Like a Rhino in a Record Shop An Interview with Keith Shapiro By Skizz Cyzyk. Pittsburgh native Keith Shapiro began making films when he was five years old, shooting Star Wars inspired films with a Super 8mm camera...
Pittsburgh native Keith Shapiro began making films when he was five years old, shooting Star Wars inspired films with a Super 8mm camera. He took film classes at Penn State University before relocating to Los Angeles in 1998, where he makes a living as a filmmaker, editor and musician. Like most musician/filmmakers, music is a big influence on his filmmaking. His first documentary feature, Rock God (2007), focused on the supremely talented musician, Peter Himmelman, and how he has dealt with getting older while holding onto his dreams in the rock ‘n’ roll business. His second documentary feature, Rhino Resurrected, is about Rhino Records, the legendary record store-turned-label that released records by Wild Man Fischer, Barnes & Barnes, the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, and many other novelty, blues, obscure, cult and reissue acts. Rhino Resurrected premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in January 2012, won Best Feature Documentary at the Oxford Film Festival, and is currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit.
Skizz Cyzyk: How did you decide to make a documentary about Rhino?
Keith Shapiro: The genesis of this film goes back to my 13-year-old self in dreary old Pittsburgh enlivening my life enjoying the Dr. Demento show with my friends. He mentioned Rhino Records from time to time and they seemed to be responsible for all my favorite tunes. The Dr. created this sort of Ed Wood, ’50s Wrestling, sleazy "Los Angeles of the mind" that resonated with my adolescent brain. Some years later when I decided to move out West, I was thrilled to see there was a real place called Rhino Records that was weird and fun like I pictured it. I became a customer and watched them sadly decline and go out of business but didn’t have any personal relationship with anyone there. Then in May of 2010, a music friend of mine alerted me to the Rhino "Pop Up" Store (a retail space temporarily hosted in a vacant location) that was about to happen. I showed up, saw them setting up and immediately felt a strong vibe that I better start filming. I asked Sam Epstein (director of the Pop Up Store and later producer on the film) if I could shoot and proceeded to shoot for the entire two week run of the store. I thought I’d make a cool short about the pop up but as I met more and more fascinating people there and the insane history of Rhino Records began to reveal itself I knew I was on to something bigger.
SC: Tell me about the process. How long did it take? What difficulties did you encounter?
KS: I had about 50 great hours of footage from the pop-up store with tons of interviews and even some multi-camera shoots of live performances but now needed to go out and do some proper sit-downs with key players. I had a wish list and Sam was instrumental in getting people to commit to interviews and filled me in on people I wouldn’t have known (he worked at the store for 25 odd years and was an assistant director on the side). It was a long semi-haphazard process in which Sam and I would go out and interview people and I would continue to edit the film continually shaping it out of what I had available. A great thing about the subject is that all the research I did was all my favorite stuff so that aspect was a pleasure.
The biggest challenge was (and still is of course) money because we had no proper funding, just made it up as it went along. But luckily Sam and I were able to shoot it ourselves and I’m an editor by trade so nobody had to be hired. Eventually I used a couple of cinematographers for later interviews but they basically volunteered because the subjects were so cool.
A more esoteric challenge was the mercurial nature of many of the record geek subjects and trying to get the best out of them. I was very adamant that people not just talk about the "look and feel" of vinyl. I wanted to go much psychically deeper than that in regard to the record store and music listening experiences that have been so irrevocably altered in this modern era. Also, many of the less "public" interview subjects were very introverted by nature so it was always important to dig a little deeper.
SC: Your film features some big names in it. Well, big names to people like me at least. I’m always glad to see people I admire, like Dr. Demento and Steve Wynn, pop up in documentaries, knowing that, to the average person, they might not seem as important as they do to me. Who are some of the people in the film that you were most excited to include? Was there anyone you really wanted to put in the film that you weren’t able to get?
