The story is familiar — after some ego-smashing setbacks, a person or group achieves great success, then falls victim to the demons that come with fame and fortune.
“Super Duper Alice Cooper,” a documentary by Sam Dunn and Reginald Harkema to be released nationwide Wednesday, is a loud, colorful and cleverly woven story about the group and its most visible personality that set the standard for metal rock and wild live shows. The film is enhanced by candid and funny voice-over observations from Alice Cooper, fellow band members Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith, Cooper's wife Sheryl, associates Shep Gordon, Robert Ezrin and Bernie Taupin and fellow performers Elton John, Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Iggy Pop and John Lydon (The Sex Pistols).
Dunn and Harkema, known for their previous rock documentary, “Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage,” wanted to make a film that was not a series of “talking head” footage, and were able to employ lots of concert cuts and as well as behind-the-scenes shots and Alice Cooper appearances in other media. Interwoven are humorous clips of stock footage used to illustrate things like life on the road and parents' outrage over Alice Cooper's antics.
Cooper was born Vincent Furnier in Detroit, the son of a preacher. In the voice-over, Cooper says his childhood was very all-American, this accompanied by home-movie and old photo images of a skinny kid living a normal life. Cooper suffered from asthma, and on a recommendation from a doctor to move to a warmer climate, the Furnier family relocated to Phoenix.
The band's beginning was typically humble. Having met and befriended fellow Cortez High School students Dunaway, Glen Buxton and Michael Owen Bruce, Cooper and his buddies formed a group. They added Neal Smith, who went to a different high school, to perform in a talent show, dressed like The Beatles and miming Fab Four songs. Soon the band members bought and learned how to play instruments and called themselves The Earwigs.
The band changed its name two more times, to The Spiders, and The Nazz, under which its first single, “Wonder Who's Lovin' Her Now,” was released.
The story continues when, while consulting a Oujia board to learn about previous lives, the band members were told that Vincent Furnier earlier lived as a witch named Alice Cooper who was burned at the stake. Thus Furnier took the name of Alice Cooper, and so did the band.
The group went to Los Angeles in hopes of catching on there, but the band's on-stage antics, which included using whatever props Cooper could get his hands on, as well as a mock hanging and beheading of Cooper, left many people baffled and some outraged. As Cooper noted, the band left L.A. “with its tail between its legs” and made its way to Detroit.
There, Alice Cooper's edgier shows found an audience as well as the attention of Frank Zappa, who helped the band produce its first album.
Zappa also urged the group to get a manager, and the members hooked up with Shep Gordon. The band also met with an all-female group called The GTOs, and under the guidance of these ladies, the band came up with its outlandish stage attire with the glittering outfits and make-up.
The documentary uses the sub-theme of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” showing scenes from the 1920 version of the movie and tying it in with Furnier's transition to the Alice Cooper character.
Alice Cooper found its success in Detroit and notoriety in Toronto, where during a performance, a live chicken was thrown into the audience. The chicken was literally torn apart by the frenzied fans, its parts thrown back on stage.
The group discovered its niche with what Cooper called the fringe crowd, young people who were outcasts. The group's “punch in the face” brand of rock, as Cooper called it, represented these people “who did not listen to Crosby, Stills and Nash.”
As expected, the trappings of fame were set. Cooper began drinking heavily, and footage in this portion of the movie shows him always with a bottle or can of beer in his hand. Also, the stage persona of Alice Cooper began to take over Furnier's personality.
The group became renowned for its theatrics on stage that included chopping up baby dolls and mannequins, and did have a big hit in “School's Out” in 1972, a song inspired by a line band members took from a television show.
But soon the persona of Alice Cooper overshadowed the band. Inevitably, Cooper went on to do a solo act, “Welcome to My Nightmare,” in which he met and married Sheryl Goddard, a dancer in the show.
Cooper also was treated for and conquered alcoholism, but before long found a new demon: cocaine.
Losing weight that he could ill afford to shed, Cooper at one point looked like a walking corpse. One of the sobering scenes in “Super Duper” is the footage from Cooper's TV interview with Tom Snyder, showing how emaciated he was. He was lucky that his body did not give out on him and he was able to gather himself up and get clean.
Meanwhile, other acts like The Sex Pistols and Twisted Sister, obviously influenced by Alice Cooper, were becoming popular, and this inspired Cooper to make a comeback, which led to a triumphant return to the stage in a 1986 concert broadcast live on MTV.
Following the screening of “Super Duper Alice Cooper” April 22 at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, Cooper appeared for an informal chat.
Talking about the band's ground-breaking performances, Cooper said, “I think it was the fact that we opened the door to theatrics. We proved that you could sell records and be theatrical. Most of the bands didn't like us because they saw the future and they didn't want to deal with the fact they had to do a show. So we were shunned by a lot of those bands.”
Cooper emphasized that beyond the theatrics, you need the good music. “You can't have the icing without the cake.”
Cooper was able to save his marriage and his relationship with their daughter, Calico, who now performs with her father. Cooper and his wife have two other children, Dash and Sonora.
Free of alcoholic and drug dependency for nearly 30 years, Cooper still performs, and despite the break-up of the band, and still is friends with Dunaway and other band members.
Cooper said that there are two Alice Coopers. During the heyday of the band, one Cooper was a victim, and a hero to the disenfranchised, and the bullied.
“There were millions of them,” Cooper said “We didn't realize how many freaks there were. But they saw Alice as their guide.”
Once he became sober, Cooper said, he did not want to be that person any more.
“I'm not that beaten down, alcoholic character. I want Alice to be this Alan Rickman (Severus Snape in the “Harry Potter” films)-type of ‘cancel Christmas' villain. (Rickman was Severus Snape in the ‘Harry Potter' films) And that's the way I play him now.”
Cooper credited Ezrin, the group's producer, with developing the band's sound.
“He was our George Martin,” he said. “He kept saying to dumb it down. He said that in order to hit them with a two-by-four, you have to hit them on a basic level.”
Commenting on the film's uncomfortable parts, in particular the awkward moments focusing on his cocaine addiction, Cooper said, “I never, never copped to that because I thought it was so uncool to be into cocaine. But in L.A. in the early ‘80s, it was a blizzard. Everybody I knew was in it, and being the addictive person I was, I fell into it. But I didn't want it to be known. So I was always avoided that. But in a documentary, you cannot avoid it.”
Asked about Zappa's role in helping the band, Cooper said, “He picked out the people who had some sort of weird background. The best compliment I ever got from Frank, he said, ‘I don't get it. I really don't get you guys,' I said, ‘Is that bad?' He said, ‘No, no, I'm going to sign you.' “
Cooper called Zappa “a maestro.” He was effected by Zappa, because he was a force. “He was unlike anything else,” Cooper said.