Director Barnaby Clay opens SHOT! The Psycho Spiritual Mantra of Rock with an appropriately dizzying introduction to Mick Rock, the rock n’ roll photographer whose pictures have adorned album covers by the likes of Lou Reed and the Stooges. In an expressionistic reenactment of Rock suffering from a heart attack due to years of drug abuse, the documentary commences with Rock splayed on a hospital bed as his life flashes before his eyes—epitomized by the seemingly endless string of photos he took during the 1970s when he was hanging around many of that decade’s music luminaries. Clay elegantly conflates the personal and the historical in this sequence: To look into the sheer reach of Rock’s work and the lasting friendships he had with his subjects is to essentially survey the history of ‘70s rock music.
Clay takes a deceptively simple approach in telling Rock’s story, in that it’s only the self-effacing photog, through interviews and day-in-the-life sequences, who provides commentary and insight on his life and career, including how he was perennially broke during his most productive period. You won’t find any talking heads here fawningly discussing Rock from an outsider’s perspective, or making claims about the importance of his legacy.
Throughout, the content and tenor of certain stories told by Rock ambitiously inform the film’s style, resulting in a wide-ranging, multi-format visual aesthetic that effectively reflects Rock’s multifaceted, if at times fractured, personality through the years. Clay experiments with lighting (as in a stretch where Rock discusses his glam phase) and with different film stock (like the grainy black and white used when Rock walks around New York remembering when he moved there), and even halts the film’s blistering pace by forgoing Rock’s narration and photographs to incorporate nothing more than dreamlike, psychedelic imagery when dwelling on the man’s drug abuse. This prolonged moment indicates the toll Rock’s hedonistic lifestyle had on his health, and rather than have him redundantly analyze it to death, Clay shrewdly suggests his subject’s mindset through visual and structural means.
SHOT! also provides an invaluable glimpse into the private thoughts of certain rock legends. Rock befriended many of his subjects, most famously Reed and David Bowie, and recorded some of the conversations he had with them, snippets of which Clay sprinkles throughout the film. Reed and Bowie talk about their music with an intimacy usually reserved for friends and not the press (one especially fascinating passage reveals Reed’s personal analysis of his song “Heroin”), and which mirrors the candor of Rock’s narration. Clay’s inclusion of these audio interviews strips SHOT! of any romanticized illusions surrounding the ‘70s music scene, making the musicians appear to be everyday people instead of rarefied and intangible figures.
This is all in line with Clay’s own interest in preventing us from elevating Rock himself to a place of myth. Even though Rock’s pictures have been seen by millions of people and he’s worked with some of the most important pop-culture icons, the film (and its subject) never lets you forget that, in an overview of a career that seemed to be one long struggle for financial stability, Rock was, and still is, simply a working photographer.