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The Story of ‘Rock Camp’ and the Thrills of Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp: Q&A with Filmmaker Doug Blush
So you want to be a rock star? Rock ‘n Roll Fantasy Camp — where ordinary people rub shoulders with and learn from legendary performers and working musicians — may be just the ticket. Doug Blush and co-director/co-writer Renee Barron’s new film Rock Camp captures the joy and fun of this unique, revved-up camping experience.
Their 87-minute documentary, which will be made available via digital cinemas on Jan. 15 (click here), mixes archival footage from the 69 Rock Camps held since 1997, including glimpses of “camp counselors” Bill Wyman, Brian Wilson, Gene Simmons, Jeff Beck, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Ringo, Joe Walsh, Leslie West, Meat Loaf, Mike Love, Nancy Wilson, Alice Cooper, Felix Cavaliere, Eric Clapton, and more, with original footage of rock icons like Roger Daltrey and Paul Stanley, as well.
The rock doc intercuts all of this star-studded celluloid and video with compelling, uplifting personal stories of campers who during the experience momentarily leave behind their boring, bourgeois, corporate existences to, as Lou Reed put it, “Take a walk on the wild side” at Rock Camp. Others overcome disabilities, parents bonding with their children thanks to the musical fantasy camp outing that is the brainchild of entrepreneurial enthusiast David Fishof.
A seasoned documentarian, the award-winning Blush has worked with some of the top talents in nonfiction filmmaking, such as on Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s hard-hitting exposes, including their 2012 Oscar-nominated The Invisible War. But in this new rock doc Blush co-created, he brings his storytelling skills to structure a joyous portrait of happy campers who, thanks to Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, are able to live out their dreams and, as the Rolling Stones expressed it, “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” In some cases, some are even empowered to “Break on Through to the Other Side,” as Jim Morrison sang.
In this upbeat interview, Doug Blush spoke from his Los Angeles office about his film background, Rock Camp and more.
Rock Cellar: You’re a veteran on the documentary scene. What are some of your top credits, in what capacity did you work on those productions, and what are some of the top awards you’ve won?
Doug Blush: Back in the nineties I was doing those behind-the-scenes things you’d see for films like Titanic, Dante’s Peak and Independence Day. But I always wanted something more, for films to really matter, to be the real deal. So I always had an interest in documentaries. As we got into the new millennium my wife and I founded MadPix Films (Film Production | Documentaries | Consulting | Madpix Films). And we’ve been doing documentaries since 2000.
Along the way I’ve been honored to work with some incredible, wonderful people, like Morgan Neville, who did the iconic 20 Feet from Stardom … Its genesis is from Gil Friesen, our wonderful producer, who’s also a music legend, known as the ampersand in A&M Records. Gil’s passion was to finally pay tribute to these women who brought the sound of the sixties and seventies to backing vocals of all those great songs we all know … Gil brought the idea to Morgan Neville [maker of nonfiction biopics about Muddy Waters, Keith Richards, Hank Williams, Mr. Rogers, etc.], who ran with it and made a wonderful expose about some of the great voices, like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer. They’re voices you’ve heard, if you’re a Rolling Stones or Sting fan.
I was an editor on it with a great team that put that together. Morgan just really knows his music and American culture — that film became magical. We toured that film for a year, and it was a huge hit at Sundance and other film festivals, and we ended up taking it all the way to the Oscars. It took home Best Documentary [in 2014]. My co-editors and I won the ACE Award — the American Cinema Editors Award. That was one of those magical experiences — you don’t know what’s happening until it happens to you. We had such a great time — the women in the film, it’s a great music and rock history film. Those memories will never go away.
[Bryan Fogel’s] Icarus, I was a consulting editor and associate producer, was a very different kind of film. It went from being a sports-action movie to being much more intense. It all happened in real time as we became embroiled in the Russian scandals with the Olympics doping. That won the Oscar as well [in 2018].
