'Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Jim Marshall/Courtesy of SXSW
Fascinating character study also offers insights into how the best candid portraits of musicians happen.

Jim Marshall, one of the greatest-ever rock and roll photographers, gets a colorful eulogy in Alfred George Bailey's image-stuffed doc.

Portraying the unruly man behind some of the Rock Era's most enduring images, Alfred George Bailey's Show Me the Picture describes the late photographer Jim Marshall as an often self-destructive character who "liked guns and cars and cameras," maybe in that order. He was a "malevolent gnome," one interviewee says — and the fact that this interviewee quickly became his girlfriend says something about his personal magnetism. The recognition factor of his most famous pictures — from a pensive close-up of John Coltrane to a happy group shot of the Allman Brothers — will be the biggest draw for the doc, which will surely find most of its audience on small screens after its festival run.

Michelle Margetts, the woman behind that gnome remark, is one of two women who supply the film's most valuable perspectives. She met Marshall in 1984, shortly after he got out of work furlough for firearm charges, when she was a journalism student looking for a semi-famous person to interview. She got enough material for an epic profile, titled "The Last Shot," then refused to publish it after a disagreement with him; viewers get to hear some of it here, as Margetts' writing brings to life her impressions of a man who preferred to create his own mythology.

Talking of the Chicago-born Marshall's early-'60s stint in New York City, the doc suggests he had an affinity for musicians from the start. He became an intimate of Bob Dylan's before stardom made the folk singer standoffish; offering Coltrane a ride to a far-off interview, he became comfortable enough with him that he lingered once the talk started. A photo he shot during that interview is one of the images that best embodies fans' impressions of a quiet genius. (Marshall soon relocated to San Francisco, where he was in the middle of the Haight-Ashbury for the Summer of Love, and stayed there.)

"People trusted Jim," says Graham Nash — but not always immediately. Marshall had to work to win Miles Davis over, using his connection with Coltrane to demonstrate his gifts and sensitivity. He was accepted in dressing rooms and backstage settings where ordinary journalists were seemingly not allowed, and it showed in his unguarded, persona-defining pictures. Anton Corbijn, one of several photographers who appear here, explains that "no matter how good you are, if you don't have the access, you don't have the pic." To Marshall, it was these unstaged, impromptu portraits that mattered — "I'm not talking about some jive concert shots," he said when describing the best of his opus.

Amelia Davis, his assistant for a dozen years and the manager of his archive since his 2010 death, offers the most vivid picture of the other side of the rock life. We're told that, when shooting a Rolling Stones tour for Life magazine, Marshall did more cocaine than the band, and that wasn't just an occupational hazard. Davis would often show up to work at Marshall's office to find a "no Davis today" note taped to the door; he was on a bender and in no condition to work. Though he'd pay her for these unannounced holidays, she quit more than once, only to be begged back. Longtime friend Michael Douglas, who met Marshall while working on The Streets of San Francisco, sheds light on his chip-on-shoulder identification with underdogs and his unpredictable temper.

Douglas also explains the non-lifestyle-related factors that contributed to Marshall's fading career. As rock music became a giant business, musicians were forced to get more conscious of their public images. Things "got much more constricted and controlled," as Douglas puts it, and Jim, angry at the layers of middlemen springing up between him and his subjects, withdrew.

Bailey draws the film's final section out a bit, trying to animate a chunk of Marshall's biography we didn't come to see, and including more sentimental tributes from friends than are needed. But amid the talk of his personal faults and missteps, we hear about one of the smartest things he did: He kept his copyrights, meaning he could live off iconic images of Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and others — and that he could pass future royalties on to Davis, a generous payback for all those days he was too coked up to be her boss.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (24 Beats Per Second)
Production company: Bailey Kennedy Production
Director: Alfred George Bailey
Producer: Tatiana Kennedy
Executive producers: Amelia Davis, Bonita Passarelli, Nicolas D Sampson, Arno Hazebroek, Christos Michaels, Richard Mansell
Editor: Adam Biskupski
Composer: Ian Arber
Sales: Film Constellation

92 minutes