A bit more than halfway through this two-hour documentary on the band Chicago, the movie catches a spark. We encounter the ’80s incarnation of the group, when the hits sung by bassist Peter Cetera-“Hard to Say I’m Sorry”; “Hard Habit to Break”; “You’re the Inspiration”-launched them into a new era of commercial success. But with that success came resentment from the other band members, feeling that future solo star Cetera and producer/hit maker David Foster were undoing the democracy that had been established as a core principle in the band’s beginning. Halfway through the film, at last we have that tried-and-true element of any compelling story, non-fictional or not: conflict.
Before that, Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago is both enlightening and frustrating. Right out of the gate, it races through the band’s origins before we can get our bearings to understand why we should care. How did those ubiquitous horns, so closely identified with Chicago’s sound, come to be? The film tells us next to nothing regarding each member’s inspirations, their early development as musicians, or how they found one another.
Plowing ahead ahead chronologically through drug abuse and death, the film doesn’t explore how the band managed to churn out so many albums year after year. Occasionally we get insight into the creation of hit songs like Lamm’s “25 or 6 to 4” and James Pankow’s “Just You ‘n’ Me.” These are like oases in a desert of period photos and videos. Pankow reflects on the band’s college-student fanbase in its early days, suggesting political affinity, but that’s as close as we get to figuring out or seeing what he means.
When Pardini allows the band to speak for itself through its live performances, we start to understand Chicago’s enduring legacy beyond the hit songs. Concert footage of guitarist Terry Kath justifies an anecdote, repeated by the band’s founders, that none other than guitar legend Jimi Hendrix heaped praise on Kath as the better guitarist of the two.
The fate of drummer Danny Seraphine follows Cetera’s exit and is another highlight—again, because conflict and resentment are the major forces behind this part of the film. Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, the doc fast-forwards through Chicago’s output from the ’90s onward, flashing the years on the screen over time-period photos. But Now More Than Ever finds it bearings again by eliciting some candid talk from the band about what lies ahead, and Pardini delivers a couple of nice edits that segue smoothly between different performances of the same song.
Close-ups of coarse black sand running through an hourglass are director Peter Pardini’s artistic keystone, one he references between the interviews and enough archival footage for at least two films. Pardini’s uncle is Lou Pardini, a member of the band since 2010, undoubtedly a connection that must have facilitated access to the trove of archival footage that appears to be used because so much of it exists, and not always for any bearing on the story being told at a particular time.
The lack of participation by Cetera and Jim Guercio, the group’s producer from its inception through most of the 1970s, is acknowledged, and it makes one wish they had decided otherwise. Now More Than Ever brings up Guercio’s “creative community,” and we’re left wanting more: to understand how the sounds came together in the studio, the role Guercio played, and what it was like to be in a band that didn’t have a dominant personality that could connect with audiences. (The group’s logo is likely more well-known than any member.) That the band deserves a documentary accounting of its fortunes should be obvious—earlier this month, Chicago was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—but probably something more than this, which will only really find a very receptive audience among longtime fans.
Director: Peter Pardini
Starring: Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, Walter Parazaider, Danny Seraphine
Release Date: February 20, 2016