Engaging new doc brings us back to rock criticism’s glory days
Last Sunday night, thanks to co-presenters Noise Pop and KQED, a crowd of music aficionados at the Swedish American Hall was treated to a viewing of writer/director Raul Sandelin’s documentary Ticket to Write: The Golden Age of Rock Music Journalism, followed by an engaging Q&A with rock critics Robert Duncan (Creem) and Joel Selvin (San Francisco Chronicle). Sandelin’s film had been making the festival rounds, but has just become available on Amazon Prime, which should please ardent rock history fans everywhere.
Sandelin’s film covers the heyday of rock music journalism, a period from roughly 1966 through 1981. The documentary does a nice job recalling the rise of some of rock music’s most preeminent publications, including the early magazines Crawdaddy! on the east coast, Mojo Navigator on the west, and of course the heavyweights Creem and Rolling Stone. Sandelin allows various players from the time to recount their stories from those heady days, when rock critics enjoyed status similar to the icons they covered. The recollections of such noted writers as Robert Duncan, Ben Fong-Torres, Richard Meltzer, and Ed Ward, among others, are easily the most compelling, entertaining parts of the movie.
A plethora of archival footage – from still photos to concert videos – help supplement the interviewees’ stories, and give the viewer a visceral sense of a time when weekly print magazines, with their record reviews and musician interviews, were still must-read, can’t miss information sources for rock fans. Sandelin attributes the demise of rock journalism’s popularity to both the rise of People magazine in the mid ‘70s – which favored glossy celebrity photo spreads over critical content – and of course the advent of MTV in the early ‘80s, when the immediacy of videos and daily televised music news made weekly print articles seem dated and increasing irrelevant
Sandelin also takes a look at the rivalry among the various prominent magazines as they were starting out, with special attention to the contrast between Detroit’s Creem, with its more irreverent feel and Motown coverage, and Rolling Stone, which, as many of the interviewed writers point out, “quickly sold out.” Although when Jann Wenner founded it in 1969 Rolling Stone was initially lauded for legitimizing rock journalism, it fired most of its original writers a year or so after beginning, and soon became known for its corporate ties, lack of unique voices, and being in the pocket of the music industry.
This type of backstory makes for great dish, and the film doesn’t disappoint in terms of similar behind-the-scenes juicy tales about rockers like Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Kiss, and Ted Nugent (an “insufferable bully,” according to one writer). The film does occasionally feel like a roster of name dropping, but with so much material, you can’t blame Sandelin for trying to include bits on as many famous and infamous figures from the time as possible (Lester Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson also get their due).
With so much to cover, the film can feel a bit cursory and scattered at times, and the majority of the interviews are, of course, with straight white men. Though in the ‘60s and ‘70s male writers no doubt dominated the rock criticism scene, hearing from more female writers (Sylvie Simmons, Jaan Uhelszki, and Paula Mejia do get some screen time), writers of color, and LGBTQ writers might have added some fresh perspectives and unique insights that would have given the viewer a deeper, more well-rounded look at the entire scene.
But of course for what it is – a 90 minute brief look at 15 years of the rise and fall of rock journalism – Sandelin’s picture remains worth seeing; it works well as both a social history of the time period, and as a commentary on the shifting landscape of both the music and print journalism industries. As one writer remarks, when videos started hitting the airwaves and print subscriptions started waning, the torch for music coverage was passed from the Boomers to Gen X, and now, over 20 years later, where the newest generation will take rock journalism remains to be seen.
Ticket to Write is available on Amazon Prime, and is currently playing film festivals (you can check the film’s official website here for the latest screenings).