Memphis singer-songwriter Van Duren had a brief musical partnership with former Big Star members, Chris Bell and Jody Stephens, in the mid-1970s. As a solo artist, Duren was then picked up by ex-Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, and signed to Big Sound records, a fledgling label run by rock critic Jon Tiven.
His debut LP, Are You Serious, came out in 1977, but made scarcely any impact. The sound is akin to the power pop of Big Star, but more indebted to Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles work. Unlike Big Star, however, Duren wasn’t noticed and championed by the next generation of musicians.
It took a chance discovery by Sydney musician Wade Jackson – himself an avowed Big Star acolyte – to bring Duren’s music to a wider audience courtesy of the 2018 documentary film, Waiting: The Van Duren Story.
“I put a record out in 2015 with a friend of mine helping co-produce it,” Jackson says. “We’re obsessed with Ardent Studios in Memphis, especially with what Big Star had done there. A fellow from two hours north of London with about 45 Twitter followers put a tweet out saying, ‘For fans of Big Star, you should check out this album by Wade Jackson.’ Then about three weeks later he tweeted a picture of Van Duren’s first album, Are You Serious, and said, ‘I can’t believe no one’s ever heard this.’”
The Are You Serious cover image reminded Jackson of Todd Rundgren, which encouraged him to go hunting for Duren’s music. Although this proved a difficult task, finding one song on YouTube was enough to make him a Duren convert. The seeds of the film project were planted when Jackson’s friend, artist manager Greg Carey, came over for dinner.
“I’d just broken up with my wife, Greg’s business partner had just left and he’d broken his leg,” he says. “It was good to see each other and I put the album on in the background. Within seconds Greg stopped me and said, ‘Who’s this?’ and we listened to the record four or five times in a row and Greg kept asking me, ‘What do you know about this guy?’ At that stage it still hadn’t clicked that he was from Memphis or anything like that.”
Rapt with the sound and detecting a mystery to be unravelled, Carey suggested they make a Van Duren documentary. Jackson’s an experienced musician and Carey manages contemporary Australian acts like The Rubens and Urthboy, so they’re not industry tyros. However, neither of them had ever made a film let alone a documentary that required a good deal of scavenging to uncover the details of Duren’s damp squib of a career.
“I thought it’d just be a little ten minute film for YouTube, badly cut together and just trying to get his music out there a little bit,” Jackson says. “That’s when we realised there’s way more to this story than just getting people to listen to it.”
The film recaps Duren’s biography and the various mishaps that led to his disappearance from the music history books. There’s also a sub-narrative centred on Jackson and Carey’s discovery of Duren, their inexperience as filmmakers, and their initial connection with Duren via Facebook before meeting in person.
The film’s editor, Jonathan Sequeira – director of the 2017 Radio Birdman documentary, Descent Into the Maelstrom – is responsible for urging Jackson and Carey to include the more personal component.
“The entire time we were filming our journey on iPhones, just to get it on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter,” Jackson says. “Jonathan called and said, ‘I just saw a separate folder that said “social media”. All that stuff is fantastic’. And I went, ‘No, no that’s not for the film’. And he went, ‘No, there’s a story. This is you and Greg’s story’. He just cut a bit together and we saw it and went, ‘Ah, now I get it’.”
Waiting: The Van Duren Story is screening at Cinema Nova on Friday July 26 as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Tickets available at cinemanova.com.au.