Monday 30 April 2018

BACHMAN - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Hot Docs 2018 Hot Pick: Solid BTO frontman BioDoc

Guess Who/BTO guitarist is always takin' care of business.

Bachman (2018)
Dir. John Barnard

Review By Greg Klymkiw

"Randy Bachman was The Guess Who... he had an expanded mind from the beginning." - Neil Young on Randy Bachman's removal from The Guess Who and the guitarist's avoidance of all the usual trappings of rock and roll - namely booze and drugs - and the man's inherent greatness without anything more mind altering than making music.

Much as I loved and will always love The Guess Who (who couldn't love songs like American Woman, These Eyes and Laughing?), my generational and personal rock and roll touchstones will always be BTO, Bachman Turner Overdrive. Takin' Care of Business, Let It Ride, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, Roll on Down the Highway and so many more are a veritable litany of hard driving Canadian prairie rock and roll that took the world by storm and blasted on millions of automobile tape decks.

Bachman is a solid biographical documentary of Randy Bachman, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and of course, the writer (or co-writer) of hit after hit after hit. Skilfully blending a cornucopia of rich archival footage and all-new interviews with the likes of musicians Neil Young, Alex Lifeson, Chad Allan, Paul Shaffer, Fred Turner, actor Bruce Greenwood, music historian John Einarson and many family and friends, director John Barnard serves up a detailed portrait of this seminal Canadian rocker.

Hitting all the salient points of Bachman's life, we get glimpses into his earlier childhood as the surviving twin of a German Dad and Ukrainian Mom in the legendary North End of Winnipeg where he lived at the corner of Seven Oaks and Powers. He was showered with plenty of nurturing and love and his work ethic was clearly instilled within him by his Dad, an optometrist who would often ask his kids, "Do you like to work at nothin' all day?" (Sound like a familiar lyric?)

Bachman went to music school, of course. It was clear he had gifts, but he had little interest in his first instrument, the violin and very quickly he discovered and fell in love with the guitar. As a teenager, he was mentored by the great Lenny Breau and he soon hooked up with songwriter-singer Chad Allan (at the urging of bassist Jon Kale) and the trio added drummer Gary Peterson to the mix and Bachman was playing with Chad Allan and the Expressions. The group had an early hit with a rousing, seminal 1965 cover of "Shakin' All Over" by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. Their twangy, reverb-heavy and zippily discordant rendition hit the top of the Canadian charts and even penetrated the American charts quite substantially. The group eventually became The Guess Who.

Bachman, while he always flirted with a "lighter" sound, was ultimately more at home with an edgier, more hard driving beat and when the group came across North End Winnipeg bad boy Burton Cummings, Allan stepped down from the band he founded and The Guess Who began their meteoric rise.

Barnard's film certainly doesn't skimp on the magnificent creative energy twixt Bachman and Cummings, but nor does it shy away from detailing the clear differences between the two men in temperament. Bachman was a big brother, almost father figure to the entire band. We learn that he rooted the wild boys in reality, but eventually Bachman's no-booze-no-drugs-no-womanizing began to wreak havoc with the group's mojo. Bachman was a straight arrow family man (who converted to Mormonism in order to woo his first wife). We learn that Cummings especially began to resent Bachman's authoritarian air and in a shocker, Bachman was forced out of the band.

In the film, utter incredulity is expressed by Neil Young (who claims that as a kid, it was Bachman who influenced him). "Randy was The Guess Who," says the rocker, who also lived in Bachman's hometown of Winnipeg before leaving for Thunder Bay and other points east.

Eventually, we are treated to Bachman reuniting with Chad Allan for the band Brave Belt, but this was a short-lived partnership. Bachman, we learn, was convinced to hear one burly Fred Turner belt out his live cover of "House of the Rising Sun" at the legendary Marion Hotel. Bachman, a devout Christian and non-drinker, didn't even want to enter the bar and heard the first few minutes of Turner from an open exit door.

The rest, is indeed, history - rock and roll history. Bachman Turner Overdrive (BTO) left everything behind like so much dust in the wind.

The film also charts, Bachman's "third act". At one point Bachman admits that when you hit the top, there's only one way to go, and yes, we get a glimpse into some very lean years. However, the film also charts Bachman's various reinventions musically and yes, his long, distinguished career as a radio host of CBC's "Vinyl Tap".

Now, does the film dig deeper beyond what one might expect from a solid, traditional musical biography? Not often, but the movie still makes for compelling viewing. What one takes away is a portrait of a driven, musically gifted workaholic who never seems to ever be on camera without a guitar in his hands. One of the more entertaining aspects of the film is Bachman's relationships with his managers - first his savvy, congenial brother Gary and in direct contrast, Vancouver's Bruce Allen, a perfect partner for the driven Bachman. Amusingly, the film reveals Bachman's "Papa Bear" qualities, but in terms of Bruce Allen, he's reduced to a baby pitbull to Allen's mega-pitbull vice-like jaws on all things.

While it's easy to live without interviews with Burton Cummings in the movie (he's nicely represented by all the archival material and the various interviewees' recollections), my only real quarrel with the film is the short shrift it gives to what I believe is arguably the best work Bachman ever did - his astonishing Any Road album and its classic ode to the wild rock and roll days of Winnipeg, Prairie Town (featuring Neil Young and Margo Timmins on not just one, version of the song, but two). This was as perfect an album as one could imagine from someone who'd already delivered so much great stuff that one couldn't imagine him ever outdoing any of it. But with 1993's release of Any Road, Bachman hit some kind of stratospheric creative nirvana. Its absence, beyond a couple of token nods, at least to any die-hard Bachman aficionado, seems borderline heretical.

But, this is a nitpick. Bachman delivers the goods. It takes care of business, and then some.


Bachman enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2018.