In the not-too-distant future, it’s easy to imagine documentaries charting the origins of scrappy websites like Gawker, Pitchfork and Deadspin, online publications that became known for their subversive coverage of popular culture. Creem: America's Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine could serve as the template for these soon-to-be-crowdfunded docs, collecting behind-the-scenes tales from the periodical’s glory days in the ’70s – a time when music-obsessives could put themselves on paper instead of starting a blog.
A rock magazine founded in Detroit by record store owner Barry Kramer and one of his shop’s clerks, Creem was known for its irreverent coverage of the bands more mainstream publications weren’t interested in. Run by a young staff who essentially lived out of (and partied at) the office, the taste-making title found devotees among readers looking for a window into the era’s counterculture. It had writers like the cantankerous Lester Bangs and future film director Cameron Crowe on its roster.
This faithful documentary includes plenty of appearances by now-famous faces who grew up reading Creem, including REM frontman Michael Stipe and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, each of whom credit the mag with broadening their horizons. But the bulk of its narrative focuses on the recollections of surviving staff members, like senior editor Jaan Uhelszki and editor Dave Marsh. They look back on the raucous office parties, fistfights between employees and typewriters thrown through windows.
Produced by JJ Kramer (the son of Creem’s founder) and co-written by Uhelszki, the doc is afforded insider access and takes the opportunity to burnish the magazine’s contribution to music journalism and rock ’n’ roll culture. There’s a bit of soul-searching over the sexist, homophobic and generally immature nature of some of Creem’s coverage, but it’s largely shrugged off as a product of its time. Likewise, the antics of its staff and the dysfunctional environment in which they worked. Apparently, childish and destructive behaviour goes hand-in-hand with sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this overview of Creem is how little attention is paid to the writing that earned the magazine its reputation. A mean-spirited review of a Joan Jett album and the monthly ‘Stars’ Cars’ feature (rock stars photographed with their rides) are singled out, but the freewheeling interviews that Bangs conducted with Lou Reed and reviews written by Patti Smith are only mentioned in passing. It’s especially strange that prose isn’t integrated more prominently in the doc, considering that the only way to read most of these old articles is by paying exorbitant prices for vintage issues on eBay.
The tale that Creem: America's Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine tells ends in tragedy, with founder Kramer and writer Bangs dying of drug overdoses and the magazine folding after being sold to new owners. Still, the publication’s arc is presented as triumphant and lauded for providing a platform for female music journalists, as well as offering exposure to artists from beyond New York and LA. It’s just a shame the colourful stories overshadow the substance that made the publication so influential. This doc isn’t exactly a puff piece, but it’s certainly not the in-depth record that the magazine deserves.
Out in US theatres and via streaming sites now.