A documentary on the history of rock posters is a no-brainer. Though a mammoth tome on the subject — Paul Grushin's The Art of Modern Rock — was published to much acclaim in the '90s, writer-director Merle Becker's film is the first in-depth look at what is now a modern art movement and phenomenon. It was Grushin's coffee-table book, in fact, that inspired the filmmaker after she discovered it in a New York City bookstore while "working a corporate TV job at MTV" in 2004. Becoming rather obsessed with the form, Becker quit her gig and drove across the country to interview as many of these pioneering and modern rock illustrators as money would permit after she failed to find financial backing for the project. Becker likely identifies with these renegade artists, as she mentions in the film at least twice that the great ones have succeeded without the financial help of big corporations.
Detroit looms large in this picture, thanks especially to the presence of Mark Arminski, Detroit's most recent poster art king, and the great Grande Ballroom rock-art pioneer, Gary Grimshaw, both of whom are interviewed. The latter even offers a mantra that should resonate loudly during this city's time of economic crisis: "What people don't understand is that the automobile industry didn't make Detroit. Detroit made the automobile industry," he says, discussing the city's art history and aesthetic. "Most importantly, it was the skilled labor and the long history of craftsmanship that was in Detroit." Arminski, for his part, says that although he has since discovered that he and revered '90s icon Frank Kozik (who delivers a hilarious, profane-laden diatribe about the sex lives of the Flintstones during the film's closing credits) began around the same time, Arminski "knew nothing but what was going on in Detroit."
A major revelation, though, is to discover that rock poster grandfather Stanley Mouse — perhaps most famous for creating the Grateful Dead's skull-and-rose logo, and who delivers a poignant diatribe in the flick on the death of '60s ideals and why the poster art scene died along with it (until punk revived it a decade later) — was born and raised in Detroit, where his early art was inspired by "car culture," before heading to psychedelic San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury hippiedom.
If the film has a slight flaw, though, it's that Becker's sense of rock history may occasionally strike more astute scholars as a bit skewed. Especially maddening to Detroit audiences will be her Grimshaw intro when she claims: "Most people don't think of Detroit when they think of '60s rock." (Well, not unless they think of Mitch Ryder, the MC5, the Stooges, the Amboy Dukes, Motown, etc., etc., they don't.) Which is about as true as her statement: "The rock concert as we know it today, for the most part, started in San Francisco." Elsewhere, we see Grimshaw talking about the Fillmore West, but since he's presented as the principal rock artist in Detroit during the '60s, some viewers may be confused as to why he's describing a Bay Area venue. (In fact, after he was discharged from the Navy, Grimshaw spent time in Frisco before returning to Detroit and John Sinclair's White Panthers party.)
But these are minor quibbles about a film that mostly informs and entertains, especially when Becker allows the artists themselves to do the talking — be it fascinating psychedelic surrealist Victor Moscoso (whose style is familiar to anyone who ever set foot in a '60s or '70s head shop black-light room) or Seattle grunge architect Art Chantry, in addition to too many others to list here. Becker documents Nashville's Hatch Show Print shop, founded in 1879, which printed most of the country's early music posters; the thriving shop is still used today by the likes of the White Stripes and Bob Dylan who want to recapture the vintage essence of those old Hank Williams and Elvis concert posters. She's even uncovered footage of the late Rick Griffin, the California surfer and art school reject who created the Rolling Stone magazine logo and then invented the very concept of the rock poster as an art form. There's a montage that shows most of the artists featured in the doc naming Griffin as the most influential in history, concluding with Dennis Loren — another native Detroit rock artist and San Francisco transplant, who also designed the movie's official poster— calling Griffin "the Michelangelo of poster artists. I don't think there was ever anyone any better."
Becker tackles the economics of the form as well as the never-ending debate between "lowbrow" and "highbrow," and brings the rock poster movement full circle by documenting how the Art Rock Gallery books of the '90s, and then the launch of the gigposters.com website in the 2000s, led to a revolution and even careers for an entire new generation of talented illustrators. "I wanted people to say, 'How can this exist? Who the fuck made this?'" Kozik says of his art, of which a peer claims: "His imagery totally fit the vibe of the time."
American Artifact kicks off with cult hero Robert Williams (who drew the controversial Appetite for Destruction album cover for Guns N' Roses) exclaiming: "Rock 'n' roll is so goddamn important!" Even with some of its DIY roots occasionally bulging at the seams, the film does a fine job of explaining why this visual offshoot of that musical medium might be considered equally important.
American Artifact screens at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 20, at the Henry Ford Museum, 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn; 313-271-1620. Presented in conjunction with an art show by Mark Arminski. Director Merle Becker, Arminski and Gary Grimshaw will host a Q&A session immediately following the screening.
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].