Tommy Emmanuel Doco At Australian Music Week. An Interview with the Director.

Australian Music Week is holding the Sydney premiere of Tommy Emmanuel – The Endless Road. Directed by Jeremy Dylan and produced by Jaime Lewis, the 80-minute documentary details the rise of the iconic Tommy Emmanuel, from child prodigy to ARIA Award winner & Grammy nominated guitar legend, and features a star studded cast, including Jason Isbell, Eric Idle, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Sir Barry Gibb and more.

Winner of ‘Best Music Documentary’ at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival earlier this year, the film will also premiere in Nashville next month.

As part of the opening day’s events, AMW will screen The Endless Road at Cronulla Cinemas on Wednesday November 6 from 3.45pm, followed by a Q&A session with Jeremy Dylan and Jaime Lewis.

An extra screening will be shown on Saturday 9th November at 7.00pm.

Brian Wise spoke to Jeremy Dylan about the documentary.

Last time we spoke to director Jeremy Dylan it was about his film on Jim Lauderdale, The King of Broken Hearts. Now, his film about Tommy Emmanuel gets it Sydney premiere.

Has this been your major project for the past few years?

I’ve been working on other stuff, but this has really been the dominating force in my life pretty much since I premiered the Jim Lauderdale film. I guess it was about a year after that almost exactly that Tommy approached me about doing this project and then it’s been a bit over four years since then of putting the film together.

So, Tommy asked you to do the film?

Yeah, I think he’d seen the Jim Lauderdale documentary and I’d written a feature article about him for Capital News around that time. I think it was the combination of those two things, and Tommy sort of being in a place in his life. He’d recently had his daughter Rachel, he was in a place where I think he was starting to be ready to look back on his life and tell his story and be prepared to do that in sort of an open and transparent way. Because traditionally in his life he’s been quite a private person and it’s been all about the music and his being very gregarious and talkative in interviews or whatever, but he’s kept his private life private.

But I think getting to a point in his life that is that now, he’s starting to become a bit more reflective and was open to the idea of a project like this. So, he and his manager approached me with the idea. 

I flew to Nashville, spent a few days staying with Tommy, hanging out, talking about filling in some of the gaps that I didn’t know about the early part of his story and sort of driving around and talking about things. At the end of that we sat down in his living room and I said, “Listen, it’s great to be asked to do this and it’s a really exciting project but I’ve got to know is everything going to be on the table? Is there going to be stuff that you’re going to be unwilling or uncomfortable to talk about? Because if this is just going to be a film of like an hour and a half of people talking about what a great guitar player you are, I’m not sure that that’s the film I want to make.”

To his great credit, he said, “No, I trust you. There’s some stuff that’s going to be tough for me to dig into and dredge up but I’m unwilling to talk about anything and, and your judgment as to what goes in the film.” And he was very true to his word. It was a really privileged situation to be in when you’re making a film about someone who’s still alive and would be well within his rights to sort of object to things being in the film or sort of try and keep things focused on the positive all the time. But he very much didn’t do that, and it was, I think, the reason why the film was what it is.

He has had what we euphemistically call ‘personal problems’ in the past, hasn’t he? Do we hear about and see him talking about those in the film? I gather from what you’ve said we do.

Absolutely. He is very transparent and open about his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction through the course of his life, and the cost of that, the consequences both for him and for the people around him, what that’s cost him in the relationships in his life. And, also, we dig into the root causes of all of that. The thing is that people don’t turn to drugs and alcohol for no reason: there’s an underlying cause, a thing that he’s medicating by turning to those substances. We really explore the roots of all those problems.

So, we go into that. Then there’s also, without going into detail that I think is better explored by actually seeing the film, some very dark stuff in his family history that hasn’t been spoken about before, that we’ve dealt with in the film

That must be difficult for an artist to confront because as you suggested, a lot of music documentaries gloss over that sort of stuff, don’t they? Too many of them are promotional pieces.

They are, and honestly, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. If the purpose of making a documentary is just to sell some records or whatever, that’s fine. But that’s just not a project I was interested in being a part of. I’ve been lucky with both of the documentaries I’ve made that there’s been an awareness and recognition from the subjects that are making the film about that.

What we’re trying to do here is to tell a story and tell a story honestly and with respect, both the truth of what’s happened and also just the respect for film being a storytelling medium in 90 minutes of people just saying nice stuff about you and fun performance clips, is not really telling a story in a compelling way.

So, I felt very strongly – and Tommy agreed – that we were going to tell his story in a meaningful way and in a way that people could identify and empathise with, and maybe find parallels to their own lives and their own struggles. 

