Saluting the Mother of Rock

While the Toronto International Film Festival's mid-week spotlight was fixed on the arrival of Bruce Springsteen, a doc about one of rock history's unsung heroes, journalist Lillian Roxon, had its international premiere on Tuesday.
September 15, 2010

While the Toronto International Film Festival’s mid-week spotlight was fixed on the arrival of Bruce Springsteen – in town promoting a film about the making of his 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town – a doc about one of rock history’s unsung heroes had its international premiere on Tuesday.

Mother of Rock: Lillian Roxon chronicles the life of prescient rock critic and Max’s Kansas City regular Lillian Roxon. Born in Italy, she immigrated to Australia with her Jewish family during the Second World War and set her sights on a career in journalism. She rose through the ranks in Sydney’s male-centric newsrooms, covering everything from gossip to politics and eventually landed in the Sydney Morning Herald‘s New York City bureau to report on the US presidential campaign in 1968.

While in New York she fell in with the burgeoning folk music scene and later became a fixture in the backroom at legendary rock club Max’s Kansas City along with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd and music icons such as Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and The Velvet Underground.

Roxon had a tenacious personality and razor-sharp wit that was ever-present in her seminal book Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, but when it came to sourcing photos and film footage, she proved a more elusive subject for first-time feature director Paul Clarke and Lowlands Media producer Robert de Young. The portrait of Roxon that emerges in Mother of Rock is that of a trailblazing woman and maverick journalist, who was much loved but occasionally despised for her penchant towards literary and verbal takedowns of her famous friends.

‘We embraced a multiplicity of voices,’ says de Young. ‘There was such a diversity of characters in the film that we got a sense of Lillian knowing people in quite different capacities. It was interesting – there was no way we were going to satisfy everybody.’

The producers spent three years developing and researching the film, which is based on Robert Milligan’s biography of the same name. Interview subjects in the film include feminist author Germaine Greer, Danny Fields, Lee Childers Black, Helen Reddy and rockers Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper. In one memorable scene, Greer recalls being reduced to tears as Roxon ripped her to shreds in the back room at Max’s.

When the author attended the film’s world premiere in Melbourne earlier this year, she reiterated to the audience that she dedicated her book the The Female Eunuch to Roxon in a bid for her affection. After the screening, however, the old rivalry came out.

‘Publicly she gave us a bit of a lashing but privately she didn’t object to the film as much as her performance would suggest,’ de Young adds. ‘In fact, the next day, when we had a second screening she was much more complimentary and talked more again about wanting to get Lillian’s affection and love.’

The producers chased sources right up to the last minute, finally pinning Iggy Pop down for an on-camera interview in Miami the day before the final cut was due.

Clarke, who has worked as a music and political journalist, producer and music video director, believes Roxon wasn’t just prescient in her predictions of which bands would hit it big, but her hard-living lifestyle. Her work ethic resembled that of today’s multi-tasking journalist and she partied just as hard. Eventually her asthma caught up with her and she died at 41 in 1973.

‘She basically died from overwork and carelessness,’ he says. ‘It was interesting to see if you pushed that part of your life so far what would happen. And she died of carelessness and pushing herself to be recognized. That was a salutary thing to encounter and to represent on film.’

Mother of Rock: Lillian Roxon screens Wednesday, Sept. 15 and Saturday, Sept. 18 at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be at available at MIPCOM next month through SBS Content Sales.

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