Music business legend Irving Azoff said it best in the documentary “Now More Then Ever: The History of Chicago” when he said, “The best American bands are the Eagles, The Beach Boys and Chicago.”
And while the statement could be endlessly debated by music snobs and scholars, there’s no denying the fact that Chicago has been performing consistently for 50 years, selling more than 40 million records along the way. And after years of being overlooked, the band in 2016 was inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame.
In the 50 years since Chicago formed, the band has seen its share of highs, including several hit songs and multi-platinum albums. But the lows were also there — the inner turmoil and departure of founding member Peter Cetera at the height of the band’s 1980s success and, most notably, the death of founding member Terry Kath.
Many people have come and gone in the world of Chicago in the span of five decades. There was Kath and Cetera, Donnie Dacus, drummer Danny Seraphine, Dawayne Bailey, Bill Champlin and, most recently, Cetera’s replacement of more than 30 years, Jason Scheff.
But core members Robert Lamm, Lee Loghnane, Jimmy Panko and Walt Parazaider have kept the train rolling. The band’s current lineup, which features Keith Howland, Tris Imboden, Walfredo Reyes Jr., Lou Pardini, Ray Herrmann (at times) and newcomer Jeff Coffey may be the best live performance incarnation of the band since Karth’s death in 1978.
Filmmaker Peter Pardini was given unrestricted access to the band to create “Now More Than Ever,” which provides an unflinching look into what makes — an almost breaks — the “rock band with horns.” The filmed debuted on CNN on Jan. 1 to mostly glowing reviews.
In an interview with the Sun Herald, Pardini describes his three-year labor of love in crafting the Chicago documentary he wanted to make.
How did you get exposed to the music of Chicago? Were you a fan before Lou (Pardini’s uncle) joined the band?
I’m definitely a fan. It wasn’t like it is now where I know every note of every song on every album, but I always found their music really interesting. The arrangements of the songs, even as a 10-year-old, hearing the horn run on “25 or 6 to 4,” there was just something different about it. I could hear the opening riff of “Saturday in The Park” over and over and it never gets old to me. Their biggest asset is they can make something sound so simple even though it’s very intricate when you really look at it.
I was 22 when Lou joined the band in 2009. He had been a musician my entire life and he had filled in a time or two for Bill Champlin. When he was made an official member, it was really cool. I never really talked to him too much about his music because that’s all the rest of our family wanted to talk about. So, I would talk about me and my film-making and hope that one day there would be a chance for us to work together. And one day they needed someone to come in and shoot a behind the scenes for a Christmas thing they were doing and he recommended me.
This is actually your second documentary on the band. You also directed “Chicago World Tour 2011— Backstage Pass,” which I thought was very well done. I will say that I was surprised to see how hard the band still works — running charts and practicing harmonies.
I got to go to Europe and document them. There are few moments in life where you are doing something and you don’t have to wait until four years later to say, “That was awesome.” My first full year with the band, 2011, was just surreal. When you’re on the bus and you’re sitting next to Jimmy Panko who is making a sandwich at the deli counter, it just seems crazy.
I can attribute the concert footage as coming off as so energetic because I filmed everything and I was so excited to be there. I think that came through in the footage. I filmed the show every night from a different angle. It was so great to watch them and get to know the music in and out.
My experience with the band for more than six years now is that no one ever tells me what to do, which I think is kind of weird. I fully expected to show up and have everyone tell me, “Do this — film it this way.” But even with this documentary, there’s never been a moment when anyone in the band told me how to film it or what to do. They’ve allowed me to mature as a filmmaker.
I thought the documentary was not a propaganda piece and was very balanced. The Washington Post and former drummer Danny Seraphine, who went on a rant on Facebook, thought otherwise.
I want to address that. That’s always going to happen with any documentary, but that really kind of hurt me a little bit. I made this documentary with four or five of my friends in my apartment. Just because it says “produced by Chicago,” some people have a problem with that. But let’s be honest, 98 percent of the reviews have been great, so I can’t complain. But there’s the two percent that’s just a flat-out lie that really bothers me because it’s based on no evidence. I know what I did and I put a lot of work into it.
But for someone to come out for me like that, and no offense to Danny, because I thought he came across great in the documentary and I’m grateful he agreed to be in it, but for him to come out and bash me like that, is his choice and it’s not based on any reality. He was nothing but cordial when I did the interviews with him. I did three hours with him and I let him say what he wanted to say and that’s what’s in the movie. I made that movie over three years. It was a long period of getting it finished but I’m glad because we got to end with the Hall of Fame induction.
Was there ever a point when you thought Cetera was going to tell his side of the story?
There was a point when I thought I may have gotten to actually speak to him on the phone, but it never got to even that. The sense I got, is that his people thought he should do it and David Foster, who’s close to him, thought it was something he should do, but I only heard his voice once. David Foster was the only person who could get in touch with him.
I could tell in Peter’s voice that he was hedging his bets, so to speak. He seems to think that whatever was said would be sliced and diced and that the band would be editing it. I told David if he says that, to tell him I was editing it in my apartment and the band has never even seen it.
He said, “OK, well, I’ll call the kid,” and he never called.
David Foster was the most hospitable guy we interviewed. He’s a confident guy, but he does have 16 Grammys and he has had his hand in some of the greatest music of all time. He’s never accused me of editing him.
Were you disappointed when Bill Champlin blew off participating in the film?
Yes, because I was disappointed when anyone wouldn’t do it. I had seen the Eagles documentary and everyone showed up for that. If you’re doing a band documentary, you want to get all of the band members in it.
I never took Bill Champlin as personally blowing me off, I think it’s just because of the history of the group, which I don’t understand because I wasn’t there.
The band’s getting rave reviews with Jeff Coffey. Have you seen him perform?
Yes. He’s great. He has a tenor voice like Jason but he’s his own singer. It makes you sort of rediscover the songs. It’s amazing that about a month in of filling in for Jason, he was playing the Hollywood Bowl and he just killed it. He went from no one really knowing who he was to the entire Chicago fan world waiting for him to screw up — but he didn’t.