Alex Chilton: Why Should I Care?
A documentary about one of rock's most influential & least understood artists. LET'S BREAK KICKSTARTER!
Alex Chilton: Why Should I Care?
A documentary about one of rock's most influential & least understood artists. LET'S BREAK KICKSTARTER!
This project will only be funded if it reaches its goal by Tue, August 20 2019 8:00 PM UTC +00:00.
“Alex Chilton was perhaps the quintessential rock & roll hero.” – David Marchese, ROLLING STONE
This feature length documentary explores the remarkable story of Alex Chilton, whose instant fame with a #1 hit record at age 16 was followed by a long and winding journey through works of neglected genius, darkness and obscurity before he was gradually discovered and rediscovered by fans, fellow musicians and critics. As the influence of his music continued to grow, he became a reluctant cult figure while staying true to his own eclectic and unpredictable muses. His is the story of a true artist - one whose life and career plainly present us with the question: what is the difference between fame and success?
I was in a unique position to launch this project. Being from our shared hometown of Memphis (where I first got to know Alex when he was in his twenties, and I was in my teens) I knew where to start, who to interview and where to dig for archives. And I could take my time in a way that benefited the depth and breadth of the research. So I dove in, on a wing and a prayer and with no budget.
With the cooperation of his estate, and the help of many of his friends, I took it on as a personal project but you can be certain it was never meant to be just another "fan" film or even a "friend" film. This is a serious documentary about a legendary, one-of-a-kind musician. A real film. A rare story.
It is one of those stories that should inevitably become a film. As interest in Alex’s life and music has grown, a biography was published by Viking Books, a documentary about Big Star, one of his groups, was released by Magnolia Pictures, and his records continue to be reissued by Omnivore Recordings and other labels. It is increasingly clear that Alex Chilton’s legacy will be a source of inspiration and curiosity for many years to come.
Your support through Kickstarter will strengthen this independent production and will help assure the film's completion.
WATCH THIS SAMPLER FOR MANY HINTS OF WHAT YOU'LL SEE IN THE FILM!
A GREAT STORY WAITING TO BE TOLD
“Chilton remains the most inscrutable rock musician not named Bob Dylan” -John Lingan, NEW REPUBLIC
He is one of the most unique and influential artists in modern American music, yet Alex Chilton remains famous for not being famous, like a secret handshake among true music lovers. The sweep of his career is almost without parallel. He started as a teenage pop star singing "blue-eyed soul" with The Box Tops in the late '60s before he joined and came to lead Big Star, the fabled masters of "power-pop," in the early '70s. He created misunderstood masterpieces through the '70s with Sister Lovers/Big Star's Third and Like Flies on Sherbet while also becoming immersed in the New York punk rock scene and producing the first and greatest records by the legendary "psychobilly" ensemble: The Cramps. He backed away from the microphone and became a guitar-slinging sideman in the ramshackle "art damage" group - the Pantherburns, and then retired from public performance altogether for awhile before rediscovering his chops by fronting the house band in a daquiri dive on New Orleans' infamous Bourbon Street. He reinvented himself as a solo performer and recording artist in the '80s and emerged as a hero of college radio - a pioneer of the "indie" music scene. As the popularity of his earlier recordings rose, he refused to sing most of those songs and became an interpreter of obscure tunes from most every genre - transitioning from the rebel who could scare your parents into the veteran who honored the music of the elders. His influence on younger musicians insured a growing cult status and brought tributes, kudos and covers from such artists as the Replacements, the Bangles, Cheap Trick, R.E.M., Counting Crows, Teenage Fanclub, Elliot Smith, Wilco and many more. He eventually relented to his own popularity and occasionally performed under the banners of his earlier groups - The Box Tops and Big Star. Ever the iconoclast of his own myths, his career had lasted long enough for him to become one of those elders worth honoring.
“Why wasn’t he (Chilton) everybody’s hero? ... I cry every time I hear it. It’s so simple. It blows away everything I’ll ever do.” Jeff Buckley speaking of Sister Lovers/Big Star's Third.
#3 Big Star: "When My Baby's Beside Me"
#2 - THE HOUSE WHERE ALEX GREW UP.
#1 Bangkok - Alex Chilton live in 1989
THE FILM - the work of a solo filmmaker - is well underway.
The Kickstarter campaign will fund completion of a film I began in 2011. I've gathered 50+ interviews and I've assembled a trove of archival material including rare photographs and performance footage. What I have accomplished as a one-man band is remarkable. But it's a big project and I will need some help to get it across the finish line.
