Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet
Directed by Liam Firmager
Utopia; Screen Australia; Film Victoria; Acme Film Company Production; Madmen Films
100 minutes, 2020
My first experience of Suzi Quatro was on May 5, 1975, when I went to see Alice Cooper play at Madison Square Garden as part of the Welcome to My Nightmare Tour. Our seats were literally the last row of the upper balcony, facing the stage; you could not get any further away. Suzi was less than an inch tall from that distance. As it is, she is petite, but her sound was humongous, and made an impression on me (more than Cooper, quite honestly; it was my second time to see him there). The next day I went out and bought the then-recently released Your Mamma Won’t Like Me album, during her funkier period (the same month I would see the Ramones for the first time).
Women in rock seemed to come in waves up until the mid-‘70s: the first innovators were in the 1950s who never really got the credit they deserved, such as Wanda Jackson, which lasted until after the Shangri-Las’ boom of girl groups through early ‘60s. Then there were the blues rockers, such as Grace Slick and ended with the death of Janis Joplin. The next wave started a few years after Joplin’s 1970 passing, when Quatro released her eponymous proto-punk/metal album in 1973.
With songs like “Devil Gate Drive” and “Can the Can,” through her MTV-fueled “Rock Hard,” her vocals and starting with the employment of a huge 1957 Fender Precision bass hit a strong note. It’s been over 50 years since she started at age 14, but the story of that journey is the bassist – I mean, basis of this Australian documentary.
Suzi was huge all over the world, selling tens of millions of records, but here in the US of A, she was barely promoted by her record distributor (though she did make the cover of the Rolling Stone) and her sales were flat in her own ‘hood, relatively speaking. That’s part of why, even though she was born and raised in the Grosse Pointe area of Detroit, she has spent most of her life in England, starting the very early 1970s when she was brought over by infamous producer Mickey Most. All across the globe she was a presence on television on shows like “Top of the Pops,” but I remember mostly import LPs in stores that dealt with those (such as Disc-O-Rama on 8th Street, off McDougal, where I bought most of the early punk releases, but I digress…).
With hits all over the world but never really respected on a level she deserved in her own country, no wonder she stayed in the UK. Though I liked Suzi’s music, I really didn’t know much about her or her career. That is part of why I was so excited about this documentary, for which Suzi is incredibly deserving and involved. The fact that her first big hit in the States was a limp duet with Chris Norman, “Stumblin’ In,” shows how shallow the tastes of the mainstream American audience had become at the time.
Most documentaries, including this one, focus mainly on the high moments of fame, but one of the aspects I found interesting was the earlier years, covered in the first 15-20 minutes, when she was part of a “family” band of her sisters, starting with The Pleasure Seekers, which transformed into Cradle. One thing missing from here that I found interesting is the lack of mention of the only male in Cradle, future New York Dolls and Heartbreakers (with Johnny Thunders, not Tom Petty) drummer Jerry Nolan, who became involved with one of the sisters. Not even a picture, and there are lots of the band. But then again, this isn’t about him or the sister, but more my own personal interests.
Upon her fame in the mid-1970s, this documentary touches on two points I would have liked to have heard more of, and that is how she challenged the Glam scene (nice comment here about how Suzi’s band didn’t see themselves as Glam because Suzi was the only member “who wore make-up,” much like the Ramones didn’t consider themselves punk), rivaling the charts with artists like Marc Bolan, David Bowie, and Sweet (guitarist Andy Scott is interviewed here). The other is more of a social context of Feminism pushback by the British press, postulated by the juxtaposition in that at first people complained that women weren’t allowed to rock like the boys, and then grumbled when they did just that, threatening the machismo machine of rock and roll. Both While this is not a complaint, really, Glam and Feminism are given a couple of minutes each. I am glad at least they were addressed.
I am amused that there is a section devoted just to Suzi’s first Aussie tour in 1974. Of course, this actually makes sense, as footage is more readily available there for this home-grown piece. Again, this is more of an area I’m not familiar with in Suzi’s career, so I am incredibly grateful for the footage and information.
The film also rightfully focuses on the magnitude of the influence Suzi has had on the lives and careers of other musicians. So many women have picked up music as a vocation thanks to Suzi, including members of The Runaways (here represented by vocalist Cherie Currie, guitarist Joan Jett looking “Cher-ized,” and lead guitarist Lita Ford), The Go-Go’s (bassist Kathy Valentine), and Talking Heads and The Tom Tom Club (bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Franz).
Interviews also include (but not only), alphabetically, Rodney Bingenheimer (KROQ DJ), Clem Burke (Blondie drummer), Mike Chapman (1970s British record producer), Alice Cooper, John ”Norwood” Fisher (Fishbone), Deborah Harry (Blondie), Garry Marshall (producer of “Happy Days”; d. 2016), Don Powell (Slade drummer), Donita Sparks (L7 guitarist and vocals), Suzi’s ex-husband and member of the Suzi Quatro band Len Tuckey, KT Tunstall, and of course, the Fonz, Henry Winkler (“Happy Days”). Members of her family, including her sister Patti, who would become a member of Fanny, and brother Michael, who was her manager in the early days, are also represented.
But don’t think that this is just another one of those talking head interview extravaganzas. Hardly. This is jam packed with rare footage of Suzi playing live, photos of her on and off the stage (childhood, backstage, onstage, living her life), press and magazine covers, and clips of rare interviews (e.g., on the radio such as Rodney on the ROQ, and television mainly in the UK and Australia).
The best, of course, is the direct interviews with Suzi herself. She is extremely candid, bright-eyed, and humorous looking back on her 70 years, nearly 55 of them in the public eye. It’s obvious that her contribution was taken over a period of time, because we see her in different settings, rather than just the one-camera-one-shot that is so common with these kinds of biography films.
Then, there is also the music. Lots of music. No song is shown complete, but there are clips of her recordings and live shows, and all of it is quite thrilling, actually, giving a decent overall picture of why she was/is such a role model. Most people with whom I have talked about Suzi seem to know her mostly as Leather Tuscadero, during her stint on “Happy Days.” In my opinion, this role kind of put a dent in her reputation as a foundation artist, but she bounced back. Also, it was the mortar to what would become a strong acting career.
So many life documentaries are formulaic with interviews mixed with some photos or videos. Firmager mixes it up quite a bit. There is also a nice intermingling of genders, which I find to be often lacking in these kinds of adventures, especially for that period of rock and roll. In addition, I would like to point out that nearly all the people who talk about Suzi are those who are first-person connections, rather than merely journalists or writers spouting second-hand retellings, (such as, “In [date] at [location], the story goes that Suzi did this such thing…”). This is an incredibly well-assembled account of the life of a career musician.
Though the main focus is the height of Suzi’s career in the mid- to late-1970s, the beginning and the later British West End stage acting phases of her life are not glossed over, which is good because I did not know a lot of it.
As the film was ending, I checked in with myself and realized I had an unconscious smile on my face. Honestly, I have been wanting to see the film since its Australian opening in November of 2019. Was it worth the wait? Oh, hell, yeah, it – err – rocks hard.