It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who Bob Forrest is, or recognize his alt-rock band Thelonious Monster. His is the story of ’80s and ’90s rock in America. Silverdocs selection Bob & The Monster is a throwback to that time, including both the sublime and the ugly, and it’s all due to a huge body of well-curated footage. Rock stars just love to document themselves. But this film is only “rock doc” in part, and purposely so, says director Keirda Bahruth. It’s also a redemptive story about the road to sobriety and an advocacy piece about drug and alcohol recovery. I had the opportunity to chat with Bahruth after the screening about how she came upon this treasure trove of footage, her day job producing reality television, and her decisions to stray beyond the behind-the-music format.
Washington City Paper: How did you find this topic or how did it find you?
Keirda Bahruth: I found Bob at the record store. I loved Thelonious Monster as a kid. Bob put out a record with a new band called The Bicycle Thief, which was a very beautiful, personal autobiographical record. I hadn’t heard Theolonious Monster in a long time so once I heard that record I was like, “oh yeah that’s Bob Forrest from Thelonious Monster! That guy was so great.” This record unfolded through the speakers about his path and what he had done and that he was washing dishes and he was helping people recover from drug and alcohol addiction and it was really a beautiful record and so it just stuck with me. And after—-I’d say it was probably a month—-I went to my partner at the time [husband and producer Rick Ballard] and I said I think there’s a film there. There’s a lot of really interesting people attached to the story and Bob is so charismatic, let’s approach him. And so we did. That was in 2004. I told him it would take about two years. And it took six-and-a-half.
WCP: Why did it take so long? And tell us about your timeline for the film.
KB: It took so long because of money. We were never able to secure the funds that were needed. Rick and I were the camera operators, we were the editors in the beginning. We did everything. We kept our day jobs and kept shooting and showing up whenever we could. A few years went by and I produced a film by Ondi Timoner called We Live in Public. And the film ended up winning Sundance in 2009. My network of people really opened up as a result of the success of that film. So I think people trusted me a little bit more and I was able to get a little bit of money. I met my editor while we were doing We Live in Public—-Josh Altman—-and we really just connected and he loved Bob’s story. So from that it really accelerated. From 2009 to our finish was just pushing and pushing and pushing and so we were editing for a year-and-a-half and continuing to shoot Bob opening up Hollywood Recovery Services until we completed it. And we got a call from SXSW that we would have our premiere there.
WCP: I see two documentaries in this one film. There’s the “rock doc”, an entire genre in itself, and then there’s the addiction advocacy doc. What was the intention going in? Did you have the concept to fuse these or were you leaning for one more than the other?
KB: I wanted to be able to transcend the behind-the-music format. A lot of people were saying “this is a very behind-the0music story” but obviously no one has ever heard of Bob Forrest so it couldn’t be behind the music because you don’t really know who he is or care…I wanted to tell a bigger story. The “rock doc” part of his story is really his life so I couldn’t break away from that part of if I wanted to because that really is his story. That’s what happened. And it went from that chaos to ending up in front of 200,000 and falling apart on stage to shooting drugs with AIDS-infected needles to washing dishes at a restaurant. By nature of his story, that is what happened. His life got a lot quieter. And I think that happens for a lot of people. So I wanted to just be true to what the story was rather than make it this racing fast-paced rock doc and to be true to what Bob’s life is.
WCP: I find it interesting with rockers and musicians in general, is that they have this obsession with documenting themselves. And you had some fantastic footage dating back to the ’80s and ’90s. Tell me about the process of gathering that.
KB: We got a lot of the archival at different stages in the filmmaking. The opening sequence that we animated over black and white footage, that is a music video that was shot by Jane Simpson and Tina Silvey who were these two filmmakers in the ’80s who were doing a lot of the cool stuff with like Concrete Blonde and creating a lot of that frenetic MTV style…[They] came to us and said you can have this footage gratis. They literally pulled it out of a storage unit and handed over the reels because they were just really happy to have someone that was telling Bob’s story. That’s the gist of really most of the footage…The best footage we got came from Pete Weiss, who was the drummer of the band that was in the film. He donated some tapes of them that he had shot while he was on the road. [K.K] Barrett shot a lot of the early stuff of Bob with his son…He is now an art director for Spike Jonze. He did Where the Wild Things Are. All these people really are talented people on the scene who were either making videos themselves, or were becoming cameramen, becoming wardrobe stylists…Another great jewel that we happened upon was Jon Huck who was a founding member of Thelonious Monster. He pulled out a VHS tape of them recording their first demo with Flea [of Red Hot Chili Peppers]. And that was shot by Bill Pope who went on to shoot The Matrix. He’s a huge cinematographer. Months and months and months would go by and we’d just get this great footage and not alter where the story was going, but we’d have to find a place for it…If I had footage that equaled the story that I was telling then I could show that. If I didn’t, then [I used] stop-motion animation and line-drawing animation.
WCP: Tell me about your background. You mentioned you had a day job while making this film.
KB: Television. I’ve been television and film out of high school. Whether I was in music videos or film. I worked at Saturday Night Live for a long time, which was really a breeding ground for my interest in documentary because I used to shoot behind-the-scenes for SNL…So I worked there for years and then I moved to California and got involved in reality television and so I’ve produced and directed shows from dating shoes to survive-this shows to whatever kind of reality trend is happening at the time. And that’s what’s really paid my bills for a long time.
The film screens at Silverdocs Film Festival on Saturday, June 25 at 6:15 p.m. in AFI Silver 3.