Interview: Sam Dunn & Reginald Harkema

Super Duper Alice Cooper

Few musical acts have had the legendary staying power and almost mythical backstory that Alice Cooper has had, but even fewer looks at the man (and his band) have gotten to the heart of Vincent Furnier, the preacher’s son, Beatles fan, and recovered alcoholic and cocaine addict behind the shock rock persona who appeared alongside every major pop culture icon from Johnny Carson to the Muppets to Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.

Enter noted heavy metal anthropologists Sam Dunn and Scot McFayden – the masterminds of Banger Films, the people behind Metal Evolution, Global Metal, and Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage – and indie filmmaker Reginald Harkema (Monkey Warfare, Leslie, My Name is Evil) to team up on an ambitious concept designed to get to the heart of who Alice Cooper was and why his presence as a rock icon is unparalleled.

In Super Duper Alice Cooper (now available on iTunes and available on DVD this Tuesday), the trio of filmmakers decided to create a “doc opera” around their famous, well documented subject. Using only archival footage and never showing the talking heads behind newly conducted interviews, they decide to let Alice’s music speak for itself, showcasing the long unseen and reflective side of the father of Shock Rock and Glam Metal.

During the film’s premiere at Hot Docs this past April, we sat down with Dunn and Harkema to talk about covering such an iconic subject as Alice Cooper, their own past feelings on his music, and how the film’s “doc opera” concept took shape.

Dork Shelf: Sam, you have become kind of the go-to on-screen heavy metal scholar over the past decade or so. When you and Scot previously made looks at the genre, where did Alice Cooper fit in to your plans and visions of how metal grew over the years and how was his influence felt?

Sam Dunn - F2Sam Dunn: For me as a fan, unfortunately, Alice always at first fell into the category of “aging glam metal dude.” When I discovered him in the mid-80s, I was into Slayer, Metallica, and Sepultura, and just being an ignorant teenager I always thought he was capitalizing on glam metal. Of course, now I know much more about Alice and his career and that glam metal wouldn’t have even existed in part without his influence.

We’ve always firmly slotted him in the Shock Rock world. In Metal Evolution we talked about how his stage performance was really pioneering, with the guillotines and the nooses and the baby dolls and snakes on stage. That was his place in the story of metal. For Super Duper Alice Cooper we wanted to get beyond that and get a lot more into the personal story. Who was he before he became Alice?

DS: Are you guys surprised that he gets lumped in so much with Glam Metal? He did a lot more before he kind of became this shock rocker that had a lot more of an indie rock bent that was influenced by The Beatles, and even throughout his career – which you show – he had some decidedly “less than metal” asides.

Reginald Harkema - F2Reginald Harkema: I think that really depends on what you define as Glam Metal. Being a teenage punk in the mid-80s, I had the same reaction that Sam had, but from another side. I thought he was this clown prince of rock and roll and that he was kind of a joke. I lumped them in with acts like Twisted Sister. Of course, these are all acts that I LOVE now. (laughs) I just had this teen punk snottiness.

But yeah, it is unfair to lump them in with Glam Metal, for sure. Particularly the band Alice Cooper that existed before THE MAN Alice Cooper. As I discovered, he was making these albums in the early 1970s that were on the level of Sticky Fingers or any of the other Rolling Stones albums from that time. It was a real revelation that there weren’t just noodly guitar solos that go nowhere like most Glam Metal sort of sounded. He was doing some really earthy hard rock in the early 1970s. Alice Cooper, the Band, was very much a contemporary of Led Zeppelin or The Stones.

I mean, if you can think of The Sex Pistols as being “the bomb” that set off indie rock, how did that happen? Jonny Lydon auditioned by singing “I’m Eighteen.” That was how he got into The Sex Pistols. That was how that whole phenomenon started rolling. Then you look at people like The Ramones, and the music that the Alice Cooper group was doing was the stuff that they were into. They were rebelling against the Yes-es and the Genesis-es and all that prog stuff. The Alice Cooper group did “A Halo of Flies,” which was their response to that, and personally I think that the prog rock that they did was actually better than prog rock. (laughs)

DS: Alice Cooper has been talked about so much in the past, both positively and negatively, so what were his concerns going on when you guys started to make the film?

