(UPDATE: “Live From the Astroturf, Alice Cooper” will be shown at Nimbus Dance in Jersey City, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m., as part of the Golden Door International Film Festival; visit eventbrite.com.)
NEW YORK — Theatre 80, a performance space and theater built in a former speakeasy and jazz club in the East Village, has hosted diverse artists representing cultural changes over the decades. Frank Sinatra, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane performed there. Its current owners have presented everything from Shakespearean theater to flamenco dance.
On Aug. 14, the theater added glam-rock to the list of genres it has presented by hosting the New York premiere of the documentary, “Live From the Astroturf, Alice Cooper” (which captures the original group’s 2015 reunion) as well as a concert celebrating the debut.
The evening was a double feature with the New York premiere of the short film, “Cold Cold Coffin,” based on a song written by Dennis Dunaway of the Alice Cooper group (fronted by the singer of the same name). The films were followed by questions from the audience, with Sirius XM satellite radio’s Keith Roth serving as moderator.
Dunaway fronted the live set, which included “Cold Cold Coffin” with guitarist Ryan Roxie and Dunaway’s band, the Snake Charmers (drummer Russ Wilson and guitarist Nick Didkovsky). Calico Cooper, Alice Cooper’s daughter, appeared as a dancer in this song with a charismatic and dramatic performance that reminded me of her father. Sisters Tish and Eileen “Snooky” Bellomo provided colorful backing vocals. Chuck Garric and Calico Cooper performed their version of “Feed My Frankenstein” (from Alice Cooper’s 1991 solo album, Hey Stoopid).
Directed by Brian Cichocki and filmed in a castle, “Cold Cold Coffin” focuses on love, deception and revenge between a wealthy husband (played by Dunaway) and his young bride (played by Calico Cooper). Dunaway calls it rock cinema because it was not shot as a music video, but rather in “movie style.” The song “Cold Cold Coffin” will be part of a six-song EP that Dunaway is now recording. “And I’m working on some songs for Alice’s next album … and a third album with Blue Coupe (his band with Blue Öyster Cult members Albert and Joe Bouchard),” he said.
As one of the co-songwriters for the Alice Cooper band, Dunaway is credited with pushing the group to come up with sounds no one ever heard before, and merging art and music to create theatrical stage productions. Inspired by teenage rebellion and Salvador Dali and other artists, Dunaway loved the chemistry in the band and also the woman who designed and created the group’s look of sequins and brightly colored, interesting fabrics — his wife of 45 years, Cindy Dunaway.
“Cindy was responsible for the costumes and for the bulk of the esthetic of the film,” said Cichocki.
“I joked with her (Calico Cooper’s) dad that I married Neal Smith’s sister and now I married the singer’s daughter,” said Dennis Dunaway. (Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith is Cindy Dunaway’s brother.)
Produced by Christopher Penn and directed by Steven Gaddis, the 70-minute “Live From the Astroturf” documents a book signing of Dunaway’s memoir, “Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group” that turned into an in-store rock concert. (The album, Live From The Astroturf, was released in November 2018; “Astroturf” refers to the pink artificial grass on which they stood as they performed.)
The book was co-written with Rolling Stone journalist Chris Hodenfield and originally released in 2015, but reissued in the fall of 2018. In a prior interview, Dunaway said of Cooper’s introduction to the book, “It is so flattering that when I read it, I thought I am not worthy of myself … Even if you are not an Alice Cooper fan, the book holds interest for observers of the cultural, social and political adventures of the ‘60s and ‘70s … by taking you back to L.A., Detroit, NYC in a really good way.”
Wearing a Mick Ronson T-shirt, Penn, a passionate fan of the band (and the owner of Good Records, the store where the 2015 book signing and concert too places), discusses, in the film, his experience trying to convince the band to reunite. The show marked the longest set the band played together since their 1974 break-up; it was also the band’s first appearance together since their 2011 induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. The concert movie features eight tracks performed by the original lineup of Alice Cooper, Dunaway, Smith and guitarist Michael Bruce. Roxie played in place of the late Glen Buxton.
Penn said at the screening that “pop culture … rock ‘n’ roll, that’s my religion and career path.” He explained that while he was trying to track down Cooper to invite him to the book signing and concert reunion, he studied Cooper’s tour schedule and noticed a break on Oct. 6. Penn knew that Cooper had a concert in Dallas on the 7th and thought he would rest in Dallas on the 6th because of Dallas’ golf courses (Cooper is an avid golfer). Once he secured Cooper, he had to get him into the store without attracting attention, and snuck him through a hole created in a wall in the back.
There are a lot of amusing moments in the movie, including a clip of suited music industry men juxtaposed with a picture of the band with long hair hanging down to their back sides, no shirts and colorful pants.
“Kids were ready for us,” Alice Cooper said in the film. But the music industry had to catch up.
After the movie was screened, Dunaway discussed the need to create a “dark, alter ego to get Alice onstage — it was very important to give him courage to have a commanding stage presence … we upstaged ourselves with visuals and sometimes the songs were overlooked.” He also noted that while singing in stadiums was exciting when touring with the Alice Cooper Group, “the acoustics were better in this small record store and you could see the spark and magic (of the band) recreated in Dallas.”
At the end of the film Alice Cooper says, “next week we’ll be at the While Castle.” His humor was evident throughout the film and his voice sounded great, belting out the anthemic “School’s Out” and the topically relevant “Elected.” The band created such high energy that for a moment it felt like we were in a rock concert.
Just as Dunaway kicked away balloons from the record store stage on-screen, dozens of black and pink oversized balloons were thrown around the movie theater, adding to the giddiness in the room. The sold-out event was attended by fans, family and musical colleagues of the band.
Gail Rodgers, who ran Alice Cooper’s New York office in the early 70s, sat next to me and was clearly thrilled to “pay tribute” to the band. She recalled the first time seeing them in the Fillmore East in 1971, where she worked at the time.
“Neal’s hair was down to middle of his back. He was wearing silver pants. I had never seen anything like them. Dennis ran across the stage with a flag and Alice chopped up a watermelon. I was gobsmacked.”
Originally the film was shot by Penn for his personal use, but later Gaddis decided there was sufficient footage to create a film. The concert footage was engaging, but I laughed the loudest at clips of fans outside of the record store discussing their passion, bordering on obsession, with the group, including a man who said “If you don’t know anything about Alice Cooper, you don’t know anything about anything.”
This event also served to launch a music-centered films series hosted by Cacophony! Cinematic Aural Revue. Organizers Gaddis and Penn plan to offer music films including documentaries, concert films, music biopics and music videos. For information, visit cacophonyfilmfestival.com.
“Alice Cooper: Live From the Astroturf” has won, this year, the Best Short Documentary award from the Phoenix Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Dallas International Film Festival. It will be shown at the Sept. 17-21 Golden Door International Film Festival in Jersey City. Visit goldendoorfilmfestival.org.
For information about the film, visit livefromtheastroturf.com.
For more on Dunaway, visit dennisdunaway.com.
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