In the DOC NYC documentary “Can’t Stand Losing You,” which had its world premiere Friday at the festival, The Police guitarist Andy Summers revisits the past he laid bare in his hit 2007 memoir “One Train Later.” Coming on the heels of the band’s massively successful worldwide reunion tour that wrapped in 2008, the film, directed by Andy Grieve and Lauren Lazin, frames the English musician’s fascinating backstory with exclusive concert footage and behind-the-scenes access.
In other words, if you’re a fan of The Police (and really, who isn’t?), then “Can’t Stand Losing You” is a must-see.
Prior to the film’s unveiling at DOC NYC, Indiewire sat down with Summers in a dimly lit but lavishly outfitted hotel suite — fit for a rock star, you might say — at the Gramercy Park Hotel. In our chat with the icon, Summers opened up about why he chose to rehash his life for a second time, why he’ll entertain the idea of another reunion tour and what he really thinks of Keith Richard’s memoir (hint: no satisfaction).
What initially inspired you to pen the memoir that served as the basis for this film?
It’s not just vanity, you know. I’ve always been a book freak, a literature person — I’ve written different things over the years. The idea of writing a full-length book certainly appealed to me as an aesthetic challenge, something I’d like to try and do. Of course, it’s a lot of work — it’s commitment. There were several inspirations, like asking myself, ‘Can I write a book?’ and coming up with, ‘Yes, I think so, but I’ve just got to do it.’ I had another book I was doing in 2007 with Taschen with all photography I did while with The Police. I had a fantastic body of work because I pretty much photographed my time with the band from day one until the end.
I saw this film that Brett Morgen had directed called “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” which I absolutely loved. It’s made from still photographs and voiceover. And I went… ‘Oh, man.’ I was sort of thinking about it. And then — I was making the book in London with these two guys, constructing the whole layout of the book. One of them had worked on “The Kid Stays in the Picture”; at that point, Brett Morgen was some mythical figure to me — I didn’t know who he was. I imagined some old guy in New York had made this great documentary. Later, I was in LA and I happened to run into a film music supervisor… I was talking to him and I said, “I saw this film by this guy by Brett Morgen,” and he said, completely out of the blue, “Yeah, I know Brett, why don’t you call him? I’ll give you his email, why don’t you get in touch with him?” So I did. I introduced myself to him and he said, “I’d be really interested, this sounds really good.” So I sent him the book, he read the book, loved the book. He said, “Yes, I’d like to do this.” And that’s really where the film started.
The thing is that Brett’s film was the spark or the catalyst to think making a documentary out of my book was a possibility because I certainly didn’t write the book with the idea of making a film; that was beyond my wildest dreams.
Now Brett didn’t helm the movie — Andy Grieve and Lauren Lazin did. What kind of rules did you set up for them, in terms of saying “You can’t go here,” or “you can’t go there”?
I don’t know if I ever said, “I don’t want to do this, or that.” I think one of the things for me about the film is that it’s not sanitized and nor was the book. I feel like it’s got to be punchy; it’s got to be completely truthful about all of the difficulties — the downside of it all as well, because the real truth makes it a lot more compelling as a story. I tried to keep that in the film.
You reunited with the band following the publication of the book. Is it safe to say that they responded well to it?
Yeah, they did. The truth is, Sting caught me about three days after the book came out and he had already read it… He loved it. He said it was hilarious and that he really enjoyed it; Stewart [Copeland] liked it too, no problem… Fast forward to the movie, and for me, I thought one of the real hurdles was going to be getting this movie past these guys. They’re in it all the way. I’ve put them up on the screen.
Unbeknownst to me, I got an email from Stewart one morning that said, “I just saw your film.” Someone sent it to him — from the film company, as a matter of course. I have to show it to them; legally, they must see it because they’re in it. They have to sign off on it. He said I had his blessing. Sting was more difficult; he was out on tour, and although I did talk to him and at one point I was planning to fly to Toronto to show it to him, it just didn’t work out. He sent it to his manager and she signed off on it.
Has Sting seen it?
I don’t know if he’s seen it or not. But his manager spoke for him.
How much of a part did your memoir play in getting you all back together as a band for the reunion tour?
Interesting question because that was the year, 2006, when the book did come out — we all met at Sundance Film Festival earlier that year and had this picture taken. We ended up at the Sundance Film Festival for Stewart’s film in January. We were all sitting on a bench, sort of like this couch, and the paparazzi were all over us immediately. It was a great shot and it was on the internet within thirty minutes. It went all around the world. It was in the British papers the next day and I think that’s really what started the ball rolling. Later that year, Stewart came out with his film and my book came out. I had dinner with Sting that year, I met him again in New York — suddenly, that year felt very loaded. Strangely, the book came out and there’s an Internet blog about like, ‘Oh, well, that’s it — it was a great experience, it’s over.’ Two months later, we got back together. To answer your question, I do think the book had something to do with it.
