There might have been more than one — or 10 — exclamation points on the e-mail that Don Argott sent back to Kathy Rivkin Daum, the Vice President at BMG, after she had e-mailed him late one night about the possibility of making a film about Ronnie James Dio.
“I don’t think she had any idea who she was dealing with,” Argott laughs, about finally sparking to something after the two had talked for some time about working together on a film about one of the music conglomerate’s many legacy acts. “It’s like when you’re drilling for oil and all of a sudden you hit it. That e-mail went to the right person, for sure.”
Of course, Daum had to have some idea of who she was talking to when Argott, Demien Fenton and Sheena Joyce have turned their Philadelphia-based 9.14 Pictures into the first place one would look to make a rock doc that’s uncommonly spiritually aligned with its subject ever since making their 2005 breakthrough “Rock School.” However, Argott and Fenton, who would come to co-direct “Dio: Dreamers Never Die,” knew more about the soulful frontman for Black Sabbath, Rainbow and Dio than they typically do when they may identify as metalheads as much as filmmakers and were jumping at the bit to tell the definitive story of the singer who revolutionized the form.
For anyone who might dismiss metal as just noise, “Dio Dreamers Never Die” illuminates the artistry of the music in documenting Dio’s unlikely career, starting as a singer who could hit the high notes as part of a Four Seasons-esque quartet called The Redcaps, yet at the turn of the ‘60s their songs were out of step with the increasingly radical times, leaving Dio to look ahead and bring a level of vocal range that typically wasn’t associated with metal to the genre when he joined Black Sabbath after original frontman Ozzy Ozbourne left. Looking abroad for guitarists during the ‘80s when everyone else was searching for the next Eddie Van Halen, Dio would add new wrinkles to the genre that built up his stature as one of its leading lights, despite his humble height which is noted time and again in “Dreamers Never Die.”
Clearly coming to the biography as fans first and filmmakers second, though they happen to be among the best at what they do, Argott and Fenton fill the film with the excitement of laying hands on a new Dio album and the frenetic energy around metal at its height in the ‘80s before it was overtaken by the popularity of grunge in the ‘90s and their enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. With the film set to blow the roof of the Paramount Theater when it premieres this week at SXSW, the co-directors spoke about how making a film about Dio opened up a larger opportunity to look insightfully at the history of rock music and getting goosebumps at the discovery of recording studio outtakes.
As fans of metal, was this an opportunity to tell the entire story of it? Because it’s all in Ronnie’s story.
Demian Fenton: It really is. That’s the thing about Ronnie’s life. It coincides with the whole history of rock and roll, and Ronnie’s an interesting guy because he’s old school, Italian, proper. He’s the antithesis of a rocker. That’s the beauty of this story. He’s not this wild man at the strip club, so we talk about how does this guy from upstate New York who’s a Frank Sinatra-style crooner end up in 1986 battling a 30-foot-tall, animatronic, fire-breathing dragon? And you get to go on that whole journey and I can sit around and drink beer, talk about documentaries and heavy metal forever, so it was perfect.
Don Argott: And we met Wendy [Dio, his wife and longtime manager] and came to find out that she’d been trying to get a project together with Ronnie for a number of years, but didn’t find the right group of people. Luckily, the timing worked out for us and we were huge fans of Ronnie to start out with, but then, we still have to figure out how to tell a great story that appeals to not just fans, but people hopefully outside of Dio fans. A film like this is really it’s as hard as it is to make, we have done documentaries that are controversial. and we’ve done things that are more the darker side of humanity, but it’s really nice when you can get in and tell somebody’s story in celebration of who they are.
Was there anything that took this in a direction you hadn’t expected?
Don Argott: Talking to people that Ronnie knew and just hearing how emotional [they were] 10 or 11 years since Ronnie had passed away. When they talked about him dying, it was like it just had happened. It’s still that visceral and painful because Ronnie was clearly that big of a presence in people’s lives. And that’s people he knew. Then there’s people like us who didn’t know him, but he was equally a big part of our lives. When he died, it certainly affected Dem and I considerably. Some people like Ronnie become your guiding light when you’re a fan of their music [because] that music gets you through really difficult times. He never lets you down because he’s always there, from a musical standpoint, so that void that gets left behind when you realize that the world doesn’t exist with Ronnie James Dio in it anymore, it’s bleak. For us, we just really wanted to honor how Ronnie affected people’s lives for the people that gave us their time and were able to share their stories with us.
It’s been fascinating to follow your careers because in spite of delivering satisfying films, you don’t take the same approach twice in these profiles when there is a pretty tried-and-true formula. There are some fictional interjections in this, but not to the extent of “Framing John Delorian” for example. Was this one an interesting one?
