Back in 1982, a young Memphian and his friend were planning a trip to New Orleans when an acquaintance asked for a ride. He was a musician, a one-time hitmaker in fact, who was now set on starting a new, sober chapter of his life. Catching a ride to this new life with only a backpack and his considerable wits, Alex Chilton was leaving all his Memphis baggage behind.
Cut to the next century, and it's clear that Chilton made the right choice. He identified deeply with the Crescent City, where he staged yet another reinvention of himself and remained until his sudden death in 2010.
- David Leonard
- Alex Chilton
Meanwhile, one of the youngsters who drove him there, David Julian Leonard, has had a notable career in film and photography. Through the years, he stayed on friendly terms with Chilton, leaving him in a good position to honor his memory. Many who Chilton befriended, myself included, have felt that other celebrations of his life never quite got it right. In Leonard's case, that nagging feeling has led to a decade of action, in the form of a slowly evolving documentary on the singer, guitarist, and songwriter, now titled Alex Chilton: Why Should I Care?
Having amassed many hours of interviews since just after Chilton's death, Leonard is now taking the production to the next level, with a Kickstarter campaign set to begin this week.
"It's kind of crazy, related to what I know about most filmmaking," he tells me from his current home in Arles, France. "With most of these interviews I've done, I'm the only technical person in the room. And so I'm doing the camera and the sound and the lighting. I have carried this a long way on that basis, and I would like to hire some other people, who deserve to be paid, to help me take this over the finish line. I need another editor to come in. As for myself, I need to just focus on this for some months. It takes some deep immersion to complete something like this."
Leonard especially sees where the story needs to go beyond recent celebrations of Big Star. "There's a woman who wrote a treatment for a biopic about Big Star, and I have her audio interview with Alex," Leonard says. "And he just totally crashed her dreams by saying, 'This is a fantasy. We were a recording project, is what we were. As far as a band, like the Monkees, that's gonna be on a lunch box, that does not exist, that did not exist.' And he didn't want it to exist, you know?"
For Leonard, the real story is Chilton's continual reinvention as an artist. "He was a great one for crashing myths, for crashing idolatry. And his story is about what it means to be an artist. Because he was true to that. He was uncompromised. It wasn't random, these choices he made. There is a through-line, when you finally look at it, that he was true to himself."
In pursuit of the deeper story, Leonard has interviewed more than 50 friends and colleagues of the artist, including a few from the unlikely setting of Glasgow. "He really dug the people," says Leonard. "And he dug the town. They have some sort of whimsy in common, something lighthearted. Sure, they dug Big Star and all that. But they probably dug [Chilton's solo album] Like Flies on Sherbert more." One of the premium rewards for contributing to the film's funding is a personal guided tour of the city by Chilton's friends.
Along the way, Leonard has also amassed perhaps the greatest archive of Chiltonia imaginable. "I spent four days scanning Pat Rainer's negatives. She was a friend of Alex's ever since Central High School, the ultimate fan, and also has great video. The stuff that she and Tav Falco and Randall Lyons shot! Tav was also very kind and sent me a box of tapes to transfer."
To these ears, the title, taken from one of the obscure jazz-tinged covers the singer was fond of, perfectly captures both the man's blunt, sometimes cutting sharpness, and his sincere curiosity, laced with humor. As Leonard puts it, "Asking 'Why should I care?' is not necessarily the same thing as not caring."