Louder Than Love - The Grande Ballroom Story

Tony D'Annunzio Producer/Director

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, National Music, Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 745   By: Robert 'Bo' White

12th April, 2012     0

Louder Than Love is a film that needed to be made.

It is a documentary that is both natural and stylized using film, photos and interviews with some of the major figures involved with the legendary Detroit Rock 'n Roll Emporium, The Grande Ballroom,  from 1966 - 1970. It has a gutsy realism that documents a time of upheaval in the American zeitgeist -  a blip in the cheesy processed culture that relied on conformity and the ascendance of the status quo.

While the rest of the country was grooving to the psychedelic sounds of the West Coast during the Summer of Love, Detroit was the epicenter for a raw, gritty music that changed Rock 'n Roll forever - and the Grande was the focal point. 

It seemed that millions of young campus radicals across the country believed America needed a major overhaul. Music became a guiding force that seemed to influence every stratum of our society. It was a time of unrest, fueled by a burgeoning class of people from every race, creed and color who dared to challenge the idea of normalcy.

The civil rights movement inspired the Black Panther Party, women's liberation and children's rights. John Sinclair's White Panther radicalism created the scaffolding for the MC5 to explore new forms of industrial music and free speech.  It was a time of change when freedom of expression took on a brand new hue and cry.

It was most evident in the ascendance Rock Music as an art form on par with the classical masters. Bach and Beethoven moved aside for the Beatles, Dylan and the Stones. For many the era signaled a crisis of materialism and the emptiness of the acquisition of wealth. It was a transformative era of spiritual awakening, our first experience of romantic love and beauty.

  Tony D'Annunzio has awakened a sleeping beast -  the remnants of our better selves before the rot set in. We aged but we did not forget. The release of this film is a sweet validation of our capacity to embrace life in the moment - to be free from the invisible shackles of a failed and punitive state and rediscover the soundtrack of our youth.

It is louder than love.

Tony D'Annunzio is a renaissance man with a sense of honor and purpose. His commitment to the Louder Than Love project was impenetrable. D'Annunzio never for a second gave up his dream even at the worst of times when he was ignored or when he faced uncertain cross roads. He is man who can smile broadly and mean it. He can belly laugh out loud and get you laughing with him. He has been around the world but will talk to you like the guy next door cutting the grass and taking out the trash. He never gets chesty with a false sense of importance and he will never shoot you down with a bullet of bourgeois snootiness. He is a self-made man; his father's son. He is a force of nature and that's what it took to make this film happen

Review: I've read that you have over 22 years of network TV including all the major networks and VH1, MTV, MSNBC, Fox. You have a diverse resume, music, arts, and politics. Can you tell me about some of the experiences in television that prepared you for producing and directing this massive historical project like “Louder Than Love?”

D'Annunzio: Sure. The experiences that I've had over the last 22 years have all brought me to this point of making my own documentary. I got into this business 22 years ago. I was 20 years old and I got into it because of my love for music and sports. I was in college and I just didn't know where I wanted to go and I found this career path. It instantly gave me incredible drive that I didn't even know I had in me. My dad had always said to me If you find something you like, you'll never work a day in your life. I can honestly say I've never worked a day in my life. I love what I do, and my love for my job has made me able to be part of some of the biggest productions in the world because of it.

I don't want to toot my own horn, but six of the last seven presidents I've worked on Super Bowls, on the NBA championships, I've worked with the Rolling Stones, I've worked with the Who, doing commercials for them, I've helped design the presentation and the stage that brought the Super Bowl to Detroit. We had an audience of 32 NFL owners in Atlanta, Georgia, and we brought our presentation down. We sold the NFL owners that chartered our place to have the Super Bowl. There's a lot more productions that I've done over the last 22 years that have been all world class.

It was at the 20-year mark that I realized how incredible my life had been because of this, because of my job. I was talking to one of my dear friends that I went to broadcasting school with. He got into radio, I got into television. He works for WIN in Detroit. He was able to meet and interview some of his biggest icons, and we shared that commonality through our lives. He said, “What haven't you done?” At that point I finally realized, wow, I had done everything I said I would do. 

So I think the answer to your question is the 22 years of experience led me to realize that I can do what I wanted to do originally, and I'm fortunate enough to have the ways and means to do it. Because of my love for music and because of the documentaries I knew it would take some time, so I wanted to find subject matter that would be interesting, and that subject ended up being the Grande Ballroom.

Review: Did you have a mentor?

D'Annunzio: Yes - Woody Robertson.  He became one of my nearest and dearest friends. Woody passed away recently. He had been in the business since 1963 and started with the ABC affiliate in Washington, DC.  He took me under his wings, and we were doing Lions football games back in the late '80s, early '90s. He was the director. He was not only a director for sports, but he did music videos, and broadcast television, and documentaries. He treated everyone as an equal. There wasn't a hierarchy, of well, you're just a PA. Everybody was involved. He's one of many people that I was able to meet and that got me along the way. It was probably about five years ago when I worked on a documentary for Discovery that was called “Future Car,” and it was actually a pretty well received documentary. It was then I realized that a long format project was something I really wanted to do on my own. It's been an amazing road, and I'm really blessed to have been a part of it. I'm grateful. It's a labor of love instead of a 9 to 5 job.

