It’s not surprising that Mott The Hoople has been underserved by the film world. Why should it be any different? Loved by a cult whose devotion outstripped the Manson Family, ignored by many more, these poetic glam rockers slogged through the hippie ’60s, then found huge, temporary success in ’72 and ’73. Newbies might know them as those mannish boys in make-up who were saved by David Bowie’s “All The Young Dudes,” but for those who looked deeper, Mott was the best, smartest, street-level rock ’n’ roll band of its time. Led by Ian Hunter, the band mixed Jerry Lee Lewis’s knock-the-piano-into-the-front-row anarchy with introspective, failure-and-death haunted lyrics—no small accomplishment in those awful days dominated by Loggins and Messina.
Maybe that period of stacked heels, gold lame pants, and kickass songs needed the perspective of guys actually born around then. Chris Hall and Mike Kerrey, two 30something Brits, are those guys. They’ve made The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople, a funny and sad valentine to this great rock band. It plays the Chicago International Music And Movies Festival April 16. In preparation, The A.V. Club talked to Hall about his love letter to a band that died around the same time he was born.
The A.V. Club: Why a film on Mott The Hoople? How did someone your age even know about them?
Chris Hall: The last documentary Mike and I made was Love Story, about the band Love. Robert Plant, you might remember, held a benefit for (Love lead singer) Arthur Lee. Ian Hunter played the gig and did a brilliant job. I’d always been interested in Mott, and seeing Ian just cinched it.
AVC: How did you get into Mott, though, initially?
CH: It’s all Martin Scorsese’s fault! [Laughs.] Seriously. When I was 17, I watched Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. There’s that early scene when, after the opening, they cut to Alice’s tract house, and it’s full-bore Mott, “All The Way To Memphis.” The Jerry Lee piano and everything. Really kickass. I became a Mott fan that day.
AVC: Among the highlights of the movie are the vintage clips, including a pre-superstar David Bowie introducing the band before a gig in ’72.
CH: Yeah, luckily, we found out about this guy Mike Walsh in Philadelphia who used to film everything that came through town. That’s a rare clip. What’s interesting about the timeline is that this was really before Bowie had really broken through, especially in the States. “All The Young Dudes” was a hit, but David was still sort of cultish. You know he helped Mott and Lou Reed when he was just sort of a star. He was not only a generous guy, he would’ve made a really good talent scout. He knew who was going to be big.
AVC: Was the footage and the great photos of the band expensive? You guys didn’t have a lot of money, right?
CH: The footage was relatively cheap. About 5,000 pounds. We did spend a bit on the music, though. That’s more like 30,000. We need to make some money on this thing. Mike and I are pretty in debt.
AVC: There’s a lovely, unforced quality to the interviews, from the guys in the band to rock stars like Mick Jones. How do you account for this?
CH: Mick was really reticent at first. You have to understand, he’d been a huge Mott fan back in the ’70s. He was what they called a ‘squadron leader,’ rounding up the kids to go to gigs and such. Sometimes they even, uh, ‘commandeered’ cars for these events. Mick was later involved in some very workmanlike documentaries about the band, and he was really unhappy about them. But when he saw that this was more free-form—a couple of guys with a camera, really—he warmed to the idea.
If you see him, he’s smiling and unguarded during his interview. He turns into a fan right in front of you. This movie is as much about the fans as the band.
AVC: Like the stuff with Mott’s roadies. They talk about how, 35 years years later, they still dream about the gigs or wake up wondering where they have to be today.
CH: That’s Phil John and Richie Anderson. Of course, they were young guys when they had that gig, so it’s that time of their lives they’re mourning, too. But they also roadied for Queen and Bowie later on, and it just didn’t mean quite as much to them.
AVC: Then there’s Ian Hunter. He’s also unguarded and open about the whole Mott experience. Were you surprised you got access and that kind of candor from him?
CH: Not really. Once he saw the Love documentary, he knew we were fans, not just boring BBC guys.
One of the best things about Ian—in the movie and real life—is there’s no bullshit. He may mythologize the band in song, but he’s disarmingly frank about the story when he discusses it. Plus, he’s a writer. He talks like he’s writing, almost. Things it would take me 100 words to say, he nails in 10. I think he enjoyed setting the record straight. He spoke to us on two different occasions. And here’s a funny footnote: Did you notice in some of the clips, he’s got a bandage on his head? Ian got up in the middle of the night somewhere and fell and banged his head up. But instead of not being filmed, he just talked to us with the bandage on. That’s the straight shit about Mott, embodied right there. And later, all the other guys started wearing bandages, too, in solidarity. That’s why everybody who loves Mott The Hoople really loves Mott The Hoople.