Scott Crawford, director of 2014's Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90), has done something remarkable in his new feature, Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine: he's documented the heart and soul that sustained a magazine famed for its irreverence. Who would've thought that behind that famed periodical there was a story with such richness?
The magazine was so much more than the home of writers like Lester Bangs, but, of course, for those looking for all the Lester Bangs stuff, a lot of it's here. And while there's a case to be made for letting Lester dominate a narrative of Creem, Scott Crawford, wisely to my mind, doesn't do that. Instead, Crawford favors a holistic approach that takes in the environment of Detroit and the whole music scene there in order to chronicle the point in time, and place, that birthed the magazine.
And while the brief Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine is indeed the inside scoop on that mag and the shenanigans behind its issues' creation every month, it's also a crash course in Detroit rock-and-roll. Scott Crawford here turns his eye towards the Detroit scene with as much affection, and reverence, as he did the D.C. scene in Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90) a few years ago. Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder, The Stooges, The MC5, and, of course, Kiss, all feature prominently here, with Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine making a concise case for the importance of that fertile era between the psychedelic Sixties and the first wave of American punk. This documentary reminds over and over again that the Seventies were not all James Taylor and disco, and that real counter-culture music was being made on these shores then, and being written about, and championed, by the writers and staff of Creem magazine.
Necessarily, there's a lot on publisher Barry Kramer and writer Lester Bangs here, including the pair's hi-jinks, and Lester's feuds with Kramer and editor Dave Marsh. Director Cameron Crowe may very well have the best quote in Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine (not counting the wonderful one Legs McNeil has about Dave Marsh), when he says that Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh got to argue about "why and how to love the thing they love." I think that's significant as there was a lot of love behind the pages of Creem back then. With Jann Wenner's Rolling Stone the nearest competition, Kramer and his crew, up in their commune in Michigan for a time, were doing whatever the hell they were doing out of love for the tunes, not necessarily to be political, or get closer to the mainstream.
And, in terms of how Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine works as a rock documentary, the film delivers generously in terms of giving the viewers what they want, which is lots and lots of expertly-chosen talking heads bits, with Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. serving up some of the best, more personal anecdotes in the film. And beyond those, there are dozens of sequences here where even a casual fan of the era will find lots to smile about, with stories of artists from Iggy Pop, to Lou Reed, to Joan Jett peppering the narrative.
Still, acknowledging that things have changed for the better, Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine goes to great lengths to allow Jaan Uhelszki, Creem co-founder and writer, and Susan Whitall, editor and writer, among others, to offer up some thoughts on the kind of misogyny that regrettably fueled the pieces in the magazine back then. While it was a boys' club at times, it was also a product of its era, and, as such, given to silliness. That boys' club vibe gave birth to stuff like Stars' Cars, or the Boy Howdy! beer-ads, both covered here in the film, even if those features usually ran alongside genuinely fine pieces of music journalism.
Ultimately Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine is both a concise history of a magazine that miraculously challenged mainstream music publications in the lean years between the dissolution of The Beatles and the rise of MTV, and a story of the late Barry Kramer and his family, and how they corralled some disparate, unhinged talents in order to produce a monthly love letter to rock-and-roll. At its very best, Scott Crawford's film works in a similar way, a mix of nostalgia and scrutiny here serving the material well. Given some of the things in the magazine back then, it would have been impossible to look at Creem in 2019 without acknowledging the puerile ugliness that showed up in the pages at times.
Still, for a rag that was made by the "bozos on the bus", to quote Lester Bangs via Jaan Uhelszki, Creem did something remarkable every month. Kramer and his crew, as this film shows, pioneered a way of looking at rock, and writing about it, that seemed revolutionary at the time, and it was an approach that was thoroughly in debt to the same scene and attitude that birthed Wayne Kramer and The MC5, for example. And, taking all of that into account, Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine gets the tone right, and tells the story with an admirable brevity, the insights flying so fast here that the film is an absolute blast from start to finish.
[Photos: Top picture of Barry Kramer, Dave Marsh, and Lester Bangs by Charles Auringer; other photos credited to original photographers]