October 12, 2017


Featuring Lee Loughnane, Robert Lamm, James Pankow, Danny Seraphine, Walter Parazaider, David Foster, Clive Davis. Directed by Peter Pardini. (2016, 113 min).

When I was a kid, my parents got sick of me listening to The Beatles all the time, partly because I was obsessed with them, but also because Mom & Dad didn't care for Fab Four (especially the music from their experimental "hippy" era). They'd try and broaden my horizons by suggesting other "cool" artists like Gilbert O'Sullivan, Seals & Crofts and Chicago. In other words, stuff they personally found enjoyably inoffensive.

They bought me a Chicago album for Christmas one year. I feigned excitement, but was decidedly disappointed. The only Chicago songs I heard on the radio were slow, drippy ballads like "Just You & Me," "Wishing You Were Here" and "Colour My World." And those horns...yeech! But ironically, the record my folks picked out was Chicago III, the one album that had no hit singles. Yeah, those corny horns were still there, but the songs were long, weird, complex and occasionally really loud. Dad passed by my room while I was listening to it one day and said, "What the hell is that shit?" I replied, "The Chicago record you bought me."

But there was no way they could have known Chicago didn't begin life as the band we first slow-danced to in junior high. All the albums simply said 'Chicago' on the cover, and in their early days, were a band of long-haired, hard-partying hippies whose music often out-weirded my beloved Beatles. Chicago III didn't suddenly make me a Chicago fan, but it was an intriguing record, especially after Dad professed his hatred for it.

Peter Cetera shows the number of chords he's mastered.
Chicago were musically less interesting once they became inescapable on AM radio in the mid-to-late 70s, but the story behind the music was another matter entirely, which this documentary chronicles quite nicely. While Now More Than Ever covers the band's entire 50 year career, the first half is especially fascinating, mainly because we see the evolution of a band who found success more-or-less on their own terms (double albums, side-long suites, self-indulgent displays of virtuosity) while still managing to score massive hits. Chicago's story is mostly told by founding members who remain in the band to this day, along with former members and others who'd join later.

A few things quickly become obvious. First, they really miss guitarist Terry Kath, who accidentally shot himself in 1978, and if nothing else, the film makes the viewer appreciate his formidable skills as a musician, songwriter and singer. It's no small coincidence that the band sort-of lost its way after his passing. Second, there doesn't appear to be any love-loss between Chicago and Peter Cetera (who left the band for a solo career and declined to participate in this film). Chicago may have gotten a new lease on life in the 80s by focusing on ballads written by Cetera and producer David Foster, but none of the other members seemed too happy, especially the horn section, whose contributions were minimized and marginalized. Foster himself is also interviewed here and...man, talk about someone in love with the smell of his own farts.

Robert Lamm is asked to name everyone who's ever played in the band.
But like Chicago's career, the film isn't as interesting once the glory days are in the rearview mirror, when new musicians come & go and the chronology speeds up, only superficially documenting the band's gradual commercial and artistic  decline. We are mostly subjected to testimonials of the band's resiliency to keep plugging away, which naturally culminates with their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

While not quite warts-and-all, the band members speak fairly candidly about the rock star life, conflicts and sometimes acrimonious splits. For the most part, they come across as humble, nice guys who've stayed together all this time for the love of playing (I guess that shouldn't be surprising, since this was produced by Chicago themselves). Longtime Chicago fans will surely enjoy it, while those who always assumed it was Peter Cetera's band are in for some surprises. And although Now More Than Ever didn't suddenly make me a Chicago fan either, this is an entertaining doc that had me appreciating their accomplishments and longevity.


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