Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story"

I have three stories that I keep writing over and over.

The first is about a social outsider who's also a creative person, and why you should be interested in them. (Most of my cover stories for the Fort Worth Weekly fit in this category.) The second is about a group of people who grow up together through music. (Most band bios fit in this category, one way or another.) The last is about a group of people who find a sense of community centered around music. The Wreck Room Stories book that I did with my wife is an example of this. Producer/director Tony D'Annunzio's documentary Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story is another, and it's a corker. (That means it's a goodun.)

The story of Russ Gibb's Grande Ballroom is one which signifies a great deal for me, since I spent a lot of time as a teenager listening to Detroit bands like the Stooges, the MC5, Mitch Ryder's Detroit, the Rationals, Bob Seger, SRC, and the Frost, and reading about the Motor City's radicalized youth community in Creem magazine and John Sinclair's articles for Jazz & Pop. From October 1966 to January 1970, the Grande was the epicenter of that community and a hotbed of rebellion, drugs, sex, revolutionary politics, and rock 'n' roll. For much of that time, it was also an essential stop for touring bands, particularly those from the UK.

While the Grande might have been patterned on the model of San Francisco psychedelic ballrooms like the Fillmore and the Avalon, the Detroit audience gave it a down-to-Earth, no-bullshit midwestern spirit that made it many performers' favorite place in America to play. And the hard-nosed, competitive Michigan music scene meant that listeners' expectations there were as elevated as their consciousness.

In his first film, D'Annunzio, a Detroit native with two decades in broadcast TV, tells this compelling story via interviews, archival footage and still photography -- including many of Leni Sinclair's iconic images of the MC5 and others -- and the stunning work of Grande poster artists Gary Grimshaw and Carl Lundgren. (After viewing Louder Than Love, I was motivated to peruse Sinclair and Grimshaw's book Detroit Rocks and immerse myself in those images again.)

The interviews are the heart of the story, and they're exceptionally well presented, including some surprises. Grande impresario Gibb -- a high school teacher who got his start in music promoting sock-hops because his students weren't allowed to have dances -- describes his exposure to the West Coast hippie ballroom culture (which every Texas music fan knows was exported there by Austin expat Chet Helms) and his efforts to bring it to the Grande -- a disused '20s dance palace and a great-sounding room designed for live music -- aided and abetted by rock 'n' roll beatnik poet/MC5 manager Sinclair. Gibb's an articulate and personable fellow who was willing to give the kids what they wanted even if it didn't appeal to him personally. (For the record, it was a blender the Stooges brought onstage for their first performance, not a toilet.)

Talking to D'Annunzio's camera, Sinclair comes across as much less overbearing than he did in the MC5 documentary A True Testimonial. Viewers who've seen that film will also note that guitarist Wayne Kramer seems more relaxed and spontaneous here, and drummer Dennis Thompson less angry and combative. (Maybe having a hometown boy behind the microphone makes a difference?) One of Louder Than Love's most surprising interviews is ex-Amboy Dukes guitarist Ted Nugent, who wisely puts his shrill right-wing blowhard persona on hold (or has it done for him editorially) and speaks of the Grande and '60s Detroit music scene with both fervor and humility.

Grande manager and Who familiar Tom Wright (whose memoir Roadwork is eminently worth seeking out) describes the importance of the Grande to the Who and other English bands, his reminiscences supported by Roger Daltrey's. Louder Than Love includes snippets from Wright's audio of the Who's world premiere performance of Tommy at the Grande, as well as previously unseen 8mm footage of that show. Emcee Dave Miller remembers having Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker to dinner at his parents' house, while photographer Tom Weschler recalls the night the crowd loaded Cream's equipment out over their heads so the band could make a flight home for Christmas.

B.B. King speaks with emotion of the rousing reception he received from the Grande audience, while Alice Cooper, whose band relocated to Detroit from L.A., talks about how they had to step up their game to earn a place on the Grande stage. Producer Don Was, too young to have played the Grande, provides a wealth of insight on the venue and its surrounding milieu. "Grande groupie" Ruth Hoffman and Fifth Estate editor Harvey Ovshinsky also provide valuable perspectives. My only beef with the interviews is that Rationals frontman Scott Morgan only makes a brief appearance, while non-participants like Henry Rollins (who's at least intelligent and informed in speaking of the Detroit scene's impact) and Slash get lots more onscreen time. It's also noteworthy that Morgan is seen without a hat for the first time since about 1987. (Why'd Ted get to keep his on?)

D'Annunzio integrates his interview material and period images seamlessly. There's a noticeable reliance on performance footage from other venues, most noticeably the 1967 Belle Isle Love-In (the Stooges' infamous 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival appearance is disguised in B&W), but it doesn't detract from the film's impact. The soundtrack is rich with Detroit rock 'n' roll music from the period. It also includes a new song from Frost leader Dick Wagner, as well as the late MC5 singer Rob Tyner's paean to "Grande Days."

Louder Than Love is currently making the rounds of festivals. D'Annunzio says it should be out on DVD by late fall or early winter this year. Watch for it. This story will resonate for you if you grew up getting your clothes moved around by air molecules from drum heads and speaker cones, whether or not you're familiar with the era it describes. For besides being unique and historic, the Grande's story is also universal.


Blogger RicardoNYC said...

Having grown up in Detroit (West Side) and attended several amazing shows there as a kid, I really appreciate your thoughtful review. I am now on the hunt for the DVD, but can't find it yet. Any clues?


3:45 PM  
Blogger Ken Shimamoto said...


I'm asking Tony D'Annunzio. Back atcha when I get a response.


3:51 PM  
Blogger Ken Shimamoto said...

Tony D'Annunzio says, "I'm currently working with a sales agent/distributor on the release of LOUDER. I wish I could give an actual release date but it seems to be a bit of a moving target."

6:34 AM  

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