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Review: Detroit mag gets its due in 'Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine'

Documentary traces magazine's roots and examines its influence on music world and beyond

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In "Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine," the rise and fall of the ruthless, irreverent, take-no-prisoners Detroit-based magazine is documented like that of a rock band, with smashed typewriters instead of guitars. 

It's a fitting approach, since the mag's meager beginnings, combustible personalities and ultimate flame out mirrors the familiar trajectory of so many "Behind the Music"-style tales. Creem was rock 'n' roll, for better and for worse, and it was meant to be around for a good time, not a long time.

Director Scott Crawford gathers an impressive roster of personalities who sing Creem's praises and contextualize its influence on readers, from Michael Stipe to Cameron Crowe to Jeff Daniels, who compares buying the magazine to picking up a Playboy.

Creem magazine

Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, who grew up just down the road from Creem's offices in Birmingham, shares a story of riding his bike to the magazine's headquarters and seeing Alice Cooper walk out the door, his childhood fantasy come to life. It's a perfect illustration of the world of rock journalism at the time, the accessibility of rock stars before the layers of publicists built walls around them, and the way Creem brought the rock world to Detroit.

MoreCreem proved to be a rock magazine heavyweight

The mag was thoroughly Detroit in its attitude and plan of attack, and its outsider mindset was fueled by the the fraught push-pull relationship between publisher Barry Kramer and editor Dave Marsh. They were opposing forces who made magic together, despite the fact that they were constantly at each other's throats. Chemistry is an odd, unpredictable science.

"Creem" traces the magazine from its roots, launching in the Cass Corridor's "decrepit war zone of slums" in 1968 — one year after Rolling Stone started publishing — to its two-year commune-like tenure in Walled Lake to its move to Birmingham. The magazine pushed way past boundaries of good taste but was revered for its honesty and the way it knocked big personalities off their pedestals. It was a gloves-off mentality that stood in opposition to the high gloss of Rolling Stone.   

The arrival of Lester Bangs added gasoline to the magazine's fire, strengthening its band of misfits philosophy. Nothing was sacred, everything was ripe for mocking, and sometimes the magazine went too far. The end ultimately came before it officially ceased publishing in 1989; its final years are brushed off with an "it is what it is" dismissal. 

Crawford doesn't shy away from the thornier aspects of the mag's story, and overall he treats Creem with the same even-handed manner that Creem had with its subjects. It's celebratory, sure, but it's also gritty, messy and sometimes downright ugly. But hey, that's rock 'n' roll. 

'Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine'

GRADE: B+

Not rated: language, sex, drugs and rock and roll

Running time: 75 minutes

Watch via Cinema Detroit

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama