Relaxing at night, after a hard day at work and a few hours online, tending to emails, website modifications, correspondence, and creative things, amongst the best things to do, if too tired to read a book, is to watch a film. But, not a fictive film, but a documentary where, even if the film is not so good, you can at least learn some facts about the world at large. John Chester’s 2009 documentary, Rock Prophecies, is just such a film, as it follows the life and sudden fortune that befalls freelance rock photographer Robert M. Knight. After 40 years chronicling the biggest names in the business, from “championing” Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones to Jimi Hendrix and Guns N’ Roses, Knight has a back catalog of over 200,000 images, and has been made multiple offers of millions of dollars for the rights and negatives, on multiple occasions. This serves as one of the two pillars of the film’s insights into Knight. The other is his desire to discover the “next big thing” in rock. This leads him to promoting the careers of a rather mediocre Australian band, on their 2007 tour of America, called Sick Puppies, and also trying to hook up a blues guitar prodigy named Tyler Dow Bryant with a record label. Of the two quests, the one involving Bryant is the more interesting, as he has the far greater potential. Even a few brief moments of another young band, called The Answer, shows they have far more potential than Sick Puppies. Nonetheless Knight perseveres because it is just a drive inside of him. Plus, he needs the money to support his wife, and ailing mother, whose hospitalization for Alzheimer’s Disease will cost several thousand dollars a month.
In response, Knight seriously considers selling his whole catalog for the $3.5 million dollar offer he has gotten. Much of the film follows the man as he weighs his options and gets Sick Puppies a gig on the Jay Leno show and Bryant two auditions with high powered music moguls. Then, a salvation arises, and a good monetary offer arises from the estate of Jimi Hendrix, run by the guitar legend’s sister, Janie. She’ll pay a substantial fee for all the negatives and rights to Knight’s photos of Hendrix, taken by Knight before Hendrix hit the big time, and then abruptly died. He now has the means to take care of his mother, and also retain the vast majority of his catalog, knowing that the pieces of it, sold separately are worth more than the total package.
Rock Prophecies ends with Knight being honored for his decades of work and being feted by Slash, the guitarist from Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver. It’s a nice contrast to such dour rock documentary as that seen in Mayor of the Sunset Strip, wherein another middle aged hanger-on to the stars is featured. In that film, the main subject is a deluded and sad DJ, Rodney Bingenheimer, barely clinging on to fame, and whose life is portrayed as lonely and sad, and he, too, has to deal with an aging and dying mother. But that film is more predictable, and plays off of stereotypes that it almost goes out of the way to embody. By contrast, this film does not do that, even though, in an online interview director Chester claims he had so much footage he could have made another film; one wherein Knight’s obsessions with UFOs and conspiracies (augmented with footage of Knight at the infamous Area 51 at Groom Lake, Nevada) could have been the focus. I, however, am glad the film did not go there. First, it would have made Knight look wackier than he already is — an old man still going to rock concerts. Second, it would have just fed the same sorts of stereotypes that abound about obsessive folks, and those involved in the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle, as total lunatics. The emphasis on a son’s desire to care for his mother, and seeing footage of the two of them together, is far more powerful, especially when seeing how contently oblivious his mother is. Alzheimer’s is a disease that does not pain, only destroys.
Having said that, Knight is a bit of an oddball, as he recounts the last day of his friend Stevie Ray Vaughn’s life, in 1990, before the famed guitar hero died in a plane crash: “If anything ever happens, you’ll know me when you hear me.” Hence, Knight’s pursuit of the gifted Tyler Dow Bryant, who, himself, longs to be the greatest guitarist that ever lived. But, he’s still several steps above Rodney Bingenheimer, or any of the other social misfits that populate typical rock documentaries, and which were so brilliantly skewered in Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap. Other musicians that appear and/or are interviewed in the film include Aerosmith, Jeff Beck, Steve Vai, Carlos Santana, ZZ Top, Def Leppard, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Joe Bonamassa. The film is a straightforward look at the life and dilemma that befalls Knight, so don’t expect any great cinematography, not editing tricks. Do expect a satisfying look into the rock world, but an even more interesting look away into the real world at its edges. Robert Knight is not a great photographer, but he is an interesting human being, and the success of Rock Prophecies relies on the latter, because the former, while it might be interesting to learn the finer points of the craft, would likely have been an exercise in tedium. What this film gives us is the medium. And with that you get the man.