Long Way to the Top: It’s about sacrificing for art
Rob Montague has played in several bands over the years, and now he’s decided to take a look at music from a different angle. His new film, Long Way to the Top, takes a look at the business side of music and what life on the road is really like. The film follows bands including Grizfolk, The Sword and David Ramirez as they try to make a living playing music. The film is slated for three screenings at the Cleveland International Film Festival.
Long Way to the Top is going to be playing in the Cleveland International Film Festival. Is this the premiere of the film?
It is. When it plays on March 23rd that will be the world premiere of the movie.
You must be pretty excited.
Extremely excited. It’s my hometown. It’s pretty cool. Cleveland is a great city and I wouldn’t want it to be anywhere else. All of my friends are here. I was a musician in Cleveland for many, many years and it’s really cool to have [my film] premiere there.
So the film is about musician’s lives on the road and touring?
The experience of being a working musician, yeah. There’s definitely a focus on touring because, to me, that’s sort of when you clock in. Everything else is prep for that.
What made you decide to move from music to film?
Actually, one day my music career kind of slowed down. I was doing some producing work, and some co-writing with other bands and I just wasn’t feeling it as much as I used to. I’d always been in love with film. It was my first love. It was really as simple as buying a camera and saying, “Okay, I’m going to make a movie and I’m going to make it about music.” My friend Joe Willis was playing in a band called All Dinosaurs at the time and they were doing a new album. They’re a local Cleveland band. The idea was that I was just going to follow them through the process of making their record all the way up to their CD release. My director of photography Eric Lieser and I approached them about doing it. They felt honored that we wanted to do it, but they didn’t want the focus on just them. They suggested something a little bit bigger, with more musicians. That got me thinking and I just started calling friends I had made over the years and asking them to do interviews. It just sort of snowballed from there.
Are the bands that are featured in the movie friends of yours?
Friends, or friends of friends. About a quarter into filming the movie, I was approached by my old tour mate, Taylor Wallace. We had remained friends over the years, and he had found out that I was doing the movie and offered his help. He widened the network of people that we had access to. Along with the other producer on the movie, Rico Csabai. That man opened the world up with Grizfolk and everything else. He got me on the tour with David Ramirez. It was fantastic. It just happened organically.
David Ramirez, Grizfolk and The Sword are very different musically. Was that a choice that you made?
Absolutely. I wanted to show that no matter what style of music you play, the experience is still the same. The details are different, but it’s all about sacrifice. If you really want to do this you have to sacrifice money, relationships, time, family . . . whatever. You have to make sacrifices to really do this and make a living at it. It would be great if you could sit at home and write songs and just put them on the internet and everybody bought them and you made a bunch of money to live off of, but you just can’t do that. You have to tour. In that process, you can lose a lot. We talk about other things in the movie. We talk about recording, the record business and everything else. But to me, touring is where the real work goes and where the sacrifice comes from. Especially when you don’t have the support of a label. It’s not an easy thing.
Did you learn anything new or find anything surprising during the filming?
I didn’t really learn too much more than I had known from my own personal experiences, but I think what surprised me the most is how it felt like being home on the road. Looking at that life from a different perspective, through the lens, was really eye opening. The movie doesn’t focus on the “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” stuff. This is the reality that this is a job. It’s an amazing job, but it’s still a job. You can do this if you’re talented and you work hard enough, but the hard work is really, really important. It was interesting to live that life from the other side and see how hard it really is.
Did it make you want to go back to playing in a touring band?
Yes and no. The part of me that loves making art and loves connecting with people and things like that, that part of me was like, “Yes, I want to do this again.” The other part of me that has bills to pay and rent, and whatnot, that part was like, “Yeah, I can’t do that anymore.” But it was great to go back. It was like a high school reunion in the sense that I got to interview a lot of old friends and to make a lot of new friends. It was really weird, but awesome at the same time.
Is this your first feature-length film?
Yeah, this is my first one. It took me two-and-a-half years and every dime that I had to make. I lost several jobs and a four-year relationship in the making of this. It mirrors the movie in a lot of ways, too. But it was completely worth it and I’d do it again a million times over.
