Detroiter's Grande Film Wows Festival Crowds
In the mid-1960s, when young people started jamming into the mythic Grande Ballroom on Detroit’s West Side, Tony D’Annunzio was on the East Side. He was learning how to walk.
D’Annunzio grew up to be a music fan who worked in video production, and one one day he had an idea to make his first film -- a documentary about the Grande, even though he missed out on experiencing the ballroom itself by about a generation.
It took four years to make, and he paid for it himself. Now, during an exceptionally fertile period for documentaries with Detroit themes, mostly by non-Detroiters, D'Annunzio’s film stands out. From Chicago to Nashville, he has a hit.
“Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story” made its debut to jammed theaters in April in Detroit and Ann Arbor.
But that was preaching to the choir.
In the past few weeks the film has made a splash beyond Michigan, playing to sold-out crowds and critical acclaim at film festivals in Chicago, Nashville and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Organizers have booked it for festivals in Barcelona; Woodstock, N.Y.; Mill Valley, Calif.; Las Vegas and London. There’s also one venue scheduled that D’Annunzio can’t discuss yet, but he is very excited about it.
When asked how he is doing, the 45-year-old D’Annunzio, who is friendly and fast-talking, responds : “Living the dream, brother.”
He adds: “I really didn’t know what it would do outside Detroit. It’s amazing. I mean, Barcelona, Spain! We as Detroiters we don’t really realize the effect Detroit has outside of Michigan. Detroit is really trending right now all around the world.”
“Louder Than Love’s” success probably has something to do with Detroit’s international buzz, but it has a lot do with D’Annunzio’s success as a novice filmmaker. Writing in the Detroit News, critic Tom Long said of the film: “It’s cheeky, it’s passionate, it’s got a sense of humor, and it manages to capture the crazy energy of the time, all with a distinctly Detroit spin.”
The film also is blessed with fast-paced editing, by veteran editor Carl Rausch, including an almost spooky sequence in which footage of contemporary interviews are superimposed on the ruins of the stage inside the long-abandoned building, which has trees growing from the roof.
D’Annunzio also helped himself with the interviews he landed, including blues legend B.B. King, Roger Daltrey of The Who, Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Don Was, Slash and a number of local personalities.
D’Annunzio said he called VIPs and leveled with them. “I said, ‘I’m a nobody and I’m financing it myself.’” But when he showed them a short introductory trailer, they realized D’Annunzio was a serious filmmaker involved in an interesting project.
And it didn’t hurt that he picked a compelling subject -- a building whose short life as a concert venue served as a launching pad for Detroit’s rock music industry and its vibrant 1960s counter-culture, and whose fame has spread far beyond the Motor City in the past 40 years.
The Grande was a once-slick dance hall on Grand River near Joy that had turned shabby by 1966, when it came under the control of a school teacher-turned-impresario from Dearborn named Russ Gibb. He had seen the possibilities of the music scene during a trip to San Francisco.
Starting in October 1966, Gibb, with the eventual help of counter-culture leader John Sinclair, booked local acts that included the flamboyant and hard-driving performers that helped give Detroit its iconic reputation, such as the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges and Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes. He also brought in such out-of-town acts as Led Zeppelin, Cream, B.B. King, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd and the Who, mostly before they had become global brands.
The Who, for example, staged the world premiere of the rock opera “Tommy” at the Grande, and one night in 1968 the Who appeared on a legendary bill that also featured Pink Floyd and the MC5. The first time Zepplin appeared they were still using the name New Yardbirds.
The Grande was infamous for its marijuana, LSD and various aspects of free love, and “Louder Than Love” embraces the whole late-60s vibe. “It relishes the sex, drugs and rock and roll atmosphere the concert hall fostered,” wrote film critic Long.
In addition to interviews and music, the 74-minute film contains a treasure trove of archival still photos and home movies.
D’Annunzio also pays attention to other important aspects of the Grande, such as the light shows, which allowed non-musicians to get into the act by projecting amoeba-like forms on the walls and ceilings. He touches upon the groupies, poster art, leftwing journalism and the radical politics that accompanied Sinclair, the MC5 and their rifle-wielding comrades in the White Panther Party that promoted a three-point program of “rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets.”
Said D’Annunzio: I wanted to inform people how important the Grande was musically and culturally, There’s more to it than just the music.”
In an interview last week, Gibb, who is 81, said he was happy to cooperate after he saw how D’Annunzio had researched the Grande’s history, and he admired D’Annunzio’s work ethic and devotion to his family.
“He’s very impressive,” Gibb said. “He did a tremendous job.”
D’ANNUNZIO GREW UP in Detroit at Crusade and Collingham, near 8 Mile and Gratiot, and moved to Troy in sixth grade, the year he attended his first concert -- Aerosmith at Masonic Temple. His father, wearing a suit, took him for doing well in his new school.
Taking classes at Oakland County Community College and the Specs Howard broadcasting school, D’Annunzio got into video production at age 21, and worked over the years around the world on a wide variety of projects, including Super Bowls, commercials, concerts and presidential political rallies. He was on the job election night 2008 in Grant Park, Chicago, when Barack Obama made his dramatic acceptance speech.
The origins of “Louder Than Love” are prosaic. In 2007, while talking with a friend, D’Annunzio realized there was one thing he had never done – a documentary. So he simply set out to make one. He was inspired by a documentary about the MC5. He thought there was a bigger story to tell about the building they helped to make famous, and he figured dealing with a structure would be easier than documenting a person.
His friends with technical know-how in the video business donated their skills, and he raised money to pay for the rights to use the songs that make up his all made-in-Detroit soundtrack. He even got a lawyer to work pro-bono. D’Annunzio declined to specify the price tag for “Louder Than Love,” but said: “It’s embarrassing to say how much it cost because of what I was able to get from the gratis world. The production community in Detroit is an incredible community.”
It’s uncertain when “Louder Than Love” will play the Detroit area again.
Working with local entertainment lawyer Howard Hertz, D’Annunzio is sorting through offers from distributors, trying to come up with the best way to get the film in front of the most people. He also is looking for a sponsor to help him with the next phase of his labor of love.
“I know it’s not going to be in a big theatrical release,” he said. “But I know a lot of people are going to want to see it. I’ve got to figure out how to do that.”