By Chyrisse Tabone, Rock At Night Tampa
REVIEW: Documentary film – JOHN WAITE-THE HARD WAY – Release date December 6, 2022
When I think of John Waite, I remember my father driving me to high school in the late 1970s and listening to “Isn’t It Time?” on the car radio. Later I would buy the sheet music and play it on the piano. Then, throughout the 80s, I would watch MTV or listen to his songs on FM radio—”Missing You” from his solo stint and “When I See You Smile” during the days of supergroup Bad English.
Whenever Waite performs in Tampa Bay, I try to see him. Not only is the music good, but he has the gift of storytelling. He shares his life experiences and gives background trivia regarding the songs. Two words can describe him: authenticity and humbleness.
For this reason, I was interested in viewing the new documentary JOHN WAITE—THE HARD WAY. The film is written, directed, and co-produced by Mike J. Nichols (ZAPPA and Echo in the Canyon) and producer Michele Farinola (Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice, David Crosby: Remember My Name).
Filmed during the COVID lockdown, I wondered if the project was hatched during or before this period. So, I asked the film’s producer and radio personality Scott Wright this question.
He responded, “I interviewed him a few times during my radio career in the 80s and 90s, and always thought he’d be an interesting subject – a journeyman artist with a 5-decade career, a bunch of hits everybody knows, a reputation for being difficult to work with, but beloved by his small fan base. It turned out to be all that and a whole lot more.”
Continuing, he explained, “I had been kicking around the idea of doing a film on John in late 2019, and just before COVID asked John if he would sit for some interviews, having no idea what was ahead of us all. We shot all the new footage between October 2020 and March 2021 – and the changes to John’s life and story brought about by COVID became the story of the film.”
Nothing less than intriguing.
So, I watched the film—twice, actually. It is absolutely engaging, especially for the fan base.
Aptly titled, the film delves into the seedy side of the music industry as Waite recalls the rise of The Babys—including all the pitfalls and unethical practices of record labels in the 70s and 80s. This was a common practice (think Small Faces and Creedence Clearwater Revival) during the heyday. Record labels often took young bands under their belt, signed their publishing rights away, and passed off marketing and touring debts to the artists, forcing them to create another album as payment.
Waite provides this quote: “There’s a society of people that are reaching for something great–and then there’s the record business.”
The story unfolds through interviews with Waite and cameo appearances by songwriters Diane Warren and Neil Giraldo, producer Ron Nevison, and even his long-time girlfriend Joni Allen. Waite recalls his youth growing up in Lancaster, England, saying, “I come from great people. We’re working class where people meant what they said. I pride myself in being down to earth.”
His interest in music was shaped by seeing American Westerns in the 50s, hearing Marty Robbins’ singing gunfighter ballads, listening to Western music played on the BBC test card, and finally, seeing local lads the Beatles break through the barrier to becoming the most beloved rock band in the world. His first experience with commercialism and bait and switch in the music industry was when his Tommy Steele ukulele fell, revealing it was a Mickey-mouse-shaped instrument with a sticker.
Without spoiling too much of the plot, Waite chronicles his days in high school (“They didn’t know what to do with me and I didn’t know what to do with them”), art school (“I could draw and paint but there was no window for that kind of kid”), and later as a bass player in bands like England and Chalk Farm. Ironically, one of the most recognizable voices in rock music was shy and did not consider himself a singer. Adrian Millar, manager of The Babys, placed an ad for a bass player/vocalist, so he auditioned. Before the days of MTV, Millar shopped around a video of the band playing live, which landed a recording contract with Chrysalis.
With the monumental rise of The Babys, including numerous TV appearances in America (Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas), recording in Toronto with the acclaimed yet mercurial Bob Ezrin (“he was really a cunt”), touring the world, changing managers and lineups, and in the end, having “only $6,000 for six years of work at Chrysalis.” During the height of the band’s fame, he was only making $200/week, which went for rent and stage clothes. Not only was this an insult, but he also signed away his publishing rights to get tour support.
Waite discusses the toll this took on his private life; his solo years and hit single “Missing You,” landing in the supergroup Bad English and later experiencing a childhood dream of performing with the Ringo Starr All-Star Band. The good news is that he bought back the original masters of his early records and continues to write, record music, and tour as a successful solo artist. In addition, during the COVID lockdown, he spent his time rekindling his love of painting.
A nice touch in the film was showing Waite at home during the lockdown. He is doing laundry, painting, and casually sitting on the couch. Instead of being the legendary rockstar, he truly appears to be down-to-earth and genuine. The viewer feels as if they had coffee with him as he bared his soul—triumphs, and failures—but stayed true to himself.
Anybody and everybody who enjoys music documentaries will appreciate the film. I did. I even rediscovered all the old The Babys albums on Spotify.
The film will be available across all major streaming services including Apple TV, Amazon, Roku, and Google Chromecast, among others. DVD and BluRay Discs will also be available for purchase on Amazon.com.
Runtime: 91 minutes
TV Rating: TV-MA
VOD, DVD, & BD Release Date: December 6, 2022
VOD distribution by Gravitas Ventures.
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