“A rocker, a brooder, a loner, a knife-carrier, a hell cat, a wild cat, a storm child, refugee from the frightened city of Detroit.” This quote from acclaimed journalist Philip Norman flashes on-screen in the opening of the Liam Firmager-directed documentary “Suzi Q,” describing the legendary eponymous figure, Suzi Quatro. With this single, ostentatious characterization of Quatro right off the bat, the documentary already had its work cut out for itself. The depiction of the subject within this documentary had a high standard to reach. Fortunately, the narrative of Quatro’s life is so riveting that even a fairly formulaic, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to documentary filmmaking could not take away from the intrigue of her story.
You would not necessarily expect a young Catholic woman from Detroit, Michigan, to become one of the most influential European rock artists of the 20th century and beyond, but this is essentially the case with Suzi Quatro. Even hailing from a family background rooted in music, the trajectory of her life and career was probably not forecasted to end up where it did. Yet, time after time, “Suzi Q,” as she came to be known, took every opportunity granted to her and ran ahead with the passion, determination, and resilience that became synonymous with her name. And, the documentary illustrates these core aspects of her personality, not with panache and flourishes of bravado, but with simplicity and straightforwardness. The history of Suzi Q is detailed chronologically, from the early days of her music career in the 1960s with a local Detroit all-female band, The Pleasure Seekers, to the beginning of her 1970s solo ventures in London and the evolution of her image, to her trials and tribulations personally and professionally, to the progression of her entertainment career with theatre and stage acting. With nearly 400 items of archived stock footage and still photographs, there was always a visual presentation to aid in the storytelling, no matter the stage of her life or section in the documentary. Music video clips, concert footage, and miscellaneous B-roll footage all found their place. Director Liam Firmager and editor Sara Edwards tightly constructed every visual element in accordance with the excellent array of interviews, including Suzi Q herself, Alice Cooper, Deborah Harry, Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Tina Weymouth, Donita Sparks, Henry Winkler, Kathy Valentine, and KT Tunstall. The energy and attentiveness from the interviewees as they described their interactions and relationships with Quatro made it obvious that they truly cared about the discussion. They were not stumbling through the interviews disinterested or haphazardly without clear direction. On the contrary, they were quite enthusiastic about the material, with coherent intent and focus. Even the mere presence of these individuals in the documentary is something to appreciate, but recognizing that their interviews are so well-done is an added bonus.
Undoubtedly, Suzi Q was a true pioneer. But what exactly made her so? Was it the fact that the world had never quite seen a female rock star who exuded such command and assertiveness? Perhaps it was her distinguished rocky bass rhythms combined with her unmistakable vocal talent. Or, her “glam rock” stage presence, with leather jumpsuits in the vein of Elvis Presley. It is hard to say that any single one of these components was more significant or influential than another. Indeed, she paved the way for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Deborah Harry’s Blondie, Cherie Currie’s The Runaways, and Tina Weymouth’s Talking Heads. These artists say as much in their interviews. Suzi Q was inspired by the likes of The Beatles and Elvis, and in turn, Joan Jett and others endeavored to emulate Suzi Q. These similarities are highlighted by strategically placed images and clips of Joan Jett in comparison to Suzi Q, exhibiting the evident resemblance.
As for her identity as a female in rock and roll, this was another matter entirely. Some viewed her as a feminist icon, a hero in the fight against the oppressive patriarchal society. Others saw her as simply a pawn in the game of her producers, who happened to be men. Maybe the manipulative patriarchy was puppeteering her success. However, if you asked Suzi Q, the fact that she was a female had nothing to do with any of her general intentions in the industry, or how she went about presenting herself. She took a “here I am” approach. Suzi Q did not only want to be a “great female rock star,” she just wanted to be great. And she certainly was that, as the viewer will be reminded with each passing moment in the film.
Her raw talent coupled with her unparalleled drive and motivation are on full display over the course of the documentary, even as she faced disappointment and setback. While she found consistent charting success in Europe, the United States was not quite ready for her glam rock expression. (That would come a few years later, when “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” by Joan Jett and The Blackhearts topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1982, a triumph owed in part to the trailblazing efforts of Suzi Q). But, Suzi Q was always on the lookout for the next challenge, a new way to refine her craft and artistry, another exciting venture in the world of entertainment. She starred in the hit television series “Happy Days” for three seasons from 1977-1979. She took on the theatre experience with a 1986 production of “Annie Get Your Gun” in London, starring in the title role of Annie Oakley. More recently in the 2000s and 2010s, Suzi Q has combined her archives of poetry into collected volumes. Even in the midst of these fresh and stimulating challenges, her first true love of making music has never left her heart. In March 2019, Suzi Q released her 24th studio album, “No Control,” at 69 years of age. The life she has lived and the contributions she has made to the world artistically and socially are truly remarkable. And sometimes there is nothing wrong with depicting a story so fascinating in a rather plain manner, as was done with Firmager’s documentary.
This is very solid, albeit traditional, documentary work. Firmager had a logical, systematic plan for conveying the story of Suzi Q, and did so with notable efficiency. A project that took four and a half years in total to come to fruition is worthy of respect and admiration for the commitment alone. Yet, at the end of the day, the filmmakers had the professionalism and competence to avoid injecting too much style and pizzazz which may have potentially interfered with the substance. Firmager and the crew understood that this film was about the subject, Suzi Q. From the industry she has changed to the lives and people she has touched, this documentary belonged to her. As a beautiful love letter to Suzi Quatro’s life and career, “Suzi Q” is an entertaining, inspiring, and informative documentary that can be enjoyed by cinephiles, music fans, and frankly anybody appreciative of a good story.
Virtual premiere one-night only July 1st, 2020.
Available on VOD and digital July 3rd, 2020.
Head to the official Suzi Q website for more information.
*This review was originally published on Elements of Madness on June 30, 2020, at https://elementsofmadness.com/2020/06/30/suzi-q-doc/.