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Filmmaker had Grande vision for new documentary

for Journal Register Newspapers

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Tony D'Annunzio was born in July of 1966 -- three months before the Grande Ballroom opened its doors as Detroit's first full-scale rock 'n' roll club.

As such, the filmmaker doesn't have his own memories of the revered concert venue and nightclub. But he's heard the stories, studied the history, examined the legacy. And all of that inspired him to make "Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story," a four-year labor of love that has its world premiere this week at the Detroit Film Theater before hitting the film festival circuit.

"I couldn't believe an incredible story like this has never been told" on film, says D'Annunzio, who self-financed the project. "And as I did the story, I realized that as much as it is about the music it's a lot about the culture that was built here in Detroit around the building -- the poster art that came out during that time frame, the whole alternative culture that was tied to rock 'n' roll. It was the birth of a lot of things during a very tumultuous time here in Detroit with the race riots, the Vietnam war and everything.

"So I thought, 'Why not tell the story of a building that impacted so many people?' It's an important story."

"Louder Than Love" certainly treats the Grande as more than a now-crumbling party palace that hosted shows by a who's-who of late 60s rock acts, including the Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, the Jeff Beck Group, Cream and more. Using more than 60 hours of interviews with Grande principals and patrons as well as musicians, D'Annunzio puts flesh on the legend with a smooth-running, 74-minute documentary that gives both the Grande and the scene inside it their due. The film conveys the "experimental experiential venue" described by Wayne Kramer of the MC5, the Grande's house band, and "the place where the Motor City Madhouse was born," according to Ted Nugent.

The Who's Roger Daltrey, Alice Cooper, B.B. King, Grand Funk Railroad's Mark Farner, the Stooges' James Williamson and Dick Wagner of the Frost are among those who weigh in on the Grande's importance, while D'Annunzio tapped younger artists such as Henry Rollins, Slash and Tom Morello to talk about the historically impact of both the Grande and Detroit music of that period.

"It was the mecca of hip," recalls Don Was, who attended the Grande as a teenager. "I'd pass through the door kinda gingerly and try not to look like an idiot."

D'Annunzio, a Detroit-born Troy Athens High School graduate who now lives in Lake Orion with his wife and two children and works for Jeff Moon Productions, cut his production teeth with a variety of metro area companies, working on TV ads, programs and sportscasts for all of the major networks as well as ESPN, MTV, VH1, MSNBC, Discovery and NFL Films. "I've been able to do a lot of great things, including everything from working with six of the last seven (U.S.) presidents to working on commercials with the Rolling Stones and the Who," he says. "What I hadn't done is made my own produced and directed film. I thought it would be a great opportunity to challenge myself and see if I could do it."

His initial idea was a general documentary about Detroit music, which proved a bit too large in scope. So D'Annunzio "shifted gears a little bit" and focused on the Grande -- and in doing so knew that the crucial first contact was Russ Gibb, the former school teacher and Detroit radio personality who purchased and retooled the Grande -- a dance hall built in 1928 -- after a visit to San Francisco and Bill Graham's Fillmore Theater.

Gibb had been approached many times with Grande projects, but he says D'Annunzio's film felt different. "First of all, he was so intent. He knew more about the Grande than I did," says Gibb who still resides in Dearborn and consults Dearborn High School's video program. "Tony has worked diligently. He really had a passion to make this film."

Gibb helped put D'Annunzio in touch with key Grande figures such as Tom Wright, a photographer and former Who tour manager who also managed the Grande for a time, the venue's in-house emcee Dave Walker, MC5 manager John Sinclair, poster artist Gary Grimshaw, photographer Leni Sinclair and members of the Grande's lighting team.

"Russ opened up his Rolodex and one interview begat the next," D'Annunzio says. "I was naive enough or maybe just bold enough to put out calls and e.mails and see what I got." He kept the filming mostly based in Detroit, watching to see who was coming through the metro area to perform. D'Annunzio spoke with Daltrey backstage at the DTE Energy Music Theatre in July of 2010 -- where the rock icon sang "Happy Birthday" to him at the end of the interview -- and B.B. King on his tour bus before a concert.

There were some that eluded him, however. Eric Clapton, who had played the Grande with Cream, fell ill the day of their scheduled interview, while the Stooges' Iggy Pop was never able to fit it into his schedule. D'Annunzio also approached Bob Seger, but he declined because he had never actually performed at the Grande. And, D'Annunzio adds, "there were some artist I contacted whose managers came back and said, 'I hate to tell you, but they don't remember anything (before) '74!' "

His contacts and social media, meanwhile, proved useful in acquiring images to accompany the interviews. Though very little Grande film footage actually exists, he did find patrons who shared what they did have -- including one man who had an 8mm film of the Who's first Grande appearance in March of 1968. Wright, meanwhile, produced an audio recording of the Who's first-ever live performance of its rock opera "Tommy" on May 9, 1969, from which D'Annunzio culled part of guitarist Pete Townshend's introduction and explanation about the piece.

"This was before anybody had heard 'Tommy,' " D'Annunzio says. "Nobody knew what was going on. They were going to be hearing a rock opera. Great -- what's a rock opera? Nobody knew what that was in 1969."

"People really came out of the woodwork to support (the film)," adds D'Annunzio, who also licensed 20 classic Detroit rock songs and commissioned a new tune, "Motor City Music," from Dick Wagner, who recorded it with former Detroit Wheels and Rockets members Jim McCarty and Johnny "Bee" Badanjek, as well as Ty Stone. "People started contacting me -- 'Hey, I've got these great pictures from the Grande,' and posters, handbills, all kinds of stuff.

"It surprised me they were willing to give up the stuff they sat on for 40-plus years. I think it really shows the connection they felt to (the Grande) and how much they wanted to see the story told the right way, too."

With "Louder Than Love" done, D'Annunzio is ready to tell the Grande story far and wide. The film will be shown April 9 at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater and is also booked into the Chicago International Music and Movie Festival and the National Film Festival this month. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum in Cleveland will screen it on May 16, and it's been submitted to film festivals in Seattle, Australia and Traverse City.

Nevertheless, D'Annunzio says he's "really excited to be able to premiere it here in Detroit" at the DFT. "But when I started this whole process four years ago, one of my goals was to be accepted into one of the (film festivals). Now to have it already in more than one and being considered by so many others is mind-boggling to me. It really feels like it's on its way now."

"Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story" premieres at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Thursday, April 5, in the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave. Both shows are sold out. Call 313-833-9700 or visit www.dia.org. A reception for the film takes place from 5-6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.-2 a.m. at the Majestic Cafe, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Call 313-833-9700 or visit www.majesticdetroit.com. "Louder Than Love" also shows at 7 p.m. April 9 at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor. Call 734-668-8463 or visit www.michtheater.org.

Web Site: www.thegrandeballroomstory.com

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