By BabyRuth (Three Beers) –
Out now in limited theatrical release and on DVD and streaming services later this year, It’s So Easy and Other Lies is an authorized documentary that chronicles the life of Duff McKagan, mainly known for being a founding member and bassist of Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver. Based on his autobiography of the same name, the film takes the audience through the remarkable and wild life of the musician, framed by a filmed performance of McKagan reading excerpts of his book accompanied by backing musicians in front of a live audience and interspersed with archived footage and interviews with Duff and his family, friends, and bandmates.
McKagan’s story is pretty extraordinary. From his roots as the youngest of eight children to bouncing between dozens of bands during Seattle’s punk scene to moving to Los Angeles and answering that ad placed by a guy named Slash leading to the formation of one of biggest groups of all time and all the highs and inevitable lows that followed, it’s a hell of a tale of the perils of rock and roll decadence. But it’s an inspiring one, as very few of these stories have a happy ending.
The documentary contains several interviews with people close to McKagan and there are some nice moments and funny anecdotes that give the audience a personal glimpse into the man beneath the rockstar exterior.
I was lucky enough to see an early (first?) incarnation of the book reading/performance back in 2012 at Cleveland’s House of Blues on the eve of Guns’ induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
A little something about me: “hardcore diehard” doesn’t even begin to describe my GN’R fandom, so of course I purchased tickets to the induction ceremony and flew to Cleveland to see my lifelong favorite band accept the honor and maybe, possibly, hopefully get a one-off reunion of the original line-up (At the time, it seemed like the one and only chance it would ever happen. What a difference four years makes, huh?) Well, we all know what happened with that. (I read Axl’s open letter declining his involvement in the induction while sitting in our hotel room. It was only somewhat crushing because as a GN’R fan you kind of always hope for the best but anticipate the worst. We’re masochists like that. That said, of course I have tickets to one of the upcoming reunion shows.)
Anyway, the night before the ceremony, Duff had a show at the House of Blues. Instead of the full-scale concert many were expecting, McKagan, wearing reading glasses, walked out onto a candlelit stage, sat on a chair, and read from his memoir. As in the documentary, he had a backing band (which included former GN’R members Matt Sorum and Gilby Clarke) as well as a screen displaying old photos linked to the corresponding excerpts of the book. It was an intimate and moving experience for the audience filled with longtime fans like myself and I can only begin to imagine how much more so it was for the man up on stage.
At times it felt like we were intruding on personal moments, like when Duff, fighting back tears, spoke about the shame of disappointing his mother, who struggled with Parkinson’s disease, with his addiction or when he shared a sweet glance with his wife Susan while recounting the birth of their first child. For a fan, to see one of their heroes lay out their soul so openly and raw, well, that was a pretty special thing to be a part of and to me, all the pomp and spectacle of the following night’s ceremony was secondary to that experience. It was incredible.
Unfortunately, little of this comes through in the documentary. Perhaps it would have worked better had it just been the unedited live show in its entirety rather than random clips as the narrative style of the performance combined with archival footage, interviews, and animated reenactments is a little too all over the place and fails to capture the intended tone and mood. Or maybe not include the performance footage at all, as it may be something that works in a live, intimate setting, and not so much on a screen. Whichever, it’s both too much and not enough.
Those who have not read the book may have some difficulty following the documentary as it jumps around, skips over, and rushes through a lot of pretty major events with many gaps in between. The film at one point covers McKagan’s divorce from his first wife, who is never mentioned prior to the split. And while Guns’ formation and rise is covered in much detail, the film glosses over the band’s tumultuous later years (aside from Duff’s drug and alcohol addiction hitting its peak) and I don’t recall any mention of the breakup at all.
Also, during the Guns N’ Roses segments one member is suspiciously absent.
Axl Rose is not depicted in any of the animated sequences of the band, and aside from a few onstage photos and one description of his signature scream, he is barely seen or mentioned. Rose’s exclusion is likely the result of legal reasons (or fear of legal reasons- the reunion talks were just beginning as the doc was being put together) so it’s understandable that it needed to be worked around, but the omission is painfully obvious, especially when the infamous St. Louis riot is covered. All of the footage shown is of the audience and other members of the band. Someone mentions “black feathers flying” referring to the jacket Axl was wearing at the time, but he is never seen, so unless viewers are familiar with that clip, the reference doesn’t make any sense.
The film does make it clear that it is about Duff’s journey, and while Guns N’ Roses is a big part of that journey, it isn’t the only part. Still, that is that part that will draw many viewers and they will likely be disappointed by the lack of coverage and any new insight.
Likewise, little time is given to McKagan’s other significant band, Velvet Revolver. The formation and rise is again covered, but once members begin to fall off the wagon, the narrative shifts to a new subject and the topic of the band is not revisited and the dissolution is never mentioned.
While director Christopher Duddy was certainly ambitious in his attempt to deviate from the typical documentary structure, the end result is a bit of a mess. As someone who has read the book and seen the full performance, it felt choppy and rushed to me, never finding the tone or making the impact it should. I would recommend this solely to fans as it makes a sufficient companion piece to the autobiography of the same name.
It’s So Easy and Other Lies (2016) Drinking Game
It seems kind of wrong to include a drinking game for a documentary about a person’s struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. But that is what we do here so I’ll compromise with a sort of anti-drinking game.
Take a Drink: when more than five minutes is devoted to a topic.
Take a Drink: whenever Axl Rose is shown or mentioned.
Take a Drink: when hearing the story of McKagan’s pancreas bursting after swelling to the size of a football makes you want to just pick up a bottle of vodka. (It really shouldn’t. If it does, please seek help.)