Review: Doc about British music mag Melody Maker is exhausting

MELODY MAKERS, SHOULD’VE BEEN THERE (Leslie Ann Coles). 97 minutes. Screening Friday (July 12) and Saturday (July 13) at the Royal (608 College). See listing. Rating: NN

Melody Makers, Should’ve Been There is a documentary about the good old days of the storied British music weekly Melody Maker, an industry publication that became an essential guide to the explosion of acts and styles in the 60s and 70s, and how – per the title – it was awesome and thrilling and fun to work there.

I believe this. The London music scene of the 60 and 70s was like no other, careening from pop to rock to psychedelia to glam to prog and launching acts as transformative as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and David Bowie. And Melody Maker was there for all of it, its journalists forging friendly relationships with the artists and its photographers capturing them at their most electric.

One of those photographers was Barrie Wentzell, whose lustrous black-and-white shots gave the magazine its identity and cutting-edge charge, and who serves as the primary focus of Leslie Ann Coles’s documentary. Much of Melody Makers’ screen time just lets Wentzell – who now lives and works in Toronto – roll out one story after another about this encounter or that experience as he ran around photographing legends like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Ian Anderson at this pub or that gig.

He’s not the only interview subject, mind you. Coles spoke to plenty of people – among them Wentzell’s Melody Maker colleagues Christopher Charlesworth, Chris Welch and Allan Jones, performers Eric Burdon, Ian Anderson and Dave Cousins and a number of promoters and industry players – to gather tales of backstage encounters, unexpected friendships and the occasional tragic moment.

The stories are fun, and the photos are great – Wentzell really does have an incredible eye, and he made hundreds of his images available to Coles. And she’s happy to share them with us, though she does so in a torrent that overwhelms rather than illuminates. It’s like the whole thing got away from her, and her editor Mark Sanders, in the cutting room.

Melody Makers, Should’ve Been There pushes itself at us so aggressively – piling image upon image, rolling each new anecdote into the last, all of it tracked to a musical score that just won’t stop – that it’s not possible to simply enjoy a moment. The entire documentary plays like a trailer for itself, speeding through everything so quickly as though it’s afraid we’ll get bored and change the channel.

The cumulative effect is similar to being trapped at a party with a stranger who won’t stop talking about the good old days, and eventually starts complaining about how CDs aren’t as good as LPs and how iTunes destroyed the album experience. He may well be right, but he’s exhausting.


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