Ah, the loneliness of the long-distance rocker, writ large in director-photographer Phil Griffin’s new documentary Bon Jovi: When We Were Beautiful, which is currently being telecast on pay cable’s Showtime network. Griffin had an all-access pass to capture the Bon Jovi band’s 2008 Lost Highway tour, which consisted of three months of European dates and ended with the Jersey rockers’ stateside return that July for a Central Park freebie and sold-out gigs at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden.
Bon Jovi: From left, Richie Sambora, Tico Torres, Jon Bon Jovi and David Bryan star in a new documentary airing on pay cable’s Showtime.
Perversely, however, what’s in the film is a lot of buildup to the concerts, but then hardly any numbers from the actual shows. Viewers see plenty of Jon Bon Jovi’s below-the-stage entrances and exits (yes, his shirtless washboard abs make a cameo), but they’re often followed by quick random montages of audiences in do-the-guitar-wave mode and screaming female fans, as Griffin refuses to showcase the band actually connecting with their adoring public. Even their hit “It’s My Life” gets shoehorned in as an abbreviated, two-minute track. What gives? Will fans get to see these missing-in-action concert songs as DVD extras?
Instead, Griffin depicts the band’s leader as a hard-nosed businessman who has been in charge for 25 years. A scene of Bon Jovi on the phone as he deliberates whether to buy into an NFL team is juxtapositioned with an interlude with drummer Tico Torres swatting golf balls, obviously unburdened by the decision-making of his longtime boss. The first half is dominated by Bon Jovi’s no-nonsense swagger, notably when he rationalizes his methods for inserting some new material into a concert for patrons who would prefer a greatest-hits package: “You have to find that compromise where you give them what they want and you give yourself what you need.”
Not being a critical darling still chafes at Bon Jovi, too, with enough mentions concerning the lack of respect that would make Rodney Dangerfield spin in his grave. As apparent compensation, he claims that Leonard Cohen has favored Jon Bon Jovi’s cover of the songwriter’s “Hallelujah,” which is performed with the expected Christ-like symbolism. The navel-gazing narcissism can be a bit much, although When We Were Beautiful is nowhere near as painful as the 1985 backstage-with-Sting opus Bring on the Night, an annoying ego trip that still gives rock docs a bad name (bad name).
And Beautiful does improve in its second half as the other band members address their own problems, especially the alcoholic-related demons that have plagued lead guitarist Richie Sambora (there’s no mention of his ex-wife Heather Locklear, however), as the movie’s “band of brothers” theme eventually kicks in. And if curly-haired keyboardist David Bryan seems to have the least amount of screen time, maybe it’s his moonlighting job as a Broadway composer that keeps him away from the usual rock′n′roll traumas.
Griffin’s movie was filmed in black-and-white, which may create a moire effect on some TV screens, but the artistic decision surely ties in with many of the images that accompany 192-page companion hardcover tome, also titled When We Were Beautiful, that publisher HarperCollins has issued this week for $30. Meanwhile, Showtime offers more screenings of the 80-minute Bon Jovi: When We Were Beautiful on Thursday, Oct. 29, 11 p.m., and Saturday, Oct. 31, 3 p.m., and on Showtime 2 on Nov. 6, 10:30 p.m., and Nov. 8, 3:30 p.m.