Tribeca Interviews — A Revolutionary Treasure Trove: Filmmaker Reginald Harkema Talks ‘Super Duper Alice Cooper’
Before there were bands like Twisted Sister, The Ramones and the Sex Pistols, there was Alice Cooper – a group made up of five guys from Phoenix, Arizona that shook up the music world not only through powerfully catchy hits like “I’m Eighteen” or “School’s Out” – which more likely than not was the anthem of any high school kid living back in the early 1970s, once summer vacation rolled around, and possibly still is for some kids in the present day – but also through their extravagant, and often provocative, performances on stage. From using a live python as a prop and chopping off baby doll heads to chopping off Alice’s own head, the possibilities were endless for the band (the more outrageous the idea and the more it angered and horrified thousands of parents, the bigger the chance was that they would do it) – the stage became their theater, and for one Vincent Furnier, it became a place that the character of Alice was born. Adopting Alice’s name as his own, by the mid-1970s Alice Cooper became a one-man act when the band parted ways to try their hand at solo careers, giving the glam rocker the ability to lose himself completely in his alternate persona – a life choice that would lead to years of struggle with alcohol and drug addiction as well as learning to leave Alice on stage, where he belongs, instead of taking him home for the night.
Super Duper Alice Cooper, a documentary that premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, tells this eye-opening and fascinating story all the way from the humble beginnings of the band and their fight to get their music heard, to Alice’s solo career and his personal downward spiral, to finally ending on his sobriety and firm grasp of reality. Forming a first of its kind “Doc Opera,” filmmakers Reginald Harkema (Monkey Warfare, 2006), Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn (Grammy-nominated Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, 2010) have created what can only be described as a revolutionary treasure trove complete with hidden gems and undiscovered grounds of times past. Full of voiceovers, archival footage, animation, and candid interviews from the band themselves as well as friends and family members (minus the talking heads), Super Duper Alice Cooper is an unexpectedly pleasant and hypnotizing ride of collaged content that showcases the history, humor and wit of a man that “struck fear into the very core of Middle America.”
Hoping to shed a little light on his documentary, Harkema briefly stepped away from his place from beneath the camera and into the focus to discuss his experience working with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee, the Alice Cooper archive, and the power trio’s upcoming project.
GALO: Unlike other documentaries, yours doesn’t feature so-called talking heads; we never see the people that are talking in their present time. Instead, you use a mix of documentary footage, voiceovers, animation, and rock opera. Why did you choose to use this type of approach, creating what many are referring to as the “first Doc Opera,” instead of the standard that many have grown accustomed to in the industry?
Reginald Harkema: We wanted to keep people immersed in the music and action rather than pull them out with shots of our characters from the present day. That seemed more reflective and less immersive.
GALO: I personally loved the tribute to early horror films and the premise of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In a way, it could be said that just like Alice’s music, your documentary style is pushing certain barriers as we walk into a new age of filmmaking. Do you think that what you have done here, with your film, will inspire a new type of documentary style and more experimentation down the road in telling artists’ or people’s stories in new and innovative ways?
RH: The idea is certainly ripe to be built upon. The doc opera is very lyrically-driven though, like an actual opera’s libretto. You can only do it with certain artists. We are about to embark upon a documentary about Soundgarden, and their lyrics are a little bit abstract for this approach. At the same time, I would like to continue exploring the concept. My dream project would be a history of 20th century England as told through Elton John’s story and music. This dandy who would have been thrown in gaol (jail) in the 1890s is knighted in the 1990s. I want to call it Lie Back and Think of Elton.
GALO: In making this documentary, what first inspired you about Alice Cooper’s persona or his life that made you realize that this would be an excellent subject for a film? Or was it simply a love for his music and stage theatrics as well as the desire to tell his side of the story that led you to pursue this project?
RH: I knew nothing about Alice Cooper going in. I thought he was some clown prince of rock ‘n’ roll. Through immersing myself in the research, I’ve come to believe he is a major overlooked cultural figure of 20th century America. His visual panache and self-referential music made him the ideal subject for the approach.
GALO: What was Alice’s reaction when you first approached him with this project — was he immediately on board with the idea? And what did he think of the finished product, particularly during his time at the Tribeca premiere?
RH: At first, I’m not sure he knew what we were doing. We were just one of many interviews that the man does every day. When we kept coming around, I think he started to figure out what we were doing. Through sheer volume of questioning, we were able to get him to say stuff he hasn’t talked about before. We showed him early cuts of the film and the only objections he had were with some shots of him and a naked stripper — nothing else. Tribeca was a bit weird for him, I’m sure, because his old bandmates Neal and Dennis were there. But they were hanging out together after the movie. I got pictures taken with them.
GALO: While filming the documentary, what proved to be most challenging either for the three of you or for Alice? And would you say that doing this documentary was therapeutic for him in any way?
RH: I don’t think there was too much challenge for Alice, nor was it therapeutic. The guy is a man very much at peace with himself. I suppose that was the biggest challenge for us, to get a guy like that to give us dramatic material — when you’re 66, the fact that you had to get your hair cut to go to your father’s church as a teenager doesn’t seem like that big a deal.