SD: None. He approached US! His manager, Shep Gordon, who he’s worked with for 45 years now, really liked the Rush film that we had done, and I think that lit a light bulb for him that maybe it was time to tell Alice’s story. We went away and talked about it, Reg, Scot, and I, and then after the mid-80s there just wasn’t a whole lot of new and interesting material, so that seemed like a logical end point. We also talked about doing it all without talking head interviews, and crafting this kind of “doc opera,” archival driven approach to tell the story.

From a purely practical standpoint, Alice was great to work with. The challenge, which we talked about in our meetings before, was to get him outside the “post game interview Alice Cooper role,” and to actually get him to reflect more deeply on what his childhood was like, where his musical origins lie, how he struck up a friendship with Dennis Dunaway and then what became of that friendship when their band and the partnership split. So wringing water from the stone was the biggest challenge.

RH: I don’t think Alice even realized we were doing a documentary on him. We interviewed him at radio station in Phoenix, and we were just another of a thousand interviews that he had done, but the only difference was that we kept coming back! (laughs) We kept asking him questions that he had never been asked before, and those start to come in at about the eight or so interview we had with him, and that’s when he starts to get disarmed and open up to tell some stuff we had never heard before.

DS: Do you think this is a film that couldn’t have been made 20 or 30 years ago because he might not have been as open and honest as he was with you guys now? Do you think he needed some time after that “logical end point” you guys talked about to properly reflect on his career?

SD: I think it would have been a bit too fresh and painful to talk about some of the stuff he had to open up about. If we were taking the dynamic where we end the film where he finally steps on stage sober, twenty years ago that would have been a little too soon for him. Now he’s in his mid-60s and he’s, like, “Who cares?”

RH: There’s other stuff that’s exceedingly hard for him to talk about that he might dance around, but maybe if we do a sequel in a few years we might be able to get some of that out of him.

SD: You know, Alice is very good at turning lemons into lemonade. He’s the master at finding a way to make the story make sense or to have some humour with it. We’ve shared the stage with him now a couple of times for Q&As for the film, and people are always asking him about the drug addiction and things like that, and he’s got a sense of humour about it. “You guys thought it was all diet pills! Hahaha!” That’s Alice, and that’s actually part of the story we tell about him in the film. When he started to be recognized by people like George Burns, that was a moment of arrival for him, because we realized that the end of the day, his greatest aspiration was to be a great entertainer and to share the stage with guys like Johnny Carson. That was his ultimate moment of arrival. But yeah, working with Alice we realized this his biggest asset is to turn anything into a piece of entertainment.

RH: Some people seem to have a problem with the “no talking heads” concept of the movie because they want to see the faces of people and see their emotion, but honestly I don’t think that Alice’s face really gives that emotion. (laughs) You’re never going to get the “documentary money shot” where Alice has a tearful moment.

SD: Yeah, he would have thought it would have taken away. And again, the style fits the form and content. We could never have done a “doc opera” on Rush.

DS: Well, not unless you want to make it 8 hours long.

SD: (laughs) Their songs are way too long, and all of that was just three guys playing instruments.

RH: I dunno, maybe if you focused on the “Fly By Night” tour.

SD: Yeah! Actually there probably would be a few theatrical moments in there. But I agree that in the case of Alice, we felt it would strengthen the story to do it in this fashion rather than take away from it.

DS: The archival stuff in the film looks really great. It’s a very visual kind of film where it looks like all of this old footage could be in 3D, but it isn’t. What’s it like going through this wealth of material that Alice has and making it pop on screen.

RH: Well, what’s great about an artist that’s been around as long as Alice, he actually has archival footage from a time in history that can be represented. What I mean is, we went into the archives and we found all sorts of actual cool film prints and stuff that are hard to find anywhere else. Right now, we’re all about to start work on a documentary about the band Soundgarden, and they’re in the video age and everything they have done can be seen so easily. It was like history stopped and changed as soon as the mid-70s and video came along. You can get vivid history from the late 60s and early 70s, but after that everything becomes into video that’s a bit of a step down. Having access to those 16mm films is just part of the beauty of the movie. Sam could probably speak more to the great work of our visual effects guy, Derek, though.

