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  • Jonathan Widran








49 summers after Elton John rocked The Troubadour on his way to international superstardom, the iconic rocker is as popular and relevant as ever. In the midst of his three-year global Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, he’s the subject of one of the most successful, critically acclaimed (and controversial!) films of the year (“Rocketman”), the musical force behind the latest Disney juggernaut (“The Lion King”) and is releasing his highly anticipated autobiography “Me” in October.

In light of this latest shimmer of “Elton-mania,” the timing for “Louder Than Rock,” a no holds barred documentary on the fascinating life, career and ultimate spiritual redemption of famed EJ guitarist Caleb Quaye, couldn’t be more ideal.

A powerful “rags to riches to rags to redemption” story with built in appeal to rock fans and faith based audiences alike, the 95-minute film chronicles the UK born musician’s journey from being a legendary rock sideman throughout the 70s with Elton and Hall & Oates to launching a very different, even more vibrant life in ministry and speaking and performing throughout the country. The man who Eric Clapton once called “the best guitar player in the world” is now an Elder of Worship at The Church on the Way in Los Angeles and has been an ordained minister for 25 years. Besides faith based musical appearances, Quaye’s connection has led to other performing opportunities – including a recent sold out performance at the La Mirada Theatre with veteran EJ tribute band leader Kenny Metcalf.

In addition to powerful footage of Quaye touring with Elton John, Hall & Oates and playing with groups like Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the doc includes vintage clips of his father, British born singer, multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Cab Kaye, who worked with jazz legends like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. It also features interviews with famed Genesis drummer Chester Thompson, Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King (co-writer of “Sweet Home Alabama”), Memphis blues guitarist Buddy Davis, longtime EJ guitarist and musical director Davey Johnstone, engineer Stuart Epps and the late string arranger Paul Buckmaster, who worked with Elton and Quaye on the classic albums Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water and Blue Moves.

The film is written and directed by Valerie J. Tucker, a multiple Emmy Award winning producer and Quaye’s longtime manager, who also produced it through her company GloRoc Productions. As an aside, she worked on the film – taking over from the original director – while dealing with massive health challenges, including six spinal surgeries related to a tumor in her spinal canal.

For longtime Elton fans who realize that “Rocketman,” for all its dazzling exuberance, is a fanciful hodgepodge of legit memories, half-truths and fantastical fiction, the edgy facts revealed in “Louder Than Rock” will be a godsend. The doc sets the record straight on just how Elton came to work with Dick James, the publisher who helped launch him to stardom. While Quaye – and all of Elton’s legendary sidemen, for that matter – are not mentioned in “Rocketman,” he played a key role in bringing the singer to the attention of James and his son Stephen. When a teenage Quaye was running James’ studio and serving as its chief engineer, Elton (then Reg Dwight) was brought there by Ray Williams, the A&R man for Liberty Records in the UK. Dick James, also a partner with Brian Epstein as the Beatles publisher Northern Songs, liked the melodies and piano playing in the demos they made but not the lyrics.

Liberty placed an ad for a lyricist in the UK music paper New Musical Express and Bernie Taupin responded, leading to one of the most successful collaborations in music history. Quaye got in trouble for sneaking in Reg, Bernie and another future star, Cat Stevens, in to the studio to record after hours. “We had this feeling we were doing something different, and his voice was great,” says Quaye. “To me, it had a quality like Jose Feliciano. Management caught us in the act and reported me to Dick James. I said to Dick, before you fire me, just give these songs a listen.” James signed Reg and Bernie as untried unknowns in 1967 after Stephen presented their early songs to him.

Quaye’s enduring renown as an early Elton intimate and the inaccurate portrayal of Dick James in “Rocketman” as a quippy, foul-mouth cockney led the Daily Mirror to reach out to the guitarist upon the film’s release to dispel this portrayal and talk about the real James, who died in 1986. Quaye said, “No f-bombs. He was like a father, he gave us an opportunity to learn our craft. I don’t understand the fantasy of depicting him like that because he was nothing like it.” Quaye is also quoted in a Daily Express Article about Stephen James’ negative reaction to his father’s portrayal in the film.

Also of note to any true EJ fan who bristled at the clever but fictional way Reg Dwight chose the “John” in Elton John is the simple real story that it was a blend of Bluesology band mate Elton Dean and the blues musician they backed Long John Baldry. “Without me,” Caleb told the Daily Mirror, “there is no Elton John. I said the name Dwight isn’t going to cut it. He liked Elton’s and John’s names. He’d written John Elton. I said Elton John was better. The rest is history.”

