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SXSW Film Review: ‘Danny Says’

Rock gadfly Danny Fields' reminiscences of the 1960s and 1970s are pure gold in Brendan Toller's documentary.

Danny Fields, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, John Cameron Mitchell, Jann Wenner, Justin Vivian Bond, Lenny Kaye, Gary Lucas, Leee Black Childers, Judy Collins, David Peel, John Sinclair, Wayne Kramer, Fayette Hauser, Jonathan Richman, Danny Goldberg, Legs McNeil, Mara Hennessey, Seymour Stein, Tommy Ramone.

Judging from the evidence in “Danny Says,” there’s probably an incredibly juicy thousand-page memoir waiting for historied rock gadfly Danny Fields to get it on paper. As he may never get around to that, we’ll have to settle for those anecdotes doled out in Brendan Toller’s documentary, which are no less fascinating for seeming like the tip of a personal-lore iceberg. A colorful figure attracted to “crazy people” and envelope-pushing music, Fields seems to have been nearly everywhere any self-respecting hipster would have wanted to be between about 1962 and 1978. That this highly entertaining screen memoir doesn’t even bother mentioning anything he’s done since then is a tad curious, but there’s no doubt that its period of scrutiny proves so rewarding that “Danny Says” should have little trouble attracting specialty theatrical, broadcast and home-format sales in various territories.

Fields was born Daniel Henry Feinberg in 1939 Brooklyn, a fan of amphetamines (“So was everyone”) at age 10, and a university student by 15. Then it was on to Harvard Law School, where, in his own words, he “hung out with a bunch of dissolute faggots.” Landing afterward in Greenwich Village eight years before Stonewall with his newly Gentile-fied moniker, he was a staple of the early Warhol Factory scene, becoming particular friends with Nico, Edie Sedgwick and others. His employment at the pop-music magazine Datebook put this “hippie yenta” even more at the center of the happening world: It was his editorial penchant for mixing the innocuous with the controversial that broke John Lennon’s quote about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus, bringing the Fab Four death threats and KKK protests. They were hardly his type, anyway: He preferred the darker Rolling Stones, not to mention Warhol’s inhouse band, the Velvet Underground.

Appointing himself the Doors’ press agent — job-wise, Fields seems to have been in a state of constant reinvention — led to a post at major label Elektra, where he somehow convinced the suits to sign such rough-hewn personal enthusiasms as Detroit acts MC5 and the Stooges. He was the “company freak,” the link between executives with profit margins on their minds and artists with “insanity in their blood.” There are hilarious anecdotes of Jim Morrison meeting Nico, frozen in place by their mutual, monumentally stoned narcissism; Judy Collins kindly steering Fields to a beach at sunset during his first acid trip; Iggy Pop admitting he and his bandmates “did so many terrible things just to blacken Danny’s reputation”; and much more.

Fields is forgiving of all trespasses from people he likes, but merciless in dismissing those he doesn’t. He passed up potential fortunes in refusing to manage acts he didn’t like musically (Johnny & Edgar Winter) or personally (Aerosmith). His taste was stubbornly proto-punk long before the term existed, favoring commercially unlikely bands like New York Dolls and Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers. When he first saw punk godfathers the Ramones at CBGB’s in 1974, he was hopelessly smitten — here were the ultimate “no future people” who “couldn’t play” but had “great songs,” exactly the combination he loved. (Among the various fun asides here, there’s audio of him playing the band’s music for the first time to Lou Reed, who uncharacteristically gushes, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.”) A few years later, however, the Ramones changed management in a forlorn stab at reaching the pop charts.

That closed chapter rather abruptly ends the film as a whole, leaving it anyone’s guess what Fields has been up to since the late 1970s. (Certainly he’s spent some of that time being interviewed — the changes in his appearance here suggest Toller shot his subject over a number of years.) His comments about being lucky to have such smart, talented friends feel like a rote, hasty attempt at providing some summational note. One suspects the subject could go on spinning stories for days, but the film has to pull the plug on the mic sometime.

A former assistant muses that Fields is afflicted by “really basic existential despair.” But we don’t really peek behind the curtain of his own reminiscences about others, or their very fond sentiments about him, to spy any deep sorrow beneath. Titled after a Ramones song presumably written in his honor, “Danny Says” is, like its subject, content to stick with the external highlights of what was (at least for a while) an almost unbelievably fabulous life. Who can blame it?

Assembly is first-rate, with mix of sterling archival materials and starry talking heads echoing the subject’s gossipy, profane, impudent manner. Several lively animated sequences in different styles further diversify package. The soundtrack, needless to say, is a mix-tape dream.

SXSW Film Review: 'Danny Says'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, March 6, 2015. (In SXSW Film Festival — 24 Beats Per Second.) Running time: 103 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) An Oh Tre Films production. Produced by Pamela Lubell. Executive producers, Pamela Moschetti, Bill Hobbs, William O’Donnell. Co-producer, Gerry Herman.

Crew: Directed, written by Brendan Toller. Camera (color/B&W, HD), Toller; editors, Ian Markiewicz, Tim Sternberg, Toller; music, Henri Scars Struck; animation, Johnny Woods, Matt Newman, Emily Hubley, Max Rosenthal; sound, Mike Frank, Toller.

With: Danny Fields, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, John Cameron Mitchell, Jann Wenner, Justin Vivian Bond, Lenny Kaye, Gary Lucas, Leee Black Childers, Judy Collins, David Peel, John Sinclair, Wayne Kramer, Fayette Hauser, Jonathan Richman, Danny Goldberg, Legs McNeil, Mara Hennessey, Seymour Stein, Tommy Ramone.

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