By MIKE CHAIKEN
Reginald Harkema, the filmmaker behind the documentary “Super Duper Alice Cooper,” which will be screened in Connecticut later this month, admits that he originally was not a fan of the subject of his film.
In his mind, said Harkema, who was calling from Los Angeles, Cooper—who had hits in the 1970s with “School’s Out”— was this “clown prince of rock and roll.” Harkema said he never really gave any of the music by the original Alice Cooper band or the solo Alice Cooper much of a listen.
But prior to beginning compiling this “doc opera” about the classic rocker, Harkema said someone at a party was playing a song by a band he did like… The Melvins.
Harkema dug the song and asked about the track, which was called, “The Ballad of Dwight Frye.” Harkema said he learned the song wasn’t an original by The Melvins. Instead, it was originally recorded by the Alice Cooper band for its 1970s album, “Love It To Death.”
Harkema said he was surprised… and intrigued.
The filmmaker said he started to backtrack and sought out Alice Cooper’s seminal back catalogue from its heyday in the 1970s.
In addition to “Love It To Death,” which also had the hit single “I’m Eighteen,” Harkema said he listened to the band’s album “School’s Out,” “Billion Dollar Babies,” and “Killers. Listening to those albums, Harkema said he learned the Alice Cooper band had a string of releases that easily rivaled the artistic output of their peers the Rolling Stones— from their “Let it Bleed” album to “Exile on Main Street” and on to “Sticky Fingers.”
Harkema also sought out the solo work by Alice Cooper, the singer, in the early 1980s. Although these albums sold far less than the band did in its heyday, Harkema was impressed by the confessional tone of the songwriting on these records.
At this point, he was a fan. And Harkema said he became a bit messianic about reintroducing the world to the musical canon of Alice Cooper.
As he pulled together “Super Duper Alice Cooper,” Harkema said he learned that much of today’s music wouldn’t exist without the existence of Alice Cooper. The earlier band introduced the concept of theatrics into rock concerts for the first time. Prior to Alice Cooper, concerts would just be about the band performing… and sometimes there would be a psychedelic light show. Alice Cooper put on full-blown productions.
Harkema also said Alice Cooper helped usher in the glam rock era, which gave the world artists like Kiss and David Bowie. And the filmmaker said John Lydon, who became the singer of punk rock pioneers the Sex Pistols, told him that he auditioned for the seminal punkers by singing an Alice Cooper track. And, Harkema said, The Melvins—who covered an Alice Cooper track—would later influence a young band by the name of Nirvana.
Harkema said Alice Cooper the band also had an impact on the culture at large. The 1960s were about peace, love, and understanding. But after the violence of Altamont, the 1960s were clearly over. Alice Cooper reflected the violent times that followed with its mix of horror and gore on stage.
“The band set a bomb off in the early 1970s,” said Harkema.
Promotional materials have dubbed “Super Duper Alice Cooper” as a “doc opera.”
Asked to explain what is meant by the term, Harkema said when he went back and watched old documentaries about the shock rocker, he was struck by this “Shakespearean moment in his life” where Vince Furnier– the son of a pracher and Cooper’s real life persona– was able to conquer his alter ego “Alice Cooper” — a hard partying rock and roller– when he was able to appear sober on stage for the first time in his life in 1986.
The story easily could have been crafted into a “rock opera” with the two sides of Alice at war, said Harkema. Someone could have written a fictional script, cast an actor as Alice Cooper, and crafted a rock opera using Alice’s music.
But instead, the creators of “Super Duper Alice Cooper” let the artist, through archival material and his musical catalogue, tell his own story.
Alice Cooper was originally a band with Alice Cooper on lead vocals, Glen Buxton on guitar, Michael Bruce on rhythm guitar, (and current Connecticut residents) Dennis Dunaway on bass guitar, and Neal Smith on drums. The band arose, first on Frank Zappa’s label, in the late 1960s. And from the early to mid-1970s they had a string of hit singles such as “I’m Eighteen,” “School’s Out,” and “Elected,” and numerous hit albums, including “Love It To Death,” “Billion Dollar Babies,” and “Killers.”
In the band’s heyday, there wasn’t anything like MTV. Music videos were unheard of.
Harkema was asked if it was difficult finding enough useable archive material to create a documentary and tell this “doc opera” tale. But Harkema said this wasn’t difficult at all.
First of all, Harkema said Cooper and his manager Shep Gordon have kept an extensive archive of career spanning clips in Los Angeles.
Secondly, and importantly from a documentarian’s point of view, Harkema said all of the clips are all on film. This means, except for being a little dusty, the clips were in pristine condition—making the task of pulling together “Super Duper Alice Cooper” all the more easy.
(To put things in perspective, said Harkema, he is currently working on a documentary about 1990s grunge artists Soundgarden, whose career is mostly preserved on video. And he said those clips aren’t in nearly as good shape for filmmaking as the Alice Cooper clips shot two decades early.)
Harkema said he spent weeks and weeks digging through the archives kept by Cooper and Gordon to find what he needed for “Super Duper Alice Cooper.”
Asked if there were any gems he came across, Harkema said there were many finds.
For instance, Harkema said he found the film of Alice Cooper’s performance at the Hollywood Bowl. Really hardcore Alice Cooper fans knew about the existence of the film. But over the years, all people had seen were copies of the copies on video. Harkema said he was able to use the original masters to pull together “Super Duper Alice Cooper.”
Alice Cooper had filmed a live concert TV special called, “Good To See You Again.” And within the archives, Harkema said he found several outtakes that were worthy of inclusion in the documentary.
Within Cooper’s archives, Harkema said he also came across performances by the band on German television. And he found Cooper’s interview with surrealist artist Salvador Dali.
There are numerous new interviews with Cooper on the film. But, even though he had given his consent to the documentary, it took awhile for Cooper to realize Harkema and his associates were the documentarians.
Harkema said Cooper does so many interviews a year, he just thought the “Super Duper” crew was just another band of news journalists.
Harkema said after Cooper had seen the same cast of characters several times, he finally realized that this was the team pulling together “Super Duper.”
“Super Duper Alice Cooper” had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in April. And the film also was screened at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles the following wee.
Starting the end of April, the film was scheduled for a nationwide collection of one-night only screenings.
On Monday, May 19, the documentary will be shown in Bridgeport at the Bijou Theatre, 275 Fairfield Ave.
As for what will happen to the film after the cross-country screenings, Harkema said “Super Duper Alice Cooper” will be released on DVD.
For details about “Super Duper Alice Cooper” and the screenings in Connecticut, go to SuperDuperAliceCooper. com
Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver .com.
By MIKE CHAIKEN