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Rock music is so significant in Western culture that it has
spawned many other arts and crafts, from fashion to graphics.
Eileen Yaghoobian, an Iranian-born, Canadian filmmaker based in
Vancouver, has spent the past five years exploring one such
by-product—the rock poster—for her first feature-length
documentary, Died Young, Stayed
Pretty. Tracing the medium from the 1960s to the present,
DYSP had its U.S. premiere earlier this year at the SXSW
Film Festival and is currently touring the country—including a run
at New York's IFC Center from July 17–23. The ICA in London is
releasing the film in the UK this October, and the DVD is available
in Canada and coming soon internationally. The title comes from
People Can't Surf, Julie Lasky's book on Art Chantry—a key player in the
film and major influence on the poster scene—in reference to
Marilyn Monroe; Yaghoobian fesses, “I had the title before I shot
the movie!” The director's short films and videos have screened in
festivals and exhibitions internationally, and her still
photography is in the permanent collections at Houston's Museum of
Fine Arts, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and the Canada
Council Art Bank in Ottawa. At the outset of DYSP's
whirlwind tour, we caught up with Yaghoobian long enough for her to
tell us why rock posters hold such fascination and why the art form
Stills from Died Young, Stayed Pretty: Bryce
McCloud (left) makes prints at Isle of Printing, Nashville;
Rob Liberti, of
Carrboro, NC, staples a bill to a telephone pole. All images
courtesy Eileen Yaghoobian.
Heller: I've been a fan of rock posters since the psychedelic
days. How far back would you say your interest goes? And what made
you decide to do a film about them and their makers?
Yaghoobian: I've always been a fan of indie rock, but my
interest in poster art didn't thrive until just prior to the making
of this film. The idea to make Died Young, Stayed Pretty
came at a dark time in my life. I was grieving the sudden death of
my youngest brother, this having followed the death of my oldest
brother. I was living in his apartment and surrounded by memories.
To cheer me up, an old friend sent me a link to GigPosters.com [an online archive and
community] and I instantly connected to the stark, powerful imagery
of rock poster art from the 1970s and onward.
I was drawn to the cultural and political dialogue that pervaded
each piece, as well as the artist's individual expression of “rock
'n' roll.” Passion for art and music is what ultimately drives the
poster-art scene—as well as my own interests. I also love the
fantasy of the “underground.” I wanted to see if it existed, and to
see if the feelings derived from posters mark out a physical space
in comparison. Where is off the radar?
Heller: I understand you funded this yourself. Is that
Yaghoobian: I took a risk and made a feature film with
out-of-pocket money. I lone - wolfed the project, traveled solo for
three years filming on location—from Austin, Chicago, Nashville,
Seattle, Providence, Calgary, and all across the USA and Canada.
Kinda like a band on tour.
Heller: Lucky for you, all but a small few of the artists are
alive. Who among them would you say made the deepest contributions
to the field and film?
Poster by Art Chantry, featuring Kurt Cobain mugshot, created
for Died Young, Stayed Pretty.
Yaghoobian: Art Chantry—one of the most widely known
poster artists, whose aesthetic epitomized the Seattle punk music
scene—greatly contributed to the film. Art's raw cut-and-paste
posters of the punk era created a visual language that absorbed
into mainstream culture. His use of typography and graphics
influences the rock poster and the graphic design scene today. Art
speaks in my movie about a Dead Kennedy poster, and that their name
alone caused a mass reaction of people tearing down posters from
the street. The power of artists to reevaluate culture and throw it
back in its face has been stolen back by the power structure.
Chantry says that being president—referring to Bush—is the new
punk, that he's put into office to destroy the culture around him
and that he's the ultimate punk!
During the filming, which was a strange time in the United
States, I asked whether posters could have some sort of power to
influence. There was a popular anti-Bush poster campaign during the
Bush/Kerry election, but Bush still got re-elected. I thought it
was lovely that this time the Obama posters were pro-Obama and not
anti-McCain—maybe that made the difference. “Shock and destroy”
didn't have as much power as the pro-iconic, celebratory feel of
the past election.
Heller: Are there others who you feel define the poster
Yaghoobian: Derek Hess, known for his irony and sense of
humor, was a significant player as well. And of course, Frank
Kozik, best known for integrating Mickey Mouse and Hanna–Barbera
characters into his rock posters.
Rob Jones with his
Elvis sailor poster for Turbonegro (left) and Mig Kokinda (right), both from
Austin, in the film Died Young, Stayed Pretty.
Heller: What, if any, were the challenges in making this
Yaghoobian: I had enough footage—200-something hours of
it—to make four docs! I chose to tell this particular story. Some
people wanted the film to be what it's not—they wanted to see facts
and truth in a world that blurs the line between fantasy and
reality. When I was filming DYSP I received so much
criticism regarding the peg of the film. With a film like this, you
can easily get caught in the traps of the glitter and gloss of rock
'n' roll. If you're not careful, it can sink you. But I chose to go
with what I love most about music and rock posters. My movie is
about the community of poster makers and the cultural dialogue that
lives in the posters. I knew that some people would want the
traditional documentary structure, and want to be fed information
by narration, or by the history of poster art, but that wasn't the
kind of film I wanted to make. I wanted to be “true” to rock 'n'
roll! I wanted to cut it as though I were cutting-and-pasting a
poster. The history of rock posters is in the location filming—it's
in their worlds, in their conversation, in their studios, spaces
Heller: Was it hard to get distribution?
