Rock ‘n’ roll dreams live fast and die hard
Anyone with a dream should know this: If you work hard enough and just believe in yourself, anything’s possible.
That, anyway, is the message Hollywood’s been selling for decades in movies and TV shows, the same one that brothers Frank and Vince Rogala bought into when they abandoned frosty Mackinaw, Mich., for sunny Southern California two decades ago in pursuit of their rock ‘n’ roll dreams. What happened once they got here, however, bears little resemblance to the familiar Hollywood version, from “A Star Is Born” through Mariah Carey’s “Glitter.”
The Rogalas’ experience has resulted in a riveting documentary, “Won’t Anybody Listen,” by first-time director Dov Kelemer, a film (premiering tonight on the Sundance Channel) that examines the gargantuan gulf between the myth and the reality of life in the pop music world.
It paints with unyielding honesty a business in which music is often treated as an afterthought, and in which the players rarely know just how heavily the deck is stacked against them. Kelemer began filming the Rogalas’ band, Anaheim-based NC-17, with the simple goal of producing a concert tape to sell to fans.
As he monitored their progress, he watched (and kept filming) as their career path took one harsh twist after another, down a sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes stabbingly funny, ultimately disillusioning road that leads to riches and glory for a select few.
Kelemer is sympathetic to NC-17’s travails, but he never treats the group as if it were the undiscovered Nirvana.
He weaves black-and-white footage with color interviews, performance and rehearsal shots with the band’s six members, their wives, girlfriends, parents, several entertainment attorneys and record company artists and repertoire executives.
Those execs talk about the staggering odds for commercial success. One estimates there are 40,000 bands in Southern California alone; another notes that of 400 to 500 major albums released each year, maybe 20 will sell enough (500,000 copies) to reach “gold” status and only a handful will break the platinum (1 million copies) barrier. Only a small percentage of the acts that don’t hit those numbers will ever record another album.
For those in the small minority who do land record contracts, the same execs outline the music industry’s financial practices that charge bands -- through recoupable advances -- all expenses related to making albums, putting them in a hole from the outset that fewer still ever crawl out of.
NC-17’s members wrestle with the question of whether they simply aren’t good enough, although a bemused Frank Rogala matter-of-factly thumbs through clippings of several enthusiastic reviews the band got from newspapers and music magazines. NC-17 also gained national exposure briefly as a winner on MTV’s old “Basement Tapes” series and as a “Star Search” victor.
But the point of “Won’t Anybody Listen” isn’t how good NC-17 is or isn’t; it’s how the music business works and how it doesn’t. Ultimately, the Rogala brothers realize that the reason they keep knocking their heads against the wall is that they love playing music. For some of their bandmates, that’s not enough, and their soul-searching adds a poignant element to the group’s long and, on many levels, fruitless journey.
The documentary was shot largely before the Internet revolution that has allowed more and more musicians to establish direct links with fans and sidestep the hoop-jumping that was de rigueur for aspiring rock ‘n’ rollers, so there’s nothing on how that is changing the picture for some.
But even with the Internet and “American Idol,” most would-be rock and pop stars still struggle against the star-making machinery that’s at the heart of “Won’t Anybody Listen.”
Kelemer’s understated message is as pertinent to the dot-com music world as it is to the steel-and-concrete record business: Dreams are great and should be cherished, but pursue your art out of love; if you’re out for fame and fortune, rock ‘n’ roller beware.
“Won’t Anybody Listen” premieres at 9 tonight on the Sundance Channel, part of the monthlong “Hi-Fi Fridays” series.
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