'Suzi Q': Film Review

Acme Film Company
Suzi Quatro in 1976
An enlightening look at attitude more than artistry.
7/3/2020

Trailblazer Suzi Quatro, the first female bass player to front a high-profile rock band, is the subject of Liam Firmager's documentary.

It's become a Hollywood cliché: that moment when a producer or promoter looks at a deal-seeking young act music and plucks just one person from the group to be groomed for stardom. As Suzi Q documents, this is exactly what happened to Suzi Quatro, the Detroit native whoburst on the scene in 1973 in a shag haircut, Barbarella-inspired leather jumpsuit and platform heels, the electric bass slung across her petite body nearly as tall as she was. Quatro was the "quintessential rock 'n' roll chick," according to KT Tunstall, one of the many fellow musicians who sing her praises in Liam Firmager's engaging and celebratory film.

Interviewed extensively for the doc, Quatro is still going strong at 70, having released her 24th album in 2019, with time out along the way for West End musicals, hosting jobs on TV and radio, and a three-season stint on Happy Days. (She'll participate in a July 1 virtual event before the film's release on VOD and DVD.)

In many ways Quatro's story turns out to be a classic showbiz tale more than a rock saga. It's a story of ambition, stick-to-it-iveness and resilience, and of the clear-eyed creation of a stage persona. Quatro stresses that she always separated the rock star from her offstage self. As a glimpse at the nitty-gritty of building a music career in the '60s and '70s, the film is instructive, though the record-by-record trajectory could have been tighter. Tracing the ups and downs and stops and starts, Firmager sometimes lands in the weeds and loses the beat. The film is strongest in its portrait of the formative years of Quatro's career and their emotional residue, which turns out to be the core of this chronicle.

The filmmaker hails from Australia, a prime territory for Quatro, whose particular brand of glam-tinged proto-punk never really caught fire in the States as it did with Aussie, European and New Zealand audiences — even after she landed the cover of Rolling Stone (when it meant something), and even after opening for Alice Cooper on his Welcome to My Nightmare arena tour. "Too soon" is how Deborah Harry explains the stateside disconnect. Quatro's music occupied a kickass-but-cheery place on the rock spectrum, not quite falling into any well-defined genre. But as the first female bass player to front a band (of males) and become a full-fledged international rock star, she was a true groundbreaker.

Interviewees including Cherie Currie, Joan Jett (an avid fan who has often been mistaken for her idol), Donita Sparks and Lita Ford attest to the empowering and mind-expanding example she set for them, although Quatro herself never saw her success in terms of specifically female achievement. "I don't do gender," she says. She just really wanted to be a rock star.

At age 5 she saw Elvis on Ed Sullivan, and there was no looking back. At 14, she was a founding member of the Pleasure Seekers, an all-girl garage band led by her sister Patti (who would later join the notable all-female rock outfit Fanny). "Five Catholic girls singing a beer-and-drinking song" is how Patti describes one of the Pleasure Seekers' first recordings, "What a Way to Die." They would tour the country, be signed to a major label (Mercury) and eventually morph into the harder-edged Cradle. And, in a defining moment, Suzi would be singled out by hotshot British producer Mickie Most.

Quatro recalls the lean and lonely years in London before she found her footing as an artist and struck gold with "Can the Can," a propulsive earworm that topped the U.K. chart and was the first of many of hits she'd make with the songwriting-producing team of Mike Chapman (who appears in the film) and producer Nicky Chinn. No one would call these songs for the ages, but even so, Firmager doesn't delve into matters of songcraft; he's more concerned with the idea of a catalog-in-the-making, and splashes the archival performance footage with the chart rankings of Quatro's singles.

By far the most intriguing aspect of the film is the conflicting testimony of Quatro and her sisters Patti and Nancy about the split when she began her solo career. Editors Sara Edwards and Firmager craft a flowing and compelling back-and-forth from the siblings' separate commentaries about the emotional fallout. Interstitials in which Quatro reads lines of her poetry might be a bit on-the-nose, but they underscore how unresolved a lot of this remains.

Quatro recalls how she felt written out by friends and family, and how she learned the painful lesson that you can't go home again, even as she longed to recapture something she feels she missed when she hit the road and left the comfortable Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe behind. As someone who longs for a specific kind of validation, she's hardly alone. But she offers a piece of jaw-dropping evidence: an audiotape of a family conversation about Quatro that her father sent her during her early days in London, as passive-aggressive a "gift" as you could imagine.

Sensible, down-to-earth and likable in the present-day interviews, she's clearly grappling with old hurts that she had to push aside so as not to derail her dream. The film reveals her to be someone always open to reinvention, something the rock world she came from didn't embrace. Besides her portrayal of Leather Tuscadero opposite Henry Winkler's Fonzie, Quatro co-wrote and starred in a 1991 musical about Tallulah Bankhead, Tallulah Who?, that seems to have been well reviewed but never went beyond a brief East London run, and a clip reveals her to be a perfectly cast Annie Oakley in a 1986 revival of Annie Get Your Gun.

That she would play the feisty ace sharpshooter so well is no surprise for someone who, bass in hand, stepped fearlessly into a realm that belonged to men — and who, as a teen getting her first up-close look at a business that could be treacherous for a young woman, adopted survival tactics on the spot: "I developed a smart mouth," Quatro says, "which kept the assholes away."

Available on VOD and DVD
Production companies: Screen Australia in association with Film Victoria, PalStar, La Rosa Productions, Acme Film Company
Distributor: Utopia Distribution
With: Suzi Quatro, Alice Cooper, Henry Winkler, Deborah Harry, Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Donita Sparks, Lita Ford, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Kathy Valentine, KT Tunstall, Len Tuckey, Mike Chapman, Don Powell, Dave Neal
Director: Liam Firmager
Producers: Tait Brady, Liam Firmager
Executive producers: Stephanie Stevenson, Jason Byrne, Shaun Miller, Adam La Rosa
Cinematography: Liam Firmager, Jack Eaton, David Richardson, James Nuttall
Editors: Sara Edwards, Liam Firmager

100 minutes