"I know as well as I know the sun will come up tomorrow that Alex Chilton would HATE a documentary about him...but I also know as well as I know the sun will set tomorrow, that he would LOVE to know it would be David Julian Leonard doing it...because David ALWAYS got it, he got what Alex was doing...and if there ever was a labor of love, this doc will certainly take its rightful place among them” - Randy Chertow of The Randy Band (seminal group of the Memphis punk era)
• Finding Alex's Voice First
To construct the story, I look first for samples of Alex speaking for himself - in his own inimitable voice. He became wary of the media early in his career and rarely agreed to on camera interviews. Fortunately, many audio interviews were recorded by broadcasters and writers who have been kind enough to share their original recordings for the project (Robert Gordon, Parke Pauterburgh, Ben Sandmel, Bruce Eaton, Jonathan Valania, Martin Aston & others). Alex's candid reflections on his life's work come through clearly in these interviews. In editing every chapter of the film, I try first to draw from this archive of Alex's voice.
• Interviews With Musical Collaborators
The interviews for this film have been limited primarily to those who actually collaborated with Alex. We eschew "expert" commentary and rely on those who witnessed his creative process firsthand. We will hear from participants in the famous chapters of Alex's career as well as some of his more obscure musical excursions. I've shot interviews in Nashville, New Orleans, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, California, Georgia, Alabama, Paris, Glasgow, and of course Memphis. Pictured below are 16 of the 50 or so interviews "in-the-can".
Finding Rare Archival Footage & Photographs
My long approach to gathering material for the film has been rewarded with a collection of archival treasures that took some time to discover. Alex almost never allowed himself to be filmed onstage, but I've found plenty of footage that captured rare glimpses of his brilliance as a performer. He have video from the '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s including appearances with The Box Tops, Big Star and The Pantherburns as well as Chilton leading his own groups as a solo artist. Among the video contributors are:
Pat Rainer and Tav Falco, two of Memphis' first video artists, have allowed access to their original tapes from the '70s. Both were exposed to the experimental video artistry of William Eggleston and Randall Lyon who led a local movement of pioneers with a distinctive style of verité in the earliest days of "portable" video.
Danny Graflund, Alex's friend and former "bodyguard", entrusted me with another treasured box of tapes that became "Big Star: Live in Memphis". This 1994 performance may be the only complete concert Alex ever allowed to be filmed by a professional multi camera crew - yet the tapes remained unedited for nearly 20 years. I assembled the footage to find Alex giving a fabulous performance song after song. The complete concert film already has a life of its own as Omnivore Records released a DVD from the edit as well as vinyl and cd soundtracks. We have access to both the final edit and the raw footage from that performance.
I've found photographs and other memorabilia from many sources including Chilton's family's photo albums and the work of many fine photographers - some famous and some unknown.
Pat Rainer's photographs are finding a life of their own after I spent four days scanning her negatives from the late '70s for this film and realized she should have a show. I contacted the Stax Museum of American Soul in Memphis and they gave her a solo exhibition! The photographs she made of her long-time friend Alex and his collaborators offer candid views of his creative process for our film.
Editing Has Begun
It's coming together. For some sequences in the film we already have all the needed elements. I'm thrilled with what I see while editing these and I've shared completed sequences with just a handful of folks.
“When I see these edits, my first thought is this is what a REAL documentary looks like. This is what a REAL film looks like. I was blown away with the attention you put into it. It was a joy to watch and a beautiful homage to Alex. Your passion can be felt in every single second.“ - David Godlis, NYC photographer who captured iconic images of the late ‘70s punk explosion.
What's The Kickstarter Money For? What's Still Left To Do?
Honestly, I need a boost if I'm going to get this massive project across the finish line. I need a budget to work on it full-time for a while. Focused and uninterrupted concentration is what this kind of edit requires. And I need to bring in a few other pros to do some things I cannot expect someone else to do for free. It's that simple.
Some of those costs include:
• editor/consulting editor - the critical step when we need a fresh set of eyes
• shoot final footage - mostly for bits that are precisely suggested by the edit including "tabletop" illustrations and b-roll
• graphics and animation - will facilitate storytelling transitions and sometimes we just need to add a little visual pizzazz - includes working with artists to create motion elements to animate the voice of Alex
• sound mix - sweetening the sound
• color correction - sweetening the picture
• production/legal coordination - to tie up loose ends
• festival submission fees and marketing expenses
Who Was Alex Chilton? - A Quick Guide
• Alex grew up in a house full of art & music in Memphis. His father, a jazz musician, hosted frequent jam sessions around the living room piano. His mother ran an art gallery throughout the home. Aspiring photographer William Eggleston, a close family friend, had a darkroom in the Chilton guest house.
• Chilton dropped out of high school to become a pop star at age 16 after recording a #1 hit, The Letter, as lead singer of The Box Tops on his very first recording session. He got a quick education in the highs and lows of the music business while riding a whirlwind through late '60s pop culture as The Box Tops recorded more records and toured with groups like The Doors and The Beach Boys. He received formative guitar lessons from Beach Boy Carl Wilson and through Dennis Wilson he met Charles Manson.
• In the early '70s he joined Big Star, another Memphis group, who started as a quartet until founder Chris Bell quit, leaving Alex to lead the band as a trio. Despite stellar reviews in the press, their record sales were thwarted by poor distribution. The legendary status of Big Star has steadily risen as their music finds an ever-growing audience and inspires new generations of musicians. All three of the original LPs attributed to Big Star are now listed among Rolling Stone's "500 greatest albums of all time".
