Leslie Ann Coles’ documentary about the seminal British music magazine Melody Maker proves one thing for sure: The only thing more fun than being a British pop star in the ’60s and ’70s was being a British music journalist in the ’60s and ’70s. Revolving around the recollections of Barrie Wentzell, who served as the magazine’s chief photographer from 1965 to 1975, and several of his colleagues, Melody Makers will make music lovers desperately wish for a time machine to return to those halcyon days.
Wentzell proves himself an engaging subject on which to pin the documentary from the opening moments, when he’s asked why he became a photographer: “To avoid having a proper job, I think,” he replies. But the real reason for his dominant presence is the huge number of photographs he shot for the magazine, every one of which seems to be shown in the film. That he retained the copyrights for his work may have been the smartest move he ever made.
Melody Maker, founded in 1926, was the world’s first weekly music publication. For decades after its beginning, it concentrated on jazz and was largely aimed at the industry, especially working musicians who depended on the publication’s classified ads to look for jobs or to offer their services. Among the legendary bands that found some of their members through those ads are Roxy Music, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. One of the most striking photos in the film shows Pete Townshend happily showing off his musicians’ union membership card. Townshend also wrote so many letters to the editor complaining about various things that he was eventually given his own monthly column.
The magazine inevitably shifted its focus to pop and rock music in the 1960s, which led many of its veteran journalists to resign. The segue wasn’t always smooth, as demonstrated by one writer’s anecdote about a vigorous argument among the editors over whether to put Jimi Hendrix or The Monkees on the cover. Another of the magazine’s journalists recalls an editor who declared David Bowie “boring.”
The documentary emphasizes how Melody Maker was hugely influential during its heyday, with more than one of the film’s interview subjects referring to it as “The Bible.” It faced scarce competition, since there was no Internet and little to no pop music coverage on television. The journalists enjoyed tremendous access to the reigning pop stars of the era, thanks to their refraining from writing about their indiscretions. Unlike the tightly controlled media access dictated by today’s stars, the interactions between the musicians and the people writing about them were largely causal and relaxed. “It was like a bunch of friends,” Wentzell recalls. One writer describes how he was with the Rolling Stones when they first learned of Brian Jones’ death, and promised Keith Richards that he wouldn’t write about the news until it had been officially released. “You don’t break a promise to Keith Richards,” he says emphatically. Wentzell also recounts an incident in which he desperately attempted to calm down a clearly emotionally disturbed Syd Barrett.
The magazine was bursting with ads and selling hundreds of thousands of copies a week. Flush with cash, it opened a satellite office in New York City, much to the delight of the few writers who were sent there. Several of them happily describe how they received endless numbers of free LPs, many of which they promptly sold, and comp tickets to all the hottest concerts in town. “We were big fish in a very small sea,” one of them comments.
But all good things come to an end, especially in the world of journalism, and such was the case here. Melody Maker was slow to catch on to the punk and new wave movements, gradually losing its influence to its rival New Musical Express (into which it was merged in 2000, essentially ceasing publication). The music industry changed as well, with stars restricting access to music writers and photographers. Wentzell sounds particularly annoyed when talking about Mick Jagger’s sudden decision to throw all the photographers out of their concerts three songs in.
The documentary, which also includes comments from such musicians as Ian Anderson, Eric Burdon, and Chris Squire and Steve Howe of Yes, among others, suffers from a lack of focus at times, wandering aimlessly from one topic to another. What primarily distinguishes it is the amazing assemblage of Wentzell’s strikingly beautiful black-and-white photographs, capturing the biggest stars of the era in dramatic and often unguarded poses. The photos are so impactful, in fact, that it’s a shame that so many of them are shown in fleeting, rapid-fire fashion, going by in a blur rather than letting their visual power sink in.
Not surprisingly, all of the interview subjects look back on the era fondly, several of them describing it as their dream job. Wentzell sums it up best at the end. “You should have been there, it was great,” he says. He’s certainly got the photographs, and now this film, to back up his assertion.
Production: LA Coles Fine Arts Films
Distributor: Cleopatra Entertainment
Director-screenwriter: Leslie Ann Coles
Producer: Mark Sanders
Executive producers: Richard Hanet, Leslie Ann Coles
Directors of photography: Mark Bochsler, Carly Kenny, Nigel Gainsborough, Maria Luisa Gambale
Editors: Suneet Pable, Leslie Ann Coles
Composer: Walter “Chip” Yarwood