I co-edited [2006’s] Wordplay, about crossword puzzle solvers, one of our first Sundance hits. It’s been a wild ride. Rock Camp, though, was something special. The guys who founded it found me.
Rock Cellar: You brought your documentary expertise to Rock Camp. How did you get involved with it?
Doug Blush: All things involved with Rock Camp all go back to Mr. David Fishof. He’s sort of a combination of P.T. Barnum and a great entertainment or military leader. He is the dreamer and progenitor of Rock Camp. He has a wild history of being a sports promoter, then a rock promoter, then doing tours, and finally settling on this crazy, great idea: What if we make people’s dreams come true? And have a camp for rock ‘n’ roll fans to meet their heroes and to play with them? Not just sit there in the audience, but get up there and play.
They reached out to me. It’s been years now — over the course of time we shaped all of this footage that had already been shot, there’s a lot of stuff from the archives, great stuff from the early days. Rock Camp’s been around since 1997 — they had all this cool video of great people like Ginger Baker. We needed to pull all this archival footage together into a final film, I came in, we worked with a talented editorial team and my co-director Renee Barron. We edited all this great material for probably two years.
Finally, we teased the story out, of not just, hey — there’s rock stars! But what’s it like to be a camper? One of these people dreaming of meeting their heroes or getting up onstage and blowing the crowd away with a solo? We went after these personal stories. We went home with them, to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, and met their families.
Rock Cellar: When most people think of camp, they generally picture some bucolic spot in the woods where usually youngsters and older counselors spend a period of weeks, perhaps two months, typically during the summer, doing outdoors types of activities while living in cabins or bungalows. But that’s not the case with Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp. Describe the settings of Rock Camp. Where do they take place, what’s their duration and what are the various activities?
Doug Blush: If there’s anything more opposite from the Camp Runamuck of your youth, it’s Rock Camp. First of all, there’s not a tree in sight. [Chuckles.] Basically, you’re going in to be a rock ‘n’ roller, which means, like most rockers, most of your time is spent in practice rooms, in crowded hallways, moving your amp around. You’re in dark, smoky rooms, waiting to go onstage. Having worked on rock docs before, this is a real experience of what it’s like to be a working rocker …
The camp is intense. You go in and play, play and play. You get master classes from musicians, you hang out with your fellow campers, some of whom maybe you know from other camps or heard about online. You get to hang with the musicians, and actually talk about stuff — maybe not even music stuff, sometimes life stuff …
The locations are all over the country: We do camp at North Hollywood, which is super authentic because there’s a real rock practice room there. The Las Vegas one is fun, because your “cabin” is a Vegas hotel, and there’s a practice room just down the road. There’s one in Chicago, we’ve done a bunch on the East Coast, in New York, Miami, London. It’s pretty much where the rock is, the camp goes.
When they go to a certain city, they’ll give it the flavor of that city, too. At Chicago, Buddy Guy did that one, so you had Chicago Blues. Miami, there’s a lot of percussion and rhythm going on. Of course, L.A. is the capital of heavy metal history, so there’s a lot of great headbanging that goes on at North Hollywood. In fact, they’ve done shows at the Roxy [on Sunset Strip], which is as famous as it gets. You really are a rock ‘n’ roller during that time you’re at camp.
Rock Cellar: What’s the typical length of a Rock Camp?
Doug Blush: Normally it takes four days. There’s arrivals and hanging out. Then, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and the concert on Sunday night. That’s the big one — where everybody gets to play with their band after working and working to get their chops down, to try and form a band in just four days.
You might find somebody really amazing — Paul Stanley [of Kiss] playing with you. Or Lou Gramm [of Foreigner] singing your lead vocals. That’s the way it flows.
Rock Cellar: Who’s in the audience when the campers perform?
Doug Blush: [Laughs.] You know, there’s a whole strata. You can officially be a “Rock-ette.” You can be a groupie. Either sex, any preference. You can attend camp as a happy audience member too. There’s a lot of spouses, significant others, kids, friends, you can hang out and rock with the band at the end. There’s a family that forms.