Yaghoobian: If I thought making the film was hard—you
find out soon after your final cut that there is this
monster-machine set in place for distribution. This is really the
hardest part, after spending years of your life on a project,
fighting to have your movie seen. You float, not knowing how/when
to deliver to your audience who are waiting patiently to see your
movie and email you and ask you why they can't see your film! Wow,
I can't tell you how hard that is. But now I really want to make my
next movie. I've been lucky to have this film fly on its own.
People are into it. With the digital world, your audience catches
you online and then travels with you—it's wonderful.
Heller: What has been the high point for you?
Brian Chippendale (top) and his M&M's poster (below), from
the film Died Young, Stayed Pretty.
Yaghoobian: The material kept me going—Died Young,
Stayed Pretty is really a comedy. The people in my film are
truly funny. Their stories are humorous and their obsessions are
endearing. It's interesting that this perfect mix of humor, reality
and drama is able to unfold in a nonfiction film. These fragments
of real life are wonderful—the true gifts of documentary
filmmaking. The location filming was a high point… the places and
people I met, and the wonderful surprises that happen when you're
filming on location. Like the conversation at Sam's BBQ where my
subject is talking about the economy and predicting the recession
while in the background a man is struggling to get his wallet out
of his back pocket… the teller, in the end, reaches over to grab
it. Moments like this were high points, every step of the way.
After three years of location filming, my last stop was Brian
Chippendale, who's also in the band Lightning Bolt, in Providence,
Rhode Island. All these questions I had were suddenly answered by
Brian… without having to ask. He offered the perfect ending to my
film, a great scene.
Heller: What did you learn that you had not already known
about the genre?
Yaghoobian: Mark Greenberg, the film's composer, said to
me when he first saw the cut, “Out of these dirty, murky places
comes this shining art and community,” and I was allowed to bear
witness to it, fully. There is this amazing, shining art and
community. I try and share that with audiences.
Heller: Is there an essential difference between the first
rock posters and the current gig posters?
Yaghoobian: Posters once had functionality to them. They
were made cheaply as B&W fliers, Xeroxed and stapled to a pole
on the streets. Now, there's more of an “underground” existence
online. Before GigPosters.com,
rock posters were made for one show, for one night, and maybe a
hundred people saw them. But now they are archived on this site and
the world can see them. Because of this, they have become valuable
collectible items, handmade and color silkscreened.
What's lovely is that, regardless of how things have changed,
poster makers still post their ideas, loves, passions, voices,
views, and politics on a telephone pole, advertised illegally,
strewn throughout the urban landscape. These personal pieces of
propaganda become part of the street, and erode with the street;
stolen or attacked by people, or broken down by weather and time.
They live short lives, placed in odd circumstances, and they're
really only there for the purpose of a rock show. Pasted to gritty
surfaces they reshape space; it's beautifully powerful.
Poster artists are an ultimate paradox—a seemingly powerless
subculture with power. They are powerful because they are thieves
of their past. They appropriate from popular icons, ad makers and
illustrators from old magazines, acting as sorts of gods to
engineer a band's image. They have learned a powerful way to
communicate through promotion and advertising, but they use their
skills to promote a band they love. They are true fans.
Heller: I heard that Bill Graham, the legendary master of the
Fillmore, gave posters away at the end of shows to get people out
of the theater. What is the true purpose of a rock poster? Is it
advertising, a souvenir or a brand?
Art Chantry (top) and his poster for Teengenerate printed on
metal, from Died Young, Stayed Pretty.
Yaghoobian: In the film, Art Chantry talks about posters
as artifacts… Because they're considered advertising for a show,
they can't really be art. After the show is over, and the band
breaks up, what's left is an artifact, cool and desirable.
Heller: How has the rock poster been impacted by changes in
technology? No more black light?
Yaghoobian: I think it's more black light now than ever!
That's its appeal. That's what makes the posters “valuable items.”
Hand-colored silkscreen… Tom Hazelmyer talks about this in the
film, that if they make these designed and hand-silkscreened
posters, it has a value, and then a poster becomes desirable and
collectible. Before it was dispensable but functional.
Most of the poster artists in my film make their living from
design work—an outcome of technology. Still, most of them print
their own posters, old school. Technology has affected the poster
artists in my film that don't print their own work, like Art
Funny enough, the process of making posters can be very archaic
and primitive—as Mark Greenberg, who created music for the film,
describes it, this is “a process and community built from piles of
discarded crap and cheap warehouse spaces... not clean and sterile
Heller: What do you want your audience to take away from
seeing the film?
Yaghoobian: [To appreciate] the way that rock posters
re-envision all cultures. A Turbonegro poster presents Elvis as a
gay sailor! A post-apocalyptic city surrounds bunnies walking into
a bonfire for an Andrew Bird show. M&M's as the ultimate hero
because they can walk into a building in flames to save people,
because they only melt in your mouth. Bullets shot through a big
red target on a poster printed on metal, the target symbolizing the
Japanese flag, for a Pearl Harbor Day show for the Japanese punk
band Teengenerate. Twisted stuff! And sublime.
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