KS: Dr. Demento was always a hero I was so excited to interview him and he didn’t disappoint. His record collection is a real thing of beauty! I love meeting all those people that only "true believers" like us know are so important. It was great to go to William Stout’s studio and get him to draw a Rocky Rhino and also a real joy to spend time with Nels Cline on one of his brief respites from touring with Wilco. Richard Thompson’s a personal favorite of mine so I couldn’t believe my luck when he walked into the pop-up store to pick up his son who was volunteering there (RT also played a stunning set that week). I was floored by Little Willie G and thee East L.A. Philharmonic and was honored to get to know him a bit. There’s a lot of "behind the scenes" people in the film that I knew were so crucial but were hard to explain in their onscreen lower thirds! I hope I conveyed what everybody was all about through the film, I feel like the ’80s underground scene, at least in L.A., is a little under-heralded.
I do wish I could have interviewed the infamous writer Richard Meltzer, he was a big presence at the Rhino Store in the ’70s and ’80s and I’ve been a huge fan of his writing for years. He’s up in Portland now and I had to keep the filming confined to southern California for budget purposes.
SC: As a record collector myself, I got excited every time I saw a record onscreen that I know is also in my collection, and not just Rhino releases. Are you a big record collector too, and have you collected Rhino releases over the years?
KS: I thought I had a solid record collection ’till I met many of my interview subjects, I wish you could have seen some of these gems. At some point you have to stop filming people in front of their giant record collections and pick another spot in the house. But I’ve been a collector for many years and had more Rhino records than I realized. I had to track down some early Rhino rarities for the film like Rhino Royale, Demento Royale, Saturday Night Pogo, and The History of Latino Rock that I’m happy to have in my collection now.
SC: What has the response been for the documentary so far? Have the subjects seen it, and what do they think of it?
KS: We had an amazing sold out show at the Cinefamily last summer (a really cool film venue in L.A.) as part of the Don’t Knock the Rock Festival and a lot of the subjects were there. It was great to hear the thunderous rounds of applause for people who don’t usually get to be on the big screen. I was petrified to find out what some of the subjects thought of the film because anyone who knows Rhino knows they were opinionated to say the least. However, their responses have been positive, appreciative, and thankful that people will hear this story.
The film made its official festival premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival where it touched a nerve with the "well heeled" crowd and then won Best Feature Documentary at the insanely fun Oxford Film Festival in February. I made it so anyone can appreciate the independent spirit of the story but if you love the music and history you’ll love the film that much more. There are lots of layers for the true record geeks to explore I wanted to recreate what it "feels like" to listen to a Rhino record.
SC: Making a documentary about a record store that becomes a record label that becomes a huge resource for cultural misfits all over the world, I would imagine you must have encountered a nightmare of rights issues. Do you want to talk about that?
KS: NO! Just kidding, it’s a struggle and I’m in the process of trying to raise a modest amount of money so some of the essential stuff can stay in the film. I wouldn’t call it a nightmare because I tried to stay smart about it but I wish it was a little easier to "sample" for documentaries like this. I’m really working hard to make sure this film gets out to the world in a non-neutered form; I believe it will.
SC: Do you have any inside news regarding the future of Rhino? Will there be any more pop up stores?
KS: Gary Stewart (formerly A&R at Rhino, a subject in the film) was so inspired by the first pop-up that he actually did a second one last spring. It was well attended and fun but I garner it’s hard to make enough money for charity to keep it all going. I know everyone wants it to happen every year but I’m not sure it’s possible. Sadly, we all love the era of gathering at the record store and it’s just different now. Although there’s a few great stores left and the funky niche vinyl shop has been flourishing, it will never feel like it used too, that’s why I say the film is an elegy and a celebration of what once was without being nostalgic. We’ll see what the kiddies come up with, but I know that music was everything to people in a way that’s hard to reproduce nowadays.
For more info on Keith Shapiro and his work, visit www.kwsfilms.com
Back to Issue 17