PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Waking Up Dead

A fascinating, heartbreaking story about a good guy who made some terrible decisions, and a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to make it big in the music business

Waking Up Dead

Director: Fabio Jafet
Distributor: MVD
MPAA rating: N/A
US DVD Release Date: 2007-06-26
First date: 2004

In his last year of high school, Phil Varone had his future all set. He was already employed by Westinghouse, he was getting straight A's at school, his university tuition would be paid for by his employer, and he was going to study architecture and play for his university's golf team. He also loved to play the drums, though, and when someone came along and asked if he was interested in joining a band, all those plans for the future went out the window, as Varone set out to become a rock star.

Nearly 20 years later, he was divorced, penniless, feeding a $900-a-week cocaine habit, skipping child support payments, and selling his beloved drums to his drug dealer just to temporarily keep the wolves at bay. The fame he so doggedly sought after did arrive in the early '90s, but the fortune didn't follow, and before he knew it, he was a destitute 36-year-old who wasn't sure if he'd even wake up the next morning.

Journalist and filmmaker Fabio Jafet hated to see his good friend spiraling out of control, and his idea to help out his buddy was to follow him around with a camera and document this life that kept getting sadder by the day, in the hopes of making Varone realize just what he was doing to himself and the people around him. The end result is Waking Up Dead, a fascinating documentary that is not only a heartbreaking story of a good guy who made some terrible decisions in his life, but also serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to make it big in the music business. As Varone reiterates throughout the 90-minute film, it's nowhere near as glamorous as you think it is.

At first, Varone was just as hungry a young musician as anyone in the late-'80s, his Florida-based band, Saigon Kick, began building up a local following big enough to attract the interest of A&R reps from Atlantic Records. After signing to an outrageously ill-conceived eight-album contract and hitting the top 10 with the power ballad "Love is on the Way", the band started spending money recklessly, to the point where expenses badly outnumbered profits, and by the time they figured out the royalties just weren't as huge as they thought they would be (i.e., nonexistent), egos had taken over and the band fell apart in the mid-'90s.

It's when he is given a second chance at rock stardom by pop metal veterans Skid Row in 2000 that we join Varone, who is at first relishing life on the road once again, and at first our glimpse is as candid as it is tittilating -- the ladies are literally beating down his door on every tour stop -- but it soon becomes more and more disturbing, from the graphic sounds in the background to an on-camera encounter with a mother who is just as eager to please as her daughter, who is in the same room. At one point Varone says that the rock star lifestyle is so tempting, that upon describing it to his therapist, the therapist almost sounded like he wanted to come along for the ride.

It's not long before the cocaine becomes part of Varone's life, which collides head-on with Varone's self-medicating tendency, and we see him quickly sink lower and lower. He conducts an interview while anxiously waiting for his dealer to arrive, and wonders if the prospect of being in a movie will get the dealer to the house faster. He does copious, Tony Montana amounts of blow with his ex-porn star girlfriend, to the point where cocaine is permanently embedded underneath the numbers of his credit card. He is mortified when his nose stuffs up to the point where he can't inhale, and when he does, he simply stares at a TV screen for ages with a dazed expression. Meanwhile, his bank account dwindles to the point where his net worth is a measly $1.57.

Filmed during his descent and narrated after his decision to get sober, Varone is forthright in his interviews. The amount of freedom he gives Jafet is remarkable, the no-holds-barred approach is the best way to get the film's message across. That said, the real heart of the documentary is his long-suffering ex-wife Cathy, who is just as candid as Phil in her interviews, and although her marriage with Varone has long since ended, she still expresses great concern for the father of her children, and is beside herself with grief when he is at his most desperate.

Waking Up Dead opens seemingly on a triumphant note, as Varone takes the stage in front of 10,000 fans, sits behind his kit, takes a swig of beer, and kicks off an energetic Skid Row set. What is later revealed is that the stress on his heart from the excessive cocaine use takes its toll during that very performance, and immediately afterwards, paramedics are called in, and we see a barely conscious Varone receiving medical attention, his sweaty, bedraggled, eye-linered face looking more pathetic than glamorous. As Cathy emphasizes, no matter how badly you want to get famous, you can't fool yourself into thinking it will happen to you, and it took Varone nearly two decades and one near-death experience to realize that.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.