Why would anyone want to make a film about Suzi Quatro? I mean something very specific with this question. I‘m sure there are hundreds of cable stations which run back-to-back “Where are they now?” documentaries about singers who were briefly famous which are desperately looking for this sort of stuff. But a film? Why Suzi? Why now?
I guess one answer would be that Quatro was a pioneer. She was a woman leading a rock band at a time when that was not really a Thing (ok, its still not much of a Thing but even less so in the early 1970s). She played a bass guitar almost as big as she was. She was an inspiration for a series of female musicians, most notably Joan Jett of the Runaways, who had to be told by her band mates to develop her own look and stop copying Suzi.
The film makes a plausible argument that Jett’s big hit “I Love Rock and Roll” and subsequent superstardom should have been Suzi’s. But even that was back in 1982. Quatro did have a string of minor hits and appeared on Happy Days for 3 series, essentially playing herself at a time when this was a Big Deal. But that was even longer ago.
My memories of Suzi are of a leather-clad faux rocker singing guitar based pop songs on Top of the Pops. She was managed by Mickie Most and many of her songs were written by Chinn and Chapman, all identified with production line hit singles (ironically, Quatro is from the autocity of Detroit). She was all right, but lacked a certain credibility.
Yet a number of top grade cool people give talking head interviews annointing Quatro with star quality. Here’s Alice Cooper and Debbie Harry. There are Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads. That’s the Fonz, Henry Winkler. The Detroit connection is also used to bring in Iggy Pop, the MCs and Motown.
It is, in short, an interesting story. And yet it is not uniformly interesting. The cool rock stars are eventually replaced by Sir Tim Rice, and the rocking television performances by a duet with Chris Norman of Smokie. Chat show turns, panto and the inevitable books of poetry are soon to follow (note to producers of music documentaries: never, ever film words being written on a piece of paper while the star’s poetry is read out so that we can read what they’ve actually written).
This is neither a hagiography of a great star. Neither is it the Bros documentary, which pokes fun at the “stars” nor the Anvil film, where the band is in on the joke. Its a genuinely affectionate history of a singer who achieved some success, but who the film maker thinks could have been much bigger. This could well be true, but little analysis is offered apart from the suggestion that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Here’s a theory for you. A number of the interviewees talk about Quatro being a harbinger for punk, who was just too early. And it is true that the sheer idea of a woman with a bass guitar was shocking for many, and a few of the songs were ok, but if truth be told they weren’t all that. When punk changed the rules in the second half of the 1970s, it left a lot of old pedestrian acts in their wake, and Quatro was one of them.
Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with pedestrianism as such. Quatro comes across as a genuinely nice person, and the film does prod at some interesting conflcts with her family who were slighlty jealous of her success (immediately prior to her being whisked to the UK for fame and fortune, she was in a group with her sisters. The condition of her new contract was ditching the family).
And yet, like its subject, the film is maybe too nice. Talking about the radicalisation of 1960s Detroit, Quatro says “but I just wanted to play music”. A similar approach is taken to the family conflict. Why pursue a potentially uncomfortable story when you can play another hit? This approach means that the film always remains interesting, but is never more than that.