‘All I Can Say’ Review: The Life and Death of a Rock Star, in His Own Words
In 1990, Richard Shannon Hoon started filming himself. He seems like he might be any young dude killing time in Lafayette, Indiana — backwards baseball cap, sandy-blond stubble, a slight hint of a Southern twang — an all-American early-Nineties everybro, in other words. Hoon has a girlfriend named Lisa, a jockish high-school senior picture, a love of weed, a police record, and a palpable sense of restlessness over what he jokingly dubs “all that sweet Midwest bullshit.” He also has one hell of a voice, which the 23-year-old hopes might bring him fame and fortune once he relocates to Los Angeles (a local friend of his sister’s made the move a few years back, and things turned out pretty well for him — his name was Axl Rose).
So Hoon hightails it to Hollywood, U.S.A., ends up doing backing vocals for Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Don’t Cry” — that’s him singing behind Rose in the video — and hooks up with fellow new Angelenos/musicians Brad Smith and Roger Stevens. Once two other recent L.A. transplants, Chris Thorn and Glen Graham, join the fold, Hoon finds himself fronting a band. They call themselves Blind Melon. They play a few shows, a lawyer hears their demo, they get a record contract. Up in Seattle, where the group is going to lay down tracks for their self-titled first album, Hoon has the camera running when he steps into a dimly lit vocal booth. The music can be heard faintly coming out of his headphones. He bops his head a bit and then opens his mouth: “All I can say is that my life is pretty plain.…”
We know what happens next. We know where the story ends. And it’s that sense of watching a speeding car barrel down the road, with everyone joyously laughing and unaware of the hairpin turn a few miles up ahead, that hangs heavily over All I Can Say. Even the most innocuous moments of Shannon Hoon’s life, captured hundreds of pixels a second, now feel weighted. But because the singer was a compulsive camcorder auteur — and directors Danny Clinch, Taryn Gould, and Colleen Hennessy had the tenacity to dig through hundreds of hours of footage he shot — we get to see a lot of the highs and lows, the band-bonding and the landmark shows, and the aftermath of lost weekends ourselves. Suddenly, a rock-casualty story gets personalized in a way that feels painfully intimate. These are just home movies, you think. Then, this music doc strings them together and makes you feel like they aren’t just home movies at all. It turns them into a firsthand portrait of fame, making someone’s dreams come true and then majorly fucking with their head.
Whether or not you’re a fan of the band doesn’t really matter, though devotees (Melonheads?) will be overjoyed to check out Hoon recording the now-familiar opening lines of “No Rain.” They’ll get to observe the shooting of the video to that song, to see Blind Melon’s year-old debut go platinum thanks to heavy MTV rotation, and to watch the quintet hit the trifecta of having a Top 10 single, playing SNL, and getting their own Rolling Stone cover story. (Hoon keeps the camera on as the band argues over the request to just feature the singer on the front of the magazine, which eventually led to an all-or-nothing counteroffer and this iconic full-frontal picture.) Brief snippets of the group playing club shows and Hoon, done up as a beatific, barrette-wearing flower child in eyeliner and leading a rousing rendition of “Soup” at Woodstock ’94, remind you that he was a born frontman.
Those blissful behind-the-scenes moments and music-history footnotes, however, aren’t what make All I Can Say a compelling documentary. It’s easy to become numb to reading endless stories of live-fast-die-young tragedy, or hearing artists romantically mythologize how rocking hard led to hitting rock bottom. But there’s something about watching Hoon document his complete 360-degree experience in such an unfiltered, off-the-cuff way that’s disarming. The amateurishness works in its favor. So does its openness. It’s not just the riding shotgun to his early brass-ring daydreams, seeing him giddily gulp champagne during a contract signing at Capitol Records, and getting a secondhand buzz off Hoon describing Neil Young playing “Helpless” 20 feet away from him. The film lets you see him talk about needing to be sober then slurring in front of his first broken hotel mirror. It’s temper tantrums and endless tour grinds and rehab and relapse and being unable to say no.
It’s seeing the disillusionment of stardom psychically shut somebody down, piece by piece, before your eyes. Hoon walking out bare-assed in front of 50,000 people onstage? Effortlessly cool. The effect of getting a peek at him at his most vulnerable and emotionally naked via this visual diary? That’s uncomfortable, heartbreaking, and at times chilling, even when you forget the timestamps double as countdowns. It’s also remarkably humanizing, and if nothing else, the posthumous self-portrait lets the guy who inadvertently turned into an alternative-music martyr recede in to the background and allows the guy who pressed “Play” to step into the spotlight. It says something about the trio of directors (Hoon gets a credit as well) who assembled this that when we do eventually get to the scenes of the singer holding his newborn daughter, it doesn’t feel milked in the name of making the last act more tragic — they know it’s tragic enough. And when we arrive at Hoon keeping the camera rolling as he lays on a New Orleans bed, literally hours before he’ll be found unresponsive on the band’s tour bus, it doesn’t feel ghoulish. It just feels like we’ve walked long and hard in his shoes and reached the end way too soon.