'It's So Easy and Other Lies' movie review: Biographical documentary of Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan fails to develop unique idea
Any rock and roll documentary that begins with a quote from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and ends with a reference to Norman Rockwell is gunning for something uncommonly rich and thoughtful. Here, the high-toned references are awkwardly applied to the story of Duff McKagan, Seattle-born bassist of the loud and legendary Guns N' Roses and subject of the documentary It's So Easy and Other Lies.
In the annals of rock music, McKagan's tale is sadly typical, at least for those who survive long enough to star in a film about themselves: young rocker bounces from band to band before joining a soon-to-be world-famous group, enjoys a rapid ascent to the top, which leads to a slow, life-threatening descent into substance abuse, followed by a personal and spiritual resurrection.
In telling McKagan's story, director Christopher Duddy hit upon a unique idea, then didn't entirely trust it. McKagan narrates his own journey during a live 2013 book reading at Seattle's Moore Theater to support his memoir It's So Easy: and other lies (information that could have been conveyed without whorishly shoving the book into camera). He's accompanied by a tasteful backing band of rock musicians and a small string section. Commanding the stage in an easygoing manner, the tall and lanky McKagan wears a dark suit and sports a thin and perfectly arranged mess of blonde hair to suggest a man of hard-won maturity who hasn't forgotten how to rock.
Reading directly from his memoir, he takes us though his Seattle childhood, when an under-aged McKagan performs in venues he was too young to patronize as a customer. With each new grade in school he's seemingly introduced to a new drug: smoking pot in the fourth grade, dropping acid in the sixth grade, and snorting coke in the seventh grade.
Guns N' Roses, unnecessary animation sequences
Decamping for the safer environs of Los Angeles, he meets the guitarist Slash, who had put an ad in the Recycler for a bass player. In short order, Guns N' Roses was formed, putting McKagan on track for a life of, literally, wine, women, and song, culminating in an alcohol-fueled crash that included acute pancreatitis (a condition explained by McKagan's presumably overworked doctor).
McKagan, who speaks with a confident, welcoming Southern California drawl, is an appealing narrator and his prose is clean and engaging. If Duddy had merely trusted McKagan's performance and mixed it with fresh interviews and archive footage, his film might have achieved an autumnal power akin to the simple, intimate Neil Young documentaries. Instead, he adds unnecessary animation sequences to dramatize long-ago meetings and McKagan's descent in drug addiction.
Axl Rose notably absent
Distilling the memoir into a stage performance and then, further still, into an 84-minute film was surely no easy task. Editor Keith Megna does yeoman's work keeping everything smooth, even if there's an occasional gap in the storytelling.
Duddy interviews Guns N' Roses band mates Slash and drummer Matt Sorum, although notably absent is the group's alacrity-averse lead singer, Axl Rose. We're also introduced to two of McKagan's seven siblings; his sister Joan and supportive brother Jon are so comparatively normal-seeming that one wonders if McKagan was left on the doorstep as a baby. Indeed, family plays a key role throughout McKagan's life and, at a low point in his story, he talks movingly of his mother and how his life choices surely disappointed her.
Chiefly recommended to Guns N' Roses fans
It's So Easy is so easy to recommend to GNR fans. Others not so much. We're heartened that McKagan, with the help of his third wife, their two daughters and, winningly, a business degree from Seattle University, has attained drug-free happiness and stability. But the film lacks a style that would help a conventional story of rock and roll excess achieve a broader emotional or historical significance, especially for audiences unfamiliar with McKagan, Guns N' Roses, or his other notable band, Velvet Revolver.
Regardless of the quality of the documentary about him, Duff McKagan has earned the right to consider himself, “the luckiest guy in the world” and indulge in the hackneyed fist pump that brings McKagan's tale to its conclusion. In the words of original Guns N' Roses drummer, Steven Adler, may McKagan keep his “feet stompin' and his hands clappin'.”
It's So Easy and Other Lies (2016)
Dir.: Christopher Duddy.
Scr.: Christopher Duddy. Duff McKagan.
Cast: Duff McKagan. Slash. Nikki Sixx. Matt Sorum. Benny Urquidez. Dave Kushner. Mike McCready. Paul Hutzler. Danko Jones.
Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan It's So Easy and Other Lies image: XLrator Media.
It's So Easy and Other Lies documentary cast info via the IMDb.
It's So Easy and Other Lies trailer: XLrator Media.