Legendary music photographer Mick Rock is the first to admit that he may have mistaken his surname for his destiny — or maybe it’s that his surname simply was his destiny. Of course, it wouldn’t have meant very much had he been born in another time, or even in another place, but that wasn’t how the cards were dealt. Michael David Rock was born in Britain in 1948, one year and a few miles away from a man who would eventually come to feel that “Bowie” suited him better than “Jones.” And so, from the very start, Mick Rock was on something of a collision course with rock and roll, a passenger waiting to make good on his one-way ticket to the soul of the 20th century.
If “Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock” stands slightly above the recent onslaught of docs about people on the periphery of the music world (e.g. “Danny Says” and “The Fifth Beatle”), it’s because director Barney Clay never loses sight of how his subject sees himself, as a messenger for the gods that he helped to create, as a prophet for the false religion that has always sustained his faith.
In 1996, somewhere between the three heart attacks (and a quadruple bypass surgery) that he would have before his fiftieth birthday, Mick Rock overdosed on cocaine. And that’s where “Shot!” begins, with the photographer literally standing outside of his own body so that he can watch himself rattle around in the back of an ambulance. The film is light on recreations — and what few others Clay drops into the mix are all entirely superfluous — but this morbid opening note provides a crucial bit of perspective: Rock is a survivor, a man who appears to be as immortal as the images that he’s captured and created, but pictures aren’t people, however the great ones make it seem that way.
Opening with a promise that all of the materials seen in the film come from the “mind, body, and soul of Michael David Rock,” Clay’s documentary assumes the shape of a dry personal history, but it filters absolutely everything through Rock’s unique lens, and eschews absolutely everything that might dilute his vision. Aside from intimate audio recordings of his private conversations with luminaries like David Bowie and Lou Reed (both of whom were dear friends that Rock doesn’t hesitate to humanize), Rock’s is the only voice we hear — there’s no outside context, there are no adoring testimonies from the musicians he’s shot, and there are no other talking heads (though David Byrne is name-checked in passing).
Though it’s not as if Rock allows his iconic shots to speak for themselves. On the contrary, he’s an extremely loquacious and entertaining autobiographer, narrating everything that helped him find his place a step away from stardom. In addition to walking us through many of his most famous pictures — a body of work that includes the covers of “Queen II, Reed’s “Transformer,” that issue of “Penthouse” where Debbie Harry posed wearing a body-obscuring winter coat, and a zillion other images that you’ve been looking at your whole life — Rock tries to untangle the messy philosophy that informs all his photos. He thinks of himself as an assassin, lining up his targets and sniping them at their most exposed moments.
“I’m not after your soul, I’m after your fucking aura” he deadpans, fully aware that he’s become the stereotype for every pompous photographer who’s followed in his footsteps.
Rock’s lack of self-importance prevents the doc from fetishizing the past, and Clay — who appears to have met the photographer on the set of a TV on the Radio video — is wise to assume that the world doesn’t need yet another reminder that it used to be full of gods. To Rock, they were just people he was lucky enough to know, and he admits that his greatest talent is the trust that he earned from them. It’s easy to be skeptical of someone whose career was made possible by access, but you can see the vulnerability in his frames. Bowie, who invited Rock into his inner circle and asked him to help crystallize his myth, was only so beautifully shot because — as he can be heard confessing to Rock in one of their earliest conversations — he believed that “the artist is a figment of the peoples’ imagination.”
But if that’s true, where does it leave the shooter? It’s a question that Rock has wrestled with for his entire life, and Clay deserves credit for embracing the fruitlessness of that search. Not only does “Shot!” resist the temptation to force its subject towards an easy moral of some kind, it dives headfirst down the tunnel of Rock’s confusion, busting out some wonky psychedelic effects (imagine using the iTunes visualizer to animate a wormhole) to illustrate his coke-fueled search for some kind of truth. The rabbit hole isn’t nearly deep enough to justify all the time that Clay spends poking around down there, and there are long stretches of this film where it feels as though Rock’s photographs have already articulated his “psycho-spiritual mantra” better than he ever could without a camera in his hands, but this fitfully entertaining and consistently honest documentary never tries to deny that fact. At one point, Rock says that he’s always wanted to make a movie about a photographer who’s trapped by his images — it’s hard to tell if he knows that he’s starring in one.
“Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra Of Rock” opens on VOD and in theaters on Friday, April 7.