February 18, 2019 by Anabela Tanganhito
How to Be in the Shadow and Not Care About It: An Interview with Director John Alexander
By Alfredo Leal and Anabela Tanganhito
As part of the first edition of Capital Filmmakers Festival in Lisbon, This is Love had its Portuguese premiere. Telling the story of Rudy Love, an influential blues singer who is unknown to most but had his work usurped and used by others. A story with music. A story with a happy ending. This is Love director John Alexander was unable to attend the festival, but Atlas got a chance to ask him about Love, films, and his latest project.
How did the idea of making a movie come about?
The idea to make a movie about Rudy Love came originally from the Love family themselves and executive producer Shawn Rhodes, who had been developing the concept and shooting footage of Rudy Love over the course of more than a decade before producer JC Guest and I even entered the scene. Guest and I hired Shawn Rhodes as an associate producer on our first feature, cult thriller/western Bender, and after wrapping the shoot on location on the Kansas prairie in the Summer of 2013, Shawn cleverly booked Rudy Love as the live music act to perform at Bender‘s wrap party.
When I first heard Love sing, to say I was completely blown away is an understatement. Love’s voice, and his mystical, almost godly presence, instantly captivated everyone around and struck me as eerily familiar. This was a particularly bizarre feeling considering where I was first meeting this man: out in the rural Kansas plains, truly in the middle of nowhere, in a place where I had no prior history or connection whatsoever. As it turns out, though, this obscure, ostensibly off-the-map soul singer had been influencing me for years, and I came to find out that I, like many listeners out there, had been a Rudy Love fan for most of my life and I just didn’t know it. It was following this wrap party that Rhodes pitched the feature documentary to Guest and myself, and we were off and running.
What were the biggest surprises during this project?
The biggest surprises for me during the course of production were just how easy it was, repeatedly, to secure name talent, resources, and publicity by simply uttering the name “Rudy Love.” The first interview I was responsible for shooting was with actor and comedian Sinbad (Jingle All the Way, Rel), and as soon as I asked Sinbad if he would like to be in the movie, his only question was “when and where,” telling me that Rudy Love was the reason he was inspired to become a performer in the first place. I had a similar experience in my first conversation with George Clinton (Parliament/Funkadelic) about the project, who melted into all smiles and giggles of near holy reverence when I mentioned Rudy Love and proceeded to ask me if all the “singing suckers” of the legendary Love family would be in the film too. The answer was of course “yes,” and George hopped on board This Is Love. Then, when we showed the finished film to Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac), who also co-stars in This Is Love, he agreed to present the film as one of its Executive Producers, a huge boon in publicity and credibility to the film and to Love. After countless similar stories, you would think I would have learned to stop being so surprised by Love’s seemingly endless reach and unflappable influence throughout the music industry, but when I think about this humble and practically anonymous figure living and working, invisibly, out in the Kansas plains, it truly [never] ceases to amaze me. It gets me every time.
In some interviews, you said you wondered why Rudy Love is not famous. Was that one of your goals for this doc?
It was never a specific goal of the documentary to “make Rudy Love famous.” One of the film’s driving questions is investigating how it is possible for such an influential artist to be so unknown, but the ultimate goal of answering that question was to show another way of looking at the world, to offer a different perspective seldom covered by mainstream media about what it means to be “successful,” and to put audiences in the mental space of a pure artist, one who does not measure the achievements of himself or others by their fame or monetary success, but rather by their love. It is a wonderful by-product of This Is Love that fortunately Rudy Love & The Love Family have benefited from some long overdue exposure and recognition, including playing concerts at London’s legendary 100 Club following the film’s World Premiere at Raindance and an upcoming show at renowned Eskimo Joe’s next month. But the goal of the film was never to find them fame and fortune, rather to set the record straight and share a tale to the general public known all too well by music industry insiders.
Sometimes in the movie Rudy gives the impression that the fact he is an African-American could be one of the reasons why he was treated like he was. Do you think this movie can, somehow, help or influence African-American artists?
This Is Love is designed to shine light on all artists, Afro-American and otherwise, who have for whatever reason remained in the shadows of mainstream publicity and have historically been undercompensated, uncredited, or unjustly unknown. There are countless musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries, for example, who have experienced the infamous corruption and institutionalized racism of the record industry, and sadly, stories like Rudy Love’s are not the exception to the rule. This Is Love strives to give voice to all of those who have been unfairly muted over the years, in music or in any field, and honor their work of laying the foundation for the mainstream canon whether it has been previously acknowledged or not. Love’s story encapsulates the ongoing struggle of all human beings, of all races and in all nations, and [he] serves not just as a tragically quintessential martyr of justice, but a bittersweet beacon of hope and inspiration as we move forward as citizens of the world.
Now with this doc, and after directing a fiction movie, Bender, how would you describe your work? How can we say both movies are John Alexander movies?
My work has been described before as “framing unique voices in a timely landscape,” and I think that highlights a common thread between what might otherwise seem like very disparate and unrelated projects (i.e., my going from a serial killer film to a soul music doc). What interests me most in this business of filmmaking is using the medium itself to reflect content. I am not interested in following suit, playing it safe, or emulating the biggest and best films that are catered to the masses. It’s arguably too contrary to popular opinion or unorthodox for my own good, but I’ve always felt that story in of itself is vastly overrated. I am not so concerned with what something is about, but rather how it is engineered to create its distinct message. With Bender, this entailed a deliberately slow and suspiciously halted tone, paralleling the endlessly dubious set of circumstances of life in the Old West, as well as a maddening feeling of visual and sonic emptiness, echoing the stark and dangerous void known as the American frontier. With This Is Love, it meant embracing a tone that was whimsical, incessantly energetic and upbeat against all odds, and most importantly, soulful and funky, visually mimicking the often strange and capricious qualities that are viscerally communicated in the music of the world’s George Clintons, Sly Stones, and Rudy Loves. I suppose a John Alexander film doesn’t tell or even show a story, but attempts to reflect its innermost essence filmically, so that the content is not simply understood, but felt, and the result is inevitably something distinctive. At the onset of making This Is Love, when I asked Rudy how he envisioned the film to ideally turn out, he told me “nothing run of the mill,” and that’s when I knew Love’s and my creative partnership was going to be a good one.
To check out what other films were screened at the first edition of Capital Filmmakers Festival in Lisbon, read Capital Filmmakers Festival in Review.