To great fanfare and anticipation Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago premiered on CNN on New Year’s Day. Filmmaker Peter Pardini and Chicago have collectively produced a definitive history of the band, extensive enough to delight long-time fans and concise enough to tell their story to a wider audience and for the posterity of rock and roll history. This film cuts through the mystery and the myth, and to tell the tale Pardini intersperses vintage footage and photographs with original interviews and stylized cinematic recreations. Earlier in the year, the film debuted at several festivals, winning the “Best of Fest” audience choice award at its debut at the 2016 Sedona International Film Festival and also the People’s Choice award at the Fort Myers Film Festival. A release on disc with bonus materials is forthcoming. Since its showing at the festivals, the film has been updated to reflect Chicago’s long overdue 2016 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Now More Than Ever transcends the genre of rock documentaries. Most importantly, the film retains focus on why their story is important and compelling: the quality of Chicago’s entire catalog of music and their bond as a band of brothers. Peter Pardini brought a refreshing perspective to documenting Chicago’s history on screen. He is the nephew of Chicago’s keyboardist and vocalist Lou Pardini and has worked with the band on projects for the past five years. Chicago’s sound engineer Tim Jessup took the film from the theater to our living rooms by mixing it in stereo specifically for the CNN Films broadcast. Those who saw it at the festivals were treated to the full 5.1 surround sound mix, and it is hoped that the 5.1 mix will be available when the film is released on disc so audiophiles can hear the soundtrack as it sounded in theaters.
A culmination of three and one-half years of work by a dedicated team pays off in a forever endearing and glorious ride through the history of a great American rock band. The editing of the vintage footage, a perfectly paced narrative, and recreations elevate the film to cinematic grace. Pardini’s possesses a delicate sense of perspective, creating the effect of the viewer as a fly-on-the-wall for the most iconic and prescient moments: the lights on the piano keys symbolizing Jimmy Pankow’s divine inspiration leading to Just You ‘N’ Me and the “flashing lights” of Robert Lamm’s 25 or 6 to 4. The use of the chimes from Fancy Colours as a harbinger and symbol of their most difficult moments throughout the film was truly clever.
From Robert Lamm, Jimmy Pankow, Walter Parazaider, and (especially) Lee Loughnane, we see their honest emotions, their humor, their strength as people who have been tested and came out stronger, and, in the end, the grace of their years is touching. It is now forever impossible to call them a band without a face. The 1960s and 1970s are a time often clouded in a mist of nostalgia, but though the clarity of hindsight and maturity, an unvarnished picture emerges from their remembrances. Robert Lamm breaks down the myth of Caribou Ranch. It was the “devil’s playground” in his words, not really a creative community but an isolated and hedonistic milieu that was a “recipe for disaster.” Robert also emphasized how they navigated a changing culture throughout the decades, and by extension the sheer impossibility of the band and music staying the same.
Chicago always spoke to me across time, dusty records found in old crates and at tag sales, intriguing because their music was so unlike anything else I had heard and yet unknowable because there was so little of substance written about them before the digital age. My experience as someone two generations removed from the classic era of Chicago meant that most of their history is new to me. It was a different time when they were a young band, when music was a social experience and Chicago Transit Authority spread via word of mouth and FM radio on campuses, the old school version of “going viral.” I was thrilled with the additional insight into Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon, “a series of classical movement sewn together” in Jimmy’s words, all the movements except Colour My World originally conceived with Baroque titles. I can also imagine all the inspiring words in Robert Lamm’s lyric book that maybe never made it to record. Lee’s early feelings, fearing fame and feeling inadequate as compared to his bandmates, tells something about his current drive and dedication to his trumpet and also about the quality of music for which Chicago has always been known. Yet, with all the romanticism of the past, I felt a sense of admiration for the men they are now.
Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago is a compelling lesson in talent, ambition, adaptation, group dynamics, hardship and terrible loss. Out of one tragedy comes an affirmation of life, and that is the grace of the men who carry on the legacy of their brother Terry Kath. Ultimately, Chicago’s story is one of perseverance and rebirth. It would be ever more heartwarming should this film introduce another generation to Chicago’s artistry and break down the misconceptions of them as merely a ballad band or something belonging to your parents. With the wide reach of CNN, that transmission has surely happened already. I wholeheartedly recommend this film to fans of all ages and also as an introduction to those beyond their loyal fanbase. Any musician will learn from their story what it takes to stay grounded in a musical vision while being dynamic and flexible at the same time.
Congratulations to Peter Pardini, Chicago’s wunderkind filmmaker, for letting this story tell itself and creating a comprehensive and exhilarating historical overview in one gorgeous film. Thank you Lee, Robert, Jimmy, and Walter for your wisdom, for dedicating yourselves to the music you share with us, and all the sacrifices it entails. In the end, we learned the story from the only people qualified to tell it, Chicago themselves. While recording the Chicago Transit Authority album, Walter said, “this is gonna be forever.” Amen to that.
(John Honoré as Terry Kath. Photo courtesy of Peter Pardini.)