One of the most infamous statements in rock music was uttered in 2014 when Gene Simmons of KISS declared in a Rolling Stone interview that “Rock is finally dead.” Just a few weeks ago, while doing publicity for a 2020 New Year’s Eve concert in Dubai he reiterated that feeling in an interview with Gulf News, saying “Rock is dead. And that’s because new bands haven’t taken the time to create glamour, excitement and epic stuff.”
Jonathan McHugh and Gary Spivack certainly have something to say about that. They are the director and producer of a documentary appropriately titled Long Live Rock, a film that focuses on hard rock and heavy metal music and the warm, respectful relationship that exists between the musicians and their fans. McHugh and Spivack have deep roots in the genre, both as admirers and professionals. The seed of what would become Long Live Rock was planted a few years ago and most of the filming took place at the 2017 Rock on the Range Festival in Columbus, Ohio.
Taking advantage of technology, both McHugh and Spivack spoke with Screamer in a recent interview via Zoom. McHugh started telling the story: “Gary and I met each other at Elektra back in the day. Years later he was working for one of the largest rock festival promoters in the country, and he brought me an idea for a documentary. I’d been producing films for a number of years, all spinning out of music. Gary would invite his friends who are more into alternative music to these hard rock festivals, and most times I would say ‘Yeah, I don’t know if I want to go to Columbus [Ohio, site of the annual Rock on the Range festivals]. I’d been out of it. I’d moved on to other types of music. But for the tenth anniversary of Rock on the Range he had booked Metallica, and this really brought me back in a way. It got me back to what my childhood was. This music was everything. There were the disco people, there were the rock people. I was always a rock person and l never left that. I still love Rage and Zeppelin and Sabbath and Metallica.” McHugh pauses the narrative to thank his partner, saying “Gary, thank you by the way for bringing me back. So we just went from there. I told Gary that this culture is so important, so interesting, people crowd surfing and moshing, this is a unique world that most people can never get close to, don’t want to, but what if we did a film about it? Why don’t we just do it?”
“Gary and I are tennis players and softball players and we’ve known each other for 25 years. Gary is not a New Yorker, but he rolls like a New Yorker. He rolls hard like that. And we just figured out how to do this. My cinematographer loves rock music; his favorite band of all time is Gojira, who were scheduled to headline Stage Three on Day One. So I told him ‘Hey, Jordan, we’re going to go to Columbus, Ohio. I’ll buy your plane ticket, Gary will get a hotel, we’re going to interview a bunch of rock bands, and we’re going to build a sizzle reel and try and make a movie about this culture.’ And that is what we did. We jumped in with two feet, put our own money into doing it, and started shooting.”
Long Live Rock has plenty of interviews and concert footage of musicians, including Lars Ulrich, Rob Zombie, Lzzy Hale, Tom Morello, Duff McKagan and many, many others. But this movie differs from other concert documentaries in that it spends as much time with fans and support staff as the musicians. There is extensive footage following groups of fans as they gather in preparation of making the pilgrimage to the festival; people from every walk of life, from blue collar to white collar. There’s the ex-convict and his former jailer, the dentist, and the wheelchair-bound crowd surfer. At the concert there are interviews with the college football coach and his linemen who are working security. Spivack says that this was the intention, as a straight live concert documentary never appealed to him. “When we decided to go for this, Metallica was booked, so we wanted to really explore the fandom of it. We wanted to capture the culture and not only get the talking heads of all these great rock bands and artists, but to hear about it from the fans. To make it a real fan movie, a real love letter to…well, McHugh knows what I’m going to say next, this beloved genre, this beloved but very misunderstood genre known as rock and hard rock. I think we’ve captured that in this movie. Not only is this movie really a love letter to the core fan, but we wanted to turn people on who don’t know, who are on the fence about this music. Hopefully this doc will turn that person, that fence sitter around and they will become a fan as well.”
