A Police story not all black and white

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It’s been nearly 30 years since the legendary British band the Police officially announced they were splitting, following a seven-year run of hits such as “Roxanne” and “Every Breath You Take” and arena-busting shows around the world. Those turbulent years are addressed by guitarist Andy Summers in a very personal documentary, “Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police,” which opened last week at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

On Saturday, April 4, Summers appeared at the Pasadena theater for a Q&A following the 7:20 p.m. screening. The film is based on his highly regarded 2006 autobiography, “One Train Later,” and includes rare archival footage and Summers’ masterful black and white photography that captures much of the period.

“I never wanted to write about the Police, but I think in the end I really needed to,” he says, still sandy haired and sitting in the three-story Venice Beach studio he’s ownded for two decades. “It was a mind-warping few years and to come out of it at the other end was hard.”

Surrounded by his collection of about 150 guitars — “There is always just that one more to buy,” he laughs — dozens of guitar-effects pedals and percussion instruments, the British expatriate is jovial and relaxed these days, keeping busy with multiple projects, including a new photography book and an instrumental album. “I love being surrounded by all my gear here,” the youthful 72-year-old musician says, pointing to his scattered gear. “This is where I come nearly every day to work and play. It’s much more fun and creative to be here than grinding around the clubs playing.”

“I guess I was one of those typical Englishmen who think. ‘What am I doing here in L.A.?’ On the other hand, it absolutely seemed part of my destiny to live here. I have a complete life here. My children have all grown up here. I have a beautiful house in Santa Monica, a studio 10 minutes away in Venice. It would be very hard to duplicate this anywhere else in the world,” he says.

The making and distribution of “Can’t Stand Losing You” has been a nearly eight-year sojourn, with much of the filming done while preparing for the Police’s long anticipated 2007 reunion tour. It has already screened in some countries, and will be showcased at the Cannes Film Festival this year, but Summers is excited that the film is receiving such a warm reception for its U.S. release.

“The U.S. has always been so important for us,” he says. “We were tagged a punk band in the U.K. which really wasn’t what we were. It was when we came here and started playing clubs like CBGBs and started to hear this term new wave with other bands like Blondie and Talking Heads. We felt that’s where we really fitted in.”

The documentary, narrated by Summers, shares some fascinating insights, including the first time Summers (as he drifts off to sleep) hears Sting gently strumming the first bars of a new song he was working on called “Roxanne.”

“That was Sting emerging as a songwriter,” he recalls. “It was when we were in Paris and he was wandering the streets and saw these girls working, and came up with this song which originally was a bossa nova. We were so short of material at the time. We only had like six songs, so we tried out this ‘Roxanne,’ worked out the arrangement, and the rest is history.”

The documentary is not just about Summers’ life in the Police, but also puts into context his considerable musical history prior, including time residing at the center of the psychedelic ’60s playing with such bands as Eric Burdon’s the Animals.

“I wanted to show a story about someone who grew up in the time period I did as a musician,” says Summers. “The central message is that no matter what happened, what ups and downs, I always returned to my love of music. The guitar never left me.”

“When I met Stewart [Copeland] and Sting, my star was really rising in the music scene in London, and then I took this whole left turn and joined this unknown so-called punk group. I got a fair bit of criticism at the time, but I guess they all had to eat their words,” he laughs.

But as a tight musically sophisticated power trio, egos and competitiveness were fierce. As their fame rose, so did the battles. In the film, Summers narrates: “Instead of rejoicing in the unbelievable success we created together, the studio feels more like a canvas for dirty fighting. Each one of us battling for his own territory.”

“People say we hated each other. We were feisty,” says Summers. “You need to have a sparky chemistry. Everyone wanted to be the leader, everyone wanted to be up front. In the beginning as we toured there was support and a lot of camaraderie. We were like three men against the world, but by the time you hit the phenomena we became you start to burn out, and after five albums Sting was ready to have a go on his own.”

Summers says the 2007 reunion tour was a joyous time, particularly because his children (daughter, 30, and twin boys, 27) got to see him play in the Police for the first time. “It wasn’t their dad just going on about his bloody rock band. They actually saw it. My hipness factor went up big time,” he laughs.

While Copeland and Sting have both offered their support and approval for his documentary, the inevitable question arises: another reunion tour?

“Of course I get asked this all the time,” he says. “I would have said no, but I’m not so sure anymore. Who knows? It does seem like all the big touring acts these days are still all the old guys!”


KATHERINE TULICH writes about film and culture for Marquee.