The shorthand summary of the story of Suzi Quatro story is simple: a pioneering female rock ‘n’ roll musician from Detroit who became a big star overseas in the 1970s but couldn’t find the same appreciation at home. And “Suzi Q,” a film by Liam Firmager that premieres on VOD this week, tries to right that imbalance, trotting out an array of female musicians to testify about Quatro’s importance in helping establish the very idea that it was OK for women to pick up instruments and play rock alongside the guys.
That’s a worthy goal for the film, given Quatro’s influence on people like Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, the Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and the Go-Go’s Kathy Valentine, among others. Valentine, for one, said she’d never even thought of women playing instruments — and then she saw Quatro on the British TV show “Top of the Pops,” and “My brain literally exploded.”
So you can think of “Suzi Q” as an effective, straightforward history lesson of sorts, aimed at restoring the reputation of a woman who has been little more than a footnote in U.S. rock history. And because of its subject, the film also turns into an examination of sexism in the music industry, including an appalling but no-doubt-common moment when a British talk-show host asked Quatro to turn around so he could slap her on the butt before she sat down.
The film also adds another, sad dimension to that phrase “couldn’t find the same appreciation at home,” suggesting that Quatro not only struggled to be liked by American listeners, but also by her own family.
It’s not a revelatory film, except to those who know nothing about Quatro, and it occasionally skirts areas you wish it explored. But Quatro deserved to have her story told, and Firmager does a solid job of telling it.
Quatro grew up in a middle-class suburb of Detroit, and joined her sister Patti in a band called the Pleasure Seekers when she was 14. (Her other sisters, Arlene and Nancy, would later join as well.) At barely five feet tall fully grown, she wielded an electric bass guitar that was nearly as big as she was. But she cut such a striking figure on stage that celebrated British producer/manager Mickie Most offered her a solo deal after seeing the band. The rest of the family didn’t even want to tell her about the offer, but when she found out and moved to England to work with Most, her sisters were devastated.
“Suzi Q” jumps into these early years quickly, without much setup to explain to viewers why they’d want to devote their time to a movie about Quatro. It finally makes the case for her about half an hour later, when Quatro has her first hit, “Can the Can,” under the tutelage of producer Mike Chapman. At that point in the film, the rockers she influenced, who also included L7’s Donita Sparks, the Runaways’ Lita Ford and Cherie Curie and Tranvision Vamp’s Wendy James, make for a powerful chorus as they explain why she mattered.
“Can the Can” was the first in a string of songs that were hits in England, throughout Europe and in Australia and New Zealand – others, all written by Chapman and his partner Nicky Chinn, included “48 Crash,” “Daytona Demon,” “Devil Gate Drive,” “The Wild One” and “Your Mama Won’t Like Me.”
Chapman was adept at tailoring songs to her persona, and he insisted that she push her voice to the top of its effective range, which gave her vocals an intense but thin sound and perhaps shortchanged her ability as vocalist. (These days, most of her early hits sound awfully tinny.) But Chapman was never shy about taking credit, and some skeptics came to dismiss her as a puppet of two powerful men, Chapman and Most.
Quatro, normally an affable and understated interview subject, chafes at the suggestion that men were running the show. “One thing I could never be was manipulated,” she insists.
But while she landed the opening spot on some big American tours and was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1975, her records just didn’t sell in the United States. The film doesn’t try to go into much detail about why, a question that probably can’t be answered anyway.
That lack of commercial success, though, may well have been why a woman who was a big hit in the ultra-trendy glam-rock movement in the U.K. would consider taking a recurring role on a mainstream American sitcom, “Happy Days,” where she played a leather-clad ’50s rocker named Leather Tuscadero. The role finally got her known in the U.S. and in a way led to her only Stateside Top 10 hit, the 1978 ballad duet “Stumblin’ In,” but it killed whatever credibility she had as a rocker, even as her acolytes in the Runaways, the Go-Go’s and Blondie began to achieve success.
The film spends most of its time on the first decade of her career, then moves quickly through 40 years of moving from one record company to another and working with some success in musical theater. This section is more hurried and less interesting – though at the end, when she admits that she really wanted the approval of her father and her sisters, it begins to sink in how much she sacrificed on the personal front for the success she did have.
Her father, she says, told her he was proud of her for the first time not when she was a rock star, but years later when she wrote and starred in a musical. As for her sisters, she admits, “You want to be validated by the ones you love the most” – but it’s clear from what her sisters say in interviews for the film that they’ve never forgiven her for leaving them to become a star.
“I made it in spite of them,” Quatro says sadly, “but I also made it because of them.”
“Suzi Q” tries very hard to adopt a triumphant tone at the end, but the hurt feelings and family fractures weigh on it heavily. As much as the film makes it clear that she deserves more recognition and appreciation in her own country, it suggests that she deserves it in her own family, too.
Kathy Valentine and Cherie Curie will take part in a virtual release event for the film on July 1, with “Suzi Q” moving to VOD and DVD on July 3.