Through the eyes of its wide-eyed teenage protagonist, director and Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe captured the misadventures of a struggling mid-level band grappling with success in the film Almost Famous. The fictional band Stillwater travel across the country comfortably by bus, stay in luxurious hotels, and constantly tussle with their management and record company regarding their image.
The Academy Award-winning film glamorizes the life of the touring musician. Phoenix filmmaker Matty Steinkamp’s latest documentary, Snake River Blues, paints a different picture for touring troubadours.
Brandon Decker doesn't have a bus or an expense account to pay for hotels. He is beholden only to himself, not music executives eager to shape him into what they think people want. The songwriter from Sedona and namesake of the psychedelic folk band decker. conquered numerous personal and financial obstacles in order earn his shot at the big time on his own terms.
Steinkamp wanted to capture Decker’s journey from Arizona to New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall, where Decker had a monthlong residency last fall to promote the band’s album that shares its name with the 22-minute documentary. The local filmmaker embedded himself with the band for a year as Decker recorded and toured the country with his latest opus. Steinkamp captured the highs and lows of an uncompromising artist obsessed with sharing his talent with the world.
“If anyone with responsible financial decision-making skills took a look at what we did, they would say you can’t do the trip,” Decker recalls. “We said, ‘We are going to do this and everything else can sort itself out.’ We didn’t know where we were going to stay. We were scrambling for lodging. Meals were on the table as optional.”
That presented a challenge for Steinkamp. “The toughest thing for me about [creating] the film is how do we capture the band getting out there to reach fans and show the happiness that comes from the struggle," he says.
The short film premieres at Phoenix’s FilmBar on May 18.
Creative moviegoers eager to play a drinking game for every time Decker is shown frowning will find an Uber home unnecessary. Steinkamp shows a songwriter who thrives under the pressure of proving himself to The Big Apple while preparing for the exhausting month of performing that awaits. You see Decker and bandmate Amber Johnson playing street corners and subway stations with tenacious smiles their faces. Determined to make the most of their opportunity, the duo turned the four shows they booked before their arrival into 20 shows in 23 days.
“There were a lot of challenging times filled with frustration,” Decker says of the experience, “I had a couple of meltdowns for sure. The reality was it was a hard and exhausting experience. We were living this mammoth project and it required a lot of work. The only option was to be absorbed in it.”
“Overcoming these obstacles that are there, I think that is what makes or breaks a talented artist,” Steinkamp says.
Steinkamp and Decker have been collaborating since they met in Flagstaff during their college years at Northern Arizona University. They've shot several music videos and Steinkamp’s debut feature-length Play The Documentary. One of Steinkamp’s goals with the latter project was to inspire people to express themselves melodiously. He had a similar goal in mind with Snake River Blues. Steinkamp wanted to follow Decker forging his own path to prosperity with the goal of motivating the local musicians he knows to take that next step toward their own success.
“I think that everything that I am working on is to give people an understanding that you can do what you want to do and follow your dreams,” Steinkamp says, “I’m definitely trying to encourage and show Arizona artists they are not behind because they are here.”
In addition to the documentary, Decker has a lot to show for his hard work on the East Coast. He forged professional relationships, including one with independent label The Royal Potato Family, which is releasing Into The Red, a retrospective of decker. songs as well as two new tracks. The album is scheduled to arrive in late summer.
On a personal level, Decker's proud he was able to successfully showcase in New York City. It may not have landed him on the cover of Rolling Stone, but it proves that there is a kernel of truth in those lyrics Frank Sinatra sang in his theme for the film New York, New York. If he can make it there, he can make it anywhere.
Snake River Blues premieres on Thursday, May 18 at 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. at Film Bar, 815 North Second Street. Admission is $6, which includes a meet-and-greet after each showing.