Is the film a pretty accurate view of the life of a touring musician?
As close as you can get to actually being there. The sex, drugs and rock n’ roll stuff is actually a really small part of it all. That’s always been glamorized and glorified. I wanted to show the other side. I screened it for a few friends who aren’t musicians and they were like, “Wow, I didn’t know it was like that.” That’s good. I did my job. I’ve shown it to a few musicians also, and I won’t name them, but a few of them said, “Thank you because you just scared off people who really don’t want to do this or want to do it for the wrong reasons.” I know growing up that it would have been great to have something like this around when I was 12 and really just starting to discover music and thinking maybe it was something I wanted to do as a career. [This would have shown me] what I was in for realistically and not what’s portrayed in Hollywood stuff like That Thing You Do and Airheads. I love them for their entertainment value, but it’s so false. I think it’s important to have something like this out there in the world.
Herzog has some music in the film.
They do, and it’s perfect. They were shown to me at a phase in the filming when we had already wrapped. I was looking for some really awesome music for the movie. The other idea too, with the film, the reason we picked the people we picked was because of the stage of their career. They’re not huge, they’re working. And I wanted to do that with some of the music I picked as well. A friend of mine played Herzog for me and I flipped. I said, “Please talk to them. I want their music in my movie.” I wish I could have interviewed them. They’re the only band that has music in the movie that isn’t actually in the film.
Any other Cleveland bands or Cleveland connections?
There are a couple of faces from Cleveland in there. The first face you see in the movie is Mike Drury who played bass in a band called Ohio Sky and he plays in Cities & Coasts now. He was in Ohio Sky with me when I was still singing in that band and had played in a couple of prior bands. Jim LaMarca from Chimaira. John Kalman, an amazing singer-songwriter, is in the film. Nick Riley from Filmstrip. You’ll have to look for people in there.
Are you planning on keeping in touch with the bands and maybe doing a follow-up piece?
Possibly. Right now, it sort of stands on its own, but it would be great to follow up with those guys. I talk to all of them. I just spoke to the Grizfolk guys the other day. I talked to Adam and he was sharing some stories from the road. The thing about the road, and Journey said it best, but I’m paraphrasing, is that it really is like a circus, it’s the greatest show on earth. Being in Europe with Grizfolk actually was the biggest surprise for me . . . just being there with them and going on that ride. Watching them go from a rehearsal space where they hadn’t even played one show yet to playing in front of 12,000 people, and now they’re on Letterman. That’s the greatest, coolest reward of making this movie. I feel like they’re part of my family. Touring really bonds you. I’m so happy for those guys and I’d love to follow up with them. You’re going to see a lot from them.
Have the bands seen the finished film?
They have. The only band that hasn’t seen it yet is The Sword. I don’t know why we haven’t showed it to them but they’re going to see it. Everybody else has seen it. Everybody seems to enjoy it and feel that it’s a very realistic portrayal.
What’s next for Late Morning Films?
It’s a production company I founded with Rico Csabai, Grizfolk’s manager, and Taylor Wallace, my old tour mate and business partner. We have a couple of things we’re working on developing. I’m also writing something that I hope to shoot soon, but that could mean two years from now. We’re still growing and doing whatever we find, mostly rock stuff. But we’re branching out and working on developing some scripts, too.
Are you finished with performing music?
I don’t think any musician can ever really be done. But as far as performing, I don’t have any immediate plans to do anything. There’s talk of an old project that I was in maybe doing another record, but it’s too early to tell. I still do it for fun. I pick up a guitar and play and sing for myself. It’s not an outward thing like it used to be. Filmmaking and making documentaries keeps me busier than I ever was with music and I love it. But, when I have time, I still pick up a guitar and sing.
2015 Cleveland International Film Fest Screenings
Visit clevelandfilm.org for the most up-to-date locations and times.
Mon., March 23, 9:25pm
Tues., March 24, 6pm
Wed., March 25, 12:30pm