[28 May 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“We’re not rock stars yet,” announces Jim Wood. The proof? He’s on stage at a club in New Jersey, and, having just wiped his perspiring face with a cotton bandana, he tosses it onto the floor in front of his audience. No one comes forward to pick up the sweaty memento, and so, he knows. His band, Loaded Poets, aren’t yet rock stars.
For Jim and his bandmates, guitarist John Kayne and keyboardist Dan Snyder, this means they’re not making living playing music, which they’ve been doing together since 1980. Instead, they all have day jobs and other obligations, and pursue their art with undiminished passion, though with decreasing conviction that they will, one day, have a major company contract and be on the road for most of the year, with throngs of screaming fans and decreasing number of bandanas.
“We’d all rather be making music for a living,” Wood says, “But it’s like the lottery ticket: everyone wants to be a fucking author or dancer or actor or rock and roll star.” His further thinking on the subject ranges from disappointed to philosophical, as revealed in the documentary The Front Man, screening at Stranger Than Fiction on 29 May, where it will be followed by a Q&A with director Paul Devlin and his film subjects.
Initiated some 30 years ago, the project took on its own erratic life, periodically stopped and started, conceived differently at different points in time. The result is a film that’s unequal parts observational and collaborative, considered and surprising, as Wood’s experience and evolving desires are transformed into their own sort of art, a self he discovers and also creates.
At the center of The Front Man, at least at first, is the very notion of the front man, which is to say, the notion of a band’s charismatic and compelling star, who serves as face and leader. Wood, as Kayne notes early on, is just that, an appealing figure with energy to burn. “Without the front man,” Kayne asserts, “you’re just a band. Any band can play music.” But only some special and exceptionally lucky bands can make it, can leave behind their office gigs and focus on their all-consuming love of music.
The film doesn’t need to detail the obvious parameters for such a life, the requisite youth and lack of other obligations that make total dedication possible. You and everyone in the film know this already, it’s the story everyone knows; to its credit, Devlin’s film tells a story you haven’t heard, about the not-rock star, the person who doesn’t “make it” in the prescriptively, predictably sensational sense, but instead, finds himself in other contexts.
To this end, The Front Man provides some overt contexts, in the form of conversations about the costs of rock stardom. While Wood’s sit-downs with Glen Burtnik and Graham Maby aren’t precisely cautionary, they do suggest that his apparent lack of success might not be exactly that. Burtnik suggests that being a sideman might be a better deal than being a front man, or a whole on celebrity, as he gets to play music for a living, but doesn’t have to deal with the lost privacy and perpetual chaos of touring. “I always hear the stories,” he says, “of how bad it is being famous. It was an achievement, but it was a phony act.”
This doesn’t seem news, quite, as you might guess that self-performance is integral to the process of making music, on stages or recordings. One of the songs Wood performs here features the lyrics, “I like my truth with a twist of fiction,” and “I believe all your lies.” On one level, it’s a song about the powerful fiction of romantic love, but of course it’s also about other forms of love, including love of art or love of yourself as an artist. So, at the same time that the film considers what’s phony or what’s not (and how such measure might be artifice by definition), it also explores other ways that a “phony act” might be gauged, how it can mean differently.
Wood suggests that his rent-paying work, as the head of a pharmaceutical advertising agency (it “pays really well,” he observes, explaining, “We turn doctors’ writing into beautiful fluid prose,” ready for publication in international journals). To survive such non-creative work (that is, you guess, creative in its own way), Wood keeps his office and his home stocked full of images and emblems of a weirder, and also more “normal” experience, a Bettie Page lunchbox, posters of Elvis Costello, whom wood describes as his “primary” personal inspiration, an old-school songwriter, musician, and master storyteller.
Storytelling shapes Wood’s life, as reliable worker, husband to Christie (their shared history forms its own delightful diversion-as-central-storyline) and much-admired bandmate, and more importantly, as film subject. For even as The Front Man tracks Wood’s own life over decades, it also tells another story, about storytelling. If it’s not so polished or planned as Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood, Devlin’s movie constructs another sort of epic, as much about its own construction as about the many ways Wood might want to construct his future.
If he imagines being famous—a rock star—is a reward for his labors or his talent or his ambition, The Front Man exposes the mythology as such, but also, exposes how it might be precisely the sort of “lies” that allow and can become truth.