Review: Is there an experience that stood out for you back in your time in television? Any one thing in particular that just blew you away? Like being part of a particular movie or show or documentary.

D'Annunzio: Wow. You know, this is how I'll put that. I've been married for 13 years now to the point that when I come home, I barely even talk about work because I'm so excited to see my kids and my wife and stuff. My wife and I will be at a dinner party and someone will say, “Oh, what have you done?”  And any given week…like for instance, this last week I interviewed Mitt Romney and Santorum; tomorrow I leave for Milwaukee for a basketball game. I did the Red Wings game last week. This is all stuff I've done in the last five days.

I think the one thing that sticks out for me because it's so personal is that I met my wife at a festival years ago called the Horn Festival, which was a part of the Blues Traveler & Black Crowes tour. I met my wife during the tour and so that changed my life. I'm happily married and I've two beautiful kids and a beautiful house, so that to me is the most but it isn't glamorous or high profile.

I was at the acceptance speech for Obama at Grant Park when he won…the first African-American president of the United States of America. I've been in the locker room in the World Series. I drank out of the Stanley Cup and I've been on the stage with the Rolling Stones. You know, I'm living' the dream. I'm just excited to show people because everything I've done to this point even has added to what I'm doing now. They were all important. But the most memorable event would be when I met my wife. That's really changed my world.

Review: To tackle this massive project, you must be a music lover. What music inspired you during your formative years?

D'Annunzio: Well, my memories are built around music. When I hear a song, it brings me to a point. I grew up in a big Italian family on the east side of Detroit and music was part of the day. My dad had Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Glen Miller records. He got married and had kids when he was older, so this was late '60s. My dad wasn't a hippie; he was old school - World War II, Dean Martin, and that kind of stuff. My uncles all played accordion or piano or whatever, and whenever the family got together there was always music.

I remember when my brother put on a Beatles album, and I'd never heard anything like this was blown away by it. I was only six years old. What really blew me was the Rolling Stones. Because for me the Beatles were great but the Stones were grittier and dirtier, and there was something about that I liked.

The Rolling Stones turned me on to Aerosmith; who turned me on to Ted Nugent who turned me on to Zeppelin - then going backwards and listening to Chuck Barry and some of the blues that the Stones had done. It was just amazing. I can remember being down in the basement with my cousins and I can picture the needle going on the record - We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll was playing.

It seemed like the Grande gave people a place to do their own thing, to play their own music. I think up until that point there were a lot of people just being cover bands, doing the Rolling Stones, doing the Beatles, and whatever was coming down the pipe. I think the Grande inspired a lot of people. Russ Gibb was incredible - so open to whatever acts were happening in this time was , and it was a very tumultuous time, the strife, the riots. What really blows me away is that whenever I ask people about the Grande, I can see their eyes well up and they go back to this place in Detroit. We're talking riots, Vietnam - nothing good, yet there was this moment of happiness, this sense that it was the best time of their lives and it was all associated with music and the culture around it.

So the Grande let you do this stuff. You can have long hair; you can go to listen to this music. It was like, “Wow, there's other people like me.”  There's people in Flint, Traverse City, Holly  and wherever. It wasn't just in Detroit. It was an urban Michigan thing that was happening.

Review: Yeah, it was a time when great music and new music like the MC5 could be heard. They played my senior party in high school in 1970. There was great music all over the place. The Michigan bands that played the Grande played Daniel's Den, for instance. There were great venues all over the state. Kids had a chance to listen to music in a way that hasn't been that readily accessible since.  I wonder why the Grande ascended to the top?

D'Annunzio: You know, I don't think it was actually a climb to the top. I think that from what I'm seeing, it was the first of many. I think it was because it was Detroit. It was Detroit-based. I think that the other clubs you're talking about all had their own little place. I think that what happened for the Grande and the one thing that really sticks out for the Grande was that it was built as a ballroom in the '20s, so the sound and size of the place, from the way I understand it and the tapes that I've heard, it was  made for  a live, big band. I've met people much smarter than me who think that the sound inside there was kind of like being inside of a Stradivarius or a really well made guitar. It was acoustically perfect.

So if you were a good band in the Grande, you sounded great. If you were a great band inside the Grande, you sounded incredible. Because of that, it motivated you.

Review: Did you ever feel like giving up, with all the people not invested?

D'Annunzio: There was no chance of giving up when I went into this project. I gave myself three to five years. I finished it in four, so I was on my time schedule. This was something that was going to get done, and I was going to do it. Now whether it's well received, that's a whole different story. I was able to finish it. The one thing I'm very proud of is that it ended up being on my own terms. There were moments during this time when I thought that I needed money to do this, I needed grants; I needed sponsorships. When the doors were closed on those things, it was never a frustrating moment. It was more of a realization that this needs to be done, and it's going to be done by me. It's not supposed to be done by anybody else.

