From the Velvet Underground onwards, the annals of popular music are stuffed with stories of artists who fell through the cracks during their careers – only to be granted belated entry into the pantheon decades later. Big Star are another famous example – an early-70s power-pop group from Memphis signed to Ardent (a subsidiary of legendary soul label Stax), whose three highly influential records were hampered by distribution problems.
It wasn’t until 10 years later, through groups like R.E.M. and the Replacements, that the Big Star name began to spread. It’s a mystery, therefore, that it’s taken more than another 30 years for Van Duren – another gifted Memphis power-popper who moved in the same circles as Big Star, and was managed by early Rolling Stones impresario Andrew Loog Oldham – to receive similar attention. Bizarrely, Duren doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
Waiting, named after one of Duren’s most affecting songs, is a documentary that makes a concerted attempt to rescue this one unlucky musician (there are millions of them) from the margins. It was conceived by two first-time film-makers from Sydney, Greg Carey and Wade Jackson. After being mutually smitten by a rare Australian pressing of Duren’s first album, Are You Serious? (1977), the pair resolved to track down the man himself and tell his story.
In fact, the film tells two stories. Duren’s is fascinating and sad, albeit familiar to anyone versed in the unjust world that is the record business. Duren moved with some of its best and brightest, and Are You Serious? brought him flattering comparisons to Paul McCartney. But a bum deal meant ownership of his work remained in the hands of his label, Big Sound, and a second album, Idiot Optimism, didn’t see the light of day until 1999.
There was also the label’s Scientology connections, which meant they attempted to convert all the acts on their roster. Duren, already in debt, just wanted to finish his record, which he correctly thought was his one shot at stardom. It flopped, and by the mid-80s, after another near-miss with another band, Good Question, his musical career was as good as over.
The second story is a buddy film about how the documentary was made, with Jackson and Carey the heroes of their own adventure. This is where Waiting falls down. Much is made of their amateur status, and that they came to the film being down on their own luck. There are fist-bumps and high-fives with each breakthrough in their investigations, and as the pair track their quarry we get to see minutiae like booking flights.
But Duren was hardly elusive. They found him on Facebook, and he was happy to help. It’s a puzzle, then, why interviews with him are audio files, until late in the film, when Jackson and Carey meet their hero on camera. Other interviews with Duren’s associates, which are professionally shot, are excellent and revealing. Hearing Duren speak from early on robs the film of suspense leading up to his big reveal. He wasn’t hiding.
The filmmakers’ tendency to get in the way of their subject is exemplified at the film’s climax. To use Duren’s songs, Jackson and Carey needed to license them, and permission wasn’t forthcoming. With the help of a pro-bono lawyer, they win back Duren’s ownership of his own music. Triumphantly, they return the masters and remaining stock of Are You Serious? to his home. Duren is clearly moved, but a clunky voiceover spoils the moment.
Duren is a fine subject for a documentary and the story is passionately told, but at moments like these, it’s ham-fisted in its delivery. If not for Carey and Jackson’s super-fan level of commitment, though, Australians wouldn’t have the chance to see him performing live on our shores for the first and perhaps only time this month. Duren, who has been waiting a long time for his due, can thank them for that.
First published in The Guardian, 7 April 2019