Scott Crawford’s documentary about Creem Magazine arrives as a breath of fresh air. Chronicling the too-brief lifespan of the music magazine whose boastful but true slogan provides the film’s title, Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine will make you nostalgic for an era in which music journalism dared to be irreverent and wasn’t constrained by the demands of corporate interests and babysitting publicists.
Director Crawford — who previously demonstrated his music history bona fides with his 2014 documentary Salad Days, about the beginnings of the punk music scene in Washington, D.C. — displays an obvious fondness for the material. The loose assemblage of contemporary interviews, archival footage and photographs, snippets of musical performances, and rudimentary animation proves less than polished, but the approach perfectly suits the subject matter.
“Creem Magazine was our Facebook, it was our social media,” comments Wayne Kramer, one of the many musicians interviewed in the film who profess their devotion to the publication. Started in 1969 by Detroit record-shop owner Barry Kramer (whose son J.J. serves as the doc’s executive producer) and founding editor Tony Reay, the magazine was named after the short-lived supergroup Cream, in a not-so-subtle dig at Rolling Stone.
Operating out of a storefront in an inner-city Detroit neighborhood that was experiencing violence and social upheaval, the magazine championed such local musicians as MC5, the Stooges, Bob Seger and Alice Cooper, among others. Well, not always championed, as Cooper recalls, laughingly remembering critic Lester Bangs describing his first album as a “tragic waste of plastic.”
Bangs was perhaps the most important and notorious writer for Creem, quickly making a name for himself with his outlandish personality and no-holds-barred writing. He described the hugely popular British supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer as “musical sterility at its pinnacle,” and took Peter Wolf up on his offer to write a review of a J. Geils Band concert onstage, next to the band while it was playing. Bangs, who died in 1982 at age 33 of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, was the inspiration for the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous. The film was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, who talks about his experiences writing for Creem in the documentary.
Many of the magazine’s former writers and editors provide amusingly rueful commentary in the film, including Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Chuck Eddy, Greil Marcus and former senior editor Jann Uhelszki. Uhelszki, who co-wrote the documentary with Crawford, was one of many female staffers at the publication, which frequently used photos of scantily clad women accompanied by suggestive headlines and captions. “It was the ’70s,” shrugs Uhelszki. The magazine’s memorable mascot, Boy Howdy, was designed by underground artist R. Crumb.
Creem prided itself on its single-minded focus on rock music, whereas Rolling Stone covered pop culture and politics as well. While the comparatively high-brow Rolling Stone was promoting the likes of James Taylor and Bruce Springsteen, Creem was championing the burgeoning punk rock scene.
Among those musicians singing the magazine’s praises in the film are Michael Stipe, Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, Suzi Quatro, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Metallica’s Kirk Hammet, Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder, and Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss. Joan Jett recalls sending an angry letter to the magazine after a scathing review, while Simmons recounts an episode involving outfitting the magazine’s editor Uhelszki as a member of the band and bringing her onstage with them.
The documentary, running a brief 75 minutes, at times feels rushed and cursory in its account of the magazine’s 20-year existence. But it also, appropriately, boasts an energy and propulsive pace that feels just like rock and roll.
Available in theaters and virtual cinemas
Production companies: Boy Howdy, New Rose Films
Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment
Director: Scott Crawford
Screenwriters: Scott Crawford, Jaan Uhelszki
Producers: J.J. Kramer, Jaan Uhelszki
Executive producers: Connie Kramer, Margaret Saadi Kramer, Todd Edinger, Jenny Feterovich, Raisa Churina, Svetlana Chistyakova
Director of photography: Jim Saah
Editor: Patrick Wright
Composer: Wayne Kramer