Justin Kreutzmann: From ‘Apocalypse Now’ to ‘Let There Be Drums!’
Justin and Stephanie Kreutzmann at the premiere
“The film turned out way more personal that I had expected,” director Justin Kreutzmann says of Let There Be Drums! his entertaining and enlightening new documentary. “It’s certainly a doc about drummers, but it’s also a story about family. I think the family stuff is just as important as the drumming stuff in the movie.”
Let There Be Drums! is by no means an extended instructional video but rather it takes a holistic approach to the art of drumming. Ringo Starr, Stewart Copeland, Jon Fishman, Taylor Hawkins, Stephen Perkins, Chad Smith, Tré Cool, Steve Ferrone, John Densmore, Sandy Nelson and Jerry Allison are among the musicians who share their insights, along with Justin’s father Bill Kreutzmann and his fellow Rhythm Devil, Mickey Hart. The documentary explores the spiritual, physiological and psychological aspects of a drummer’s life, including the impact on family. It is equally riotous and revelatory.
Justin, who is currently working on a Jerry Garcia documentary set to premiere next year, makes a few appearances, including some footage drawn from the original Woodstock film when he was an infant. He is joined by fellow drumming progeny such as: Jason Bonham, Kofi Baker, Nic Collins, Eric Keltner, and Keith Moon’s daughter, Amanda de Wolf.
The director adds, “It all really started from a life of telling drummer stories and also being asked, ‘What was it like growing up with your dad being the drummer in the Grateful Dead?'”
Let There Be Drums! just debuted on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video and will appear in select theaters.
What initially prompted you to make the film?
I was looking for something to do after Long Strange Trip and I thought, “What if we did a funny little drummer doc?” It would have the hotel room smashing and drum sets blowing up and drummer jokes—your typical Animal from The Muppets drummer doc. [Laughs.]
Alex Blavatnik, who produced this film also produced Long Strange Trip. While we were working on that film, my wife Stephanie and I would go to his house on the East Coast to hang out. He’s a drummer and a drum fan, so we’d always be telling drummer stories. That’s when the light bulb sort of went off. I said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a movie about rock drummers?” I saw it as full of crazy Keith Moon stories.
But all of that changed when I interviewed Taylor Hawkins. After I asked him one question about Foo Fighters, he started asking me questions about the Grateful Dead and what it was like growing up there. He was like, “I don’t know if this for your film or not, but how stable was your home life?” That started a very different conversation. What I came to realized was that a lot of the people I sat down with were as interested in asking me questions about my life, in terms of the Grateful Dead, as I was in asking them about their careers and whatever bands they came from. They were willing to talk about their lives and their careers, and answer the same questions they’ve been asked 20,000 times but when I brought in something from my life that they didn’t know about, that’s when we started to have a meaningful dialogue. That’s why I ended up in it because I felt that people needed to know the guy behind the camera they were all talking to.
But the film that I originally pitched is not this film. This film made itself by telling me what was the best stuff once we got it in the can.
Right, the shape of the art will reveal itself. Even so, you kept plenty of notable elements from that initial pitch.
Absolutely. I think it’s still entertaining and funny. There’s a lot of fun stuff in it and moments of great levity. It’s the kind of thing where I was with John Densmore who gave me a sense of what was it like working with Jim Morrison and an understanding of what they all brought into the music through their personalities. Then I had people like Taylor Hawkins—a huge Doors fan—talking about what that meant to him, and making those connections.
However, it went from being a 90 minute kind of silly drummer joke film to something that was a way more serious examination of family and drumming.
To some degree that happened from the very start, even before I spoke with Taylor. The first person that we interviewed for the movie was Mandy Moon. She’s not a musician, so her full take was having Keith Moon as a dad, which is a movie unto itself. But that interview really informed what followed because of the questions we asked. You want to have a certain continuity that you’ll be able to cut around and have similar stuff for everybody that can go together. I think it would’ve been a much different film had we started with a drummer, which might have led us to the music end more intensely. As it turned out though, it became something that had a lot more meat to it, at least emotionally for me.
