Review: Scott Crawford’s ‘CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine’

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

In the first few minutes of Scott Crawford’s documentary Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer describes the focal publication as “our Facebook… our social media.” While Kramer might come across as just another aging Boomer trying to convince a younger generation that he’s hip, the statement isn’t without merit. The MC5 were one of the bands who were not only part of the Detroit music scene that CREEM immortalized, but also a huge influence on the punk movement (and often called one of the first punk bands).

The CREEM that everyone knows about is the one that began in 1969 and ended with publisher Barry Kramer’s death in 1981. Kramer’s widow. Connie, managed to steer the sinking ship for a few more years, but overwhelming debt resulted in the sale of the magazine to businessman Arnold Levitt in 1986. 

I consider CREEM a hugely important part of my youth, even though I only started reading it right after Kramer’s death. From outrageous photo captions and irreverent music reviews to its monthly Boy Howdy profiles, it was the kind of tongue-in-cheek approach to rock and roll that appealed to me because it reflected my own sense of humor. People magazine it was not. 

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

Through home movie footage and new interviews with former staff members, the documentary paints a fascinating portrait of those early years of CREEM, which — in a lot of ways — makes it come across as much of a fanzine of the Detroit scene as John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil’s infamous Punk magazine was of the New York scene. There are also interviews with musicians who were either featured in CREEM or who were fans of the mag, and that list is impressively diverse (from Metallica’s Kirk Hammet to R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe to Suzi Quatro). 

Perhaps CREEM’s biggest legacy, for better or for worse, is the influence of Lester Bangs on future generations of music writers. The film makes no effort to sanitize Bangs’ caustic personality and ironic approach to criticism. Yet, as former staffers Dave Marsh, Jaan Uhelszki and Susan Whitall explain, CREEM was “a magazine for teenage boys” but truly aspired to demystify rock stars. Cramer’s son J.J. even remarks that with CREEM, “either you’re in on the joke, or you are the joke.”

It’s hard to argue against anything that takes the piss out of self-important celebrities, but in this post-ironic age, it’s easy to wonder if CREEM could be responsible for the nastiness so prevalent in publications like Pitchfork, where crafting a savage takedown often feels more important than listening to the music and writing a thoughtful critique. 

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

While speaking about Bangs’ 1982 death from an overdose, Marsh points out how often people confuse sad and funny, noting that Lester himself “was fairly confused between sad and funny.” Writer Greil Marcus states that he is so upset about Bangs’ death that he can’t even speak comfortably on it. Such reflections remind the viewer that there was a person behind all those sardonic put-downs, just like CREEM itself revealed the humanity and fallibility of the musicians it profiled. That’s the part of the Bangs legacy that countless imitators seem to miss. He was a tremendous and inspiring writer, even if I have rarely agreed with his opinions on music (except James Taylor, because he’s awful). You can’t just be sarcastic; you have to be — as Marsh and Marcus point out — a “moralist” who is in search of the truth.

The story of CREEM after Levitt’s iteration folded in 1989 is full of failed reboots and lawsuits, which makes the ending of the documentary feel abrupt and bittersweet, though not as abrupt and bittersweet of the ending of the magazine itself. There was nothing else like CREEM back then, and there’s still nothing like it now. That’s not only a testament to the importance of the magazine, it’s also a sad commentary on what’s lacking in modern music criticism.

CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine is currently available for virtual screenings as well as some in-cinema screenings across Canada. Proceeds from the virtual ticket purchases will help sustain programming and support efforts to reopen participating independent theatres affected by COVID-19.

Leslie Hatton (@theinsolent1) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.