Suzi Quatro is famous as the hard-charging, bass playing pop rock star who delivered hits like “48 Crash”, “Devil Gate Drive”, “Daytona Demon”, “Stumblin’ In” and “Can The Can” throughout the 1970s, and then nailed cross-platform fame when she unforgettably played rock’n’roller Leather Tuscadero on TV’s Happy Days. In the exemplary new documentary, Suzi Q, we get the whole delirious picture, from the pioneering feminist icon’s difficult relationship with her family (and in particular with her sisters, who she started out with in various bands) through to her marriage with her one-time guitarist Len Tuckey, and her now unquestionable status as a true rock legend. Directed with rare style, insight and economy by Australian filmmaker Liam Firmager (Brock: King Of The Mountain), Suzi Q is a deep dive into the amazing life of a woman whose story should be writ large…and loud.
How does an Aussie director end up making an Aussie-funded doco about Suzi Quatro???!
“Suzi Quatro was and is still wildly popular in Australia. Australians really embraced her to their hearts in the same manner that they championed ABBA. She is very much considered an honorary Aussie! Suzi has toured Australia 37 times! Which I believe is on record as the most Australian tours from an international artist. That’s an indication of how well regarded and loved she is here. Suzi’s success is essentially an Australian story at heart. Australian audiences will always respond to the authenticity of an artist. Having a Hells Angels escort from the airport [on one of her early Australian tours] probably tells you more about the way she was revered a lot more than any music critic could.”
Were you a longtime fan? How did the idea of the doco come to you?
“I was never a hardcore Suzi Quatro fan – my musical period was the 80’s with bands like The Cure, The Smiths, U2, Stone Roses etc, so Suzi was never on my musical radar. I knew of her, but wasn’t particularly familiar with her career apart from the major hits. I was actually on the hunt for a music based documentary as my background is a musician. I really wanted to sink my teeth into a subject with real music legacy and impact. I mentioned this to a mutual friend who informed me that no one had yet made a documentary film about Suzi Quatro and I was gobsmacked! How was it possible that an influential icon like Suzi Q had never had a film made about her extraordinary career? I knew that Suzi was still wildly popular in Australia and meant a great deal to her Australian fans…so it seemed a logical step to approach her and put my hand up for the task.”
Your previous film, King Of The Mountain, was a doco about Peter Brock. Did you approach this doco in a similar fashion, or was it completely different?
“The Brock project had a very obvious arc. Like any posthumous story, the narrative is essentially dictated by the tragedy. Suzi on the other hand is alive and well and shows no signs of retiring any time soon. So the approach was very much an examination of a hugely influential and successful survivor in rock music.”
Suzi Quatro is incredibly candid and vulnerable in the film. How did you get her to reveal herself so openly?
“The one thing that we agreed on from the very beginning was that it had to be truthful, regardless if it was uncomfortable, or painful. And even on that understanding, it still took a while before we built enough trust for her to be so candid and open. I recall during one particular trip to the UK, I felt that we weren’t really getting to the heart of Suzi Q. If there’s a film crew in the room, Suzi – being the entertainer she is – likes to entertain the room, but that’s not what we needed. So [producer] Tait Brady suggested that the film crew stay home that day and just leave me with Suzi, one on one. I handled the camera, the lights, the sound. It was simply myself and Suzi in conversation like two old friends. That’s when she really opened up, and I knew that we had a film.”
Suzi Quatro’s life – particularly with her family – has been so complex. Were you fully aware of that when you went into the project? And how did you tackle the family aspect?
“Thankfully by that stage, Suzi had already written her autobiography, so I was very much aware of the family tensions and history – so that gave me a very clear direction. Her family are very grounded and normal, but they have their challenges, like any big family does. I think her sisters were a little reticent to contribute to the project in the beginning, probably because they’d read the book and felt a little burnt. I suggested to them that everyone’s perspectives are essential for a broad objective view on the story, and they could finally have their say. Unfortunately, they weren’t completely happy with the results of that…perhaps they are a little uncomfortable with how they come across?”
Were there any areas of Suzi Quatro’s life that you would like to have accessed in greater detail, but weren’t able to?
“I would have loved to have interviewed her parents for the film, but sadly they had both passed away before the filming. I think their perspective would have shone a much broader and intriguing light on Suzi’s psyche.”
There is some great live and interview footage in the film. Can you talk a little about sourcing all of that great stuff?
“We were blessed with having a great archivist onboard in Lisa Savage, who turned over every stone for us in researching what was available. Suzi herself also maintains an impressive archive which she opened up to us – which certainly gave us a good indication of what was shot and who owned the licensing etc.”
Can you also talk about your great interview subjects? Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Donita Sparks, Debbie Harry etc? How did you get them, and what was it like talking with him?
“Interviewing music legends like Deborah Harry, Joan Jett, Alice Cooper etc…was an absolute blast. To a person, they were all willing and eager to be involved in the documentary as they all believed that Suzi Quatro had been unfairly marginalised in the history of rock music, and they wanted to express just how important and influential she has been. There was a collective sense that she needed to be recognised and respected for that. Initial contact can always prove difficult and time consuming, but once I explained the purpose of the film, they all simply asked, ‘When can we do this?’ Although I spent an awful lot of time travelling around the world to film the majority of the interviews, we were also blessed with the great fortune of having people like Joan and Alice touring in Australia during this period, which made the overall process much easier and affordable! Cherie Currie is an absolute sweetheart who continues to fly the flag for Suzi Quatro; Debbie Harry is one classy gal whose insights were essential to the narrative; Donita Sparks is erudite and full of warmth; Henry Winkler is the humblest guy you could meet in Hollywood, and Lita Ford is a riot – full of energy and sass! Sir Tim Rice is a walking musical encyclopedia! But at the risk of favouritism, Mike Chapman [Suzi Quatro’s longtime producer and songwriter] was my personal highpoint: sharp as a tack, funny, and very generous with his time. The Commander deserves his own Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame induction!
There is obviously such a rich and difficult history between Suzi Quatro and her bandmate and ex-husband, Len Tuckey. He’s a fascinating figure. What was your approach to interviewing, and then representing, him in the film?
“Len didn’t need me to represent him at all; he is in life as he appears on the screen. He is possibly one of the funniest and coolest dudes on the planet, not to mention an underrated guitarist. He’s the kind of guy that you want to hang out at the pub with. He talks no bullshit and calls it as he sees it. I can totally see why he and Suzi were a couple. He definitely had her back during those crazy success years.”
What surprised you most about Suzi Quatro during your making of the film?
“She’s a contradiction – but in an intriguing way. I don’t think I ever fully got a handle on who Suzi Quatro really is…it’s kind of like trying to grab onto running water. You’d think that spending five years with her, editing and researching hundreds of hours, and spending a huge amount of time talking with those closest to her, that I would really know her inside out…maybe that dichotomy explains her perfectly?”
Did a lot of footage (from your many interviews etc) end up on the cutting room floor? If so, do you have any plans for that material?
“We had a wealth of material that didn’t make the cut – an embarrassment of riches and testimonies from her peers such as Martha Reeves, Steve Harley from Cockney Rebel, Molly Meldrum, Suze DeMarchi etc. Some will make the Australian TV special, and plenty are included in the DVD extras. Hopefully most will see the light of day in one format or another.”
Do you feel that Suzi Quatro is under-valued as a feminist icon?
“No, I think Suzi is undervalued as an icon, full stop.”
What do you have lined up next?
“Ah, that would be telling! But I can say that I’m in talks with another music based film.”
Suzi Q is in cinemas on November 20. Click here to read our review.