I think it’s a really meaningful thing for someone like Tommy who seems so superhuman as a performer and as an artist. You see him live and you see that incredible display of dexterity and energy and he’s such a brilliant entertainer and is so focused on eliciting joy from his audience. There is a lot of amazing performance footage in the film where you see all of that. 

But I think to a lot of these fans out there, it could be very easy to go like, “Well Tommy, he’s some untouchable God. He’s, nothing like me. I could never be what he is. We could never have anything in common.” But I think people who feel like that can watch the film and see how Tommy, in so many ways, is all too human and really, he’s not removed or shielded from the emotional realities of life just because he’s an incredible musician.

Did you know a lot about his life before he approached you to do the film? Had you been a fan or followed his career or was this sort of something new to you?

I’d actually known Tommy. I couldn’t put an age on it, but I’ve known Tommy basically as long as I can remember because my father was his agent and then promoter in Australia for many years. So, I grew up sort of vaguely being around Tommy and knowing him and going to his shows. For a long time, all I knew about him was that he was the greatest guitar player in the world, and he had some issues with addiction over the years.

But that was kind of it. I didn’t know a lot of the lot of the detail, but as soon as he asked me to be involved, I did as much research as I could before we sat down and talked about it together. 

But there was a lot of stuff that came out as we were making the film, particularly a lot of the darker family stuff just because for, very understandable reasons, it had all been kept private through the years. 

So, there was just stuff that was not able to be known unless the people directly involved were willing to talk about it, which they were. That’s always the process of making a documentary, I think. I think it’s important to go in with a plan for the kind of story you want to tell and an idea of the structure but if you’re really honestly following where these conversations and the truth is leading you, you are going to uncover things that change the shape of the narrative and that are important to include. So, there’s a lot in this film, some small stuff and some of the most significant stuff that we discovered as we were making the film.

It’s interesting to see him in America. I’ve seen him a number of times over the last couple of years, really because he’s been at the Americana Festival. The last time I saw him he was playing with Jerry Douglas. It’s interesting, the adulation that he receives from not only the audience, but from the other artists. Do you think he’s held in the same esteem in Australia? Or do we really appreciate how big he’s in America or in terms of his reputation?

That’s a great question actually. It’s funny: one of the things that kept coming up as I was making the film, both myself and the producer Jaime Lewis had conversations with people in Australia or in America where it was clear that they were only sort of aware of half of Tommy’s career.

I think in Australia there’s a lot of people whose key memories of Tommy are still late ‘80s through mid 90s, his sort of most visible commercial period here when he was on, Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday, there’s variety television all the time and he’s winning Arias left and right, and all that kind of stuff. And he was basically a pop star, which is kind of crazy for someone who played instrumental guitar music.

So, I think there’s a segment of people here – obviously not the core fans, because obviously Tommy sells out the Opera House every time it comes to Sydney, so he’s got a real deep core fan base who are really up on everything he’s doing and love all his music through today – but I think you’d find there a lot of casual observers who basically think of him as being that guy from the mid ‘90s and wouldn’t be aware that he’s this sort of musical God in the States and really all over the world. 

By the same token, I think most of his US fans – and a lot of the amazing musicians who know him and have played with him and look up to him in the States – had no idea that he was like the premier rock and roll guitar player in Australia for a long time or that he had all that kind of mainstream commercial success before he left Australia.

So, I think he’s kind of had these two parts to his career and one of the goals when we were making the film was to reconcile those two things and really give a complete picture of who Tommy is for the people who might only know one half of that thing. 

As you know, the standard of musicianship in Nashville is incredible. So, you don’t get that adulation unless you’re really excellent. You can’t just go along and be good and for him to receive that adulation is a measure of his talent, isn’t it?

Absolutely. Tommy grew up with Nashville as sort of this marker in his head. This idea that he idolised Chet Atkins as a kid and Chet is obviously this icon of guitar and producer and record executive who was one of the key figures in the music industry in Nashville for many decades. Made his own records but also worked with Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley and the Everly brothers and you name it. 

So, to get to go to Nashville the first time when he was basically this shy kid who was too scared to try and make it go of his career outside of Australia and his wife at the time, Meredith, kind of tricked him into coming to Nashville under the guise that it was a work trip for her and then set up for him to meet Chet who he’d had some you correspondence with but he’d never met him before. She basically set it up. He rocked out one morning, met Chet and Chet gave him a guitar and said, “Okay kid, play me something.” Tommy played one of Chet’s songs and Chet was like, “You play that better than I do.” And they jammed and became fast friends.

