You may like music and you may think you know lots of bands, but inevitably a conversation will occur and you’ll be stumped when someone asks, “Have you heard of [insert super-rare international indie bad]?” It’s not uncommon for anyone to be unaware certain names and faces from the music industry. Michael Alago is one of those names, but his career as an A&R rep for Elektra Records and Geffen Records wove the threads of his life into the annals of music history. The name may not ring a bell, but the music he helped bring to the forefront absolutely rings true in your life.
Who the F**k Is That Guy?: The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago is a raw, passionate documentary by Drew Stone that matches its visual tone to the vibe of its main subject. Alago became one of the most important A&R reps in music history, but before that, he was a young, gay Puerto Rican living in a railroad apartment in the Bronx, right alongside the B-train. Growing up trying to sleep through that much noise every night possibly tilted his future musical fascinations toward heavy metal, but who’s to say. The documentary is a travelogue of Alago’s life and also a historical tour of the rock music explosion in New York City from the late ’70s through the ’80s. He walks from one legendary venue to the next, while Stone intercuts interviews with people whom Alago touched over the years.
Alago literally waltzed into a job at The Ritz club in NYC, ending up as Jerry Brandt’s assistant and booker to the club. It placed him square in the middle of the explosion of sound about to happen. Yet his real stamp on history was from his next evolution into an A&R rep for Elektra Records. He had a desk, a charge account, and a passion for good music that couldn’t be stifled. Going out night after night seeing shows searching for raw talent was amazing for him, but his life changed dramatically when a cassette tape came across his desk titled, ‘No Life Till Leather – Metallica.’
Yeah, Metallica. A waif-like, gay Puerto Rican barely into his twenties discovered arguably one of the great heavy metal/hard rock bands in history and is still friends with them to this day. James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and Jason Newsted all make appearances divulging how meeting Alago and letting him take them under his wing became a once-in-a-lifetime event.
That event alone would make Alago an important element floating in the annals of music making, but his representative rap sheet is far longer than that: Cyndi Lauper, White Zombie, PiL (Public Image Ltd, founded by John Lydon of Sex Pistols fame) and a personal highlight for him, executive producing the final studio album of iconoclastic vocalist Nina Simone. A woman notorious for being hard to work with, Alago formed a bond that lasted all the way until her passing in 2003.
Stone captures another great example of Alago’s ability to evoke personal devotion with interview snippets with Lydon. Watching Lydon describe a near riot PiL caused and referring to it as his “Bieber moment” is worth the price of admission, but it’s his description of Alago that truly caught me off-guard:
…he stands really rigidly in my very small collection of very important people.
Coming from Lydon, it is worthy of becoming Alago’s epitaph.
Who the F**k Is That Guy takes a dramatic turn as we find out Alago is HIV-positive and hovered near death for years, but he kicked the jaws of death in the mouth, came back stronger than before, and vaulted himself into his other passion: photography. The music industry lifestyle took its toll, so he left it behind, but the experiences and friendships he made sustain. In the end, this film portrays one life made richer by the love of music, while other lives are made equally richer by love for him.