The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash
A solid documentary about a great musician, with passages of greatness.
In his memoir, “It’s So Easy and Other Lies,” rock icon Duff McKagan shared a saga that started with him as just another struggling musician on the L.A. punk underground scene in the early Eighties, found him playing bass with two hugely popular bands (Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver) and saw him nearly succumbing several times to the temptations of booze and drugs before finally pulling himself together and reuniting with the other members of Guns N' Roses, more than twenty years after they self-destructed for a tour that is sure to be among the biggest of the year. With a recent rise in interest in documentaries about the personal and professional lives of musical performers, it is perhaps not surprising that someone would get the idea of bringing that best-selling book to the screen but the film version of “It’s So Easy and Other Lies” is not the straightforward doc that some people may be expecting. It blends together footage of McKagan doing readings from his book on stage in Seattle, talking head interviews with friends and colleagues including Slash, Nikki Sixx, Mike McCready and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, archival footage of McKagan on and off the stage and even some animation here and there. Directed by Christopher Duddy—who worked in the visual effects department on such classics as “Innerspace,” “The Abyss,” “Total Recall,” “Waterworld” and “Titanic” before branching off into directing—it's a visually striking and inventive work that is pretty much a must-see for fans of McKagan or those curious about the history of hard rock.
Via e-mail, Duddy talked about the film, his relationships with McKagan and the punk/hard rock scenes and being privy to the surprise GnR reunion.
What was it that first got you interested in filmmaking? Was there a particular movie or filmmaker that had a significant impact on you?
When I was young I was really fascinated by cameras. There was something magical about looking through a viewfinder. One of my earliest memories as a kid was on summer break and my mom would drop me and my brothers and sisters off at the matinee. We would be there all day watching movies. I was a teenager in the 70's and early 80's and there were several movies that came out that really affected me and inspired me in a profound way. Movies like “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The Exorcist,” “Dirty Harry,” “Blade Runner” and so many more. I just had this burning desire from a very young age to be a part of that world and to be a storyteller.
You first made a name for yourself working in the field of visual effects. When you were working there, was directing something that you were always working towards?
My first job in cinema was at ILM in the camera department working on visual effects. I was like a sponge working there. I wanted to learn everything from model making to matte painting and the various techniques. I had to be behind the camera and then ultimately I wanted to tell my own stories and there was an organic and natural progression for me into that from behind the camera as a cinematographer into directing.
How did directing “It’s So Easy and Other Lies” come about?
Duff and I had been friends/neighbors—we met walking our kids to school—for a long time before he wrote his book “It's So Easy and Other Lies.” He asked me to read it and I was really inspired by his ultimate survival story. I have had a near death experience as a survivor of a helicopter crash inside an active volcano and trapped for two days and I think what Duff went through with drugs and alcohol is very much like crashing and being trapped. So in that regard I think we related on a higher level and he trusted me to tell his story. Growing up being very much influenced by the cinema, hero arcs always resonated with me so now, as a filmmaker with a voice, I think that it is very important to make films that inspire and lift people, especially with society’s acceptance of mediocre pop culture that we are experiencing right now. After I read his book, I approached him with the idea of making a documentary to really inspire people and, after much persistence on my part, he finally agreed to make it.
I started going with him with a camera when he was promoting the book when it was released as a New York Times best-seller on paperback. Then the defining moment came when he asked me to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction of Guns N' Roses. The night before the ceremony he asked me to go with him to shoot B-roll at his book reading show at the House of Blues in Cleveland. I had never really seen anything like that before. It was incredibly powerful and affected me in a way that when we got back to L.A., I pitched the idea to Duff about using the book reading show as the catalyst or device in the movie to propel the storytelling. We designed a bigger show for the movie that he performed in front of to a sold out show at The Moore Theatre in Seattle where Duff grew up.
The film employs any number of distinct stylistic choices throughout—footage of Duff doing readings from his book on stage, talking head interviews, archival footage and and even pieces of animation. Can you explain a little about the ideas that you developed as a way of bringing the book to the screen?
Duff and I really set out to make something different here, not just your standard cookie-cutter documentary, but something out of the box. So really, it's more of a concert film with storytelling. I wanted to shoot flashback-style sequences in reference to some of the stories, but Duff pushed me instead into using animation and I think it was a great choice to mix it up for the audience experience. Duff is all about the music, so the film is wall-to-wall music with the live show orchestration of some classic Guns N' Roses, Velvet Revolver and Loaded songs that are accompanied by a string quartet and a steel slide guitar. It is an amazing soundtrack.
The film also serves as a mini-history of the punk and hard rock music scenes from the beginning of the Eighties on, ranging from his early days as a punker to the massive commercial successes of Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver. Was this a musical culture that you had any previous affinity for before working on this project?
No, I was not a punk guy growing up. That is the beauty of making documentaries. It is really an investigation into the subject matter. I didn't know much about Duff pre-Guns, so it was a very interesting journey for me to investigate where he came from musically in his teen years growing up in Seattle where punk and metal collided that later morphed into grunge. Seattle was a spawning ground for music back then and so many great musicians came from that era. It was fun for me uncovering and pulling back the curtain on that.
Having presented his story on his terms on page and then on the stage, did Duff have any apprehensions at first about placing it in your hands and putting it through your artistic sensibilities?
Of course Duff had reservations about me making a movie about him. It can be a very daunting place to have to open up to and put yourself in. So as a filmmaker, I was incredibly sensitive to telling his story honestly and honorably. Most people only want you to know the good parts of their life, but when I read his book, one of the reasons I wanted to take this on and make this movie was because of his genuine honesty about his dark journey and revealing his darkest secrets about drug and alcohol addiction that almost took his life at a young age. He overcame those demons and now enjoys years of sobriety and clarity. It's an incredibly inspiring film especially for people who share those similar experiences.
Was it easy to recruit the other interview subjects or were there any that you tried to involve but who refused to participate for whatever reason? (This is, as you can probably surmise, my slightly obtuse way of asking if Axl Rose was asked to take part.)
It was not hard to get his musical colleagues to come aboard. Duff is genuinely loved in the music industry. Everybody that we asked said yes. I'm not going to get into the Axl thing, I will say that while we were making the film, they were just starting to discuss the reunion tour and we didn't want to be a distraction or disruption to that whole thing. We did gently reach out to his camp but didn't push. Look, yes, Guns was a big part of Duff's life and story, but ultimately this movie is about Duff's whole journey which is very multi-faceted and interesting in itself besides his tenure in Guns.
Having directed both a narrative film ("Cougar Club") and a documentary now, do you have any preference between the two forms as a filmmaker?
I have directed both narrative films and documentaries and honestly I love both forms of storytelling. I think they are both equally difficult to make especially when you are producing as well. In my case, I have produced everything I've directed so it can be very challenging. I think actually documentaries might be harder because they take a long time to bake and get right. Narratives more or less have a set schedule that you have to keep to. This film took three years to complete where most narratives take less than a year by the time you have a shooting script.
The film is coming out just before an event that few people could have possibly anticipated ever happening—a Guns N' Roses reunion tour. When you were making the film and working with Duff, did you have any inkling that something like this might be in the realm of possibility or were you as surprised as the rest of us?
I mean, I was sort of privy to the idea of the GnR reunion tour. Like I mentioned before, all those discussions were going on while we were making the film so I wasn't surprised when it was finally announced, but not in my wildest dreams for the movie did I think we would be releasing the film the same summer as this monster reunion tour was happening. I mean are you kidding me? Come on, pinch me. Even the most savvy studio marketing wizards couldn't have planned this better.
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