Then Chet was really Tommy’s first champion in Nashville. So, by the time he moved there in the early 2000s, after he’d been living in London for a bit, he had done this work with Chet, they had made an album together. Chet had become the surrogate father figure to him, which is a big part of the story of the film. But by that point, Tommy getting over there had that imprimatur of being one of Chet’s favourite guitar players and being what is known as a CGP, which was a designation that Chet Atkins came up with because he never received a degree from Harvard or something like that, but he’s this incredibly accomplished musician. So, he came up with a CGP – Certified Guitar Player – and he only gave it to a handful of people, and that was a very select thing. He named Tommy a CGP three years before Chet died. I think to this day, it’s still the most meaningful honour for Tommy that Tommy has ever received.

So, all of that had gone on before Tommy relocated to Nashville. But as soon as he moved over there, it very quickly became this love fest from all the musicians over there. You mentioned Jerry Douglas before, they tour together now, play shows. Jerry came out and opened for Tommy on his last Australian tour. Jerry is very much recognised as the greatest dobro player in the world and he and everyone else recognises Tommy is the greatest acoustic guitar player in the world. People on that level, really like the absolute best at what they do. There’s a lot of people in the film who speak to that, people like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai and John Petrucci and guitar players of that calibre who many people in the world would probably say are amongst the best guitar players alive, all look up to Tommy and idolise him as a player, and I think that speaks to the esteem that Tommy is held in by other great musicians.

The film is subtitled The Endless Road, and I guess that’s true because I believe he’s still, he does 300 gigs a year or some incredible number like that.

I don’t think it’s actually 300 shows a year but it might be around 300 days on the road. It doesn’t seem like it, but he has scaled things back a bit over the years because there was a time when I think he was literally doing 300 shows a year, which is completely insane. But he just hates not playing.

There’s a story that didn’t make it into the film because it wasn’t an important part of his story, but I’ve always loved because it really speaks to his character. There was this one time he was on tour and he was meant to fly between one city to another in the States but there was this big snowstorm and all the flyers got grounded. So, they put everyone up in a hotel near the airport and they were like, “Basically you have to stay here until the snow clears and we can start flying again.” 

So, he’s there for one night, and then he’s there for a second night and he’s starting to go nuts because he can’t play a show, he can’t play for people. So, he’s wandering around the hotel and he notices that there’s a PA that they use for bingo or something in one of the rooms and is like, “I wonder if I can plug my guitar into this.” So, he basically harangues the hotel staff into helping him set up and he basically plays a free impromptu gig for all the guests at the hotel who were there with the flights grounded and he plays for hours because he just can’t stand sitting on his hands when he could be entertaining people.

I think that that really speaks to who he is and this sort of need and desire and compulsion almost to play for people and to bring joy to people through his music.

You’ve got some pretty high-profile interviewees in the documentary, which I would imagine would be a logistical nightmare to organising itself.

Yes. There were a few logistical nightmares in the making of the film, not least of which was myself and the producer Jaime [Lewis]. She and I both lived in Australia when we were making the film and most of the film was shot in America. She is really kind of the hero of this project from that end of things because there is absolutely no way I could have pulled this together with the money we had without her sort of squaring all these circles and figuring out ways for us to be able to be all the places we needed to be.

There was one day we in LA doing this block of shooting and then we got the Joe Satriani interview. But Joe Satriani was in San Francisco and we couldn’t afford to stay a night in San Francisco. It would have blown the budget out. So, we ended up flying there in the morning, getting up early, going to the airport, flying to San Francisco, driving two hours out to Joe Satriani’s studio, setting up, doing the interview, which was amazing, he was incredibly lovely and sweet and full of great things to say. Then we packed down the gear, drove back at a higher pace, drove back to the airport, got in the plane and we’re back in LA at our Air BnB that night.

Finally, I believe that the film you mentioned – it’s premiering in Sydney – but won best music documentary at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.

Yeah, we won best music documentary and we also won that similar award at the Eldorado Film Festival in Arkansas a few weeks ago, which was very, very gratifying to have the film embraced around the world, because we’ve played in the National Film Festival. It’s playing at the Liverpool Film Festival – Jaime, my producer is over there for that. It’s been playing all around the world but it’s really nice to bring it back to Sydney where I first got asked to do the film and where some big parts of the story take place. 

I think people will get a kick out of seeing all this stuff from the ‘80s in the [King’s] Cross and all the stuff like that. There’s one point that Tommy holds up a gig guide – Tagg, the alternative gig guide – and shows this list of shows all happening at a venue somewhere in Sydney in a week. Tommy’s playing like four of the shows in different bands. It’s a sort of a look back at a time in terms of live music in Sydney that was really flourishing, and hopefully we will return to at some point.

But it’s great to be bringing it to Australian music week. And I’m also doing a couple of other things. I’m on a Country Music panel on Thursday and I’m taping a live episode of my podcast while I’m here as well.