Some people have a knack for putting themselves at the center of history. Daniel Fields was just a middle-class kid from Queens, but — during the second half of the 20th century — he discovered the Ramones, burned down the Beatles and seemingly had sex with every gay man at Harvard in the early 1960s. He was, to quote John Cameron Mitchell, “Handmaiden to the gods, midwife to some of the most important people in music.”
And Fields will be happy to tell you all about it, recounting his glory days with the bluntness of a grandfather recording his life story for posterity and the candidness of a 75-year-old man who’s remembering it for himself. So why, after 100 minutes of listening to him ramble on about everything he’s seen and everything he’s snorted, do we still have no idea what he actually did? Why, at the end of Brendan Toller’s intermittently fascinating but exclusively surface-level documentary, do we still have no idea who he is?
“Danny Says,” which borrows its name from the classic song that the Ramones wrote about Fields in 1980, does exactly what it says on the tin: While flecked with an impressive roster of talking heads (highlighted by Alice Cooper and a clear-eyed Iggy Pop) and smeared with some desperately pleasant animated recreations, the film consists of little more than what Danny says to the camera about his meandering path to the fringes of immortality. Fortunately, the guy is a reservoir of withered charisma, and his matter-of-fact approach to even the most intimate details of his personal journey make it easy to appreciate why Toller was drawn to him in the first place.
Fields is most compelling when revisiting his formative years, telling stories about embracing his sexuality (“I was a little faggot, which everyone else knew but me,” he chortles), and growing up in a house where amphetamines were kept in a glass bowl like after-dinner mints at a Chinese restaurant. If Toller doesn’t dwell on the details, that’s because “Danny Says” uses Fields as less of a subject than a tour guide, leveraging his experience as a window into the golden age of rock and the yowling birth of American punk.
Listening to the man meander through his memories, it becomes increasingly obvious that this may have been Toller’s only feasible approach, as Fields appears to have sublimated his identity directly into the music. He defines himself by the history he witnessed or enabled, as a crucial joint in the skeleton of popular culture. Blowing up John Lennon’s comment that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, introducing Iggy Pop to cocaine, being in the presence of Jim Morrison’s exposed penis: Fields seems to think of himself as nothing more than the sum of the things that he did, a cold and distant planet who was just happy to orbit around some of the galaxy’s brightest stars and bask in their light.
If there’s any interiority to Fields, Toller isn’t interested in finding it; “Danny Says” would much rather provide the umpteenth account of Andy Warhol’s social circle (to mention but one of the movie’s many asides) than dig beneath the dirt in an attempt to learn more about one of the key figures who helped shape that scene. Judging by the filmmaker’s only previous feature — a documentary about the death of independent record stores — it’s fair to assume that he shares Fields’ passion for music and all of its monuments, but that fandom may have blinded him to more interesting territory.
There is genuine value to being a witness, a value that several of Toller’s interview subjects implore Fields to recognize, but the director refuses to see his star as more than a repository for secondhand stories, never collates this messy collection of anecdotes into anything more than the footnotes of the film that he should have been making. Even the best moments here, such as the pristine audio recording of Lou Reed enthusiastically listening to the Ramones for the first time, feel like they flatten Fields out of the history that only exists because he was there to capture it.
A last-ditch attempt to bring “Danny Says” back to its namesake only serves to reinforce how much of a minor character he’s been in his own memoir — someone remarks that Fields “becomes overly attached to the illusion of self, so he lives with a sense of inadequacy about his life,” but Toller offers that explanation in lieu of exploring what it means. “The New York Times” once wrote “you could make a convincing case that without Danny Fields, punk rock would not have happened,” and Toller’s film does exactly that, but it fails to make a convincing case that Danny Fields would not have happened without punk rock. That part of the equation may not be more important in the grand scheme of things, but it would have made for a much better movie.
“Danny Says” opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday, September 30th.