Barnaby Clay, Director of “SHOT! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock”

Filmmaker discusses his documentary about famed music photographer Mick Rock

Aug 07, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Right at the outset of Barnaby Clay’s documentary about legendary music photographer Mick Rock - from Rock’s own nostalgic perspective - you are thrust into the moment. Lead singer Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio is howling along to the electric bass drive of “Wolf Like Me” at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn as a steady hand loads 400 speed film into a camera in the shadows, edge lit by the flickering stage lights in his background. With immediacy, the sequence crystallizes the essence of what prompted Rock down his magical, mystical and daringly experiential path into the heart of rock’s glory days and nights, many years ago.

Mick Rock is still shooting after all these years and from that exclusive vantage point, one that he entirely earned, of any angle and artist he chooses. Responsible for some of the most iconic images in music history, having shot the likes of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Queen and Iggy Pop, right at the simmer of their ascension, he had a story that begged to be told.

Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock is Barnaby Clay’s kaleidoscopic platform to allow Mick to tell it straight. What it shows us convincingly is that he was to golden era rock music photography what Danny Fields was to its management and publicity. The most influential and groundbreaking artists of the time were represented by their respective talents. Both shadowed their movements and were decidedly personae gratis. Mick Rock didn’t just capture the moments through his disarming charisma, he was woven into the fabric. Thus, his stories filmed with a mixture of patient receptiveness and animate retrospective by Clay, hold the kinds of juicy inside observations of icons that are usually left to the fan’s imagination.

Charles Steinberg [Under the Radar]: I really stayed fascinated throughout this film. I started in music photography as well, so I’ve long been interested in Mick Rock. I never knew too much about him but more admired from afar, so this film was a real treat for me. How did you originally meet Mick?

Barnaby Clay: The first time I came across him in person was in London. I’m from London originally but live in LA and New York now. But when I was back there about fifteen years ago, some friends of mine had a gallery called Zoltar and they put on an exhibition of primarily Mick’s Syd Barrett work, really just the shots around The Madcap Laughs (Barrett’s post Pink Floyd solo album). I went along to that not really knowing that much about him, I should say. I Loved the work, thought it was amazing and saw him kind of wandering around and said to myself ‘Ok, this guy’s definitely a character’ You could pretty much see that from across the gallery. There was a book there and as I looked through it, started piecing it all together. I was like ‘Oh my god’ he did this and this...all these things he did were seminal parts of my life growing-up. Raw Power (Iggy & The Stooges) and Transformer (Lou Reed) were two records for me that were fully integrated in my childhood. I remember thinking ‘somebody should make a film about this guy’ not thinking that would be me.

How did it end up being you?

Mick had been toying with the idea of doing a documentary for a long time. BBC and various other established documentarians had been approaching him and I think he was at the point where he was ready to do it - well, he thought he was ready anyway (laugh). I knew his manager and she suggested me, so we met. We hit it off pretty quickly. We’ve both basically lived a similar kind of existence, though I would say that Mick is definitely a notch higher on the debauchery front. (But yeah) we both came from the same part of London and both document bands visually...we both moved to New York. So we have a lot in common. From there the making of the film came naturally.

That’s an interesting parallel because he obviously had this camaraderie within the world he documented, which it sounds like you had with him. That can open another realm of access. So how much does being sympatico and having familiarity impact things? I remember this part of the film where Mick mentions that Terry O’Neil had never really hung out with the people he photographed and with a look on his face suggesting “What a shame”.

Certainly what Mick has is the ability to be one of them. And to a certain extent myself included. I’m married to a musician (Karen O) and I’ve been involved in that scene for a long time so I feel like I’m kind of less threatening. People are ready to open up and be themselves a bit more. But you know that doesn’t always work. Sometimes there is something to be gained by a distance. But look, musicians and artists, especially more established ones, spend their entire time doing interviews, well not their entire fact they spend their entire time avoiding doing interviews (laugh). It’s the last thing they want to do, you know, they don’t really want to talk about it and some are not natural talkers anyway. They express themselves through their music and artform. Mick was initially going on the path of photography and journalism. Those two audio recordings (of Mick interviewing Bowie and Reed on cassette) were both recorded for journalistic purposes but you feel this level of total trust and just two guys hanging out really. Like let’s just talk shit as two friends would. What does come across in his all his work is a sense of the people being (at ease). His absolute strength is to go into a room and bring it down to a level of silyness in a way. Just take the example of Mick and his Ziggy Stardust stuff, if you look through the whole lot from that era of Bowie that Mick documented, it’s so unguarded. You don’t get the sense of (Bowie) having to hide from him and you just see this looseness in the way he is. Same goes with the Lou Reed ones. You’re used to this image of Lou Reed as stark and grumpy or whatever but you see this much more relaxed and serene side to him (with Mick) that a lot of people didn’t get to see. Certainly somebody like Lou Reed, who was always notoriously frosty with journalists.

