OCEAN CITY — In less than a month’s time, things are going to change drastically for documentary filmmaker and Berlin native John Chester.
With the DVD release of his acclaimed documentary “Rock Prophecies” set for distribution later this month, and widespread airing on PBS soon to follow, the Berlin native who now calls California his home is primed for millions of people to see his moving documentary film, which follows legendary rock and roll photographer Robert Knight on a personal, artistic, and professional journey.
Knight was the only photographer in attendance at guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughn’s final performance before Vaughn perished in a helicopter accident in 1990, and those photographs, along with some of the earliest photographs of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, along with Knight’s close personal relationship with some of the biggest names in music history, have made him an iconic figure in the world of music photography.
Yet, Knight, as with many artists, struggles with “becoming an old man in a young man’s game”, and is unsure of his legacy as a 40-year professional, and struggles with that during the film, as well as caring for his mother, who is battling Alzheimer’s.
The film follows Knight as he talks with such musical icons as Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Slash, Steve Vai and Kenny Wayne Sheppard, and shows him trying to help up-and-coming bands like Australian-based Sick Puppies and 16-year-old guitar prodigy Tyler Dow Bryant make it to the proverbial big time.
Chester says that when the film’s producer Tim Kaiser (Seinfeld and Will and Grace) told him about how Knight just walked into his office and claimed to have, amongst other things, followed Led Zeppelin around for their first year in the US, and been close friends with Elton John, he had to see for himself if Knight was for real.
“I remember getting to the restaurant a bit early to meet Robert, and I had seen him across the room sitting with another gentleman, so, I walked over to introduce myself and he invited me to sit down and he turned and proceeded to introduce me to a guy sitting there with a hat on backwards and shiny aviator sunglasses and he says, ‘John, you know Slash right?’ I knew right then that we had something,” Chester said.
Chester calls Knight the “Forrest Gump” of musical history, as he notes that he’s been shooting pictures at some of the most poignant and historic moments in rock and roll history.
“After that first meeting, I shot him just telling his stories for several hours, and I thought that was what the documentary was going to be, but, as this project evolved over the four years it took us to make, it turned into something much deeper and meaningful even to viewers who aren’t huge music fans,” Chester said.
Chester caught the filmmaking bug by starting a little show called “OC Live” during his time at Stephen Decatur High School, which played on the local cable access channel.
He says that the last “real” job that he held was in Ocean City at either Phillips Crab House or working part-time as DJ Batman’s assistant for a summer.
Chester says the interesting characters and wide array of personalities in Ocean City made him want to be a documentary filmmaker.
“There’s such a transient population here, and there are just so many interesting people with great stories to tell,” said Chester. “To be honest, Boardwalk Elvis is one of the most interesting and quirky characters that you’ll ever want to meet. Millions of people know who that guy is, and he is just as interesting if not more as any rock star that I’ve talked with.”
There’s a moment in “Rock Prophecies” when Chester and Knight fly to England to interview uber-private guitar legend Beck when Chester said he’d realized that he had come quite a long way as a filmmaker from his humble beginnings of shooting little stories for the high school A/V club.
“Jeff Beck fixed us salad, and as we were eating together and I figured that since we flew 6,000 miles I should ask him to play, and he said ‘sure’ and proceeded to let me film him playing in his house for like 45 minutes,” said Chester. “I knew that we were getting something really special because he’s never really let anyone in his house, and he very rarely plays when requested.”
“Rock Prophecies” will be available at most major retailers in September, and you can learn more about John Chester and his other films and projects at www.johnchester.com.