The mid-to-late '60s in Detroit was a time of incredibly intense contradictions. While the riots of '67 saw the Motor City burn and highlighted the gulf between black and white, musicians were proving that multiculturalism (though it wasn't called that then) could work. That was the time of Motown, and the time of white bands that felt Motown's influence, groups like the Rationals, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, the MC5 and the Bob Seger System. Those bands, along with the Stooges, Alice Cooper, the Frost, the Up and so many more, happily played on the same bill as the likes of B.B. King, Sun Ra, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. And they did so at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit.
Anybody that attended a concert at the Grande while it was open (1966-1970) will tell you that it was a magical place. Of course, those memories might be blurred by nostalgia-tinted glasses and the haze of pot and other drugs, but the one thing that we can all be sure of is that some bona fide historic events went down in that old ballroom, a building that was warehousing mattresses before schoolteacher Russ Gibb decided to take a cue from Bill Graham's Fillmore in San Fran and create something similar in his hometown.
B.B. King cried when the Grande crowd gave him a deafening ovation, later saying that he'd never been treated so well on stage before. Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd and the Who all played on the same bill for just $5 (and people complained about the price). Of course, the MC5 recorded the Kick out the Jams album at the Grande, and the aforementioned local bands got their start there. And the whole story is told vividly and beautifully in Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story, directed by Tony D'Annunzio.
The movie, made on a shoestring budget, succeeds because, a) D'Annunzio did his research, b) managed to rope most of the key players into being interviewed, c) was able to get his hands on some amazing film footage, music and photographs, and d) is obviously incredibly passionate about the subject matter.
D'Annunzio explains that he got the idea to do the documentary on a New Year's Eve when he and a friend were feeling contemplative.
"I've been doing production for 23 years in Detroit," he says. "At the 20-year mark, I was thinking about all the things I've done. I've been lucky enough to work on Super Bowls and Stanley Cups, to do commercials with the Rolling Stones and the Who, to work with touring acts. It was New Year's Eve of 2007 going into 2008 that the idea came to me. A friend asked me what I haven't done, and I've always wanted to produce and direct my own documentary. I put the challenge out to myself to just do it."
The director says that, naturally, he started by contacting and subsequently interviewing Russ Gibb. That got the ball rolling.
"I was inspired by the MC5 True Testimonial movie," D'Annunzio says, referring to the much-lauded but little-seen 2002 doc about the 5. "I thought that finally the MC5 were going to get some recognition. But this being my first independent film, I didn't think I'd be able to do it about a person or a band. My thought process was, if I did it about a building, I could get Russ involved, John Sinclair and other people, but if some people said no I could still tell the story."
The movie has talking-head quotes from (among others) the MC5's Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Grand Funk's Mark Farner, the Rationals' Scott Morgan and the Frost's Dick Wagner, plus legendary out-of-towners such as B.B. King and the Who's Roger Daltrey. He would have loved to have gotten Mitch Ryder and Iggy Pop, but he says that the schedules never worked out.
Louder Than Love also features interviews with Gibb, poster artists Gary Grimshaw and Carl Lundgren, photographer Leni Sinclair and MC5 manager and White Panther leader John Sinclair, among others not known for their music. "When I started it was going to be about the music of the Grande, but even the musicians told me that there was a whole culture wrapped around the Grande, with the art of Grimshaw and Lundgren," D'Annunzio says. "When people see those posters, it brings them back to the time."
D'Annunzio is in his late 40s, too young to have attended the Grande. But his enthusiasm for Detroit music in general and depth of research make up for that.
"From the '30s and '40s, and Jack Scott in the '50s, Detroit has always been on top of music," he says. "The '60s we owned with Motown, Seger, Mitch and the Rationals. Then Iggy and the MC5, which led to the Romantics, Marshall Crenshaw and even the Knack. Then you progress through to Madonna. At what period did we not have great music coming out of Detroit, and Michigan? Kid Rock, Eminem and Jack White are top-charts people. Sometimes we as Detroiters take the other local bands that are out there for granted. It's hard to figure out where to go on a Friday night because there are so many choices."
Speaking of the new(er) breed, D'Annunzio interviewed Slash, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello and Henry Rollins for the movie. Lemmy too.
"I think for a story to have validity it has to show that it not only affected the musicians of the time. ... I also wanted to show how the music from then impacted people later down the line, in the states and all over the world," he says. "To me, it made a lot of sense because I had seen Slash with Iggy Pop, playing with Wayne Kramer, and he's on Alice Cooper's albums, so I knew he was a fan. I knew how big an MC5 fan Tom Morello was. Lemmy played on some of the MC5 reunion stuff. Rollins is obviously one of the biggest Iggy fans you're going to get."
The response to the movie has been phenomenal, selling out the first screening in Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Arts in just a few weeks. "We have two more screenings on April 5 at the DIA," he says. "Then we're screening in Ann Arbor, on April 9, at the Michigan Theater as part of Martin Bandyke's Moving Pictures film series." That series puts D'Annunzio's film in the heavyweight company of Gimme Shelter, 8 Mile and Monterey Pop.
"All these great music films, and he picked mine to be part of that series," he continues. "We've been invited to the Chicago Music and Film Festival April 12-15, then we're at the Nashville Film Festival April 19-26, then we've been selected by the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame — by the president — to do a screening there May 16. That's all within the month of being released. I've been asked to submit to the Seattle Film Festival, the Sydney Film Festival in Australia, and these guys were all seeking me out to submit. The excitement level for me is overwhelming."
D'Annunzio deserves all of the accolades and praise. He has made a movie that captures and preserves the spirit of a long-gone venue. We get to see the light shows and hear about the sex and the drugs, the shameless celebration of decadence. For those of us who weren't there, this movie is a godsend. Those that were there can enjoy a few stirred-up memories.
Most of all, Louder than Love serves as a reminder that peace and love could be found in '60s Detroit, even while chaos was reigning outside the Grande's doors.
Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story is showing at 7 and 9:30 p.m. April 5, at the Detroit Film Theater (inside the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900) and at 7 p.m. April 9, at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463).
Brett Callwood writes City Slang for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].