Something the film provokes strongly is the notion that it’s more difficult to reach the kind of intimacy these days when documenting artists. There seemed to be fewer barriers to coming close to an artist back then and capturing their aura that Mick speaks of in the film.

The one thing that’s really important to understand from the film is that (Micks) wasn’t a period when rock photographers were (big), they were just known through association basically. Things have changed dramatically now where those photographers have become respected artists on a global level. More importantly, a lot of those musicians he was photographing back then, at the time were not such a big deal. They weren’t in the public psyche but rather in the psyche of a small cult really.

Did you get the feeling that he’s always tried to chase that commonality with his subjects later in his life? Something that was central in the film was his near death experience (Mick had quadruple bypass surgery in ‘96) and him trying to move on afterwards and reconnect with that sort of rarified magic of the prime he shared with rock music.

Like anybody who is known for a particular body of work from the past, you have a very complex relationship with that. On one level you are tied to it through the income and new work it brings and people wanting to talk to you about it, but at the same time he’s not somebody that’s like “There were only great artists back then”. He’ll go and shoot somebody now and they’ll be his new favorite artist and he can’t stop talking about them.

As far as the filming process itself, you almost don't notice but there is a menagerie of footage. There were parts with music video energy of psychedelic wormholes and Mick passing through halls of his images and staged recreations. Was that harder to cut together than it looks? Because there's seamless transition from the raw authenticity of the archival footage to the contemporary sequences with Mick.

Making it feel seamless was actually one of the hardest parts of the editing process. Unusually for a documentary it was extremely planned out in advance and executed in a style closer to a narrative film. We had to allow for Mick, the only talking head in the film, to be comfortable within the studio situation. He’s obviously spent a lot of time in studios and has made music videos, so that familiarity was useful. It also helped that my cinematographer Max Goldman and I figured out the films ‘looks' based on Mick’s photographs so when it came to marrying Mick’s work with our footage it felt all the more seamless. Also, once you have a concept like we did – Mick recounts his life story to his dying self – you’re in the abstract realm of the subconscious which means once you’ve set it up, you can pretty much go anywhere!

How did those stylistic choices in the filmmaking reference the theatricality of that era of rock.

From the beginning I really wanted to present Mick’s story in a different way than a usual rock doc. I was searching for ideas when it struck me that it was all there in front of me under the banner of 'Glam Rock'. As an artistic genre it was so theatrical, stylized, over-the-top and sometimes even pretentious, but it’s great fun, especially when you’re telling the story of ‘The Man Who Shot The Seventies’. It’s always a gamble artistically when you approach something in a different way, but I felt it was important to make a film that honored all these musical titans who never took the straight path and were always looking to try something different, even if some people didn’t care for it.

I thought it was brilliant to start with Mick shooting TV On The Radio during "Wolf Like Me", loading his camera and then you fade out into this ambient euphoria with him as the narrator, which to me signals a feeling of hovering in that moment. Can you talk about your choice to open that way?

For a long time there was a different opening – people queuing and going into the Bowie concert at the Rainbow in 1972. It was really weird and abstract, but I liked it because it immediately sucked you into this magical world. Mick was not into it however, so I had to come up with something else. The film already detailed Mick shooting someone in the studio (Karen O and then Father John Misty), but not a live show, and since so many of his classic photos were live, I figured it would be a great addition. I still wanted the same feel of the original opening though, something more dreamy than a live concert shoot, so the idea of watching Mick in action externally, then gradually going internal made perfect sense.

The choice to have Mick standing around a light table in a dark room with his images. Was that a way to get him talking, to jog his memories and ideas through the images or was it more of a stylistic move? Because those sequences are effective in both respects.

It was both. I knew from visiting Mick’s archives that he had vast body of work, and both he and I had to get our heads around it – Mick on a recollection front and me getting to grips with his story. This was a perfect way to achieve that, but then of course visually it’s a fantastic image to work with – especially the scale of it and placing it an otherwise dark void. In fact when we were shooting these sequences day after day in this big, dark studio space things become very unreal and you really begin to feel like you’re in Mick’s subconscious, floating through his memories and recollections of those bygone days. It was one of my favorite moments of the process.


SHOT! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock is now available on Digital HD. For more information, head to the film's website.


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