GALO: Your documentary tells the story of the struggles that Alice encountered with addiction during his career as well as the moment when the man who had been Vincent in his personal life had suddenly become Alice Cooper 24/7; he had transformed into the character, no longer able to tell the difference where one began and the other one ended. There was no clear separation. In a way, it almost seems that the pressure that Alice was under to stay relevant while differentiating himself from the new bands and putting out new records, much like the story of most musicians to this day, got the better of him.
Fans often just see the person that is on stage or giving interviews, but they rarely stop to think about the person that the star is in their day to day life. The artist becomes something of a God to most fans. Why do you think fans often put their idols on a pedestal, as if they were indestructible and perfect, and do you think this oftentimes inadvertently puts pressure on the artist as they try to live up to the standard that has been put forth by the fans, in order to not disappoint them?
RH: I think fans put their idols on a pedestal because the artist is giving their fans a gift that they are extremely thankful for. The artist seems somehow otherworldly and not human. I think a lot of artists put that pressure on themselves, though. If they just kept delivering wonderful music, I think most fans wouldn’t care about the image.
GALO: During the filming of this documentary, you were able to spend time with Alice Cooper and see the man behind the character – a side of him that most people rarely encounter. From your personal observations, how would you describe the man that he becomes when he is on stage and the man he is when the crowds dissolve?
RH: The guy I saw was completely the opposite of the psycho, weirdo character he plays. There was one moment where he talked about gearing up for a tour and how excited he becomes if he hasn’t played the character in a while, and you could see Alice Cooper coming to life in his eyes as he talked. For the most part, he’s a happy-go-lucky dude who enjoys his Vitamin Water.
GALO: I feel like every other line from Alice and the interviewees could be a standalone quote; one that haunts your for some time. One of my favorites is “this isn’t rock ‘n’ roll, it’s the beginning of a cultural movement,” as said by Bob Ezrin, I believe, as well as “Giving Alice Cooper a hit was like the lunatics running the asylum.” Suffice it to say that Alice had a strong impact on rock ‘n’ roll music in the late ‘60s to the late ‘80s. If he hadn’t taken on the persona of Alice back in the day, do you think that the glam metal and punk music of the ‘70s and ‘80s – Twisted Sister, The Sex Pistols, bands that were influenced by him – would never have come into existence, or at the very least not acquired as much fame? How big of an influence was he on the industry, especially in merging rock ‘n’ roll with his out of this world stage theatrics?
RH: Who knows? David Bowie wanted The Spiders from Mars to wear women’s clothes, so he made them go see the Alice Cooper Group in London in 1971 to convince them it would work. Johnny Rotten sang along to “I’m Eighteen” on the jukebox at Malcolm Mclaren’s shop to audition for the Sex Pistols. Dee Snider told us a funny story that since they didn’t have videos in the ’70s, he would see still shots of Alice performing and create his own onstage moves based on how he imagined that Alice had been moving before the still was shot. If Alice wasn’t around, things would probably have been a lot less interesting.
GALO: Could you briefly talk about the actual process of making this documentary? Was it hard to get access and rights to the archival footage?
RH: There is an Alice Cooper archive maintained in Los Angeles by Benjie Gordon and Bob Pfeifer. There are about 25,000 catalogued items in there, but often an item is a box with film cans in it. Me and my visual researcher, Cindy Wolfe (also my wife), spent a week going through dusty old 16mm films and 3/4 inch tapes.
GALO: In all honesty, to this day, there are very few artists out there that put on a show like Alice does. What were some of your favorite moments from his performances, either from the documentary or perhaps from seeing him on tour yourself? I personally loved the panties falling on the audience bit at the Hollywood Bowl, which had been unknown to me until now.
RH: I got to use two out of my three favorite rock performances of all-time in Super Duper. One was the black and white performance by the MC5 of “Looking at You” under a freeway in Detroit. The other was the Alice Cooper Group’s performance of “Ballad of Dwight Fry” on the German TV show Beat Club. Not able to work in The Who doing “A Quick One, While He’s Away” from Rock and Roll Circus.
GALO: Have you thought about possibly screening this film as a type of “opening act” to Alice’s shows?
RH: Not our decision. I think that the energy of an audience at a rock show is probably not conducive to paying attention to a film.
GALO: Scot and Sam have been nominated for a Grammy for the film Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage and have won the TFF Audience Award, while you have won a TIFF Special Jury Prize for your film Monkey Warfare (2006). What’s next for you guys – more music documentaries? Are you thinking of collaborating again on any other projects?
RH: As mentioned above, it looks like we are going to be collaborating on a Soundgarden documentary. We’re like a power trio. Like the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Sam’s Noel Redding; Scot is Mitch Mitchell; and I’m Jimi.
“Super Duper Alice Cooper” is now available on iTunes and is set to be released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 3, 2014.
Video courtesy of Tribeca Film.