I’ve said this before, but I love music documentaries. Before it was unceremoniously canceled this year, I used to go to the SXSW Film Festival and relish in the abundance of music-themed docs they would feature, many of which would never surface again after those screenings. Sometimes they’re about a specific musician, band or producer, and other times they cover a genre of music that had its heyday and has been forgotten by the masses, but not by the loyal devotees who made the film. I tend to gravitate to titles about people or genres I know little about, because I’m keen to discover something new every chance I get, especially about music. The feature-length work about pop-rock sensation Suzi Quatro, Suzi Q, hits just the right spot for me, taking her in my mind from being a footnote in music history to one of the most influential and important female figures of the late 20th century.
The extent of my knowledge of Quatro (and I’m guessing the same is true for most Americans, in particular) is that she played Leather Tuscadero on several seasons of “Happy Days,” and her biggest stateside hit was 1978’s “Stumblin’ In,” a duet with British soft-rock singer Chris Norman. Beyond that, her life and career were a mystery to me, which is shocking considering she’s sold 55 million albums worldwide and is considered by many to be the starting point for women rock stars. She was the first female musician to front a rock band (she played a mean bass), and the film tracks her long and rocky road to achieve superstardom in an industry dominated and controlled by men.
Suzi Q does not gloss over any of the burned bridges or broken ceilings that Quatro went over/through to make a name for herself. She alienated family members, including three sisters (all of whom are interviewed here) after she left the Detroit-based family band, The Pleasure Seekers, which seemed to have some success touring and releasing records in the late 1960s and very early 1970s. But the first chance Quatro had to go out on her own, she took it and went to London, where she eventually broke out into the mainstream by 1973, with European hits like “Can the Can,” “48 Crash,” and “Devil Gate Drive.”
Interspersed with Quatro’s remembrances are discussions with a host of famous faces, including three members of The Runaways—Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, and Joan Jett, whose look and body language in the band was so much like Quatro’s, the band forced her to dye her hair and change her on-stage movements to stop resembling her. Jett herself tells a funny story about constantly being mis-recognized as the leather-clad singer from “Happy Days.” Conversely, when Jett’s “I Love Rock n’ Roll” hit big, Quatro often received congratulations for its success. Other rock luminaries singing Quatro’s praises and citing her as an influence include Tina Weymouth from the Talking Heads, Deborah Harry from Blondie, KT Tunstall, members of L7, Wendy James of Transvision Vamp, Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders, and Kathy Valentine from the Go-Go’s. Perhaps the most striking compliments come from Alice Cooper, who so admired her music at the time that he asked her to open for him on his “Welcome to My Nightmare” tour. To cover her time on “Happy Days,” look for Henry Winkler and Garry Marshall, who tell fun stories about Quatro’s importance to the show.
Directed by Liam Firmager, Suzi Q follows Quatro past her peak years as a rocker and examines her time as a full-time actor, a musical-theater performer, and as an author and poet. Perhaps some of the more difficult moments to watch are her struggle to find some acceptance and success in America. Strangely, no one in the film (including the subject) speculates why Quatro’s particular brand of rock never caught on stateside, aside from vague ideas about how Americans didn’t want anything beyond male rockers at the time, which seems oversimplified. It’s a conversation worth having, but no one in this movie seems to want to have it.
Although she did sing on hits written and produced by other people (mostly men), her image of the leather-clad rocker was all her own, and at every turn, her tough, Detroit-molded toughness seemed to keep her out of situations where sexual harassment was going to be something that held her back (it ultimately did, but in less direct ways). It also helped that she dated and later married the mountainous guitar player in her band, whose very presence likely kept many leering men away. Quatro’s attitude today about her life and career seems remarkably healthy. All she ever wanted to do was play music for people in whatever form, and if that meant leaving behind a few friendships and other relationships, that would have to be okay. It’s difficult to hear one of her sisters say she will never be a Suzi Quatro fan “because she’s my sister”—the idea that Quatro had to live most of her life with people who could say such a thing is mind-boggling.
At the age of 70, she’s still recording and playing to big venues, and while she says she has no regrets, there are elements to her story that she clearly wishes had played out differently. Suzi Q is honest and mostly complete, with only a few lingering questions to consider after watching it. Above all else, it’s an eye-opening document of a success that was largely hidden from American eyes and ears, and that makes it well worth seeking out.
The film is available beginning Friday on most on-demand platforms and streaming services.
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