One of the most fascinating segments of the movie is when it explores how this love of heavy music has been passed from generation to generation. At a concert it is possible to see a father, son and grandson (or mother, daughter and granddaughter for that matter) all headbanging to their heart’s delight. At face value it seems improbable until you stop and think how long we’ve been listening to this music. Arguably, the first record that can legitimately be called “heavy metal” was Black Sabbath’s self-titled release in 1970. That’s an incredible half-century ago, plenty of time for the torch of metal to be passed from oldest to youngest. As McHugh explains, “My son grew up in California, but my son’s a Yankee fan because I’m a Yankee fan. I’m a die-hard New York Yankee fan because I grew up in New York. If you grow up liking Iron Maiden, odds are that your son will like Iron Maiden. As we were at the festivals, I would notice little kids. There’s one shot of this five-year old girl crowdsurfing, which was insane, but there were also fathers and grandfathers and parents…I thought it was beautiful because it’s not everyday that you can see that passing along your love for something and your kids get it. Sometimes they just don’t care what you like, as a matter of fact, they actually want to go the other way. If you like something, they don’t want to like it. So seeing this love of music being handed down was a really nice thing I found in this community.”
Other segments of the film explore what’s it’s like to be a female in a male-dominated music genre. Interviews include female fans as well as Lzzy Hale of Halestorm and Maria Brink of In This Moment. One particularly humorous moment is when Hale tells the story of when people mistake her for a member of the crew or a groupie, such as the time when a guy said to her “Nice of you to change the strings on your boyfriend’s guitar,” only to be chagrinned later seeing her onstage. There are also interviews and footage of girls describing what it’s like to be in a male-dominated mosh pit, and how to crowd surf—and survive.
There are many scenes in the film where fans and musicians describe how much the music means to them, and how excited they get as concert day gets closer and closer. The stories are uplifting, motivational and inspiring. However, about two-thirds into the movie, things take a decidedly darker turn due to an event that could never have been anticipated in preproduction and created a huge dilemma for the filmmakers on how to present it tactfully and respectfully.
Friday, May 19, 2017, was the first day of the three-day Rock on the Range festival. It was the tenth anniversary of the event, and the headliner for that first day was Soundgarden. McHugh had a long history with the band, going back to when he was Director of A&R/Soundtracks at A&M Records, the label Soundgarden was signed to. “I was so excited because I had put Chris Cornell and Soundgarden in the movie Basketball Diaries when I worked at A&M. It was one of my proudest moments because I loved Soundgarden. I went up to Seattle and tried to find a screening room to get those guys to show up, and they all showed up for the movie and we went to dinner afterward and had a great time. I kept in touch with the band and Susan Silver [the band’s manager] for years after that.”
The day before Soundgarden was to perform at the festival, McHugh got a call at at six in the morning from Gary. ‘Chris Cornell’s dead.’ I was stunned and replied, ‘What are you talking about?’” The conversation was very short, and Spivack abruptly said he had to go and they would talk later. McHugh continues the narrative of that horrible day. “So we show up at the venue at noon and there on the dressing room door is Soundgarden’s name and Gary…I’ve never told you this but you really did amaze me. I assumed you were going to drop the ball 100 percent on me that day because you had to, but you didn’t. You multitasked and still got the shit that needed to be done.”
Spivack replies “That was also my way of coping with it, to stay really busy. It was an absolute heartbreaker.”
In the movie, there is an extensive record of what happened that day, as Spivack struggled to figure out how the festival could possibly go on with the loss, and how to pay a respectful tribute to Cornell on extremely short notice. The segment really needs to be seen to fully appreciate how everything came together so quickly, as simply reading about it doesn’t come close to showing how stressful and complex it all was. That said, reading the “behind the scenes” story helps understand the timeline of those hectic days, and how it affected the subsequent direction of the documentary.
McHugh continues, “So anyway, I tried to film with Gary that day as this triage was happening, wondering what he was going to do? And he says to me ‘I can’t let you in the bunker.’ I think that was also the same day of a storm…there were a couple of storms moving in. We had to evacuate the building, and find a headliner, and produce a movie, all in the same day. Gary gets an all-star award for that. But anyway, we weren’t going to use that footage, but what happened was we knew I couldn’t start an interview with a musician saying cheerfully ‘Hey man, what’s up!’ Most of them knew Chris Cornell and were friendly with him so his passing was the opening of each interview that weekend.”