SD: Yeah! Derek Tokar has been our main graphic artist over at Banger Films since we began, and him and a team of really talented people brought life to this really old material. They did some really remarkable work with combining moving footage and still photographs at the same time to create scenes from the past. That was a big goal of ours: to make people feel like they were in the moment. In order to do that, we had to get really creative because there isn’t a ton of footage of those early moments in the band’s career. So we pulled in clips from horror movies and live material from other bands and other material to bring life to the palate, but I think the graphic team are owed a big thanks because they did some really remarkable stuff.

RH: What Sam said about creating scenes is really important to the concept. We call it a “doc opera,” which is essentially to create an opera using documentary materials. So if you’re going to an opera about someone bigger than life like an Elton John, or a Tina Turner, or an Alice Cooper, those are going to include big set pieces, and what our graphics team were able to do was to create those set pieces for us out of documentary materials.

DS: So when you set out to make a film out of someone like Alice, who has a wealth of material to choose from and has had most of his memorable performances on film, where do you decide on what music to use for the film?

SD: Well, most of the films that I made before this have all sort of started out as mixtapes. I have a concept of some stories and some scenes and where to use what. With Alice, it was essentially listening through 17 albums and starting to pick out the names of some songs that could fit into our story. What lends Alice so well to the “doc opera” concept is that he’s more self-referential than most artists. He’s created this character so he can propose really deep things about himself that a lot of artists wont be able to uncover. Like the character of Alice is singing the song “Going Home,” and that’s literally a song about him returning to Phoenix in a lot of ways. “Whatever happened to Alice?” That’s a line from that song. Some people might call that too obvious or too on-the-nose, but, I mean, that is what it is!

Through music, Alice narrates his own life story. You take a song like “Changing Arranging” or “Nobody Likes Us” or “Caught in a Dream,” and these are songs that he’s using to tell his own story. God knows you can’t do that with something like Rush or most metal bands because their songs often have absolutely nothing to do with what they’re going through. (laughs) What does something like “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” have to do with growing up in Willowdale? Absolutely nothing! Maybe that’s the point: because you want to get the fuck out of Willowdale. (laughs)

But with dealing with Alice, we had dealt with music in our previous films, but those songs were always about illustrating a particular moment rather than actually having it be a part of the story. Cooper’s lyrics are very autobiographical. Whether he knew it or not at the time is a totally different story, but the fact is that it all fits.

RH: Yeah, when you hear something like, “Mommy, where’s daddy? He’s been gone for so long…” To have that fall into your lap means you don’t have to look too hard for that emotional moment.

DS: As Canadians yourselves, there seems to be an added onus upon you guys to talk about the infamous Toronto show that Alice did that solidified his place in rock music infamy where the chicken got killed at Varsity Stadium. It’s a great story, but were you ever wary of placing too much emphasis on that one moment that everyone seems to remember vividly around the world?

SD: I think you’re right. The chicken incident is probably the most documented moment in Alice’s career. What were we really going to do with this that wasn’t already done in Behind the Music or whatever else it was brought up in? While we were putting the film together, what we gravitated towards was the effect that this performance had on driving the attention towards Alice as the frontman, who at that point was not Alice Cooper but it was the Alice Cooper group. One of the perils of that was that people after that moment began to call HIM Alice Cooper. For the story of how we go from Vince to Alice and back to Vince again, this was a really pivotal point in the career that starts to slowly drive a wedge between this guy named Alice and the rest of the band.

DS: Since he has his own movie coming out about him soon, what’s it like being approached by Shep Gordon to do a film about one of his clients?

RH: I wish Scot was here to take this one. (laughs)

SD: I think it’s good that we didn’t know very much about the legend of Shep Gordon when he approached us. Now with Supermench and having spent two years in the Alice Cooper camp, we get it. (laughs) We now know who he is, but maybe a really healthy dose of ignorance or naïveté worked to our advantage in the sense that we didn’t really know the scope of his career. We never knew that he basically created the concept of a celebrity chef. That’s a HUGE defining moment in TV history and he has spearheaded so many similarly powerful things. But I think it was great that we never knew all of that.

RH: I think had we known that we would have said, “Fuck Alice, let’s do the Shep doc! What do you mean Mike Meyers is already making it? Fuck!”

SD: (laughs, jokingly) Yeah, fuck Mike Meyers! Fuck everyone!

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