Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet
Steve Hackett: The Man, the Music
Filmed, directed and edited by Matt Groom
Weinerworld Entertainment / MVD Visual
143 Minutes, 2015
This may open up the Dogs of War, but I find the progressive rock music genre (aka prog) kinda… well, I respect that the musicians can play reaaaaaally well, but when it’s all put together, I have to say it bores the crap out of me. That’s why I stopped playing the radio in the early ’70s other than oldies and the news, and from the first time I heard the Ramones, listened only to vinyl for a large number of years. Even today, it’s mostly talk radio for me (go John Montone and 1010WINS!).
So when I was given the opportunity to review a documentary about prog guitarist Steve Hackett, well, my enthusiasm was…mellow. Genesis, the band that he helped make famous, never played a song that stuck with me, and I could barely tell you one off the top of my head. Of course, the same is true with many other proggers, like ELP, Yes, (post-Syd Barrett) Pink Floyd, and so on. I lost patience with them very fast.
But an important thing about writing about music is not necessarily keeping an open mind about other genres, but being willing to step into another genre and experience it despite that, which is how we grow. I once told an 8-year-old who had very specific food she would eat (essentially, she would always order pizza or chicken fingers at restaurants) to always try things she didn’t like occasionally, because you never know when things can change. I live by that, in all aspects of my life. For example, growing up I was not much of a fan of soul, until the early ‘80s when I saw a VHS tape of Bill Withers doing a live version of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and it blew me away. On the way to work this morning, I was listening to James Brown’s “Open Up the Door (I’ll Get It Myself).” In other words, I approached the DVD documentary about the guitarist cautiously, but as open as I could, honestly hoping for the best.
Amusingly, Hackett was only in Genesis from 1970 to 1975 (not counting numerous reunion shows), and was also in the brief GTR. He has had a long string of solo releases, blending classical, prog (i.e., pretentious classical) and other forms of world music. This later phase interested me more, honestly.
I’m glad this is more a history than just performance, because I was definitely interested in him in a zeitgeist way rather than just seeing him play for an extended period, i.e., I wanted to know about the “musician” more than the “music,” to start.
The documentary begins with the beginning (a very good place to start), namely his childhood (born in 1950), and even has an interview bit with his mum. His love of Mario Lanza being a pre-Elvis influence is listed on a few sites, so this was no surprise (and no clips of the amazing Lanza, which is neither extraordinary nor expected). Part of this early period is discussed with his third wife, writer Jo Lehmann (listed as Jo Hackett here), and his brother.
There is quite a bit of detail given. I am glad to get some background on the guy, and I’m certain that there are the fanatical guitar fans that will drink up every word, but I believe that the sheer level of detail is if not overwhelming than more than I want to know. For example, it’s nice to have some childhood background, but it’s not that important to warrant this amount of time. And I will illustrate with this anecdote of my own, if you’re willing:
I went with a group of media-focused academics to visit Marshall McLuhan’s childhood home. They were all ooh-ing and ahh-ing all over the place. I asked the women who now owns it what was still there when McLuhan was present. Apparently it was a hallway light and a fixture upstairs in the bathroom (if I remember correctly). Then I asked how old he was, and it was pre-5 years old. So what brilliant thoughts did McLuhan have at that age, in a space that doesn’t represent hardly anything at all when he was there? I was baffled by that.
It’s a rookie mistake, I believe, when a documentary, biography or autobiography delves too deeply into a subject’s childhood. Really, it reflects, but it doesn’t warrant a vast amount of detail. As it is, this film is well over two hours. The time saved here alone would have been valuable; hell, they could have made the extreme close-up of any period an extra in the deleted scenes, and that would have been good. Of course, the beginning of his musicianship is spot on for being here, such as learning the harmonica and guitar (from his dad), including going from steel strings to nylon (a clip of him playing Spanish guitar) and back to electric steel.
For me, it starts to take off at around the 20-minute mark, when we see clips of the Steve Hackett Band on stage, and some interviews with band members; the start of his playing with Genesis begins at 40 minutes. Even at this point, it’s pretty obvious that the whole she-bang is a bit long-winded for the average viewer who is not either Genesis or Hackett superfans. This film could easily have an hour cut out of it as it rabbits on, way past the point of interest on my part. What he’s saying in each segment is interesting, but it just goes on too long.
There are snippets of music played throughout the film, including techniques he uses, most of which are Hackett playing directly for the camera, which is interesting. Also shown are some recent live clips of the Steve Hackett Band, but there isn’t much of the older material played other than short snips more for example in the background while talking by him and/or others, and nearly always the pieces he wrote rather than just played on (assuming for copyright purposes).
Yeah, the man can play, I have no doubt about that, and he gives examples of it as I said, but for me it’s more the context of what he is playing rather than method. For example, I believe Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey have amazing voices, but I do not enjoy listening to their warbling style. When he’s playing classical or Spanish styles, cool; when he delves into the prog style, my mind kept checking out and I really wanted to fast forward a bit.
Even though Hackett is best known as a member of Genesis, especially in North America, as I said he was actually only in it a very short time in his decades-long career. Not surprisingly though, a large second act is dedicated to his experience. Still, there is a lot of touching down in different aspects of the career path, or set pieces on styles, historical moments, songwriting, and more, each part announced with chapter titles. His Andres Segovia (d. 1987) tribute moments especially are sweet.
The film is obviously shot on HD video, and looks like it, which will probably really help with the Blu-Ray, if that is (or becomes) available. Most people shoot on digital and then doctor it look like film, but it’s nice that Groom goes with the reality look rather than with artistic effect (I ask with a bemused sarcasm, arguably the opposite of prog?).
There are lots of interviews, as well as the multitude of Hackett talking (which makes up the majority of the time), including his bandmates, Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, his long-time producer Roger King, and Chris Squire (d. 2015), the bassist of the prognoxious Yes (with whom Hackett played on Squire’s solo releases). The extra is a 10:48 extended conversation with Hackett and Squire.
Again, if you’re interested in Hackett, who seems like a genuinely nice guy, this will definitely satiate your curiosity.