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Paying homage to a significant if now little-remembered voice in the annals of rock criticism, “Mother of Rock: Lillian Roxon” is an enjoyable portrait of a woman who was (as she herself called Janis Joplin) “a living nose-thumb to all tired old conventions.” Featuring some starry latter-day interviewees as well as a great deal of enjoyable archival footage, this snapshot of 1960s and early ’70s culture should appeal to Western artscasters.

Dubbed “the reigning queen of Max’s” — that would be Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan, onetime preferred playground of the Warhol set and home to eventual house band the Velvet Underground — Roxon was the child of Jewish parents who’d fled fascist Italy for Brisbane. A free-living (and -loving) woman well ahead of her time in Sydney’s boho collegiate/artistic circles, Roxon started an unconventional journalism career at home, then moved to New York in 1959.

There she proved remarkably prescient at trend-spotting, writing about Bob Dylan very early on, and later championing such edgy acts as the Doors and David Bowie — as well as playing loyal hostess to visiting Aussies including Helen Reddy, who credits her fellow expatriot with inspiring the feminist anthem “I Am Woman.”

One such artist she introduced to Manhattan’s elite, Germaine Greer, discovered the back hand of Roxon’s favor when she far surpassed her mentor’s fame via feminist bestseller “The Female Eunuch,” becoming the first true star of the women’s lib movement. Greer relates being deliberately humiliated at Max’s by her suddenly jealous friend.

Roxon finally won her own moment in the national spotlight by publishing “The Rock Encyclopedia,” a hefty 1969 labor of love that helped legitimize rock music (and rock criticism itself) as serious art. That success raised her profile, as well as the prestige of her assignments, which soon encompassed a widely syndicated radio show.

But overwork had already taken its toll on her health. Pic chronicles her death from asthma in 1973, and laments the fact that she didn’t live to see the dawn of punk; given her taste for the confrontational and outrageous, she surely would have loved it.

While there is limited footage on tap of the subject herself (padded by some tolerably eye-blink-brief re-enactment shots), Roxon’s larger-than-life presence comes across in the recollections of various friends including Greer, Iggy Pop and rock-biz insider Danny Fields — who was a consultant on the docu, along with Roxon’s biographer, Robert Milliken.

Sacha Horler recites passages from Roxon’s writings, while Judy Davis — another idiosyncratic tough dame — narrates. Assembly by veteran musicvid and TV helmer Paul Clarke is brisk and colorful.

Mother of Rock: Lillian Roxon

Australia

  • Production: A Lowlands Media production. (International sales: Lowlands, Melbourne.) Produced by Robert de Young. Directed, written by Paul Clarke.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Helen Barrow; editor, Mark Middis; music, J Walker, DC & Clarke, Michael Lira; art director, Mark Norris; costume designer, Holly Landgren; sound, Andrew McGrath, Phil Rossini, Graham Wyse. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 16, 2010. Running time: 74 MIN.
  • With: With: Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Germaine Greer, Danny Fields, Lisa Robinson, Helen Reddy, Derryn Hinch, Margaret Fink, David Malouf, Aviva Layton, Ian Meldrum, Richard Neville, Sacha Horler. Narrator: Judy Davis.
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