Thursday, 20 July 2017

The snapper: "Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock"

Shot!, a portrait of the legendary rock photographer Mick Rock, is everything you might expect from a Vice Films production directed by someone called Barnaby: lots of filters, cameos from Karen O and Father John Misty, and a fidgety, ADD-ish shooting and editing strategy in which any evidence of music-biz hedonism gets prioritised over compositional analysis or the finer points of its subject's creative philosophy. For a while, at least, it's lively enough. A framing device finds yer actual Rock (his real name, conveniently) watching over an actor recreating a cocaine-induced heart attack he had in the early 90s, thereby enabling a life to flash before our eyes; the snapper, it transpires, has tales to tell, usually in colourful language, about the kind of people we might still want to hear about. Cue the images: of Syd Barrett and David Bowie (an image - or rather a series of images - just waiting to be photographed); of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed (marginally less curmudgeonly around Rock than he was with the rest of the world); of Freddie (whom Rock shot as though he were Dietrich), Debbie ("the Monroe of pop", and an obvious gift to any photographer) and Meat Loaf (less so).

There's value to sitting Rock down and getting his thoughts on the record: he wandered onto this scene just as rock was being revolutionised and weaponised in the late 1960s, exploding across TV screens and teenage bedroom walls in full colour. He can just about get away with describing himself as the Goebbels of this movement, one charged with overseeing the music's visual propaganda wing, because so many of the images director Barnaby Clay puts on screen back this claim up: looking again at the young Bowie fellating the neck of Mick Ronson's guitar, it's evident that something new, thrilling and/or threatening was going on at this moment on these stages. (Lock up your sons and your daughters.) Old heads will doubtless be satisfied; for non-nostalgics, however, the trouble will be that those images increasingly speak louder than anything else in Shot!. Certainly, Rock's own, blokey commentary settles into a droning monotone after a while, running through a list of names that passed before his lens on their way to immortality or obscurity; the absence of other perspectives - no musicians, no critics, no picture editors - comes to be all too keenly felt.

Shot! is very Vice Films in its underlying insistence that experience is everything, and context for pussies: Clay's interview technique appears to have been simply to goad Rock into giving up one tale of excess after another, up until the point where the narrative arc demands he address the sorry toll coke took on his subject's output, a precipitous descent into paranoia, debt, ill health and - at what was surely his lowest point - directing promos for the likes of Ace Frehley and Mötley Crüe. As we rejoin him today, Rock cuts a lean if lived-in figure, inhabiting a healthier if necessarily circumscribed and far less decadent place in the universe: he's a survivor, which makes him of interest, but Clay often seems far too much in his thrall to spot the absurdity Rock is capable of, and thus the absurdity he threatens to tip the whole project into. Watching the photographer spinning about and performing headstands in his studio before a shoot, or making loftily serious pronouncements about the mind-body connection, you begin to realise just how musicians rub off on their chroniclers, and how close Simon Day and Rhys Thomas's Brian Pern spoofs got to la-la rock reality.

Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock tours selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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