• At the height of NYC’s 1977 punk explosion Alex played regularly at CBGB, Maxwell’s, etc. In New York he met The Cramps, the incomparable "psychobilly" group who he brought to Memphis to produce their first records: Gravest Hits and Songs the Lord Taught Us.
• In the late '70s Chilton abandoned any pretense of commercial ambition while blazing his own trail with rawer and rootsier music. His solo album Like Flies on Sherbert confounded some fans while others considered it a "lo-fi masterpiece." He embraced even more primitive expressions as guitarist with Tav Falco's Pantherburns, a neo-rockabilly "art damage" ensemble. By the end of the decade he had created a significant body of work for which he was not being paid and had developed an unpredictable reputation. Much of his work at the time could only be found as bootlegs.
• In 1982 he quit drinking and moved to New Orleans where he took a hiatus from public performing while working a series of odd jobs (dishwasher in a restaurant, janitor in a nightclub, trimming trees away from power lines, etc.) He then returned to public performance in 1984 by fronting the house band at Papa Joe's, a daiquiri dive on New Orleans' Bourbon Street. He worked 5 days a week and sharpened his chops by playing cover songs for tourists who had no idea who he was.
• In the mid '80s he reinvented himself and returned to the road with his own trio and a new repertoire. He played few of his own songs while becoming a kind of musical archaeologist - digging up obscure songs from many genres. To support new releases he made for the French New Rose record label he toured Europe and the U.S. many times and emerged as a hero of college radio - a pioneer of the "indie" music scene.
• When The Bangles’ hit cover of “September Gurls”, a song he wrote, brought him his first real “mailbox money” in the late ‘80s, he bought some land and lived in a tent for a while.
• In '87 The Replacements recorded a song called Alex Chilton as a tribute to his influence.
• From the '80s on - Chilton shared his talents by producing many younger bands, sometimes for little or no money. The Gories, a Detroit garage rock trio, The Lolitas (from France) and New Orleans' Royal Pendletons were among his favorites. His easy-going approach was famous; he often napped during recording sessions to "help the band relax".
• In the early '90s he discovered kindred spirits in Scotland's vibrant pop music scene and made numerous trips to Glasgow, where he befriended and collaborated with members of BMX Bandits and Teenage Fanclub.
• From the '90s on he began to embrace the popularity of his earlier work. He occasionally performed in a revived Big Star with original drummer Jody Stephens and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies. He revisited his work with The Box Tops by performing on oldies tours and reuniting with original members in shows where Alex would play no instrument and simply sing as the "stick man".
• Beginning in the late'90s Cheap Trick's version of In the Street, a Big Star song co-written by Chilton and Chris Bell, became the theme song of That '70s Show, a hit TV sitcom. Alex, finally earning steady mailbox money, stayed in the ancient little house he'd bought for $12,000 in New Orleans' Tremé neighborhood.
• In 2010, Alex Chilton died in New Orleans, his adoptive hometown of nearly three decades. He had comfortably settled into the role of a seasoned music veteran. He revered the rich local music scene and enjoyed occasionally backing other musicians, younger and older than himself, as a sideman. He would play bass or guitar in this role and, trying not to attract attention, sometimes used the pseudonym of "Norman Desmond".
Risks and challenges
Goals, Risks & Challenges
The first goal is for the film to premier in 2020.
The minimum we will accomplish with the help of this funding is the completion of a film that is ready to screen at festivals (and to be posted online for our supporters = YOU - to view) With the ever-increasing interest in Chilton and his music, I am confident we will find festivals who would love to show this film. In fact, I've already received invitations from smaller festivals based solely on the film's website and trailer at: https://www.alexchilton.rocks
We will aim for the top and submit to the finest festivals - festivals where deals are made - with the goal of finding distribution. This is the challenge for most independent films: to find an outlet, or outlets, who will pay for the right to show our film. Chilton's reputation will surely open a few doors and a well-made documentary about him should easily find an audience beyond the festival circuit. I have already received inquiries from smaller distribution outlets who want to see the finished film. And they will. But we will first offer larger distribution outlets a chance to give the film the widest audience possible. It is a multilayered process but at the core of it we must simply make a good film.
We can deliver a high-quality production at a bargain price but to be perfectly clear, we do not expect our minimum Kickstarter budget to cover the cost of licensing all the music. A lot of material will come from friendly sources and we have allies in the music business who will help negotiate music clearances but we are proceeding with the plan that much of that cost should be covered through the film's distribution (broadcast, streaming, theatrical, etc.).
Of course, we'll LOVE it if the Kickstarter campaign exceeds our minimum goal and we can start to pay off those music licenses and make it easier for outlets to pick up the show for distribution in markets large and small. If we have a truly stellar success and double, or maybe triple, our goal to pay for all those clearances, it could guarantee the film will be offered to wider audiences.
Please show your support and donate as much as you can to the ultimate realization of the film.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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