Bad Reputation: Kevin Kerslake On His New Joan Jett Documentary

Award-winning director speaks to Clash...

Scrolling through the credits list on director Kevin Kerslake’s website, you would be hard pushed to find a genre of music that this filmmaker hasn’t invested his time and work into. For everyone from Flying Lotus to Pearl Jam, Groove Armada to Sonic Youth, Kerslake has been behind the camera on music videos, live performances, and feature length projects for decades, showcasing his adept flair for capturing a relentlessly energetic music industry.

It’s a style perhaps most clearly recognised in Kurt Cobain swinging wildly from a chandelier in the music video for Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’, one of several Nirvana videos Kerslake directed. His camera is never still, slurring images of performance and roaming through the sweat and haze of rock stardom to build a broader sensory experience around a piece of music.

As The Offspring race wheelchairs in ‘The Meaning of Life’ or colours flash past a spinning R.E.M. in ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’, songs evolve into strikingly visual storytelling in Kerslake’s hands. Focusing on individual frames of the blur and speed in these videos can leave you dazed, projections of a musical world in keeping with its own wonderful delirium.

His latest film, Bad Reputation, shows no signs of him slowing down. A documentary on the life of punk rock’s fairy godmother Joan Jett, the film reflects on her legacy in music, social activism, and the trails she blazed as a female rockstar. Jett is someone who, for Kerslake, has always “been living an exemplary life, doing exactly what she wants to do – just to play music, be up on stage and communicate with a lot of people.”

Bad Reputation weaves together the narrative of Jett’s life across these three simple aims, the championing of a woman who has done so much for the rock ‘n roll she so famously loves. Discussing the origins of the project and its creation, Kerslake saw a timely opportunity in profound circumstances, at once surprised a documentary feature on Jett was not already in existence and grateful for the opportunity to deliver her story. Now more than ever, the time was right.

“There’s been a lot of universal movement towards equality, parity, and championing the feminist cause,” he continues, “so those ended up being the wind at our back, but when you look back at Joan’s life in its totality those things have always been her own booster rockets.”

The film pays close attention not only to the extent of Jett’s personal career but the ways in which she was able to extend herself beyond her own successes, as an engaged and supportive peer and colleague for those fighting their way through the industry. The film brings together industry colleagues, musicians, and friends to build a portrait of Jett’s life alongside her own stories and recollections.

Importantly for Kerslake, Jett was primarily an interview subject, commenting that “Joan herself, although she helped with tracking down sources, finding who was a good person to speak to about this era or this particular event, she wasn’t involved necessarily in the day to day making.”

“It serves the integrity of the film”, he adds, “to tell the story from the inside out, and not relying on a single perspective necessarily.”

The film deftly balances these multiple perspectives, hearing stories and anecdotes from not only those present throughout Jett’s earlier career but also musicians and artists from later generations who saw her as a mentor and a powerful figurehead. “Whether their experience was immediate,” says Kerslake, “or they had a sort of historical, holistic perspective on her position in the universe, those are all the people that we adopted into the film to speak about different periods.”

Guest interviewees range from Billie Joe Armstrong to Miley Cyrus, with the likes of Cherie Currie, Jett’s former Runaways bandmate, and Debbie Harry also making an appearance. When it comes to choosing how many people to interview, Kerslake’s philosophy is to “just get everybody, get everybody at the table and then I’ll sort things out when I edit it.” “It is painful when you have to exclude people, or you don’t have the time to get to somebody, it’s always nice to have people share their stories.”

As well as filming musicians and performances Kerslake has a history in the surf and skate worlds, finding a common denominator across this range of interests in the strong sense of kinetic energy that underscores each of them.

“They are all about having your foot on the gas,” he notes, explaining that it’s “not to say these things aren’t lyrical, or reflective, or you can’t back off and be pensive,” but simply that the rapid creativity of these eclectic spheres always pulls him back. It also guides his choice of project and subject, often choosing people “that have had that same sort of obsessive drive with putting it on blast.”

With Bad Reputation, the punk whirlwind of Jett’s life is portrayed as much in Kerslake’s filmmaking style as it is in the actual content of Jett and her peers lives. His pacing, roaming camera style comes into play here too as his subjects discuss their experiences, a roaming eye for a frantic time. Kerslake reiterates this, saying “Joan’s music is always pretty hard-charging so we wanted to do a film that reflected that same aesthetic. We bounce around a lot, we charge through periods, and it may be built up of fragments where the viewer can piece things together but we don’t have to take the viewer’s hand and walk them through the pasture of Joan Jett’s life.”

He laughs, “there’s nothing really pastoral about her life anyway, so let’s get on the streets and race through some of the things that she lived through with the same immediacy that she experienced.”

Our conversation turned to Kerslake’s other projects, both past and future. Capturing the annual dance music festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, was like “going to war” he jokes. He describes his task as being “in charge of harvesting what those experiences are like from every single perspective”, delegating “pie slices” of the event to his experienced team of camera operators to capture a wildly intense 360 environment.

It’s total “composure within that chaos” that is needed to achieve these aims, and this is where Kerslake thrives, in the energy of these environments and in the ability to present a rounded portrait of such mania to those watching. He lets the power of his subjects’ experiences flow freely and distinctly, translating their dynamism and spirit on screen.

Future projects include work on Johnny Ramone and Jane’s Addiction, as well as an exploration of the genre-colliding music scene in New York in the mid-70s. He becomes absorbed in these musical worlds with each new pursuit. “I do end up listening to the music of the artist for each project,” he explains, “because you’re doing a deep dive on what certain lyrics meant at a certain point in time and you’re connecting and appreciating the music in a different way, and you’re able to get really molecular in terms of power chords and solos and basslines.”

It makes sense that Joan Jett should be the ideal candidate for the Kerslake treatment, one of the most spirited artists of her time, who grew through her own chaos and that around her to bring composure to her contemporaries and her devotees. The director enjoys having a range of projects to occupy himself with to satisfy these creative needs across genre and medium. Whatever he’s working on, he says, he simply loves “having the best seat in the house at a killer show.”

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Bad Reputation is out now.

Words: Caitlin Quinlan

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