work. When we did what we called the "key interview," which was the interview of him in the studio where he's just sitting in the chair, Max set up a series of five looks, and within each of these looks he had a lighting board and he was just basically live-mixing the lighting throughout the interview. When Mick was talking about this certain subject, he would kind of keep it this way, and then half way through he would switch it into a slightly different look.

But all those looks were based on some of Mick's images, and when it came to coloring the film, we ended up doing the same thing where we'd always be referring back to Mick's images just to check that they were within the same scope of colors and feeling. This wasn't always easy, because half of the film is shot in 16mm, the other half was shot on the [RED] Alexa, and then all of Mick's stuff was either 35mm or medium-format stills. Getting consistency was really hard.

So, how did you go about organizing all these different materials?

I had the idea that this was going to be Mick's point of view, but that you do need other elements to break that up. Some days Mick would just come to the shoot and say, "Oh I've got recordings of me and Bowie and I got a recording of me and Lou," or, "Oh I've got some Super 8 footage of me and Syd Barrett on acid." He was a journalist at one point, and wrote pieces for Rolling Stone and various men's magazines from back in the day. The Bowie tape, funnily enough, is from a now-defunct adult men's magazine called Club International. He did a piece on Bowie and at that point they had already become friends, so Bowie is very free to talk to him. Then there was the Lou Reed tape. I don't really know what it was for. Reed was actually a really techie guy. He was really into his tech. He had a VCR from when they first came out. He had a video camera in the mid-70s, and also one of these early Sony Walkmen that recorded sound. I guess they were just playing around with that and recorded the conversation. It's like five in the morning, both of them pretty blitzed out of their head...

They're both very different, because Bowie's is very clean, he's at the time sober and talking in a very structured manner, whereas the sound quality for the Lou Reed tape was dreadful so we had to fiddle around with it to try and clean it up a bit. We went and listened to the tapes and after going through them a few times, pulled out the bits which felt most interesting and tried to figure out how to thread them through. They were almost like a bookmark throughout the film, a sort of textural bookmark. You figure out the themes and then just try and match them up to where the themes are highlighted in the movie. The hardest thing was where to stop, and I think a part of that was Mick. He was always very conscious about not abusing his friendships with these guys, and not overdoing it.

What do you hope people take away from this film?

I'm hoping that people get that I put a lot of effort in to trying to make it different, trying to tell this story in a more unusual way and, and appreciate that. I'd like it to be the kind a film people can sit down and get stoned to and really get in the zone with. You're in this weird space for so much of the film, this dark place with Mick next to this operating table, and there's these weird animations. It does kind of feel like you're in this bubble for the whole film that you come out of at the end. Rock documentaries all get lumped together in a way, but the treatment and presentation of this film is completely different. Its just important for me that people recognize that. Whether thats a good thing or a bad thing is up to the viewer to decide, I want to people to enjoy the historical musical side of it but also enjoy the way it was told.

Shot! The Psycho-Spirtual Mantra of Rock is in theaters, on demand, on Amazon video and iTunes April 7th. Learn more about the film, here.

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