'Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine' Captures the Mayhem of '70s Rock Counterculture

Directed by Scott Crawford

Starring Cameron Crowe, Alice Cooper, Kirk Hammett, Joan Jett, Michael Stipe, Thurston Moore, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Chad Smith

BY Tobias JegPublished Jul 30, 2020

Music docs are usually a fun ride. But a documentary about a music magazine? Well, you have to understand that Creem was Rolling Stone's little brother. A very smutty, street-savvy little brother that had a chip on its shoulder. They were feared and respected. Don't take my word for it: you'll get to hear esteemed rockers like R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, Joan Jett and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore gush about Creem's vital role in rock culture. Director Scott Crawford (who also helmed the D.C. punk documentary Salad Days) crams a good amount of star power into 75 minutes as he captures all the mayhem and mischief of this infamous publication. Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine won't appeal to everyone, but if you're into '70s rock, counterculture, guerilla journalism or unorthodox workplaces, this might be a film for you.

Spontaneous combustion is maybe the best way to describe the magazine's formation in 1969. It all started with a group of irreverent students in a Detroit head shop and it was off to the races. "Nobody trained us. We were so young, nobody knew we couldn't do it," remembers staffer Sandra Stretke. They were a pack of hungry underdogs that had to fight their way out of the Midwest. You know the type: the "cool kids." Except, this motley crew doesn't come off as elitists. The women and men behind Creem were less of a clique and more of a convocation of miscreants and music nerds. Make no mistake, these were legitimate journalists — and some went on to have life-long careers in the biz.

Many former writers are interviewed, and they paint a vivid picture of the inter-office bedlam: fistfights, drug abuse, weaponized dog poo and worse. And all for a weekly salary of $5. That's right, five bucks. Turns out, this job was a poor career choice even before the internet destroyed journalism! And you can't talk about Creem without telling the story of the magazine's anti-hero, the late Lester Bangs, who also gets a lot of airtime. Bangs was a daring smartass that personified Creem's iconoclastic stylings. Bands loved his writing — until they inevitably found themselves in his crosshairs.

There's no shortage of personalities and tall tales to be had here, but fortunately the film moves along at a steady pace.
Family and friends were involved in the production of this, and they take time to acknowledge (and express some remorse) about the piggish and problematic parts of Creem when re-telling the tale. "Hey, it was the '70s… I mean, kill me," explains writer Jaan Uhelszki (who is described on Wikipedia as "one of the first women to work in rock journalism"). Fair enough.

An upside to documenting this historic publication is that we get to see the vast community that was formed within and around the magazine's culture. While Rolling Stone was pushing James Taylor to teens, Creem was galvanizing the renegades by covering outsiders like Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper. Countless misfits rallied around Creem's flag and went on to do wild and creative things of their own, and that in itself is a story worth sharing.

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