I want to know what the most difficult aspect of making this film was, in terms of revisiting your past. You’re very open and frank about certain passages in your life (most notably your drug use while on the road): what was the most challenging to go back and talk about?
Not everything is in that, believe me. There’s plenty of gnarly stuff I left out. You’ve got so much space in the book; when I wrote the book, initially it was 800 pages — a bit long. I had to chop it, chop it, chop it, get it to 350. I cut away a lot of stuff that didn’t need to be there. I left out certain uncomfortable things.
You want to be reasonably interesting and honest. There’s drugs involved and all that, as usual, but it didn’t get to the point where we were junkies or anything like that. That kind of behavior… I acknowledge it, but I don’t think I want to exploit it. Some of these Rock books — they grovel in it. Like Keith Richard’s book, which I found awful, personally. It’s like, ‘We’re going to read about thirty years of heroin abuse?’ It’s just so fucking boring to me. I don’t really want to hear about it. If I wanted to read that, I’d read William S. Burroughs. Are you a fan of the Rock documentary genre?
No, I can’t say I am. I’ll get more or less interested in the film, depending on the band. I know the story so well. I thought one about George Harrison was good, but about an hour and a half too long; the [Bob] Dylan one was the really great one — “No Direction Home,” was it? Now that was 4 hours and it was riveting. I also like the one on Rush, actually. I’m not particularly a Rush fan but the guys are so sweet that I really enjoyed the film. I like the one on Anvil… Hilarious, brilliant. I can’t say I’m really a fan of Rock documentaries; I’ll see one if it’s recommended to me, but I don’t seek them out. It’s probably because I’m in that scene. I go, “Oh, yeah, I know that move… I know that one.” I’ve done it all. It’s less interesting for me. It’s too self referential… I like all of my inspiration to come from other places.
How is this different than your book launch for you — is it kind of like revisiting that time of your life, in a way?
It’s not totally dissimilar because I’m talking about the same stuff. Except, you know, ‘What are you trying to do in making the film?’ requires a slightly different response. In a way, I was a lot less involved… And that became one of the problems for me. With everything else that I do in my life, I like calling all of the shots. Obviously, when I was writing the book — that was just me, facing the wall. I’m talking about the same material, but the sitting down and the writing of the book was the daily, creative challenge to put that project together. With the film, I’d get calls: “Can you add a bit of music to this,” “Can you do something about this,” and somebody else was actually telling the story of the film and, subsequently, I had a lot less control over it. I can’t say that making the film was as fully, artistically fulfilling to me. It ended up in the hands of Andy Grieve. Although, in a sense, I created all of the material by living it… It’s constructed from my photographs and all of the videos. But I’m not a filmmaker, I’m not an editor.
If you could change anything about the film, what would it be?
Well, of course, vanity would make every scene of it my philosophical thoughts about playing the guitar, but you can’t get all of that into the film. It’s just impossible, it becomes too literal. That’s like photographing the pages of the book, it’s a different medium; and that’s why I thought Andy Grieve was so brillaint. With all of my little cherished moments, he’d say, “Throw ’em out, they don’t work.” I’d say, “You can’t throw that out, it’s so great.” And then he’d just say that it doesn’t work, it doesn’t forward the movie. He was always talking about forwarding the movie, pushing it to the next moment from whatever he’s doing at the time. So I’m bowing to his editorial judgment. He’s still telling the story as it was lived. He’s a brilliant editor, and it made all of the difference.
We were with another director and another editor for a long time and it wasn’t working; that was someone who was literally trying to make every page in the book. It was nice for me, in a way, but it wasn’t working… it was getting muddled, too much. Andy came in, and he flipped all that material into what we’ve got now — great editing.
Given that your memoir came out two years before you reunited with The Police, do you guys ever foresee coming back together and going on the road again, once this film starts gaining traction?
Yeah… Again, you never want to say never. At the end of that tour, it was, “Well, we’ll never do that again.” It was also such a great tour; it was one of the biggest tours of all time, done at a particularly auspicious moment because it was before the recession. Everyone had money to buy tickets, we were able to do it at that level. If we went back, what would we do? Try and repeat a stadium tour like that? It would probably be smaller. I doubt we could do that again, so I don’t know why we would — we went out on a total high. We just killed it on that tour, no one could compete with that tour. So I’d say it’s unlikely, but you never know what’s going to happen. I’d entertain the idea. I don’t think we could go back out without new material. Apparently The Eagles go back out every once in a while and they’ve made a couple new records. What was that tour they did? “Hell Freezes Over”? They named it that because they’d never play together again, and they did. They all grew up. I don’t know, we’ll see. It seems unlikely.
In a way, it’s nice to get the film out. I don’t think there’s anything left we can do… Everything has been repackaged, we’ve got all the awards, we’ve done the The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, did the reunion tour… What else can you do? Death? We’ll die. I don’t think there’s really much else.