The rock ‘n’ roll excesses of the ’60s and ’70s are etched into legend. We’re now living through a moment when it seems as if we might one day, you know, be pulling Led Zeppelin tracks from streaming sites because of the scandalous nature of the group’s offstage bacchanals. Yet I somehow doubt it. The burst of wild-dog incandescence that defined the original rock-idol era now looms larger than life; that’s true even more as time goes by. And Jim Marshall, the virtuoso photographer who, as much as any rock shutterbug, was in the ecstatic thick of it all, is one of the reasons why.
“Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall” is, before anything else, a celebration of Marshall’s indelible images of the rock gods and goddesses who changed the world. (If you think the over-the-edge mystique that era created the soundtrack for has faded, then you haven’t visited a college campus in the last 30 years.) The experience the film offers isn’t all that different, really, from going to a classic rock photography boutique, gawking at the images of a time that looks more delirious with each passing year.
Yet “Show Me the Picture” is also a cautionary documentary about where all that excess can lead. Marshall, who died in 2010, was a one-man embodiment of the selfish, destructive, set-a-limit-and-I’ll-trash-it pathologies of the era. It’s certainly a good thing that the film’s director, Alfred George Bailey, includes both sides — the glory and the madness. Yet “Show Me the Picture” is more successful as a rock nostalgia trip than it is as a portrait of the portrait maker.
Marshall, who spent most of his life in San Francisco, was as raw and verité an artist as Robert Frank or Larry Clark, but his photographs have a rock-dream quality. When you stare at his black-and-white images, which are classics of the era but unlike anyone else’s (you feel you’re right up there on stage with the Rolling Stones, or lounging on a couch with Jimi or Janis, or staring into Jim Morrison’s eyes as he sucks on a cigarette, or eavesdropping on Duane Allman as he stands by himself playing guitar in a dingy bathroom), there’s a disarming sense of who the great rock stars were when they stepped out of their roles. Even when Marshall catches them in concert, we always see the human being beneath the slovenly splendor of the wastrel-peacock pose.
“His photos have the feeling that no one else is in the room but the subject.” That’s how one observer describes Marshall’s work, and he’s right. In Marshall’s images, there’s no hidden dance between subject and photographer, the way there is in the work of Annie Leibovitz or Richard Avedon. Marshall kept any hint of himself out of the picture, though his gift for composition was extraordinary — his shots from the Woodstock stage are marked by their unique wide-angle sprawl, and his images of Haight-Ashbury capture the danger beneath the flower power; they have an enthralling street-edge quality. But one of the reasons he was able to keep himself completely out of the picture is that, for all his fire and talent, Marshall was a lost fragment of a person.
He was a self-hating megalomaniacal insider/outsider, like R. Crumb. Short, with a long bent nose and eyebrows dark enough to be greasepaint, Marshall resembled no one so much as a sawed-off Eugene Levy. He’s described in the documentary as “this little malevolent gnome,” and nothing we hear about him dispels that image. Marshall was a serious drug addict who, starting around the time of the Stones’ 1972 tour (which he captured in all its majesty), was snorting two grams of cocaine a day. He was a weapons fetishist who kept an arsenal of guns and knives and used them in the most despicable way — to pump up his obviously damaged ego. Dennis Hopper modeled aspects of his character in “Apocalypse Now” on Marshall, though the Marshall we see being interviewed never says anything half as interesting as Hopper’s psychedelic head case.
There are tasty anecdotes about how Marshall was hand-picked to shoot the Beatles during their last live performance, at Candlestick Park on Aug. 29, 1966, and about the images he shot of Johnny Cash’s concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin — it was Marshall, more than anyone, who elevated Cash’s prison gigs into the ultimate caged rebel performance. (The Man in Black was crusading for better prison conditions, but the visual subtext was: He’s a criminal too.)
Yet “Show Me the Picture” rarely takes us inside the thrill (or challenge) of what Marshall experienced as a photographer, or parses his technique, or explores why he was drawn to the rock scene in the first place. It does reveal how he was able to survive: He owned all his images through copyright (though how that worked with his shots for mainstream magazines isn’t explained), and he was able to live comfortably off sales of his back catalogue. Amelia Davis, who was Marshall’s friend and devoted assistant for the last 13 years of his life, starting in 1998, and is now his archivist (she is also one of the film’s producers), gives us the best sense of what he was like. But even her stories are mostly about cleaning up the messes he made.
He had many famous friends, like John Coltrane, who he captured in all his homespun elegance, or Michael Douglas, who he palled around with during the shooting of “The Streets of San Francisco,” or Joplin and Dylan. Yet the Marshall charisma is something we have to take on faith; in the movie, he comes off like a cantankerous accountant. (His photographs are lyrical; there isn’t a whisper of lyricism to his personality.) We can figure out what drew Marshall to the rock ‘n’ roll circus — it was natural-born theater — yet in “Show Me the Picture” his life comes at us in frustrating shards. I think that’s because Bailey, as a filmmaker, is subtly soft-pedaling his subject’s behavior. The movie isn’t necessarily hiding anything, yet it leaves us with a weirdly fuzzy sense of Marshall’s demons. At times he comes across with a Napoleon-complex gun-nut rage worthy of Phil Spector, yet there’s always someone there to vouch for what a good guy he was. At the end, we still don’t quite know who he was.
Yet we’re left in awe of his talent. Many of Marshall’s images were shot backstage, where he caught artists looking so unguarded that one’s first reaction to a Marshall photograph is often to do a double take and think, “Wow, is that really —-?” In a strange way, the essential quality of his images — their humanity — was the one place that he poured that side of himself. “Show Me the Picture” left me wanting to see how Jim Marshall would have photographed Jim Marshall. As tasty as the film’s rock memories are, I suspect he’d reveal more about himself in one shot than “Show Me the Picture” does in 90 minutes.