When I called Peter McGennis, the first thing I asked was: Where are you? I was expecting an answer like, “at my office in Buffalo,” something that would give me a little background color. Instead, I get metaphor. He says, “I am standing at the intersection of film and music and community and history.”
That’s a four-way stop. Let’s start with music. Record Store Day is April 21. A nationwide celebration of independent record stores, rolling out hundreds of new releases on vinyl, many exclusive to the celebration. The Rochester area is blessed with an unusual number of music-nerd indie stores offering these treasures. The House of Guitars, Bop Shop Records, Needledrop Records, Hi-Fi Lounge, Webster’s Heavy Metal Records, Batavia’s Vinyl World Revival, Brockport’s Trader Shag’s Emporium. Some have live music during the day.
No one does it bigger than Record Archive. Live music, food trucks, and people lining up as early as 5 a.m., hoping to latch onto one of the only 2,000 copies printed of the blue/grey swirl vinyl re-issue of The Doors’ Strange Days. In fact, Record Store Day has grown into such an economic driver that Record Archive’s celebration has events through most of the week, leading up to April 21.
McGennis is a part of that. As he says, “The record-store fan base is more in tune with my work, in terms of mixing music and film, crossing the genres of music and film.” He’ll be in the Archive’s eclectic back room at 6 p.m. Tuesday to show clips of his latest film, Queen City. And he’ll talk about the film’s soundtrack, and answer questions about how this small-time indie filmmaker writes songs and then convinces musicians such as Allen Toussaint, Susan Tedeschi, James Cotton and The Average White Band to record them. So that he can use them in his movies. He even convinces many of them play roles in his films. Sharon Jones dances on the deck of the oldest fireboat on the Great Lakes. Maria Muldaur sings in a donut shop.
“Vinyl has become one of the last physical canvases where an artist can communicate on several levels,” McGennis says. “We now have a generation that is not used to paying for music. When you find a place like Record Archive, their vision of looking out for their artist, their energy, you want to be a part of that. How they want to be more than selling records. How they want to be a piece of the community fabric.”
McGennis calls what he does – when he’s not editing corporate videos – “making movie albums.” With history and community as well. In the case of Queen City, the history is 1980, the community Buffalo. He calls his films musical love letters to his home town, Buffalo.
When McGennis says he’s no Scorsese, he’s probably right on several counts. He’s completed four films. In Buffalo Bushido, McGennis spends a lot of screen time walking around naked. He’s the star as well in Queen City, a cops-gone-bad story that’s often purposefully campy. McGennis compares it to blaxploitation flicks, or ’70s entertainments such as Car Wash. He’s already written and plans to begin filming this summer the final piece what he calls his Buffalo trilogy – a rock opera set in the now-extinct Crystal Beach Amusement Park.
He calls himself a “multi-media storyteller,” writing the songs before he writes the scripts. The script, he says, is just a longer song. And then he simply asks people if they want to climb on board, mining the connections he made while living in California and working in the movie industry, and approaching musicians he’s met at shows. He wants these films to emerge out of friendships. Yet, “I’m a legitimate producer,” he says. “When I say, ‘I’m making a film,’ I am making a film. That will separate me from 95 percent of that group.”
McGennis says he wrote the lead role of Queen City’s blues singer with the actor Vivica A. Fox in mind. Only afterward did he ask: Will you be in my movie? “She’s a beautifully open-minded person,” he says. “She said, ‘You know, I’ve never played a jazz singer.’”
Similarly, “When I asked Magic Slim to play a role, I told him, ‘We find you in the old Hotel Lafayette, it’s falling to pieces, it’s a glamorous kind of squatting.’ And he says, ‘OK.’”
Perhaps these musicians say yes because they recognize the indie artist scuffling for his art. As McGennis says, “Sharon Jones was a prison guard, she didn’t start recording music until she was in her 40s.” From there, Jones evolved into a soul and R&B star, until her death in 2016 of pancreatic cancer. “She and I were close,” McGennis says. “We talked a lot until the very end. I really miss her, she was a tsunami of energy.”
He recalls telling Jones after she’d finished filming her role in Queen City that he had a friend who was a fan, and had painted a mural of Jones on his bathroom wall. Of course she wanted to see it. In the hours before her flight out of Buffalo, McGennis drove her to East Aurora. “He opens the door, his jaw drops,” McGennis says. “She took some pictures, and politely asked, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’”
McGennis compares the work of an indie filmmaker to Columbus sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with no islands in sight. He doesn’t know for sure where this is going. So what McGennis calls the gestation period of these films can be long. He began filming Queen City in 2013. It could be the result of limited resources. Money, and lining up cars and lava lamps from 1980 to decorate the set. But McGennis also insists it’s the result of assembling the kind of complete package that used to come with buying a vinyl album, before the experience was downsized to CDs, and now downloading. He’s willing to take his time, he says, lining up the right musicians, using period cameras and lenses, and not substituting a California studio lot for the fading, wintery mill city of Buffalo. “The last thing I want to be,” McGennis says, “is some neurotic producer driving a Porche down the 405.”
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