'The Terry Kath Experience': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of TIFF
A bittersweet memorial to a fallen guitar hero.

First-time documentary director Michelle Kath Sinclair pays cinematic tribute to her late father, Terry Kath from the band Chicago.

A founder member of the phenomenally successful rock supergroup Chicago, Terry Kath was a self-taught musical maestro with a rich, soulful baritone voice and superhuman guitar skills that even Jimi Hendrix came to envy. But huge success proved to be a double-edged sword for Kath, who developed a fatal attraction to guns and cocaine. In January 1978, at the height of his fame, he accidentally shot himself dead while fooling around at the end of drug-fueled party. Dying just a week short of his 32nd birthday, Kath left behind a young wife, Camelia, and a two-year-old daughter, Michelle.

Now older than her father was when he died, DJ turned first-time film director Michelle Kath Sinclair pays bittersweet tribute to the dad she barely knew in this heartfelt rockumentary. Eight years in the making, and backed by almost $100,000 of Kickstarter crowdfunding, The Terry Kath Experience premiered in Toronto last week. This is a competently assembled debut, with a poignant personal back story. But because Kath was never quite a mainstream rock star, Sinclair's tender memorial will most likely have connoisseur interest only, touring music-friendly film festivals before finding a small screen home.

Knitting together vintage footage, private family archive material and contemporary interviews, Sinclair revisits her father's boyhood in Chicago, his meteoric rise through the city's bar-band scene, and his peak years as a multi-platinum rocker with an ambivalent attitude to commercial success. Besides interviewing the surviving members of Chicago, Sinclair meets some famous friends of her dad including Jeff Lynne of ELO and Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, who claims "the whole audience were as high as we were in those days."

Sinclair and her mother also return to Caribou Ranch in Colorado, an idyllic recording studio compound built by Chicago's manager-producer James Guercio in 1972 and later used by dozens of superstars including Elton John, Michael Jackson and U2. In the Seventies, the Kath family spent long periods living at the ranch, where Terry indulged his Wild West gunslinger fantasies. On the day the film crew visit, the studio is closing its doors for the last time.

The Terry Kath Experience is clearly a sentimental journey for Sinclair, an attempt to come to terms with a huge emotional void in her life. Her personal connection to the subject is both strength and weakness, as she has access to archive material never seen on film before. The early performance footage is certainly electrifying, capturing Kath on molten form as he combines jazz, soul, blues and hard rock into epic experimental jams, including one composed in the brain-melting 19/8 time signature. The dorky Seventies hair and fashions are a joy too.

But Sinclair is also constrained by her blood ties to Kath. On camera, friends and relations dutifully paint the late rocker in reverential terms, as a doting dad and musical genius. Most of these anodyne interviews play down his conflicts with other band members, his drug problems and his reckless open-carry attitude to guns. A recurring subplot about the search for Kath's favorite guitar, a Fender Telecaster customized with striking geometric patterns, also feels like a contrived attempt to inject a minor note of suspense into an otherwise shapeless narrative.

That said, Sinclair is admirably restrained in dealing with her father's death, steering well clear of the salacious sensationalism that might have helped sell her film for all the wrong reasons. Part of Kath's tragedy is that he died too early to leave behind a substantial enough body of work to fill a great documentary, but this warm-hearted labor of love is still a welcome reminder of his immense talent. One of its agreeably bizarre final twists is a wedding-video cameo by Kiefer Sutherland, who ended up becoming Sinclair's stepfather.

Production company: Searching for Terry Productions
Cast: Michelle Kath Sinclair, Terry Kath, Camelia Kath, Peter Cetera, Robert Lamm, Walter Parazaider, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, James William Guercio, Danny Seraphine
Director: Michelle Kath Sinclair
Producers: Michelle Kath Sinclair, Tony Papa, Jordan Levy
Cinematographer: Jordan Levy
Editor: Micah Levin
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
No rating, 89 minutes