Thursday, August 25, 2016

DVD Review: Louder than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

Louder than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story
Produced and directed by Tony D’Annunzio
74 minutes, 2016

When most people think of music from Detroit in the ‘60s to ‘70s, the first bound to come to mind is Motown. Great stuff, no doubt, but there was more to the city than that. Out of the industrial city came a thunder of guitars, unprecedented attitude, and attack-mode rock from a venue called the Grande Ballroom. The title of the documentary comes from the music of the Grande being more voluminous than another club called Love a few blocks over, but I also think it could be interpreted as being louder than most of the other music from either Coast during that Summer of Love. The MC5, the Stooges (with Iggy Pop), Alice Cooper, the Frost, and even the Amboy Dukes rose out of the Grande to change the face of music and prepare the way for the punk movement that was to come nearly a decade later out of New York.

The Grande Ballroom (pronounced Grand-ee), however, was not the “Detroit CBGBs,” but more like an explosive Fillmore (pick East or West), in which many of the touring rock bands, such as the Who, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Cream would play on their way across the States.

Though actually only around for a relatively short while (1967-1972), the effect on American – and British for that matter – music is undeniable. Sure the Stones had Toronto as their fave place, but the Who were so enamoured with the Grande that they premiered Tommy on its stage. Alice Cooper points out here that the talent level on that stage so was high that it was either get better to get lost. To inspire bands, the crowd was known to shout out, you got it, “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!” which is the origin of the MC5’s infamous and ground-breaking call to arms.

The amount of interviews throughout the documentary are staggering including nearly all surviving members of the MC5, Roger Daltry, Alice Cooper, Dick Wagner (d. 2014), BB King (d. 2014), Slash, Lemmy (d. 2015), Grand funk Railroad’s Mark Farner, the omnipresent Henry Rollins (who was 11 years old when the club closed, but is acknowledged to be a huge Stooges fan), Stooges’ second guitarist James Williamson, and even scuzzbucket right wing nutcase Ted Nugent (while I didn’t necessarily need to hear anything he had to say, the Amboy Dukes were an amazing band). No Iggy, though, FYI.

For me, one of the important interviews was with Russ Gibb, who was the owner and founder of the Grande, on the level of Bill Graham without the ego. Well, him and most of the staff of the place are interviewed in detail with lots of anecdotes. Which brings me to:

There are three themes in this that are worth nothing. First and foremost are the interviews, including with Ruth Hoffman, a self-described groupie who tells a tale of getting drunk with someone and comparing men’s butts, only to find the person get up on stage and it’s Janis Joplin. Or, the stories of the whole audience participating in loading up a band’s gear so they can make it to the airport. Then there’s someone bringing Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker to their parents’ home for supper. There are these, along with the “The Stooges!” “Alice Cooper!” “The Who!” meshugas.

Second, there are the images. I am not talking about the talking heads interviews, I mean both the live footage and stills from the day that show just how extreme the entire scene quickly became. There’s everything from onstage action to, well, Eric and Ginger at the family supper.
What I found also interesting was the juxtaposition shots of what the Grande looked like then and its condition now, but more on that later.

For me, the weakest spot is the use of music. Listen, I understand that if all the music discussed would be played as a focal point, this film would be about 20 hours long. That being said, most the sounds you hear are in the background; it runs through the whole film, but little of it is identified except in the song credits at the end. Also, in most cases, it’s snippets… well, probably, because it is in the background under the dialog, so it’s hard to pay attention to it except peripherally. But if that’s the biggest complaint I have, it’s a mere four bars considering the magnitude of the story behind it.

There are a number of really nice extras. The first, at nearly 16 minutes, is “Grande Tales,” which is further interviews (with no indication of who is talking, so watch the film first). At nearly a half hour, you can see what their infamous light shows looked like (sans sound… or mind altering substances). After the 5-minute long trailer, there’s “Dave Miller Grande Wedding,” at nearly 4 minutes. Dave was the MC, and his wedding show was infamous among the inner circle; he wore outrageous make-up that makes Alice Cooper’s look moderate, and it’s also silent, as is the next 10-minute long “Dave Miler’s Home Movies” (I’m guessing 16mm), where he shoots various band members at his parent’s house. It’s a lot of fuzzy fun. Last up is “Belle Isle Love In” (1967), another silent home movie lasting over 5 minutes that focuses in on the audience (especially the women) as much as the bands.

When the Grande closed in 1972 (though there is no mention of why here), the building was abandoned and is in a state of severe disrepair. Watching the comparison shots of the place then and now is both fascinating and heartbreaking. Personally, I’d love to see it become a heritage building, and have the Detroit government not only fix it up, but turn it into a museum. But, of course, Detroit is broke, so that’s not gonna happen anytime soon.

Considering the number of talking heads, the stories are fascinating enough to keep the viewers’ interest for the entire time, and D’Annunzio keeps his ego in check to make this just the right length to do that. A must for anyone who is into rock history, the nascent beginnings of punk, or just love to hear stories about that period. A visual kicking out of the jams.

Bonus video (not on DVD):

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