By Alan Siegel
On Dec. 13, 1981, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the idea for the strangest project in NFL Films history was born. The 49ers were playing the Oilers that afternoon, and cameraman Phil Tuckett was on the sideline capturing the action. Early in the first half, he noticed someone following him. After a while, Tuckett turned to the burly stranger and said, "Hi, do I know you?"
"No," the man responded. "But we're huge fans of NFL Films." His name was Pat Morrow, and he was Journey's tour manager. Before shows, he told Tuckett, the Bay Area-based band watched NFL Films' epic highlight videos. Now the group wanted to star in one of its own. "What we want to do is make a film just like one of your highlight films of a team headed for the Super Bowl," explained Morrow, who was in town for the band's two-night stint at the Cow Palace. "But it would be Journey headed toward a concert of their lives."
The concept intrigued Tuckett. "As much as I loved football," he told me, "I was a little burned out on it." The former receiver had starred at his Utah high school, played at Weber State, then spent two seasons in the late '60s with the San Diego Chargers, for whom he appeared in exactly one game. In 1969, he started at NFL Films, where he'd worked as a cameraman, writer, director, editor, and producer ever since. "It was a steady diet [of football]," he said. "And so I was always looking at the other possibilities."
At halftime, he expressed interest to Morrow, who said, "We can put this deal together in a hurry." The next day, when Tuckett walked into his office at NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel, N.J., a box filled with Journey hats, mugs, and blankets was waiting for him. He remembers thinking: Yeah, these people are for real.
Journey manager Herbie Herbert quickly helped broker an agreement. This was no small feat, especially considering that NFL Films Ed Sabol founder liked to call musicians "creeps and freaks." On the other hand, his son Steve, then the organization's executive vice president, had no qualms about working with outsiders. "We're a young company," he later told The New York Times, "I'm one of the oldest at 41 -- so we liked the idea."
It was settled: NFL Films would go on the road with Journey. "It was kind of a lark in a way," Tuckett said. "But we put all our resources against it; the same kind of stuff we would've done for a football movie." Naturally, that included narration by John Facenda. The Voice of God was so tickled by the assignment that he recorded the script in a Journey T-Shirt.
In reality, the decision to make an arena rock documentary made plenty of sense. Every week, NFL Films crews endured bad weather, rowdy fans, and unhinged players and coaches -- and still amassed impeccable footage. "Rock concerts and sports are a lot alike, in that so much happens spontaneously," said Steve Sabol, who died in 2012 after a year-long fight with brain cancer. "You can't set it up, and you can't do retakes. A good cameraman has to shoot from the hip and catch everything the first time, which our people have learned to do in football."
Since its inception in 1962, NFL Films has produced a seemingly endless stream of hypnotic, award-winning work. Salon's Matt Zoller Seitz wasn't wrong when he deemed it "the greatest in-house P.R. machine in pro sports history…an outfit that could make even a tedious stalemate seem as momentous as the battle for the Alamo."
But not everything the company has done has been so damn self-serious. From the early 1980s through the turn of the millennium, it shot dozens of music videos. An almost comically diverse assortment of artists -- including Def Leppard, Sister Sledge, Dio, Slayer, Cyndi Lauper, DJ Kool, the Black Crowes, Jon Secada, and Stevie Ray Vaughan -- got the NFL Films treatment. "It encouraged off-the-wall kinds of approaches," said Tuckett, who oversaw the company's music projects for two decades. "And I think that we benefited from that. It got us out of our straight-laced NFL Films style and helped us become a little more contemporary."
The experiment officially began in the spring of 1983, when NFL Films joined Journey on its American tour. The band, which had just released Frontiers, traveled by plane. The road crew, along with Tuckett's gang, rolled along in buses. The arrangement had its advantages. "Really the most interesting stuff was with the road crew," Tuckett said, "because that's who we were hanging out with most of the time."
