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Hero of Doc 'N' Roll: An Interview with Rockumentarian Malcolm Leo

By Nat Segaloff

Malcolm Leo goes over some of the questions with Mick Jagger before interviewing the rock legend for 'Rolling Stone: 20 Years of Rock 'n'Roll.'

Like many documentarians, Malcolm Leo got his start at David L. Wolper Productions along with Mel Stuart, Jack Haley Jr., William Friedkin, David Seltzer and Walon Green. Born in New York and educated at North Hollywood High School and University of California, Santa Barbara, he grew up in the twin surf and music cultures that shaped the sensibilities of American youth throughout the 1960s. His work reflects that period which–– though some mislabel it nostalgia––was actually a revolutionary period of experimentation, growth and social drama. Leo's films create a mood as well as a history of popular culture. Having been involved in some three dozen productions, he is now in the process of making his extensive footage library available for license through while he continues to pursue new programming.


International Documentary: Wolper got started by making compilation films. How do they differ from other types of documentaries?

Malcolm Leo: I really didn't know that it was called a compilation film. In the beginning I just thought, "What a great way to make film!" We could acquire footage that theretofore may have lain dormant in a film vault. But it became a very interesting methodology of taking X and Y and getting Z out of it.


There's also the moral issue of using another filmmaker's work and re-shaping it into your own.

There's a noblesse oblige involved. In Life Goes to War: Hollywood and the Home Front (1977) we ID'd the movie and the year to set it in its place within the overall story that we were doing.


Life Goes to the Movies (1976) was a major three-hour event for NBC and firmly established you as a producer.

Jack Haley Jr. was the executive producer, Mel Stuart directed, Richard Schickel was the writer and I was the co-producer. The premise was easy: Life magazine began in 1936 and folded in '76. During that 40-year period, one of the magazine's specialties was its coverage of the movies. At first the idea was to do a parallel with the magazine. Well, it didn't work because Life magazine was a journalistic endeavor that occasionally featured articles on the movies, but wasn't the story of the movies. So we blocked out the sequences chronologically. It was the same way 10 years later when I produced and directed Rolling Stone: 20 Years of Rock 'n' Roll (1988). It was the story of 20 years of rock 'n' roll, not the story of the writers for Rolling Stone magazine.


When you worked on Life Goes to the Movies, how did you carve out your niche?

I badgered Mel Stuart and Jack Haley Jr. to let me play with sequences on film noir and the teen rock 'n' roll movies of the '50s. And in doing so, I realized there was a tremendous opportunity to showcase––in an intellectual and entertaining way––pop culture over the last several generations. That's where the idea for Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll (1979) came from.


Was it really an epiphany?

Let me put it this way: the first cut of the teen section and rock 'n' roll was over 40 minutes! I started seeing the links. Before the '50s there were teenagers, but they didn't have their own culture until the arrival of the "holy trinity" of James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando. Andrew Solt and I worked together in the research department and we both had a passion for music, so we got Jack Haley Jr. to be our executive producer and wrote a treatment called Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll: A Rockumentary.

Everybody at the networks turned us down; the break came when we met an ABC executive who seemed a tad younger than most of them, Barbara Gallagher. I said, "The idea is that we want to do a show that presents the finest performances of rock 'n' roll from every possible source..." And she said, "I was a page on The Ed Sullivan Show when the Stones appeared. I love this idea. Let's do it." We researched every library in America, every studio, every news library, every dead archive, the National Archive, the Library of Congress...


That was the start of the celebrated Leo-Solt film collection.

Which has expanded rather terrifically on Andrew's side with his holdings and I equally satisfied with mine. We were partners for five or six years and did a lot of good work together.


There are particular concerns you have when using music, and that's clearances, which I would imagine are exponentially more complex than with archival footage.

You've hit it right on the head. Sometimes the level of rights includes the director and the writer for re-use, the copyright holder for licensing the material, the American Federation of Musicians, the publishing, the synchronization rights and then, of course, the artists themselves. In Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll, for starters: Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones-that's pretty formidable.


What does it cost to license a song for cable?

It's linked to the publishers. There was a time you could license "Rock Around the Clock" for $250 for two network runs. Nowadays, the broadcasters want it cleared for seven years worldwide in all media...$1,000 to $3,000 per title.


