The major takeaway from director Scott Crawford’s documentary is that Creem, the innovative and irreverent magazine that ran from 1969 to 1989, was a very important artifact in rock music history. Realistically, that would be the premise of a good, comprehensive documentary about such a magazine – that it was an important part of the history of its primary subject – and the body of the documentary to follow would be an essay in support of the idea. Crawford, though, is pounding a single note of hagiography in Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, which tracks the outlet from its origins to its final issue. We get a clear-enough picture of that journey, but what we don’t get is any sort of challenge to its legacy.

There would seem to be plenty to challenge, too. This is the fundamental problem of the documentary, in fact. One gets the feeling that the environment was toxic for everyone involved, who came together in the wake of the Sexual Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps out of duty to rock ‘n’ roll music. One of many interview subjects comments that the unrest of the time perhaps drew some of the youth closer to the medium with which they were already in love. It’s a truth that resonates, particularly in our current health crisis, during which streaming options across all media have become an oasis. This is one of the few truths upon which the documentary touches, though, as otherwise it seems to be dealing with contradictory ideas.

There is the legacy of the outlet itself, which is the sole function of the interviews, although that the key voices involved are no longer with us is, if not a problem with the documentary, a hurdle not likely to be jumped by Crawford and his producers. Those would be Barry Kramer, co-founder and publisher of Creem, and legendary critic Lester Bangs, who would become editor in 1971. We learn a bit about the two men, neither of whom comes across as particularly sympathetic through the stories told by their assistants, staff writers and other personnel among the magazine, so named by influential co-founder Tony Reay for his love of a certain rock group of the era. Kramer comes off as overly combative, and Bangs was notorious for his uncensored writing.

It often got the magazine into hot water, although that was a position with which its publisher and editor were quite accustomed and even comfortable. From the start of the outlet’s run, it had sought to be an alternative to Rolling Stone or any of the more family-friendly outlets (Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers both commentate to the effect of not wanting your parents to discover an issue in your possession). Indeed, one could argue – though many evade such an argument – that the magazine was simply out to shock anyone who read it. This wouldn’t be enormously surprising, considering that it was borne of a revolutionary period in rock music (at the time of its first publication, the festival at Woodstock, New York, was only five months away).

It’s the evasion of that argument or any that might reflect poorly on the magazine that kills any momentum Crawford might have with his subject, and the whole thing provides a good reminder that the treatment, not the subject, is the key to a good documentary. We eventually catch up to the untimely deaths of Kramer and Bangs in 1981 and 1982, the streamlining of Creem to appeal to a bigger audience, and its eventual shuttering due to dwindling interest (though Cameron Crowe, once a contributing editor, sparked interest in it once again with his film Almost Famous and its portrayal of Bangs by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Like everything else in the film, though, this passage is rushed through in Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, a documentary too brief for its subject.

What we don’t get is any sort of challenge to the legacy of Creem in this documentary.
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