The most obvious point of comparison for “Suzi Q,” a new documentary about the pioneering 1970s rocker Suzi Quatro, is “Bad Reputation,” a two-year-old doc about Joan Jett. That’s not least of all because Jett is a frequent on-camera presence in the new movie, and comes off as such an acolyte of the woman who broke glass ceilings slightly before her, that you can almost imagine there’s some kind of “All About Eve” story in the wings. There doesn’t seem to be, although Quatro does mention with a hint of rue that when the other singer’s smash “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” came out, people mistakenly congratulated her. In some sense, Quatro was Jett before Jett was really Jett — laying down the leather law when no female rocker had yet managed the combination of sex appeal and pure machisma.
Ultimately, though, Quatro comes off quite differently as a personality in her film than Jett did in hers, with both speaking to the separate paths feminism can take in a show business career. Jett has long strived to be the same rock ‘n’ roll character off-stage that she is on one. Quatro, though, could and did turn it on and off, and beyond the bravura there was a sweetness that served her well when she moved past glam-era hard rock into ballads, leading roles in West End musical comedies and, most famously for her in America, a three-season sitcom role on “Happy Days.”
She took some heat for that malleability from fans, the fickle British rock press and even in her troubled marriage to a disapproving bandmate. But, the documentary suggests, just as it’s the height of feminism for someone to stick to her rock ’n’ roll guns, so was it for Quatro to exercise a woman’s prerogative to go play Leather Tuscadero or star in “Annie Get Your Gun.” (It’s a sign of how long the doc has been in production that Garry Marshall, who died four years ago, is interviewed, as is Henry Winkler.)
“Suzi Q” (which officially bows on VOD July 3 after a livestream special event July 1) is almost as charming as its subject, who is seen in bookending scenes putting the leather back on for some raucous rock shows in the lead-up to her recent 70th birthday. It does suffer a bit, though, from being in that precarious position of needing to satisfy the curiosity of her fans of 50 years while also repeatedly reinforcing for a younger viewing audience that’s never heard of her how important she was. Early on, The Runaways’ Cherie Currie says Quatro “kicked in the door for us gals,” among the many other talking heads (including actual Talking Heads!) who weigh in with similar praise. But do even kids really need to be reminded halfway through the film that, “at that time, rock was a male-oriented business”? Millennials already get that … about 2020.
Still, it’d be wrong to begrudge director Liam Firmager for including testimonials like the one from Go-Go’s bassist Kathy Valentine, who says, “I’d never seen a woman with an instrument in a band. It’d never ever occurred to me that that could happen, that that could be.” Even though Quatro had been preceded by the odd star like Grace Slick and even a handful of all-female bands like Fanny, it doesn’t hurt to have a reminder of what a shock to the system it was to have a barely 5-foot woman wielding a low-slung, enormously long-necked bass like she was born to be the female Elvis and John Entwistle all rolled up into one diminutive package. (Her famous black leather jumpsuit wasn’t necessarily inspired by Presley’s leather, though; it’s said that her manager nicked the idea from “Barbarella.”)
Some still slightly tense family dynamics are introduced at the beginning of the film, as Quatro forms an all-girl band with her sisters in Detroit in the mid-’60s, the Pleasure Seekers, only to take off in search of a solo career in England in 1971. In ’73, she became a star there with the No. 1 “Can the Can,” which, along with “48 Crash” and “Devil Gate Drive,” established a winning formula in the songs that were written and produced by the team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn: pump up the bass guitar and deep, analog tom-toms, throw in wild electric piano, and have Quatro take her raspy voice to the uncomfortable top of its register. Considered glam-rock in the moment, and roughly akin to something we might consider pop-punk now, those songs still sound phenomenal, and it’s crazy to think they weren’t also hits in America.
She’d released a single called “Your Mamma Won’t Like Me,” but before long, mothers everywhere did. Her husband, longtime guitarist Len Tuckey, was apparently among those considering her new mom image and fondness for Irving Berlin to be a betrayal to rock. That was a domestic manifestation of the sexism that also evidences itself in the film in something as simple as a shot of a British chat show host slapping her on the bottom — though Quatro herself seems uninterested in exploring discrimination, saying she never thought of herself as a female rocker: “I don’t do gender,” she declares.
Her being a sort of John the Baptist who paved the way for the Runaways is reinforced at the close, as Currie delivers a newly written tribute song for Quatro over the end credits. (Clunky lyrics like “You were ahead of your time / You sling that axe so low” testify as to how difficult it is to make a celebrity mash note into a song.) There’s a simpler testimonial from Jett. After Rodney Bingenheimer says she’s sure Jett stole his Quatro posters from the booth where she used to sit at Rodney’s English Disco on the Strip, Jett denies it, insisting she already had plenty of her own at home.