How objective can you be when you require the permission of your subject, such as with the Beach Boys?

The essential relationship with artists is linked to the understanding of the undertaking. When I undertook The Beach Boys: An American Band (1985), the last thing I wanted to do was make a puff piece on the Beach Boys.


Did you actually have it in writing that you would have right of final cut?

I thought I had it in writing...There was something they asked me to take out: Brian Wilson was very open about his personal dilemma with drugs and wanted the whole story to be told straight, without pulling any punches. There was a line when he said, "I was smoking hash in the studio and so were the boys," and one of the other Beach Boys said, "You gotta take out 'so were the boys.'" And I did.


With Crosby, Stills and Nash, who are, to say the least, mercurial, what arrangement did you have before you did Long Time Coming?

Bill Siddons, the band's manager, was the executive producer. I finished the film, I sent them the final cut, David Crosby signed off, Graham Nash signed off, and just as we were going to mastering we got a call that Stephen Stills, who didn't think the film "rocked" enough, wanted to add one kick-ass rock 'n' roll guitar solo. The odd thing is that I put it in originally and the executive producer said to take it out. So we put "Dark Star" in.


What about This is Elvis (1981) and the legendary control exerted by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker?

Ironically, that was the most harmonious undertaking I've ever had. We were wise enough––or clever enough––to have Jerry Schilling and Joe Esposito, who were close to Elvis, and were friendly with Colonel Parker and Priscilla, as advisors. Based on Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll and our intentions, we were given access the likes of which I don't think that anybody could get today.


How do you know what shape to make a show?

When we got the go-ahead from TLC [The Learning Channel] to make Rock 'n' Roll Moments (1999-2002) I laid out an outline on paper, not divided by acts but an overview of content and performances and the direction we wanted to take the show. Then we laid out the material, mixing and matching certain performances and ideas within each act. Once you get a visual sense, or even one on paper, you'll know what will work and a flow starts. Then, when you bring in a narrator like Grace Slick, you get a sense of an attitude and a place to inject her humor and her relationships with the other artists she's worked with.


Do you know your library so well that you have a random access memory that you can call upon?

I see certain things that I know can be connected, and when it's right, a bell goes off. When you look at a lot of footage, you start to think about the narration, you start to get little couplets that turn into stanzas, and suddenly you have a whole composition. I've done it from a written outline and it's not as magical. 


What about the tribute videos that are not seen by the general public?

For a while we did the tribute films for the induction dinners for the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame––Jerry Goffin and Carole King, the Four Seasons and Bobby Darin, which was a thrill. But the one I'm most proud of is that, shortly after Roy Orbison died, Barbara Orbison, Roy's widow, called me. She had seen the tribute films at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and we put together a 10-minute tribute to Roy Orbison. They ran it during a benefit concert the Universal Amphitheater on a huge projection screen. We supply footage and ideas to a lot of tributes that go on left and right these days.


Where do you think music documentaries are going?

I have mixed feelings. I am so disappointed with the routineness and the sameness and the lack of creativity. I saw a biography on Elvis and there wasn't one musical lick of his in the whole show! But there's a handful of talented people out there and an opportunity to do some great work.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown, about the Funk Brothers, is the kind of stuff that gets me excited. The ones that are out there on VH1 and MTV are great because they're giving exposure to the musicians and are being done with the cooperation of the record companies, though they seem more designed to sell records.

I'm close to doing an Otis Redding film. The showcase will improve now that you can go directly to DVD and get the best sound and the sidebar elements that open up a documentarian's or collector's interest. The funny thing is that I started out doing straight documentaries and entertainment specials, got into a niche doing music and rock 'n' roll, then started making reunion shows and the "Hollywood Palace" variety specials. Then a couple of people started saying, "Hey, Malcolm, why don't you get back and do rock 'n' roll again?"


Nat Segaloff has written and produced for A&E's Biography series, as well as created programming for New World, Disney, Turner and USA Networks.

Disclaimer: Segaloff has written and co-produced Rock 'n' Roll Moments for Malcolm Leo and discloses that he permitted Leo to correct, but not approve, the quotes used in this interview.