Creating an account with Tribecafilm.com gives you access to more features and services, like our weekly newsletter and other special features just for the film community.SIGN UP
At Wednesday night's premiere of Bon Jovi: When We Were Beautiful, the band tries to quietly sneak to their seats after the house lights came down, but that doesn’t fool this crowd. They are here to see Bon Jovi, and to bring home photographic proof. Immediately, a cheer goes out and flashes start a-popping. They don't stop for a solid five minutes, with people from all sections at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center aiming their cameras blindly in the direction of Jon Bon Jovi, Tico Torres, Dave Bryan, and Richie Sambora.
The woo-hoos don’t stop during the movie either, as this crowd is clearly fired up and ready for a concert. And they are not disappointed. Directed by photographer Phil Griffin, When We Were Beautiful follows the band on their Lost Highway tour in 2007 and 2008, juxtaposing intimate interviews with the band with rollicking concert footage that illustrates the magnitude of their worldwide fame.
Before the screening, Griffin explained how he made the leap from band photographer to documentarian. On tour with Bon Jovi in Minnesota, Griffin took a picture of Jon that prompted him to comment, “Man, you really got me. I’m the grumpy old guy in the corner.” Appreciating Griffin’s eye for seeing more than just “the rock band,” Jon asked him, “How do you feel about making a film?” Griffin said, “If we together can be as truthful on film as we’ve been in these photographs, then I’m in.”
To those of us old enough to remember the band’s early days, it’s shocking to realize that over 25 years have passed since Bon Jovi first played Madison Square Garden. Near the start of the movie, Jon exclaims in wonder, “That’s a quarter of a century. I am amazed I’m saying something like that.” We then see the band take the stage—from their vantage point—looking out at tens of thousands of screaming fans. Before the first chords of Livin’ on a Prayer, however, the film abruptly shifts gears, prompting an audible “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” from the audience.
(Speaking of the audience, they have not been silent the entire time. Each time one of the band members first appears on screen, they fistpump and applaud. And that’s even before we see Jon without his shirt.)
Throughout the film, we learn about life on the road, and how things are wildly different now than they were in the beginning, when the hair was bigger, the guys were single, and the living was reckless. These days, they have families, and, though they love their jobs, they ache to be home. “We used to be able to bring our wives on the road,” Jon explains. “But now my family has to stay at home because we have four kids. They have to go school.”
Jon is both wistful and pragmatic about the reality of the life he leads. As the film takes us from Munich to Dublin to Marbella to the Middle East, he explains, “I travel the world, but I don’t see the world. I see hotel rooms. I go from the hotel room to the gym to the arena to the bar to the hotel room… And to go from 70,000 maniacs screaming their heads off back to the car and hotel room all by myself, it can be a shock. It’s a lonely existence. Too many nights, I am just missing my kids.” (Audience: “Awwwwwww!!!!”)
On the flip side, he likes what he gets from performing. “People say, ‘I really want to play in small, intimate clubs.’ Fuck that! I want to sell out [stadiums]. More than once,” he adds, with a grin. And he realizes Bon Jovi has created “a body of work that has an impact across generations. I have no artistic regrets.” They are in Abu Dhabi, about to play the biggest concert the city has ever seen, and Jon says, “There’s an 18-year-old boy from Lebanon here who is a huge fan. He wasn’t even born when we made our first record.” Again, he seems amazed by the path his life has taken.
Though there are millions and millions of fans, Jon is also aware of the flipside. “When you are commercially successful, the critics are always going to take potshots.” Acknowledging the positive reviews he’s had for his acting roles (Moonlight and Valentino, Ally McBeal), he jokes, “I’m the Tom Cruise of the music business, and the Elvis Costello of the movie business.”
There is plenty of concert footage, with all the most familiar tunes, and a few unexpected ones as well. (Jon sings a plaintive version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and boasts that Cohen has said Bon Jovi’s version is his favorite.) The crowd sings along with every song, and would have probably held up lighters if allowed.
Interspersed with the music, the film explores the dynamics of this foursome who have been on a 25-year rollercoaster ride together. As a group, they hired a shrink (before Metallica famously did in Some Kind of Monster) back in the ‘80s, because they realized the band would fall apart if they didn’t find a way to work together. (They were referred to their therapist by Aerosmith.) By 1992, they had learned to communicate and sort things out in a healthy way. Most of the conflict seems to have stemmed from Jon’s breakout (and “namesake”) status, but now they have all accepted that he is—and will always be—the band’s leader. Tico admits, “He’s a good leader, and he’s strong.” Dave agrees, “It works.” Jon acknowledges the formidable weight on his shoulders: “I am not just a guy in a rock band. I am the CEO of a major corporation who has been running a brand for 25 years.”
Individually, the guys have matured as well. Tico got sober, has a son, creates art, and seems very together. (Jon: “Tico was a mean drunk, and now he’s worked out all his demons. I’m a happy drunk. I sit here with a bottle of wine, smile, and go to sleep. It’s the highlight of my day.”) Dave has started writing musicals, which seems to delight him. (Jon: “It’s great that Dave has something all his own, something that has nothing—less than nothing—to do with me.”) And Richie, having been through a very public divorce (from Heather Locklear) and all its subsequent messiness, also seems to have come through the other side. His adorable daughter Ava shows up a few times. The night Bon Jovi is to play Central Park, someone asks him, “Isn’t Ava in town?” He laughs, “Yeah, but she’s going to see the Jonas Brothers tonight. She’s like, ‘Fuck you, Dad. I love Nick!’”
The hair is shorter, their lives are tamer, and there are a few more wrinkles on Bon Jovi's handsome face. But the fans don't care. All in all, everyone seems satiated with this peek backstage. With a final woo-hoo and more flashes as the credits roll, the affection for Jon and the boys is palpable.
Bon Jovi: When We Were Beautiful will screen again Saturday night.