SXSW Film 2012
By Dirk Sonniksen | March 21, 2012
Director: Don Letts
Who can teach up-and-coming photographers a thing or two about making it big in rock ‘n’ roll photography? Bob Gruen: taker of photographs and luckiest rock ‘n’ roll groupie ever. Gruen began his career snapping photos of a very energetic Tina Turner, circa the Ike Turner days. From there Bob would land gigs photographing Bob Dylan, KISS, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and Led Zeppelin, to name a few. Some might believe it was some crazed party-prowess Gruen possessed that made him a favorite with rockers; in fact, it was Gruen’s ability to become invisible, his “not-in-your-face” vibe winning the hearts of some very influential musicians.
Considering Gruen’s in-the-moment approach to photography, he admittedly wasn’t the greatest at focusing his camera (at least before auto-focus). What Bob lacked in technique he made up for in spontaneity. Some of Gruen’s best photos were taken quickly, including a very psychedelic shot of Tina Turner, and a group shot of Led Zeppelin standing in front of their plane (formerly Elton John’s, but Zep painted it). It was this emotive style of rock ‘n’ roll photography that would begin to make a name for Bob Gruen, most notably in New York City, where he would ultimately become known for photographing a music “movement” that included The Ramones, The New York Dolls, and Blondie. Yeah, that movement.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen attempts to chronicle the rise of many of the influential bands in the ‘70s (and beyond), while representing Bob Gruen as a photographer your mother could love. By the beginning of the late ‘70s, there were prominent artists that loved Gruen and his approach to photography, including John & Yoko, who allowed Gruen to be the ultimate voyeur of sorts, capturing some very intimate photos of Lennon and Ono. Gruen would also photograph the mayhem-making of the Sex Pistols (they really seemed to hit it off) and fellow British rockers The Clash at their most defiant. The connection between the music scene brewing in New York and the angst-laden sound in England was not lost on director Don Letts, with Gruen pointing out the music and styes apparently exported by “Englishman in New York” Malcolm McClaren, and then imported into Britain.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Exposed does an exceptional job of showing off Bob Gruen’s photography—possibly too much of it. This documentary is long, which shouldn’t be a problem with this content and this reviewer. Perhaps one of the documentary’s biggest flaws is the tendency to focus a bit much on Gruen’s relationship with John Lennon & Yoko Ono. It’s no doubt that Gruen’s association with the two did much to shape his career, but it becomes a mini-documentary within a documentary, which gives Rock ‘n’ Roll Exposed a very lopsided feel.
To complicate things (and I so didn’t want to complicate this one), it’s just a really jerky documentary, with strange sequencing and choice of interviewees: it’s Bob’s assistant over and over, and Billie Joe Armstrong over and over and over; I love ya Billie, but I’d rather see Debbie Harry naked. Even with the amazing photography (and Bob’s actually kind of funny), this beast gets tedious. And the ending? Here’s Bob “making a living” off of his work, but it is so not this documentary. It was great to see Gruen finally banking off of some great work, but it looks like an infomercial for Adobe Photoshop (or a bad community college), and it started to really get old…like within ten seconds.
So what have we learned? We have learned that really kick-ass pictures of rock ‘n’ roll stars might possibly make for a really kick-ass documentary thirty or forty years later, as long as you have some stellar editing and a talented director. Unfortunately, Letts was not that director, and as a result, the beauty of these photographs (and the moments…) suffered. We’ve also learned that in the end, hard work can make guys like Bob Gruen a camera bag full of money (I’m assuming). Is Bob Gruen the luckiest guy in the world (as far as rock ‘n’ rollers are concerned)? Hell yes, he is. But even with the luck element, Bob did have the brains and the guts to put himself out there, and he learned how to work a crowd, a task that does not come naturally to many. Gruen turned his passion for seizing a moment into a lifelong career. That his work has been celebrated through the wondrous vehicle of the documentary film is…wondrous, but it would have been even more so had it been done properly.