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Mick Rock Captures the Soul of Rock and Roll

Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Perhaps only true rock fans know his name but everyone certainly knows his photos. Mick Rock captured the heart and soul of music legends of the ‘70s and ‘80s — from David Bowie and Lou Reed to Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop. In a recent documentary called Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock, Mick explains that he's able to capture the aura of the subject, which is what sets his images apart.

So when it came time to capture his story on film, the search for the right person was a long one. The idea had been floating around for years and he was approached by many production companies and networks both in the U.S and the U.K. Still Mick admitted in a recent one-on-one interview that he wanted a say in the production and didn’t want some guy “making up a story about me, I wanted to make up my story, or at least up to a point.”

The photographer met with several directors and explained what he was looking for. “I didn’t want anyone over 40. I didn’t want anyone who had done a documentary before. I didn’t want anyone who was interested in talking heads and I wanted a Brit that lived in New York.” Like most of Mick’s creative ideas, this laundry list ended up being brilliant and led him to Barnaby Clay.

Barnaby grew up listening to the musicians that Mick had photographed decades before. We spoke with Barnaby who told us that Mick had been a big part of his early childhood, saying, “Four or five covers that Mick shot were not only in my collection, but some of my favorite records in my collection… They were such a big part of my adolescence.”

As he grew older and learned about music history, Barnaby realized that the same person took so many of these images. He marveled, “How can that be possible that one person… had such a vast imprint on that period?"

While Barnaby had always assumed someone would make a film about the photographer, he never imagined it would be him. But little did he know that he matched the criteria that Mick had set out. Although he had made one rock doc, he was not a documentary filmmaker, but a music video director. He hailed from London (in fact Barnaby and Mick were born in the same hospital) and he moved to New York City as a young adult to chase the music dream.

So, the two began collaborating on what would become Shot. Barnaby recalled, “When I started talking to Mick about this initiative, I said, ‘I would love to make this but I want to do it in a way that is different. I don’t want to just do a straightforward rock documentary, talking head-style. I want this to be different.’ And he said, ‘Yes.’”

And while the film is about Mick, Barnaby wanted to honor Mick’s subjects as well. He noted, “This film is about not just Mick but Bowie, Queen, Lou, Iggy, all those people. That whole thing is so theatrical and so artistically inspired. I wanted this to be a film that those guys could see and appreciate. They could watch it and think this not your average rock doc. This is something which has some kind of artistic thought brought to it outside of that. A lot of the ideas are taken from how I thought they might approach something like this.”

The result was incredibly creative format centering around Mick’s near death experience. “Mick had mentioned very early on, one of the first times we spoke, about his near-death experience. He basically said that that happened and there’s got to be mention of it in the film. Little did he know it was going to be the whole film.”

When Mick described singing Rock and Roll Suicide in his head while being wheeled into the operating room, Barnaby got a vision of the film and he knew it was a strong concept. “The idea of him visiting himself within that situation, basically narrating his own life story to his dying self, seemed like fun to me.”

The film uses Mick's images, archival footage, never-before heard audio tapes of his candid conversations with his subjects and the photographers own memories. What’s missing? The typical talking head, third party interviews. Barnaby admitted, “It was challenging to tell a story from one person’s perspective… but I was adamant because it felt right within the central concept.”

He continued, “I was very into the idea of rock and roll lore and poetic myth making. The idea that this story is Mick’s story and it might not be 100% accurate but it’s his version of the events.”

He was able to incorporate the voices of other people by using Mick's previously unheard audio cassette tapes and home Super 8 videos of Lou Reed, Syd Barrett and David Bowie. Barnaby didn’t know the tapes existed when he started the project, but when he discovered them he said, “All I need is these… Having them talk about their life then, in a very candid way to somebody who they feel very comfortable with, as opposed to me interviewing them 40 years later, made so much more sense.”

The tapes also confirmed that Mick was not just some shutterbug hanger-on. He was part of the rock world and therefore was able to gain the trust of each performer he worked with. With that trust came vulnerability to let their souls show through each photograph.

Mick’s most notable friendship and work was with pop icon David Bowie. The photographer described his dear friend, “The only phrase I could think of is he was a ‘sweet soul.’ He was very kind to me when I was having a rough time on more than one occasion.”

The pair worked together for most of Bowie’s career and put together two photographic books — Moonage Daydream (2002) and Mick Rock: The Rise of David Bowie, which was published right before the singer’s death.

Mick also told us about his photo sessions with Bowie, “He was funny. He had a sense of humor. And when you shot him he came to play. He was not a reluctant subject but he also took direction, ‘What do you want me to do to?’ He wasn’t dead set on telling anyone what to do.”

The movie clearly discusses Mick’s inevitable downfall from the rock lifestyle. He was broke, in debt to the IRS, deathly ill and unable to get work. But his near-death experience brought him back to life literally and figuratively.

In the late ‘90s there was a resurgence in the popularity in ‘60s and ‘70s music. He recalled, “I started to shoot again. Because of the interest in the old acts, a lot of young acts knew my name. And then they found out what I’ve done and they wanted a piece of that action. So that put me back in the present.”

Most recently Mick has worked with Alicia Keys, Jimmy Fallon and Snoop Dog. But there is still one current icon Mick can't seem to get to — Bruno Mars. “He’s a huge talent. People say, 'Who do you think today shines in that same way?' And my first thought is him. So he better come to the table. He’s been playing hard to get for too long. I think he’s spectacular.”

So, Bruno Mars, if you’re reading. Call Mick. You won’t regret it.

See the Doc, “Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock,” in theaters, OnDemand, on Amazon Video and on iTunes beginning April 7, 2017.

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