SXSW Review: ‘Boy Howdy: The Story of Creem Magazine’

Rating: 3/4

There’s a time and a place, an instance where a spontaneous combustion occurs from magic and heat, a spark that changes generations. For 20 glorious and tempestuous years, within rock n’ roll, Creem Magazine was it. Founded by Tony Reay in 1969 and guided by Barry Kramer, the Detroit-based publications would go on to define the counterculture punk and metal scene, and produce some of the best writing about music in the history of music. Director Scott Crawford‘s Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine charts the rise and fall of the fire brand in this compelling and immersive behind-the-scenes documentary.

Crawford’s film opens with local Detroiters: Ted Nugent, James Carney, Chad Smith, and Jeff Daniels gushing over the now defunct magazine. To them, and to Creem‘s many readers, the publication represented a frivolity and well-thought acidicy in a culture whose urban cities were witnessing turmoil. Featured in magazine would be artists like the Stooges, Alice Cooper, The Runaways, KISS, and any other 70’s luminaries you can think of. “It was like it was written by a bunch on convicts in Joliet State Prison,” explains Lamar Sorrento.

Boy Howdy! thoroughly examines the origins of the publication and what made it so successful by inviting former writers and editors Roberta Cruger, Jaan Uhelszki (who acts as co-screenwriter here), Resa Jannett, Bob Stark, Connie Kramer, and Dave Marsh to explain.

If the deck on the Titanic, after the iceberg hit, was pure panic and madness, then Creem Magazine in many ways out did that disaster. Crawford demonstrates the tumultuous nature of the writing staff through animations, such as how Barry Kramer’s very explosive temper proved a lethal combination with Marsh’s provocative nudging and Lester Bangs’ take no prisoners style.

Creem always seemed to be on the edge, on the razor-thin margin between artfully offensive and just plain obscene and the documentary does not shy away from analyzing the more embarrassing portions of the magazine’s history. Many of the writers defend some of the homophobic and sexist by-lines, captions, and stories that filled the magazine, while acknowledging that like Creem, the language was of the period. Nevertheless, they do express regret for their thinking at the time.

Crawford’s greatest achievement — as he traces from Creem‘s first headquarters in Detroit, then to the farmhouse, then finally to Birmingham, Michigan — is to not make his documentary into the Lester Bangs story. Bangs was such a charismatic and magnetic personality and writer, many filmmakers would fall into the trap of allowing him to consume their entire film. Instead, Bangs is an important component of Creem, but he’s not Creem. In his documentary, a fuller and more detailed portrait is painted of the various writers — many of them talented women, who made the magazine just as special.

And by the conclusion of Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine, we’re as sad to see the old paper now gone as those who labored over it and diligently read it. The misfit, the outcast, the stoner and the loner mourn in equal pound and ink because we wish we could go back to that moment. And sure, we have our publications today… but it was only a few months ago when the Village Voice shuttered its windows. The pain of losing a needed institution of truth tellers is enormous, especially when the prophets were born from the message they were writing about, and Crawford pushes his film to express that sentiment. By film’s end rock n’ roll and Creem magazine feel synonymous. As they should.

An official selection of SXSW 2019

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