If much of the story told in the “doc-opera”Super Duper Alice Cooper seems all too familiar, that’s because it is.
Longtime Alice Cooper fans will instantly recognize all of the key elements here – his meteoric rise as the mid-Seventies king of theatrical shock-rock with the original Alice Cooper band; the ultimate breakup, solo career and subsequent bouts with addiction, and his inevitable comeback as the Godfather of 1980s glam-metal.
In many ways, the Alice Cooper story follows the same classic cycle of rock tragedy commonly seen in any random episode of VH1’s Behind The Music series (including the one they did on Alice Cooper himself). But if the script is easily recognized, the filmmakers still do an admirable job of expanding on it with Super Duper Alice Cooper. Following its successful limited theatrical run this past spring, this questionably titled, but otherwise nicely done documentary gets a home video release next week on DVD and Blu-ray formats from Eagle Rock.
With well-respected documentaries on Rush and Iron Maiden already under their belts, Sam Dunn and Scot McFayden bring instant rock-cred to the project. Teaming here with Reginald Harkema (best known for his critically lauded film Monkey Warfare), they break the stereotypical rock-doc mold here by replacing the usual talking heads video interviews, with a more animated style of storytelling. Vintage, still photos of Alice and the other key players are brought to life here through the magic of motion graphics. It’s a refreshing approach that mostly works, but is also occasionally confusing because you don’t always know whose voice (mainly those of Alice, bandmates Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith, manager Shep Gordon and producer Bob Ezrin) is narrating the dialog off-camera.
The idea makes perfect sense on paper. As a device that helps explain the split-personality of Vincent Furnier and his Alice Cooper character, the 3-D illusion is very effective. But the introduction of clips from the 1920s silent film Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde into the mix – while driving home this strange, schizophrenic relationship – only further confuses the issue of not always knowing who is voicing what. If you are a fan who knows the story, you might get it. For newer converts, not so much.
As for the story itself, the filmmakers cover most of the bases here, and even manage to uncover a few new ones. Alice’s struggle with alcoholism has been well covered in previous documentaries like Prime Cuts and the aforementioned Behind The Music episode. But a subsequent, less publicized bout with cocaine abuse gets equal attention here. One horrific clip from a 1980s TV interview with Tom Snyder during this period shows a frightfully emaciated Alice looking near death, from what appears to be the ravages of coke.
The film also incorporates commentary – which likewise takes place off-camera – from peers like Elton John, Dee Snider, Iggy Pop and John Lydon. This is mostly the sort of gushing praise you’d expect, although the use of the Elton John song “All The Young Girls Love Alice” adds a nice cinematic touch. Of all these rock figures, Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin comes across as being the closest to being an actual friend. Taupin even seems to express a genuine sense of guilt for the role he may have played in enabling Cooper’s problems with substance abuse. Taupin, along with Cooper himself, was a one-time member of the infamous rock star drinking club The Hollywood Vampires. Membership in this boozy fraternity also included now deceased rock star pals like Keith Moon, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson.
Super Duper Alice Cooper also recounts the story of how Phoenix school pals Vincent Furnier and bassist Dennis Dunaway initially bonded over a common love of the Beatles and surrealist artist Salvador Dali, forming the Earwigs with schoolmate Glen Buxton to cover Beatles tunes at the high school talent show. The story takes a sadder turn much later as Dunaway recalls events leading to the breakup of the original band, including how he wasn’t even invited to join Alice in an exclusive media event with Dali, the mutual idol who first brought them together in high school.
“I was happy for him,” Dunaway says in the film. “But it was something we should have shared.”
The evolution of the band continues through various incarnations like the Spiders and the Nazz (a name already taken by Todd Rundgren), before settling on the name Alice Cooper and getting discovered by Frank Zappa in Los Angeles. When the band’s outrageous stage antics were less than well received in L.A. clubs, they left (“with our tails between our legs,” as Dunaway puts it).
But they found a much more receptive audience in the Detroit scene, performing alongside that town’s grittier acts like the Stooges and MC5. The regional buzz over the band’s bizarre stage show, soon began to draw national attention after the infamous “chicken incident” at a Toronto rock festival. This was followed by the two year string of hit albums from 1971 to 1973 (Love It To Death, Killer, School’s Out, Billion Dollar Babies), and sold-out tours that rocketed the original Alice Cooper Band to both super-stardom and infamy.
Most fans would agree that Alice Cooper’s subsequent fall began when he broke up the original band and began to shed his outlaw persona for a more “legit” Hollywood image, complete with celebrity golf pals and TV appearances on Hollywood Squares and The Snoop Sisters. There were a handful of decent albums – most notably, his solo debut Welcome To My Nightmare . But nothing like that amazing run of hits with the original band.
Which leads to the one major complaint with Super Duper Alice Cooper.
As a documentary, it tells the Alice Cooper story well enough. The schism of how the Alice Cooper character consumed Vincent Furnier to the point of threatening to swallow him up completely, is given the necessary emphasis to make sense of how he nearly self-destructed. The story of his 1980s comeback, and how he eventually found himself again with the help of his faith and his family makes for very compelling viewing. Alice’s present status as a revered icon whose trailblazing stage theatrics paved the way for everyone from Kiss and Motley Crue, to Gwar and Marilyn Manson, is equally rewarding to watch unfold onscreen.
But for all the attention given Alice’s well-earned reputation as a visual innovator, the lack of focus on the music here is perplexing. Shock tactics and stage theatrics aside, you won’t find a stronger, more remarkable set of songs from this period then the likes of “I’m Eighteen,” “Be My Lover,” “Under My Wheels,” “Billion Dollar Babies,” “School’s Out,” “Elected” and the rest. When live clips of “Halo Of Flies” and “School’s Out” (from the Hollywood Bowl), and studio performances of “Ballad Of Dwight Fry” and “I’m Eighteen” are too briefly teased here, it just leaves you hungry for more.
Fortunately for hardcore fans, a deluxe version of Super Duper Alice Cooper includes a bonus DVD of a 1972 Montreal live performance, and a CD of a more recent 2009 show in Montreux. For the diehards, this is probably the way to go. For those less familiar, Super Duper Alice Cooper is a fine, if slightly flawed, retelling of one of rock and roll’s most amazing stories.
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