Sunday, December 30, 2018

Documentary Review: Otway, the Movie: Rock & Roll’s Greatest Failure

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

Otway, the Movie: Rock & Roll’s Greatest Failure
Directed by Steve Barker
[No company listed]
97 minutes, 2013

When discussing cult legends, certain names continually come up, like Alex Chilton, Nick Drake, Willie Alexander, and for those in the know, British musician John Otway is up on that list. His fans are fanatical and essentially paid for this documentary, for which I am grateful to be able to finally catch up on viewing.

Y’see, I interviewed the dude in New York for my ‘zine FFanzeen back in 1980 (HERE), and more recently (relatively) reviewed his second autobiography (HERE). He’s a charming dude whose skills include amazing live performances, lyrics that can be either completely deep and emotional or simply silly and whack-a-doodle, and he’s an expert in manipulation. I mean that, of course, in a totally respectful and admiring way. But more on that later.

While most of what is covered in this documentary is also in the book I reviewed, there is a difference. First, let me state that the autobio is a great read, and recommend it either way, as Otway ha a sharp turn of a phrase. But the opening minutes of the documentary show why this film is so special when he see him performing his signature hit, “Beware of the Flowers ‘Cause I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You (Yeah),” in front of a huge hometown crowd in Aylesbury, outside London, in 1978. There ae a lot of performances here, and if I may be so bold, perhaps a compilation of live shows over the years for a next project?

Having seen him play in New York, I know he’s an exciting performer. And at the time I interviewed him (the day before he played) I learned that yeah, he can be a bit of a (in his own words) prat. He had rock star idealism and especially an ego that both served him well and also helped torpedo what might have been a solid career. He worked against his own self-interests by focusing only on his self-interests in the past, isolating his partner at the time, the appropriately titled guitarist Wild Willie Barrett.

Let me digress here a moment… In the late 1990s, I saw a “Teen Idol” show. The opening was Bobby Sherman, who had a moment of stardom only to have it fade quickly. He was gracious and really happy to be there. The middle act was Davy Jones (d. 2012), someone who had a similar path, but was obviously bitter to the point where the person next to me started to cry.

My point is, Otway falls somewhere in the middle. When I interviewed him way back when, I had (and have) no issues with him at all. If the fame had stuck, who knows where his ego would have taken him; I imagine not to good places, considering what he did with his first Polydor paycheck, as shown in this film. However, with his being a “rock and roll failure,” his perspective is different than when we met, and he seems (to this viewer) to appreciate what he has, rather than expecting it.

The arrogance part has transformed into something else: exuberance, which I would more accurately call chutzpah. By accepting and embracing his fate as a “rock and roll failure” (much as Leonard Nimoy did with Spock), this opened up a whole new world of self-promotion that led him to rent out some of the biggest and prestigious halls in England to perform in as marketing himself (and yet real gigs), and sell them out. Once the Internet opened in the early 1990, Otway was one of the first musicians to not only embrace the technology, but used/uses it to his own advantage in, again, self-marketing. Brilliant albeit scary stuff to his (again) management, who knew that if it didn’t work, the finances would be disastrous. But they did it and most of the time succeeded.

Watching the film, you can see the sparkle in Otway’s eyes as even he is amazed at what he has gotten away with over the years. And it seems like as scary as it was/is, he is enjoying it wholeheartedly. My question, and of course there is no way to know this, is if his success had been ongoing rather than a very bumpy road, would he still be so appreciative?

Otway uses his teaching of a music business class at the Grange School in Aylesbury as the framework for the film, going back and forth between his lecture that is frank yet fun and informative, and additional interviews with himself and others, some of which are archival, though most are for the documentary. Nearly all these are with first-hand people, such as musicians who played with him like Wild Willie and Steve Harley, his management team that has worked hard to help Otway meet most of his outrageous dreams, media personalities like Bob Harris of the “Old Grey Whistle Stop,” and various producers, including the great John Peel and Neil Innes. Mixing my metaphors, that’s just scratching the iceberg.

By far, though, it’s Otway’s fans – and this focuses more on those in England of course – that have saved his ass on numerous occasions (and I mean that in the best of ways), helping him finance his dreams, fill the halls, and give him a 50 birthday present of a second Top 10 hit 25 years after his first in 1978. He even let the fans choose which song to put into the stores (they chose disco-ish “Bunsen Burner”; I would have picked “Too Much Air, Not Enough Oxygen”)

Documentaries can be a bit dry, but this one is episodic to the point of being epic, and there is absolutely not a minute that is wasted, even when it’s just people talking. The projects, the ambition, the successes and the failures are all part of a complex musical life of someone who is a bit manic, bold, and exceedingly talented.

Now, let’s make this the big documentary, proper!



Bonus Videos:





  1. Nice article, is there a password for that Vimeo link available?

    1. John had graciously given a temporary password to the public for a limited time around Christmas 2018. Now it is back to being a pay-to-view. I have no control of that, and I would never share a private screener password anyway. 8)

      Hey, the man's gotta make a living! 8)