If I had pitched it as a film where I’d get the kids of all these drummers together, people would be like, “Wow, what a horrible pitch.” Nobody would have wanted to do it.
But it all just came together in the edits. For instance, Ginger Baker died about a week before we interviewed his son, so that was very emotional. Then when I was putting the film together, I was like, “A hotel trashing is going to feel so insignificant next to ‘My dad was Keith Moon and I was afraid for my life.’”
In the original cut, we had a family section, just the way we have a section where Stewart is talking about different rhythms and reggae. But then I was like, “We need to introduce this earlier and make this a theme.” So I brought it up and then spaced it out so that family was touched on throughout the film, instead of it just being segmental, which also makes it more interesting.
Again, that’s also why you see me at all in the film because I’m not a huge fan of hearing myself or watching myself on screen. This was not about, “Hey, let me find a way that I can be in my own movie.” I tried to put myself in as little as possible.
In that first scene with your dad on his farm in Hawaii, you’re barely in the shot and even then, it’s just the back of your head.
That was no accident. I was wearing flip flops and shorts. I was not somebody who came to the set camera-ready thinking. “Here’s my moment. This is gonna be great!”
I’m glad you picked up on that because I’ve seen films where that really works, where the director becomes part of the story and it makes sense. But I’ve also seen stuff where I wish the director would get out of the frame, where I’m thinking, “I didn’t come to see a film about you, I came to see a film about the person you’re talking to.” So hopefully I found a decent balance in that there’s enough of me so that you get the history, but not so much that I turn you off.
While there is still plenty of focus on the drummers, it’s clear you never intended it to be a conventional drumming documentary.
This film was not going to be about demonstrating how to play a paradiddle. It wasn’t going to be about technique. It wasn’t that kind of project. It also wasn’t the 10 part Ken Burns PBS “History of Drums” or “History of Rhythm.”
Instead, I was interested in the heady kind of emotional stuff that drummers get into. I think there will be a camp of people who really care about drumming, who will connect with this.
It’s people talking about drumming style as it relates to their character and personality. It’s not so much technique, but what beats do to your body, what it’s like to play for audiences and how the way that drummers play reflects who they are as people.
I think if I just done a drum doc and strictly stayed on the drums, it would’ve been cool, but it wouldn’t have been as good. But I also think that if we’d just done the emotional stuff and that had been the original concept, it might have been too heavy. Also, people would have been like, “What’s this got to do with drumming?”
As you were conducting interviews, was there something that really jumped out or surprised you?
One of the funniest surprises was talking to Tré Cool and him telling me that Mickey Hart showed him how to play a Ringo beat when he was at Camp Winnarainbow. I was like, “Wait a minute here, the guy from Green Day went to Camp Winnarainbow?” But he was from the East Bay, so it makes sense that he met Mickey Hart and had Mickey show him beats when he was 12.
That’s another connection to everything in the film to make it more personal. But it’s one that I didn’t see coming on any level. He was really funny about it. As it turned out most everybody had their like Grateful Dead moment or experience but that was one that really caught me off guard.
Otherwise, I was really surprised by how open everybody was. I didn’t feel like anyone was holding back. They gave me more than I was asking them a lot of times in terms of emotion and the real life stuff. That was especially true when we left the subjects of whatever bands they happened to be from and we spoke about the other stuff that they don’t get asked a lot.
Those are the moments you see where people are reacting to what they’d experienced and some of it was heartbreaking. Like the Jason Bonham story about his dad. I mean like, who knew that the last thing John Bonham said to him on the night before he died was “You will continue to play drums.”
I had no idea. So I experienced that firsthand for the first time while I was sitting there with him. This wasn’t a “Hey, let me get him to tell me this story” kind of thing. So all those moments I put in the film
In Jason’s case, he’s like, “Yeah, whatever, dad. Get out of my room.”