Demian Fenton: It was because something you learn after working together almost 20 years is how to analyze and assess stories before you get started. If I were to ever teach a documentary film class, I would focus a lot on choosing the project and understanding what’s coming down the pipe for you. You never are going to be able to predict everything, but you can really try to sort out what the positive aspects of a project are and what the challenges will be.
Not having Ronnie here with us was a huge challenge [when we] didn’t want to tell a story that was just a bunch of facts coming at you, which a lot of times documentaries about rock and rollers who are no longer with us feel like. So you have to learn how to counterbalance the fact that there are a lot of archival photos and footage.
There are also these moments that are very cinematic in Ronnie’s life that just seem to work in this recreation fashion, and we also felt like we were those 15-year-old metalheads in the AV room giving the presentation on Ronnie James Dio, so we embraced that. You’ll see in the film, there’s the graphic treatment feels like an overhead projector that you had in the classroom in the ’80s and a lot of videos stopping, starting. The recreations feel like somebody found them in the garage on film, and we embraced that whole thing. The nature of the project always guides your language.
One of the choice moments you decide to recreate is the photo shoot for what was the inspiration for the “Holy Diver” cover based on Ronnie’s dream of a guy covered in chains submerged in the ocean. What was it like to do that yourselves?
Don Argott: That was a lot of fun. As soon as Gene told the story, we were like, “Man, we could do something really cool and fun here with these anecdotal stories and bring them to life.” And we did film at Paradise Cove in Los Angeles where Gene tells us the story, but since we’re based in the east coast, we actually shot the recreation in Atlantic City in February. We had a blast doing that and that was the first recreation that we did, but it informed, oh, we should do this more throughout the film and pick moments that we can use this device and spread it out.
This really did give me an appreciation of the music I didn’t have before, especially coming from the generation just after with grunge. That seems like it must come from the knowledge you have of it, so was it exciting to bring up what may have seemed like musical minutiae to get these insights?
Don Argott: Yeah, that’s part of the cool thing about documentaries. You learn stuff and we become subject matter experts by the end of these projects [because] we put a lot of ourselves and our time into them for sometimes multiple years. But Ronnie was somebody we knew a lot about going in, but there was a lot that we didn’t know. And it’s important to highlight especially even within heavy metal and grunge, they’re big, blanket terms that become a catch-all. They’re not the most descriptive or accurate all the time.
Early heavy metal, like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and bands like that are born out of the blues, [with] Jimi Hendrix taking the blues and electrifying it and then Black Sabbath and Zeppelin taking that a step further. So when Ronnie and Richie got together, their version of heavy metal is not born out of the blues. It’s born more from classical music, and there’s a straighter line to a band like Iron Maiden, frankly, from Rainbow than Black Sabbath, in the early ’70s. Then with grunge, the grunge guys were really just doing what Black Sabbath was doing in the ’70s and then merging that with punk rock in the 80’s – [at least] in Nirvana’s case. But then Soundgarden, I would say is probably pulling more from Dio in elements in terms of the way Chris Cornell sang.
I’m fascinated by those things, and I always feel like it’s a lot more interesting that when you can break out of the big buckets of “Oh, this is heavy metal” and “This is grunge” and “This is pop music” because there’s so much more that’s interesting to explore within that.
Was there a piece of archival that blew your mind when you got your hands on it?
Demian Fenton: When we were with Vinny Appice, who played drums in Black Sabbath and Dio, he busted out basically a shoebox that had rehearsal tapes in it and we shot him playing back these tapes. We had to pinch ourselves. We’re hearing riffs that they didn’t use when they were writing “Holy Diver” and alternate versions of songs where Ronnie’s messing around with the vocals and hearing stuff come together. Hearing a raw tape of the power of Ronnie’s voice in a shitty rehearsal space was just amazing. That one day was completely mind-blowing for us.
You have such a connection to SXSW, going all the way back to “Rock School” and eventually premiering “Last Days Here” at the festival. What’s it like to be coming back to Austin, especially with a film like this?
Demian Fenton: Like any film, it’s a bit nerve-wracking. A lot of people have not seen this, but we’re very excited to share with everyone. We also feel that weight of the responsibility to be handed this opportunity to help keep Ronnie’s legacy alive and tell his story. That’s a big deal for us. In the ’80s, Ronnie does so much for kids in the ’80s and we were those kids. And then in the 2000s, it’s those people who once grunge hits and the shows are a bit smaller, they’re there with Ronnie, and they’re all in it together. We feel part of that. We owe Ronnie, and we hope we did it right because he’s done so much for us.
“Dio: Dreamers Never Die” will screen at SXSW on March 17th at 4 pm at the Paramount Theater. It will screen virtually for SXSW Online badgeholders from March 18th through March 20th.