Shot Through the Heart
The title of Barnaby (aka Barney) Clay’s new documentary, SHOT! The Psycho-spiritual Mantra of Rock, says it all, really. This rambling, entertaining portrait of legendary music photographer Mick Rock is full of its genial subject’s own musings on his life and art. It also encapsulates the excitement and excesses of the heady musical era that Rock (barely) lived through and documented. For anyone with a passing interest in the rock scenes of the late 1960s through ’70s, this will be pretty fascinating stuff. For those, like myself, who remember wondering about the photographer whose impossibly appropriate name appeared on pictures of many groundbreaking artists, this will provide context, and then some. (For the record, the man’s given name is actually Michael David Rock.)
The film opens with present-day Rock (now in his late 60s) loading his camera at a live TV on the Radio show. He talks about his process, which—at its best—makes him feel like an assassin, “I’ve got my sights on you, gonna take you out.” Later he clarifies, “I’m not after your soul, I’m after your f-ing aura,” which might prompt an eye-roll, except that he really did capture the essence of performers (and friends) such as David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury and Debbie Harry, among others. For many awestruck kids, Rock’s images were their introduction to these genre-defying musicians.
The film takes us through a more or less chronological account of Rock’s career, interspersed with dramatic reenacted clips of the aftermath of his near-fatal 1996 heart attack. In addition to myriad iconic photos, many of them album covers, there are snippets of taped conversations with Reed and Bowie at the beginning of their careers, when they were still figuring themselves out.
Rock revisits Cambridge University, where as a student in the late 1960s, he was introduced to poetry and LSD, virtually the foundations of the era’s music. His first famous subject was local Pink Floyd founder/mad genius Syd Barrett. “I never felt like a voyeur,” Rock says, but was accepted as part of the burgeoning Cambridge youth scene—a dynamic that would mark his career and friendships.
Enter the early ’70s and David Bowie. Rock, whose fascination with the (then) startlingly androgynous singer resulted in some gorgeous early shots, becomes Bowie’s personal photographer, a distinction that would raise the profiles of both artist and photographer. He would develop self-professed fixations on several artists of that era, later shooting the emblematic live image that became the cover of Lee Reed’s Transformer LP; similarly, a photo of Iggy Pop in concert would come to represent Raw Power. Rock describes the sessions and resulting images with reverence and a little awe, as if he still can’t believe he was responsible.
He takes us through the advent of Glam, which celebrated bisexuality before any kind of mainstream acceptance, and describes how established artists such as Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger adapted the look, and did he himself. Not every shoot was a success, as is shown by some noble attempts that Rock unearths in his extensive archives.
It was when he chose to shoot Reed in New York over Bowie in Berlin in the late ’70s that Rock’s wild lifestyle grew wilder. He walks around present-day NYC and recalls many parties and little sleep. He was here for punk rock’s birth, shooting Talking Heads and Blondie, among others. (Reed’s early opinions of the Ramones and punk in general are quite amusing.) Finally the film catches up with the hospital gurney flashbacks and we get the details of his heart attack, which Rock believes was fitting punctuation to that part of his life.
Throughout SHOT!, Clay lets Rock muse, ponder, and generally try to make sense of his life, resulting in an indulgent film that sometimes seems excessive, which is sort of fitting, considering the subject matter. For such an introspective portrait, though, there is nary a mention of Rock’s private life, apart from a glimpse of him posing with wife Pati and daughter Nathalie. It would have been nice to meet the people who really know and love him.
The film closes with a 2015 photo shoot of Father John Misty and it’s clear that Rock still has the touch and still gets off on it. A whirlwind montage shows other current artists he’s shot, in addition to celebratory and poignant footage of recent sessions with Debbie Harry, Pop, Bowie and Reed. (The film is dedicated to the latter two.)
By the end of SHOT!, one feels almost as appreciative as Rock himself that he is still alive and shooting, given the very good odds that he wouldn’t survive his chosen profession.
SHOT! The Psycho-spiritual Mantra of Rock opens on Friday, April 7, at The Metrograph (7 Ludlow Street).