Written and directed by Tuckett, Frontiers & Beyond has NFL Films' fingerprints all over it. Facenda, in fine form, reminds the audience early in the film that it belongs not only to Journey, but also its crew. "This is their story, too," he says in his signature baritone. "Together they are 70 modern day troubadours and roustabouts, crisscrossing the country in seven tractor trailers and three busses, towing the portable pieces of state-of-the-art rock and roll theater." Fittingly, there's also the use of slow motion, in this case not to showcase a balletic Lynn Swann catch, but to highlight lead singer Steve Perry's facial expression during "Faithfully."
The 98-minute movie begins and ends with scenes from a show at Philadelphia's massive JFK Stadium. (The band's Super Bowl.) In between, we're introduced to roadies with names like Albert Einstein, Dr. Brown, and Wolfman Black, a large African-American man with a raspy voice. Herbert is often seen bopping to music, and Morrow, a bearded, barrel-chested dude nicknamed "Rhino," is a charmingly volatile presence. He's "a fun loving teddy bear one moment," Facenda says, "and a wounded grizzly the next."
Members of the band are featured, sometimes in unintentionally hilarious fashion. For some reason, a segment is dedicated to Perry's facial hair. "He has grown a mustache to change his image," Facenda says. Perry later shaves it, on screen.
Like most NFL Films productions, this one includes a main character playing through terrifying pain. After a fan at Meadowlands Arena throws a beer bottle at his head, bleeding guitarist Neal Schon continues to strum. "We'll see how fucking bad you really are!" Perry screeches at the offender. "Why don't you come on down from wherever the fuck you are?"
Mostly though, the drama is kept to a minimum. Trucks toting gear roll out in unison, the crew sets up and takes down the stage, and roadies take naps. By design, the film is less about what it's like to be in a band than it is about what it's like to be on the road with a band. "That was a natural for us," Tuckett said, "because we cared as much about the offensive linemen as we did about the quarterback."
In 1984, when the movie was released on home video, it didn't exactly wow the critics. Andrew Roblin of Billboard cited the documentary's "pompous narration" and sneered, "Cigarette lighters flicker in the cavernous darkness, the camera zooms in on Steve Perry's crotch, and teenage girls howl with delight. That's a high point."
But in the music industry, it became a cult classic. Morrow remembers getting a call in the mid '80s from Jon Bon Jovi. He loved the movie. "It wasn't the typical ass kissing the stars and the lead singer with his mother kind of shit," Morrow told me.
While shooting a Marilyn Manson concert in the late 1990s, Tuckett was approached by two roadies who claimed to have seen Frontiers & Beyond 100 times. "They came and did the Mike Myers 'We're not worthy!'" Tuckett said. It was the first and last time anyone ever kneeled at his feet.
The Golden Years
After Frontiers & Beyond, NFL Films started saying yes to more music projects. But Tuckett noticed that Steve Sabol's interest had waned. He assumed the Journey film was a one off. "I don't remember even having a conversation with him about any of them," Tuckett said. "But I also knew where my bread was buttered. And I knew that as long as it didn't effect my assignments with the NFL and we were bringing in the extra money it wouldn't be 'Well, we're not gonna do that anymore.'"
In 1986, he became NFL Films' vice president of special projects, of which there were many. He enjoyed non-football pieces. They allowed him to be unconventional.
Long before networks used Skycams at NFL games, his crew rigged one up for a Billy Squier video. Prior to shooting Live Intrusion, a Slayer concert film, the metal band's lead singer, Tom Araya, told Tuckett, "You guys do anything you want. We have a crazy crowd, you just wade in there and get the real stuff." Tuckett was happy to oblige. He attached a remote controlled 16-milimeter camera to a football helmet, strapped in eager volunteers, and sent them into the mosh pit. "Honestly," Tuckett said, "I think it was one of the best [projects] we ever did."
Things didn't always go so smoothly. In the mid-1980s, after hiring NFL Films to make a video for "Money Changes Everything," Cyndi Lauper quickly regretted it. According to a recent Philadelphia Daily News column by Paul Domowitch, the star claimed that the sole reason she got involved with the company is because her boyfriend, then also her manager, insisted. "He's no longer doing that, partly because of this," Tuckett remembered her saying. "I have to control my career. I've worked hard to get where I am and I'm not going to let a bunch of dumb jocks derail me."
