It was with some trepidation that I approached the BBC’s The Most Dangerous Band In The World: The Story of Guns ‘n’ Roses (TMDBITW). And that had less to do with its unwieldy long name and more to do with my preconceptions; it seemed unlikely there would be anything new to say about G'n'R and the documentary seemed like just another plug for the ‘reunion’. Nevertheless, the 90-minute-long documentary that was released on 5 February on the UK’s BBC Four merited one watch, for curiosity’s sake.
TMDBITW starts off much like VH1’s Behind the Music series with a montage of dramatic quotes from the five founder members — W Axl Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Steven Adler and Duff McKagan — and Adler’s successor Matt Sorum, and the former Geffen Records A&R executive who first signed the band, Tom Zutaut.
However, unlike VH1’s documentaries, this dramatic montage is overlaid on a backdrop of a starry sky. From the very outset, TMDBITW seems to lack the sort of production values associated with most authorised rock documentaries — rockumentaries, if you will (thank you, Marty DiBergi).
That’s not really a problem, so long as the content is tip-top.
The main talking heads that tell the story are Adler, Zutaut, the band’s first manager Vicky Hamilton and Slash’s childhood friend and documenter of their earliest shows, Marc Canter. Cameo quotes come from Rainbow Bar And Grill and Whiskey A Go Go owner Mario Maglieri (blink and you’ll miss it) and a largely pointless set of soundbites from Hanoi Rocks lead singer Michael Monroe.
That is a problem.
With all due respect to their contributions to the history of G’n’R, none of the aforementioned names can, in any way, be described as part of the band’s present scheme of things. The absence of any voice belonging to someone currently associated with the band furthers the early suspicion that TMDBITW has nothing new to offer.
Wait, that's not entirely accurate.
Director Jon Brewer dips liberally into Canter’s collection of early videos of the band, some of which have yet to pop up on YouTube (at the time of writing, anyway). Unfortunately, these clips primarily serve the purpose of filler material between tales from Hamilton about the band’s early days, Zutaut about the band’s early days and Adler about the band’s early days. Sensing a theme here?
Roughly the first half of the film focuses on the Appetite for Destruction era, culminating in Adler’s expulsion from G'n'R. The legendary — but also oft-heard, told and retold — stories of the band’s drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll excesses are dusted off and wheeled out. Thrilling stuff(!)
By a little over 75 minutes in, we are shown how Stradlin, McKagan and Slash left G’n’R between 1991 and 1996, and then comes the bit about how they all cleaned up their respective acts. A brief montage depicting what each of the founding members was doing at the time of the film’s completion is followed by a message across the bottom of the screen that reads, “Since the completion of this film, the band have agreed to reunite and play Coachella Festival 2016”.
Before getting to the negatives — of which there are many — of TMDBITW, there is one highlight and that is the extended screen-time afforded to Adler — possibly the G’n’R founder to get the least public attention. Voice slurring from the stroke he suffered in 1996, he comes across as a truly sympathetic character. It would take a truly stone-hearted person not to feel for him and be moved by his hurt at being fired from the band in a moment of what he perceives as hypocrisy from Rose et al.
By and large, however, this rockumentary is a largely hollow experience, made that much worse by the fact that the documentary-makers seem to have forgotten that it is a film about a rock band ie a band that plays rock music. In light of this apparently obvious fact, the use of music is woeful. It’s almost like the makers got bored after skipping through a couple of tracks, ticked off a few names and decided to call it a day.
Welcome to the Jungle is used around four or five times, and then Sweet Child o’ Mine, some licks from Rocket Queen make themselves heard before a few seconds worth of music from Use Your Illusion I and II.
Another letdown is the recycling of footage from old interviews featuring Rose, Slash and Stradlin, and the recycling of live footage that is already so easily available online that I found myself itching to skip forward.
And it gets worse.
The use of tacky animation — whether the animated snake slithering up the screen early on in the film or the ghosts of band members astride motorcycles riding through a desert — makes TMDBITW feel like a parody film or a joke at times. Besides, I always thought motorcycles were more of a Mötley Crüe thing than a G’n’R thing.
But all of these quibbles pale in comparison to my biggest problem with the film.
And that is the apparent haste with which it seems to have been released. With an eye presumably on catching the wave of public interest in the G’n’R reunion, it appears TMDBITW was forced out of the womb in a stillborn state.
Sample this for instance: The film was registered under the name Alice and The Most Dangerous Band In The World, something the BBC title card at the very end also displays. To that effect the film starts and ends with a bizarre sequence involving a 1980s version of Alice (as in the one who went to Wonderland) sitting on Sunset Strip and chasing a white rabbit into a dumpster — I wish I were making this stuff up — that takes her to a tea party with some other rodents.
And then there’s no mention of Alice or said rodents till the very end.
In summation, TMDBITW felt like the rockumentary equivalent of the sort of university dissertation that at the start, is painstakingly researched and referenced, with a plan to tie everything together with an unconventional narrative thread. You can tell that a lot of effort’s gone into crafting each sentence.
Unfortunately, the deadline crept up on the hypothetical university student, who rushed through the last few chapters, didn’t bother to even carry out a rudimentary spell-check and thrashed out a very inadequate conclusion. Worse yet, the student opted not to print out the dissertation on fresh sheets of A4 paper, opting instead to use the unused sides of various photocopied sheets of paper.
And then — to drag this metaphor on just a little longer — choosing not to use paper clips or staple pins to hold the sheets of paper together, and instead, using a wad of chewed gum.
Rather appropriately though, this documentary is almost as patchy as the upcoming G'n'R reunion, and its makers are unlikely to bring anyone to their ‘sha-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-knees… knees’, never mind, hearing them scream.