Exactly. He’s just like all of us. [Laughs.]
Which is why it’s one of the stories that will stick with me. There are a number of quieter moments that people will take away from the film.
The drumming stuff is almost like a cover to get you to come in. Then if the emotional stuff is too much for you, you can just stick with the funny drumming stories. Stewart Copeland says some really amusing things about playing this and doing that. He had a bunch of great stories.
I didn’t use his Grateful Dead story but he told me about seeing them both when he was on acid and when he wasn’t, while he was going to school at Berkeley. He also told me, “I had no problem with the Grateful Dead, but when we were a punk band we had to say all of the famous bands from the 60s sucked. I didn’t really think that but…”
Then I told him a story about how my dad would borrow my Police bootlegs in the late 70s and listen to “Walking on the Moon” before Grateful Dead shows. Stewart looked at me and said, “Well there’s karma for you right there slapping me in the face. I tell you this whole story about saying the Grateful Dead suck, and you tell me your dad used to listen to me to get inspired for one of his shows.”
But I didn’t want to make this a Grateful Dead tribute movie. There’s already so much in it already. I didn’t want everybody to have a Grateful Dead story. There were some good ones, though, where I really had to think about it. That’s why I ultimately put a few of them in there.
Taylor Hawkins’ story about being inspired by the Grateful Dead and then taking that back to Foo Fighters tour, is a memorable one, particularly with his throwaway line about how there’s no way Dave Grohl is going to a show.
That’s one was just too good, especially since Taylor’s of such a different generation with different musical influences. I looked at Tré Cool’s record collection because I’m snoopy that way. He had Grateful Dead records but I don’t think Taylor had Grateful Dead records, although his wife sure did.
That was another funny thing. Some of the stuff I didn’t put in is when he was talking about his neighbors—“Every time we go have a meal there, they put on Grateful Dead and my wife is throwing energy and spinning.” Then he did the whole spinner thing.
But I already had that great moment where he ties in the Foo Fighters and mentions Dave and how he ended up being inspired by it. I liked the whole arc of that.
Again, like with Stewart, this could have become a Grateful Dead tribute movie but that wasn’t really interesting to me.
You’ve mentioned that Taylor played an important role in shifting your approach to the subject matter. Subsequent to his death, did you revise the nature of his appearances in one way or another?
By the time he passed, the film was done. Nothing was added or taken out. That’s the same cut of the film that I had sent to him. The only difference is the emotional affect it had on me. When Taylor talks about his kids or playing at 70, that was originally lighthearted and fun. It still is, but it also carries something a little deeper for me.
Not to be too morbid about it but you also feature some musical pioneers, who passed away after their interviews, like Sandy Nelson, whose song “Let There Be Drums!” supplies the title of the film. Had you come up with that name by the time you spoke with him?
The title of film came before I even knew if Sandy was still in the world. It’s always been the title because I knew the song and it worked on a couple different levels. So I liked it and started calling it that.
I met Sandy Nelson and Jerry Allison though Hal Blaine. We tried to get him but unfortunately he was not feeling too well. This was right before he passed and he apologized for not being able to be in the film, but he was like, “Why don’t you talk to some of my friends?” So he gave me Sandy and Jerry’s addresses. These are guys who don’t do email, so I wrote them both these full-page letters—which is something I haven’t really done since the advent of email—and I poured out my heart to them, saying what they meant to me. For instance, I told Jerry Allison, my Buddy Holly and the Crickets Jerry Garcia stories. They both reached back out to me and were like, “Sure, we’ll be in your film.”
Sandy was just amazing and such a character. We went to his house and he was like, “Can we do the interview at my favorite diner?” I asked him, “Are you hungry or something?” He told me, “No, I just feel more comfortable there.”
