AC/DC powers a dream

A Cary man strives to make a film about his favorite band

Staff writerAugust 1, 2010 

  • Two other rock documentaries with North Carolina connections are also in the works, both of them finished and seeking distribution.

    One is "Ain't In It For My Health" by UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus Jacob Hatley, a film about Levon Helm that played the Los Angeles Film Festival this summer.

    "I feel really confident we'll have distribution by the end of the summer," Hatley says. "We're just looking at the offers we have right now and trying to see what works best for everybody."

    The other is "Do It Again," which recounts former News & Observer staff writer Geoff Edgers' attempts to get The Kinks to reunite. "Do It Again" had a sold-out screening at April's Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, and it's still making the rounds of the festival circuit "from Wichita, Kan., to Warsaw, Poland."

    "We've had some interest, but haven't sold the film yet," Edgers says.

    David Menconi

— Kurt Squiers lives in the house of his dreams, but not because of the square footage or the floor plan. It's the house of his dreams because it holds his AC/DC room.

It's upstairs in the suburban manse Squiers shares with his wife and two kids - a place where your wildest dreams come with a devil-horn hand sign. The walls are covered with posters, pictures, magazine articles, dolls and articles of clothing bearing the likeness and logo of the legendary hard-rock band. There's also a framed AC/DC postage stamp from the group's native Australia, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame program from 2003 (the year AC/DC was inducted) and a shelf full of AC/DC books (there are more than you'd think).

"And this," Squiers says proudly, standing before a framed tank top of the sort that AC/DC singer Brian Johnson wears onstage. Squiers got it when he was on VH1, which profiled him as one of the ultimate AC/DC fans and filmed him on the front row of a show in 2001. It's signed by the band, and the frame includes backstage passes, tickets, set list and even the earplugs he wore that night.

"People ask, 'What would you save if the house was on fire?'" Squiers says. "After the kids and my wife, of course, I'd save this."

At age 41, Squiers is well-established in his chosen career of advertising. But that's just his job, because AC/DC is his passion. Think of him as a real-life Dewey Finn, Jack Black's character from the movie "School of Rock" - who, like Squiers, dressed up in a schoolboy outfit like AC/DC's Angus Young and banged away on a guitar.

In recent years, Squiers' AC/DC fandom has reach impressive (or alarming) heights. Since 2008, he's been making a movie, "Beyond the Thunder," about AC/DC's far-flung influence. Along with testimonials from average fans, Squiers has interview footage with a wide array of notables including Billy Joel, Keith Richards, Howard Stern, B.B. King, Norah Jones, Stephen King and many others.

An extended rough-cut version of the movie's trailer has played at an AC/DC exhibit in Australia and at an awards ceremony put on by London-based Classic Rock magazine, drawing universal raves. Squiers and his Maine-based partner, Gregg Ferguson, have sunk two years and $75,000 of their own money into it. And yet "Beyond the Thunder" might never be finished.

"We're out of money, and it does not seem like there's a light at the end of the tunnel," Squiers sighs. "I have no idea what we'll do."

It's a long shot, he admits. But hope springs eternal.

The quixotic quest is at least the third recent documentary project from men with North Carolina ties playing out their fascinations with rock stars from days gone by. For some of them, including Squiers, there's a whiff of midlife crisis to it.

"The idea of making a film as the new red Corvette makes perfect sense," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "It's a better and probably more satisfying way to have a midlife crisis. It allows you to be creative, and the documentary format allows you to make it about something that really excites you."

'Berry on steroids'

Three years ago, Squiers' family moved from Maine to Cary, where he works as a one-man agency and video-production company. Past and present clients include Microsoft, the New Orleans Saints and Sam Adams beer. He's had some prominent national spots. That car headlight commercial set to The Who's "I Can See For Miles"? That was one of his.

"That song cost almost $1 million to use," Squiers says. "But it sold a lot of headlights."

Squiers has been an AC/DC fan since age 10, when his older brothers brought home the group's "Highway to Hell" album. Before that, he'd been listening to Supertramp, Village People and the "Grease" soundtrack. AC/DC blew all that out of the water.