“I had all those interviews in the can, but we didn’t plan to use it as we’re making this feel-good movie. So I said ‘Gary, who else haven’t we interviewed?’ He replied ‘ Linkin Park.’ OK, let me work on them. We start thinking about that, and then Chester Bennington dies. I said ‘Gary, we’ve got to open up this door, it’s too important.’ I know these people called ‘The Party Crew’ and they email me all the time and we do stuff with them. Earlier, I had filmed an interview with one of the members and she talked about three of her family members dying from opioid and heroin addiction. Three people in one family. I think it was two brothers and a mother.”
The film pivots from showing raucous concert scenes to attempting to show how devastating addiction is and how difficult the recovery process can be. Among the people interviewed are Dr. Drew Pinsky, a well-known figure in radio and television, who has many years experience dealing with chemical dependency. McHugh also reached out to his network of friends in the music industry to further explore this subject. The Recording Academy, which is most known for presenting the GRAMMY Awards, has a program called MusiCares with the mission statement of “MusiCares provides a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need.” Part of that need is assistance for those with substance abuse issues.
“I reached out to Harold Owens from MusiCares and Jeff Jampol who I co-produced the Janis Joplin movie with who’s a big recovery guy. Then another weird thing happened. We had interviewed Dorothy [Dorothy Martin, who fronts the band named for her] the year before, and she was drinking at the time. Gary ran into her and says, ‘Hey, we interviewed you last year’ and she’s like ‘You did?’ She was hammered, she didn’t even remember it. She’s now sober, so we asked if we could interview her again. I got her to open up and start talking, and she started crying about the process and said ‘this shit is fucking powerhouse.’ So that’s how that segment ended up in the movie. It goes back to what I talked about earlier, how documentaries start out one way, and they end up going in a completely different way.”
Watching this movie is like a visual time capsule, a throwback to a time–not so very long ago–where thousands of people could pack together in a stadium, shoulder-to-shoulder, screaming and shouting for their favorite band, with the biggest risk being possibly splashed by an errant beer. Going on a year without live music, a year of being drilled constantly about social distancing and wearing masks, these visual reminders of those carefree, pre-pandemic times are almost nostalgic. The pandemic also threw the distribution plans of Long Live Rock into disarray. The original plan was a theatre release, but those plans were quickly shelved.
McHugh explains how this change in direction came to be. “Gary and I we were lucky enough to see this movie in three different screenings with beautiful sound systems. We screened at AMC in Columbus for the cast and crew, we screened at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, and we screened at CA [Creative Artists Agency] and William Morris for the bands and agents. We really wanted this to be a big theater film, not like its going to play in theaters for a week, but a really nice, one night, 500 screen international release. And the company that wanted to distribute the movie said ‘look, if you want to do that, we’re out, because we don’t believe in theaters now, we don’t believe in endangering people.’ Gary and I didn’t either, so we basically forfeited that dream. We are now working with Abramorama and a virtual premier and virtual cinema that’s going to happen. Because of the timing, we had to let the original dream go, and make the decision to release now.”
“The way it will work is on March 11th, there will be an online premier and we will do a Q&A with Gary, myself, Miles Kennedy, Lzzy Hale and Jacoby from Papa Roach, moderated by Eddie Trunk. We will also have a pre-show, which will be promoted by radio stations all over the country and bands that will drive their fans to this one-night premier. The following day, on the 12th, we will have what is called virtual cinema where anybody can buy and watch it through a number of different theaters who are participating in the event. That window will last for perhaps a month and a half, and then we’ll figure out the next window and platform – the iTunes and Amazon type of thing.”
On the website for the movie, there is a section labeled “Director’s Statement.” The last sentence sums up McHugh’s hope for the documentary: “With all the music festivals and concerts shut down across the world, we hope this film can help tide you over, and we can get back out there and rock the f**k out again.”