In January 1993, Tuckett was sent to film Michael Jackson before his Super Bowl halftime performance. The King of Pop, however, refused to come out of his dressing room because his chimp wasn't allowed to join him on stage. Jackson finally emerged, sans Bubbles, and the show went on. Afterward, Tuckett said, the singer's management threatened to sue the league if NFL Films used any of the backstage footage. "I thought that was the only interesting stuff," Tuckett said.
Five years later, Pearl Jam sent NFL Films to Montana shoot a commercial for their new album, Yield. After the band couldn't pinpoint the spot that the cover photograph was taken, Tuckett and his crew scattered and scoured the state for it. (Bassist Jeff Ament grew up in Big Sandy, Mt.) It took two days, but they found it. "The whole thing about production is problem solving," Tuckett said. "That's why I loved roadies, because you know, if it took money, they'd start peeling off $100 bills. If it took staying up all night, that's what they'd do. And so that got my juices flowing."
No single experience, however, compared to what happened when Tuckett filmed a duet between Northern Irish musician Gary Moore and George Harrison at London's Royal Albert Hall. Tuckett didn't collect autographs (Allen Ginsberg was the only other person he'd ever asked for one), but in this case, he made an exception. After rehearsals, at a Kings Road bookstore, Tuckett bought a sepia-toned photograph of the former Beatle. The next day, he brought the picture to Harrison, who stared at it in silence. Then, after what seemed like three minutes, he said, "You know, it's such a shame that I know that's me and I know exactly where it is, and I know probably around the time it was taken, but I don't remember anything about what happened. Because that was a time in my life when the world had just overtaken my senses."
Tuckett was stunned. "It was just an honest emotion," he said. "That so rarely happens when you're working professionally like that." He quickly told Harrison that he didn't have to sign it. "No, this is such a great photo," he responded. "Where did you get it? I would be honored to autograph this for you." And so Harrison did, writing, "To Phil: I don't remember this, but I will always remember signing it for you."
By the beginning of the last decade, Tuckett had quietly built NFL Entertainment -- NFL Films' non-football division -- into an accomplished unit. In addition to music videos, it made several documentaries, including a spooky TNT special called "Faces of Evil." "Nobody told me to stop," Tuckett said, "so I kept going."
Until, that is, NFL Network came along. Around the time the all-football channel debuted in 2003, new league-backed management took over NFL Films and streamlined the operation. Tuckett said he was told point blank: "We're not doing that stuff anymore." At that point, he knew his days at the company were numbered. "To me that was the job," Tuckett said, "and when it wasn't the job any more, well more power to 'em. They make the decisions."
In 2007, after 38 years with the company, he left NFL Films. These days, Tuckett teaches film production at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah. At first, he hid evidence of his previous life from his students. But now pictures dot his office. In one, Tuckett is posing with Snoop Dogg. "It gives me some street cred," he joked. "I'm still playing off the fact that I did football but I also did music."
From a production standpoint, the two are remarkably similar. The line between total chaos and utter joy is thin. Before shooting Frontiers & Beyond's climactic concert, at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Tuckett remembers getting cursed out by roadie Wolfman Black. Unbeknownst to Tuckett, an NFL Films cameraman had -- without asking permission from Journey's road crew -- asked a carpenter to build a barrier to protect him from the fans. "My head was spinning," Tuckett said.
All of a sudden, a limousine pulled up, and out popped Pat Morrow. "Tuckett!" he yelled, and took off running. Tuckett thought to himself: This has just gotten completely out of control. "I was ready to clock him," he said. "I just doubled my fist up." But before Tuckett could swing, Morrow grabbed him, pinned both of his arms to his side, picked him up, twirled him around, kissed him on the lips, and said, "Is this fucking great or what?"
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Alan Siegel has written for Slate, Deadspin and Boston Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @alansiegeldc.