There's not supposed to be any corporate sponsorship for this. There isn't supposed to be a grant that's going to come down from heaven or a bag of money that I'm going to find on the street. This is just going to get done on my own terms.

I spent 45 minutes on a bus with BB King and talked to him about music and about Detroit. I spent almost an hour with Roger Daltrey backstage talking about music and about Detroit. I spent time with Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent talking about this. I was blown away that they accepted my interview but then I was even more blown away when most of them said, “We'll give you 10 minutes; we'll give you 15 minutes.” 

I would look down at my watch, kind of off to the side and thought, “ I've been here 45 minutes.” These people really wanted to talk to me about it. I'm almost to a fault honest about the project. You know, this isn't sold to MTV, I don't have the escrow release form while I was making it. They heard about the movie, they saw the passion that I put into the trailer, and they realized that the Grande meant enough in their lives that they were going to give me time out of their lives to talk about it. I was never discouraged.

Review: Tony, how are you preparing yourself for the premier of Louder Than Love?

D'Annunzio: I can see myself inside the theater. It's like not even looking at the screen, just looking at the people, at the audience and seeing their reactions because I've watched this movie like 400 times already. I just want to see what people's reaction to it is. I'm very excited about this film.

Review: This is such a massive project. It's historical. It just clicks for me in every which way because I'm a music lover, and some of the best music in the world was there. Did you have any trouble getting footage for the film, you know, footage of the period, time?

D'Annunzio: In the late 60s, early '70s, they used movie cameras, you know those big 8 mm and 16 mm cameras,  and it was an event just to take one out. So that was a bit of a challenge. It was amazing once things started rolling and people started realizing what I was doing - it's the beauty of the Internet. I had great folks from the media support me with this project. I have a Facebook page that got a lot of people interested in the film and they started contacting me. “Hey, I've got this footage, I've got these pictures, I know so-and-so.” Things started coming together because of it.

The footage I have of the Who at the Grande is incredible. They performed “Tommy”, it's only three minutes but it has never been seen before.  Tom Wright, the Who's manager, ended up as the manager of the Grande! He actually recorded the original Tommy concert. He gave me a cassette of Pete Townsend explaining what they were going to hear. You know, nobody knew what Tommy was about. In the movie you hear Pete Townsend explaining what this is about. To me it's chilling because nowadays we know what it's about but you don't know…this was like - what the hell is a rock opera? Today we consider almost any form of music to have something conceptual - but back then it was unheard of, especially from a band like the Who that was a three-minute pop-song kind of band that was doing great music but nothing in a long format conceptual thing. It was the first time that's seen.

Review: Did you use other media to capture the essence of the Grande?

D'Annunzio: I have probably 500 archival photos, black and white, color pictures of bands like the MC5, Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin, Nugent, Chuck Berry, and Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green. One night John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers were playing, Cream was playing at Olympia and after the show Clapton came over and played with the Bluesbreakers - we have photos of that. I've got a lot of great stuff from the MC5.

The daughter of the promoter and organizer for Goose Lake gave me a lot of great pictures. We worked out a licensing deal where she allowed me to use photos for the film.  A lot of that stuff has never been seen. I think people are really going to be blown away by the amount of research I've done, the songs that are involved with it, the licensed songs I got. I could have gone a hundred different ways. When I originally sat down with this it was a trade story -  so it's all Detroit bands, not only MC5 but SRC, Savage Grace, Jagged Edge, as well as lesser-known bands. Dick Wagner recorded a new song with Jimmy McCarty that we used for the final credits of the movie. He hadn't written or recorded a song an original song in almost seven or eight years and he gave it to me!

Review: Did you have much help in putting it all together?

D'Annunzio: One of the things I do want everyone to know is that as much as I've done for this project, I'm not an army of one. The ending was all done by Karl Rausch. He and I worked together on this project from day one. He saw my vision and I told him how I wanted some things, but he brought to life. I've been in production long enough where I shot most of the interviews but I had friends in the business that came out and shot some of them. I had one of my dear friends at Oakland University, Dr. Jason Schmidt do the interviews - the actual eye camera interviews while I was worried about the technical side of things, the cameras, the lighting, and things like that.  I didn't want to be overwhelmed by trying to come in with a camera and do everything myself.

Review: Where will you be showing Louder than Love?

D'Annunzio: These are the dates that we have lined up so far: Thursday April 5th at the Detroit Art and Film Theater here in Detroit; Monday April 9th at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, part of Martin Van Dyke's movie series. I've been accepted to do the Chicago Film Festival which is April 12-15 and then it was accepted to the Nation Film Festival on April 19-26 and the Nashville Film Festival April 21st.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has contacted me and we're looking at a screening date there at the beginning of May. There are some strong possibilities of the Traverse City Film Festival this summer and a Mill Valley one in San Francisco, as well as I just got sent out for Sidney's film festival in San Francisco.

What I've done in the last couple of years is appreciate that you can challenge yourself to do anything you want, no matter where you're at in life. I honestly believe that

Review: I believe it too. It was so nice talking to you. You're so gracious.

D'Annunzio: When are we going to start this interview?


Review: Yeah, I know. It's just been way too much fun. 


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