For all of its merits and cross-cultural appeal to two very enthusiastic film demographics, Quaye and Tucker have found it challenging to find the right distributor for “Louder Than Rock.” The majority of distribution deals these days take place at major film festivals, and as Tucker notes, it’s difficult for an independently made film to be accepted to those. “Most of the projects these festivals choose seem to come out of their own pipelines, like Sundance,” she says. “But we’re determined, because it’s historical and Caleb’s history is so rich and interesting that it needs to be told. Enter Exploration Films, which also sees the uniqueness and potential of this film and is coming aboard as the distributor.”

One of the prevalent issues in securing distribution for “Louder Than Rock” had been its unique duality as a film about rock and roll that also tracks into the faith and redemption realm. The story told by “Louder Than Rock” reveals that there is a Voice that is louder than not only Rock but any other noise that take over our daily thoughts – unabashedly, and in line with Quaye’s powerful conversion experience in the early ’80s, that voice is Jesus. The film is a spirited chronicle of a great rock and roller working and touring with legends – but also offers, via his story, a message of hope and redemption. Quaye believes that in today’s world, where there is an abundance of misinformation and confusion, people still need to hear a story of hope.

“When I was hobnobbing with some of the biggest stars popular music has ever produced - Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Lou Reed, Hall & Oates and most notably, Elton John – I thought I had what matters in life,” he says. “If I had stopped to think about it, I would have dismissed the idea of religious faith as something unreal. Today, I see that it was the fame and the success that were unreal and transient and that it is my religious faith that is meaningful and lasting.”

What’s ironic about any hesitance based on the question, “How do we market a film that’s about rock and roll and Christianity?” is that it answers itself: you market to both. Classic rock is all the rage at the movies this year, with “Rocketman,” Danny Boyle’s Beatle-based fantasy “Yesterday” (nearly $100 million worldwide) and especially with the multiple Oscar winning “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which grossed a staggering $900 million. In recent years, faith-based dramas like “God’s Not Dead,” “Heaven is for Real” and 2019’s “Breakthrough” have been major moneymakers, and the musical faith-based film “I Can Only Imagine” was a huge hit as well. “Louder Than Rock” taps into both demographics. If people have a problem with rockers converting to Christianity, they can look to the still wildly enthusiastic fan bases of legends Alice Cooper and Carlos Santana, both of whom have been very vocal about the importance of faith in their lives, and in Santana’s case, quite literally saving it.

A crucial narrative thread that lies beneath the marquee sales points but that has proven astounding to everyone who has thus far seen “Louder Than Rock” is the heartrending story of Quaye’s relationship with his father. It’s one that millions of people – rockers and Christians alike – will be able to relate to. As a boy, the guitarist idolized his father and asked him year after year to buy him a guitar – and he finally did. Quaye is quite candid in the film about how he hated his father and didn’t see him for many years. During the rock and roll years, his father reappeared and the two talked about life and did drugs in an effort to find common ground with one another. Quaye moved to the United States, and Cab disappeared from his life again. The festering anger and emptiness Quaye felt were contributing factors to his need for a higher meaning and Love in his life.

Anyone who has seen “Rocketman” knows of Elton’s terribly strained relationship with his own father. When Reg Dwight met Caleb Quaye in the mid-60s - back when Reg was a tea boy at Mills Music and Quaye worked for Paxton’s, a wholesale music distributor – they first connected emotionally over their shared disdain for their fathers. “That was our common bond, unfortunately, the hatred we had for those men who we felt never loved us,” Quaye says. “When I saw ‘Rocketman’ and it showed elements of Elton’s relationship with his dad, I thought how unfortunate it was that his situation was never reconciled. You always want to believe there’s hope.”

“Louder than Rock is Caleb’s truth,” Tucker says. “You see throughout the film how that drives him to where he is in his life today. Everyone we’re showing it to tells us they love all the rock elements, and the faith-based people love the church element, but the thing that hits home the hardest and most often is the father-son story. It’s a fascinating arc. He drops out of high school, gets a job at 15 working for the biggest music publisher in the world, engineers for Mick Jagger and Brian Epstein’s artists and while casually pursuing rock stardom himself, sneaks a young musician in who soon becomes the biggest rock star on the planet. Then he plays with Hall and Oates, his life implodes, he hears this voice in the silence of a hotel room and this begins a whole other journey.”

“Louder Than Rock” is scheduled for an early fall 2019 release.

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