Editor’s Note: Danny Says opens in limited theatrical release today, September 30, 2016.
Praised as the “mayor” of the early New York City punk scene, the legendary Danny Fields was one of the first of the so-called house hippies employed by record companies in the 1960s, young men who could live with the freaks by night, and by day explain their marketability to the suits back at the office. He spent the 1960s working stints at various magazines; you know him as the guy who wrote about John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comment, ultimately “breaking” the Beatles, as Fields himself put it. He turned publicist late in the decade, working with Jim Morrison, The Stooges, MC5, and eventually The Ramones, who would record “Danny Says” in 1980, the same year they fired him as their manager.
All Danny Says can do is tell us that Danny was around a few cool people doing a few cool things. Was he involved? Tangentially. Does he have any insights to share? Rarely. Was he successful? No, which he will tell you himself, and with no shortage of the unappealing bitterness that defines his character in the film.
Brendan Toller’s Danny Says, the new documentary on Fields’ extraordinary career, takes its title very seriously. Focused almost entirely on interviews with the curmudgeonly former manager, Danny Says doesn’t bother to pretend to be anything but a hagiography. Watching the film is like sitting at the feet of an elderly has-been, half in his cups, reminiscing about moments that turned into legend so long ago that no one gives a damn about the truth anymore, not even those who were there.
He’s a relic, as are most of the people who appear in the film, and if you don’t already possess a genuine affection for legends like Iggy Pop or Alice Cooper, their appearances in Danny Says will likely irritate. Fields is similarly unappealing; his old-school habit of using slurs to make him seem hardcore, possibly effective about 45 years ago (possibly not, as archival photographs show Fields as thoroughly unhip) nowadays makes him sound like a doddering old crank. He might not care, but the fact that he tells us a half-dozen times that he doesn’t care what people think of him pretty much guarantees that he does.
Brendan Toller’s Danny Says takes its title very seriously. Focused almost entirely on interviews with the curmudgeonly former manager, Danny Says doesn’t bother to pretend to be anything but a hagiography.
Danny Says turns Danny Fields into a crushing bore, and does so out of laziness. It assumes the audience will know and love Fields before they sit down to watch, forgetting that any documentary, on some level, has to sell its subject matter. At least with Supermensch (2013), the similarly themed Shep Gordon hagiography, you got the sense that Gordon, while not nearly as heroic and charming as his filmmaker friends wanted you to believe, made a lasting mark on the music industry. All Danny Says can do is tell us that Danny was around a few cool people doing a few cool things. Was he involved? Tangentially. Does he have any insights to share? Rarely. Was he successful? No, which he will tell you himself, and with no shortage of the unappealing bitterness that defines his character in the film.
And the hell of it is, you can tell the character Danny Says shows you is not even a fraction of the real Danny Fields. He spends most of his time telling tales that have been trotted out at cocktail parties and art gallery openings for decades. But there’s a fantastic archival audio interview with Fields, a compelling, insightful and disarming little bit of New York underground history that contrasts so starkly with the Danny we see in the rest of the film that it takes a while to realize it’s the same guy. The film doesn’t know what to do with this amazing moment, of course. The audio has been coupled with an uninspired photo montage and jammed artlessly into the film, used only to foreshadow the big reveal of the Lou Reed recording later on.
Danny Says has a fan-fucking-tastic soundtrack, of course. The stories start out crazy, but then drone on. The photos are fun, but there’s not enough of them. The footage is great, but live performances are overdubbed with studio takes. Everything about this film runs out of energy halfway through. It’s downright perverse that the wild roller coaster ride that is Danny Fields’ life has been turned into a pleasant, sentimental, aimless little documentary.
Danny Fields is a legendary figure in the early punk rock movement, but you'd never know it from watching the documentary Danny Says. Despite a killer soundtrack and some fun footage, the film turns Fields' crazy-cool life into a crushing bore.