"It was like Chuck Berry on steroids," Squiers says with a smile. "Amazingly powerful. It did something to me. You want to be cooler than you really are when you're growing up, so you listen to what you think makes you 'tough.' It became a slight obsession.

"Well," he adds, "maybe more than slight. I just didn't want to admit it."

He was with the band

Squiers decided he did want to admit that in 2001, when VH1 was starting a new show called "FanClub." One episode sought "the ultimate AC/DC fan." So Squiers sent in video footage of himself in high school dressed up like Angus Young, playing at a school pep rally. He made the show and threw a huge viewing party when it aired.

This is it, Squiers thought. The pinnacle.

The VH1 taping was the first time Squiers met AC/DC, followed by chance encounters with band members in New York and Chicago. After meeting Johnson and bassist Cliff Williams in an elevator at the Chicago House of Blues, Squiers got to have a drink with them. The 20 minutes they spent together started the wheels turning.

At the time, Squiers and Ferguson were doing a lot of work for Microsoft, shooting documentary-style interviews of celebrities. Their initial idea was to do a behind-the-scenes look that showed AC/DC's members offstage.

They got their proposal into the hands of AC/DC's management, which politely declined ("We like what we saw, but probably not at this time."). Undeterred, Squiers and Ferguson decided instead to press on with a movie about AC/DC's fans.

"We wanted to show what people have done with the influence of AC/DC in their lives," Squiers says. "Not just musicians but athletes, actors, politicians, the military. In my own case, AC/DC has really influenced the way I design: Keep the message simple, strong, edgy, to the point."

Might as well rock

Thus inspired, Squiers and Ferguson dipped into savings and put their careers on hold to chase their dream.

They began shooting in 2008, when AC/DC released the album "Black Ice" and launched a world tour that is still going.

Among the unlikely notables featured in "Beyond the Thunder" are baseball pitcher Trevor Hoffman, who used to enter games to the strains of AC/DC's "Hells Bells"; Hayseed Dixie, a group that plays bluegrass versions of AC/DC songs; and "Beavis and Butt-Head"/"King of the Hill" cartoonist Mike Judge.

The pair's venture turned out to be well-timed, because there was no paying work to be had. As the recession deepened, jobs, advertising campaigns and companies disappeared. Ever the optimist, Squiers decided that was a sign.

"What better way to defeat the downturn than to make a documentary about AC/DC?" he asks with a laugh. "A lot of my friends and colleagues don't know what to do with their lives. The economy is crashing and burning; we're halfway through. So where am I? If this is the top of the bell curve, what am I doing?

"For me, it was like a light went on. It's the same sort of courage that makes 18-year-olds get on a bus to Hollywood. I feel like I have that courage now, too, although I also have a wife, two kids, a mortgage and a career. But there's still a little rock 'n' roll to tap into."

What his wife thinks

Squiers' wife, Andrea, who is a second-grade teacher, understands.

"I've never had second thoughts," she says. "I'm the one who said, 'This is your dream.' Although, as it's dragging on into the third year, we really could use that money for mortgage payments.

"But with great risk comes great rewards. Ever since I've known him, this has been a passion and a part of his fabric. It's the story he's been waiting to tell his whole life. How could I not be supportive?"

In terms of footage, Squiers estimates the movie is about 70 percent done. But what's missing is the hardest thing to get: permission to use AC/DC's music and likeness. And that's where they've run into what Squiers calls "the AC/DC fortress."

They've had no luck getting through to the band's management, despite a series of expensive gimmicks to wangle a pitch meeting: They sent a letter pleading their case and a copy of the trailer packaged inside a Marshall amplifier; a day planner with every day marked "Available" or "Call anytime"; and a bottle of Scotch in a suitcase covered with stickers of countries the band had just played.

"No response to anything," Squiers says. "So we gave that up, and we've kind of run out of gas. What happens next, I don't know."

AC/DC's management in New York did not respond to a request for comment.

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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