There’s a lot of repeat campers. People who come back and try a new thing. Maybe there as a guitarist but who really wants to try bass. You get crossovers. They’re allowed to screw up beautifully at Rock Camp.
Rock Cellar: So, you’re not lanyard-making like when I was a kid at sleepaway camp. You’re learning drumming or guitar playing techniques with people like Jeff Beck or Bill Wyman.
Doug Blush: You’re either in the room with your assigned camp counselors, who are some of those ace musicians — they may not be headliners like a Paul Stanley, but we get these incredible sessions guys, who’ve been playing for years in all these bands. We’ve got a whole roster. They’re the people who make the music day to day. They’re really dedicated teachers. They’re funny, they’ve got a million stories and they’re great collaborators, so teach you how to be in a band and how to really play. They’re working, career musicians, who have toured all over the world, but they keep coming back to Rock Camp because they love it. Guys like Rudy Sarzo [who has worked with Quiet Riot, Ozzy Osbourne, The Guess Who and Whitesnake], an amazing musician, who let me find my love of music again. It’s really inspiring. It’s great to see musicians who give back to the people this way.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about some of the superstars who participate?
Doug Blush: Roger Daltrey is sort of a patron saint of Rock Camp. He’s done a bunch of great Rock Camps and is super enthusiastic about it. That’s what’s really cool. When I know Roger Daltrey is going to attend, [I think] there’s going to be like a security division and he’s floating above the stage. But he’s a regular guy, he wants to play with people, get in there and rock out.
Also, he’s genuinely just a sweet guy, he’s got great stories and a great attitude about camp. He’s not “above” it. He’s very into it. He’s done a bunch of camps; he and David [Fishof] are friends. He’s genuinely convinced, this is how we share, this is how we give back.
I’m a huge Who fan, too. When they cut into an old Who classic, and you hear everybody playing it, they can’t believe they’re actually playing with Daltrey. It’s a moment — you should see campers’ faces, that they’re actually onstage with Roger Daltrey!
I’ll jump over to Paul Stanley. I’m a Detroit kid, I grew up there … Stanley, there’s something about him. He’s really a warm guy. He very much likes to share during the master classes, and the opening sessions when he talks to the whole camp. In the movie there’s a great thing where he’s talking about the new generations to come. It’s really sweet, because it’s not just about the here and now, “look at me the rock star,” it’s about family and how you share this experience with everybody. Paul has that really important confidence with people, he gives people the boost to say that you’re worth it, you should be doing this.
I know our drummer, Pistol [Scott Crockett], this wonderful, absolutely amazing drummer, who comes to camp a lot, he’s a great guy. At one point, Paul gestures to the band that he’s playing with and says, “Follow that guy. That guy is Buddy Miles. Follow that guy.” We have a moment where Pistol is crying: “I love Buddy Miles. Paul Stanley just called me Buddy Miles.” To have a moment like that for a musician — for an amateur or Pistol, who’s really great and professional — it’s really special. It’s profound to hear a hero of yours say that to you. And that happens in Rock Camp.
Rock Cellar: Stanley’s from where I grew up — Queens. Of course, he and Daltrey are frontmen.
Doug Blush: There’s an entire section where you’ve got your lead singer; you’ve got to get somebody out there in the band. Lots of people are stepping up for the first time to try that. Which is really scary … If you’re a lead vocalist, the audience is going to see everything you do. If you mess up the words, they’re gonna know it.