So we go down there and the entire diner is like the Sandy Nelson fan club. They just opened up their doors for us—“What do you need to shoot? Do you want some lunch?” They were just really sweet.
I don’t think anybody had really reached out to Sandy in a long time, especially not for a feature documentary. So it was really interesting to talk to him and to make him feel good about what we were doing. He was excited that we wanted him in the film and that we were naming the film after his song. He was a really sweet, crazy drummer guy. He was also really honest with his physical disabilities and his advancing age. It was really touching and I was really happy I got to spend that day with Sandy.
It was interesting and a lot of drummers, especially some of the older ones, like my dad and Mickey really responded to Sandy Nelson, Jerry Allison and Charles Connor.
When we interviewed those guys, it’s not like they were on their death beds. They were very vibrant and clearheaded. They remembered everything. We’ve all done interviews with people who were sort of on their way out and it feels sad because you just realize that they’re not quite there anymore. But these guys were sharper than I was.
With Jerry, I was so excited to go to his house. Meeting one of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, are you kidding me? I didn’t even care if there was film in the camera, even though it was tape [Laughs.] But to sit there while he was telling me stories about playing with Buddy and what they used to do, I was like “Dude, you’re one of those guys.” Then at the end, he was like, “Yeah, I’ve stopped doing interviews and this is probably gonna be the last one I’m ever gonna do. I’m tired of talking about the past, but I wanted to do your film.” I was beyond honored.
At one point he was just like, “Do you wanna see the, the letter the Beatles sent us in 1963? I’ve got it right over here.” I was like, “Holy shit!” There it was from their management, signed John, Paul, George and Ringo in their different handwritings about how much Buddy Holly and the Crickets inspired them.
I hope people catch some of the fun that I had getting to meet those legends who sadly are no longer with us. The same with Charles Connor. They’re the forefathers. They laid the groundwork for everybody else in this movie.
When Chad Smith talks about meeting Ringo, there’s a reverence that carries a real emotional charge as well.
That was special because everyone’s always asking him about his music. He’s such a famous guy and such a personality. It was great hearing him talk about his love for Ringo and thanks to my friend Danny Clinch, we had that footage from the day that he’s talking about. We had the shots of him out by the pool where Ringo’s watching and going, “That’s not quite how it goes.” [Laughs.] But Chad is so animated and the way he kind of acts it out, how could you not want to use that stuff?
I think it’s really interesting, when somebody that famous meets a Beatle, it’s just like the rest of us. It happens to everybody.
Your father is a drummer and you are a filmmaker. It seems like an important moment of convergence was when you were very young and he worked with Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now. Looking back, how important was that to your career path?
Apocalypse came out in 79, so I think the music was happening in 77 or 78. I was about seven or eight and dad was like, “Hey, we’re going over to Mickey Hart’s ranch.” We lived in Novato too, so he said “We’re going over to Mickey’s because there’s this film and I think the guy wants us to do something on it.” That’s about all I heard.
So picture me sitting down with the Grateful Dead and Francis Coppola to watch the six hour cut of Apocalypse with Francis describing the film in terms of rhythm—“Here’s what the jungle sounds like…” And Mickey, anybody who’s ever met Mickey Hart, knows that he was like, “Oh my God, we could do this!” or “This sound could be that!”
Anyhow, I was sitting there and Francis and Mickey are just having this really animated conversation back and forth while I’m watching the film and Francis was taking us through the whole process, explaining what he was thinking.
I was like eight years old, so 90% of it’s going over my head, but I was like, “I want to do that. Whatever this guy does, I want to do it.” Meanwhile, I was watching this amazing movie with the explosions and all sorts of stuff. That was really exciting to me. It just got me.
I became really close with Francis’s family during the period of time that Apocalypse was happening. It was a closeness that remains to this day. So Apocalypse Now is everything to me.
This also was the time when Star Wars and Close Encounters came out. All of it convinced me that this is the stuff I wanted to do. That’s why I’m doing it today.