by Chris Estey
The title of this biographical documentary of Robert M. Knight seems a little ostentatious, but does reflect the long-time rock photographer’s ability and desire to often be in the pit before bold artists arise, shooting as an agent of change, a shaper of rock’s visual aesthetics. Though Knight is the son of a Baptist minister, he rejected the religion-based life of his middle-American family, and the synchronicities of filming the peak moments of rock musicians playing in concert have more to do with the evolution of the artform than mystical connections. But that doesn’t mean his chosen role in music fandom doesn’t have positive effects for the people who have raised him, as the story of Knight’s life effectively plays out.
Produced by Tim Kaiser (Seinfeld, Will & Grace) and directed by John Chester (A&E’s Random 1) Rock Prophecies is a sleek, appropriately well-shot film, featuring tons of music from and appearances by (mostly) guitarists who he caresses with his camera. The grit, sweat, joy, and pain of blues-based mainstream rock sizzles on the surface of every image he captures. “I just wanted to hang out with these guys,” Knight says about his love for the creators of big, loud rock music. At age 16, he worked his way to get to London (with his father’s help), and his first shots included an electrified Jeff Beck (whom he has maintained a close relationship with, and visits and interviews sweetly in the film) and fourteen inspired photos of Jimi Hendrix taken at a UK show after Knight hustled his way into the front of the stage. (“I had a camera, so they let me walk right up.”)
Born and raised in Honolulu, Knight had been challenged by childhood friends to become some sort of an artist himself. His best pals were a writer and a guitar player, and the musician teased him enough that Knight settled on the camera as his instrument — which, as he found himself on the stage of Antonioni’s Blow-Up when he went overseas, pushed him into photography as his expression of the spirit of the times.
In sort of a parallel universe to Cameron Crowe’s story of becoming a rock scribe in Almost Famous, Knight was invited to Led Zeppelin’s hotel room to get the critical once-over by Jimmy Page so that later on that night at the Troubadour Robert Plant would pull him from the audience and place him behind the amps to get some legendary work done. This also happened with bands from the Rolling Stones (though Keith kept him in line when he was allowed on-stage by a more sympathetic Mick) to Santana, all of whom have praised his work highly for showing their dynamic spiritual performing energies. Elton John would end up staying at his house, and he would take Alice Cooper to a Halloween party, dressed so no one would recognize him. It was a period of immense discovery in the power of rock and roll, and that didn’t just mean the music: That meant those that observed, described, and promoted this cultural fire as well.
Knight took the seeming indifference of his family to mean he was a black sheep among them, and there is a loving revenge when Seattle comes into the picture, as Janie Hendrix buys the copyrights for shots of her brother so that Knight can support his sick mother. Guns N’Roses’ Slash also gets involved, throwing a huge party for one of his biggest fans and truly showing his appreciation for his work, as it is the images taken by Knight that have helped guitarists become so larger in life in magazines, books, galleries, museums, and hung for free outside Guitar Centers all over the place.
Guitar Center needs to be brought up, not only for Knight’s support of them and theirs of him, but because the title of this movie reflects the kind of music that is most respected by that retail chain — balls-out blues-rock. The documentary makes it very clear that Knight’s endorsement of up-and-coming players like Panic At The Disco, Sick Puppies, and Tyler Dow Bryant has an artistic as well as financial pay off for him, but his enthusiasm and affection for new bands is as strong as say, a Robert Christgau’s, though their tastes may be very different. Fans of KEXP playlists may get a little weary of the type of music Knight goes ape-shit for, but as a mission statement for getting involved in the music scene to discover new talent and enjoy the on-going community of artists and their fans, Rock Prophecies’ message is a universal one.
(Rock Prophecies will be shown at Bumbershoot on Saturday, September 5, at 1 PM as part of the SIFF Cinema / 1 Reel Film Festival. Knight and Chester are doing a Q&A and there will be a Rock Prophecies lounge as well, where you can see much of Knight’s archive.)