That’s what happens to Tammy, one of our campers. Tammy is a killer drummer. She’s a headbanger, she loves KISS, she just destroys Boston’s “Smokin’” in the film. She lives in her nice suburban house in New Jersey and then just crushes a rendition of “Smokin’” on the drums. So, she’s got drums figured out, but Tammy wanted to take a chance — in the movie, she wanted to try and be a vocalist. And she actually is terrified in the initial run, “I can’t do this.” In the end, she gets onstage and knocks it out with the band. It’s one of those great stories that happen in Rock Camp, where somebody takes a risk, tries something new and dares themselves. Yeah, I love Tammy, she’s a great character in the film.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about the Rock Campers you focus on in the film. How were they selected to appear onscreen?
Doug Blush: It’s really important in the documentary, in really good films, there’s a set of characters who you want to get to know, they have great stories. You look for great life stories. In this case we had a whole bunch of interesting life issues going on with each character.
Tammy is a high-level executive at a company in Manhattan. But she’s a rocker — she lives the rock dream. She loves her family more than that, and says she’d never leave them and go out on tour because, Tammy says, “This is where my real heart is. But for the time I’m at camp I get to live my dream.”
There are more intense stories. Bill and Blake Meinhardt. Blake is sort of a prodigy of the guitar. He’s incredibly good — like studio recording good. But he has issues with autism. His father has been encouraging him through music to come out of that. So, Rock Camp is literally, I would argue, one of the most important things in Blake’s life. He’s become this really mature, outgoing kid. Now he’s a college student, who through his guitar came out of his shell.
Rock Cellar: The father and son relationships in Rock Camp are really interesting. In addition to the Meinhardts there’s another father-son bonding story.
Doug Blush: This one might bring the most tears of joy. Scott Keller is a terrific guy whom I’m glad I got to know. He lives in Southern California with his family. His son Jackson was born with severe birth defects — there’s brain damage issues. He was told like many parents early on, that there’s not much hope for Jackson, who won’t get that far. They underwent an incredibly intense regimen, let’s train his brain — they’ve done miracles with Jackson. He’s friendly, communicative — he can play, bass, the keyboards. He goes to Rock Camp and gets to do a session with some of the musicians there. It’s so heartwarming.
Scott is such a positive guy — one of the biggest Judas Priest fans of all time, really proud he got up to play with Rob Halford. By day, Scott is a corporate guy with a really successful career, but he’s truly a rock ‘n’ roller. He brought that to Blake and healed his son; Scott and his wife worked so hard to bring that whole other possibility to him.
Rock Cellar: Pistol is the only camper in Rock Camp who afterwards goes on to get a paying gig.
Doug Blush: Absolutely. And probably one of the best drummers, and was playing weekly shows. In his earlier life Pistol could have toured with Lenny Kravitz; if not for playing in a different gig, he would have gone off with Lenny Kravitz, and would have had a different history … In the film he gets to live that again and it inspired him to be more involved with what an amazing drummer he is. Pistol could absolutely sit in any studio and sub in for anybody. He’s honest, earnest and really believes in the power of music — which is what the whole idea of Rock Camp is, that music can heal, lift people up and is also a lot of fun.
The whole thing about Rock Camp is how transcendental it is. We’re talking about an experience where something you never thought was possible, becomes possible.
Everybody gets a moment where you’re playing as a group and you get into that groove, you know, the zone — in 20 Feet it was that whole thing of “finding the moment.” If you hit something that takes you out of your everyday experience and lifts you up, and then you get to bring an audience in on that, that’s really the spirit of music.
I know David Fishof felt that — making the Camp, he wanted to give other people that. It’s based on the joy of sharing that, and how do you get as many people to not just be an audience, but to live it.
During the pandemic Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp’s in person interactions have been suspended, but it is still presenting periodic online experiences, such as interactive master classes with Ted Nugent (author’s note: the price of admission does not include target practice), Chuck D, Felix Cavaliere, Alice Cooper, etc.
For more information about activities plus how to see the documentary Rock Camp, which opens January 15, see: Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp | Be In A Band with Rock Stars | Play Guitar, Bass, Keyboard, Drums, Vocals or Sing | Best Gift or Present For Musician or Music Fan (rockcamp.com).
April 1, 2021