When Mike Malone started working with director Jason Hamilton on a documentary about Toledo singer/songwriters he thought he knew what to expect.
The artists would be struggling mightily with the idea of playing small clubs before handfuls of people, burdened by their lack of fame, and embittered by the harsh realities of trying to make it as a musician.
Except that's not what he found, not even close. Instead, Jeff Stewart, Bobby May, Kyle White, John Barile, and Johnny Rodriguez — mainstays on Toledo's music scene for years — revealed themselves to be contented, well-balanced, and, best of all, artistically satisfied with their careers.
"Originally I thought, ‘Well let's look at the struggling artist,' but they're happy. Success is so relative," he said, noting that he thought "frustration" would be a theme of the project. "I changed my mind as soon as we started to interview them."
The film Playing Nightly, which will premiere Tuesday at the Maumee Indoor Theater, is an important document of one aspect of Toledo's live music and club circuit, serving as a behind-the-scenes look at musicians who make their livings playing before bar crowds that can range from painfully indifferent to passionately committed.
It captures all of the artists in their environments, unloading and loading equipment, playing live before noisy bar patrons in places like the former Mulvaney's Bunker, Ye Olde Cock and Bull, and Doc Watson's. Playing Nightly also features in-depth interviews with each of them.
Hamilton, a St. John's Jesuit Academy and University of Toledo graduate who made the feature film The Toledo Conspiracy and has worked in production for Paramount and Fox studios, said he had always wanted to make a documentary.
He and Malone, who has worked for years behind the camera for a number of commercial projects, started work last March, filming the performances and interviewing the artists. Hamilton has known Barile for 20 years so he started with him and added the other four musicians.
"I kind of got to questioning what their perspective is. We get this idea of making it and being a big star in this celebrity culture, but these guys are happy doing what they're doing and making a living," Hamilton said, noting that it is a "good story."
"I think it relates to everybody following your dream and it's people actually doing it. Plus there is this romantic idea of playing music, kind of this minstrel-type of thing."
Among the more arresting images in the film are the shots from behind the musicians showing them playing in bars before just a few people. It is a perspective that you rarely see and it drives home the level of commitment these artists have to their music, whether playing original songs or covers.
"It bothers you. I've got callouses upon my callouses, you know it hardens you," Stewart said in a phone interview about sparse crowds who don't pay attention to the music.
But he noted that one of the more interesting aspects of the work is that even though a bar crowd might seem disinterested, often people come up after the show and compliment the music and indicate that he or she was actually invested in listening to it.
For Stewart, an accomplished songwriter and visual artist, the work has its own nobility as a trade, which all of the musicians express in various ways throughout Playing Nightly.
"I'm educated in college and what-not, but this is how you make a living and I'm fortunate to take my passion, which is art and music and be able to pay my rent," he said.
Hamilton said that after Tuesday's showing he plans to shop the film around at festivals that show documentaries and try and get it placed in rotation on Netflix of iTunes so it can be distributed more widely.
Malone, who plays in the band Locoweed and has been in various bands over the years, said he is proud of the way the film portrays his city.
"Even though sometimes it's the most frustrating city I've been in, I love that this movie shows Toledo in a favorable light," he said.
Show times for Playing Nightly at the Maumee Indoor Theater, 601 Conant St., Tuesday are 7:15 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. The early showing will feature a red carpet event with photographers and local celebrities. Tickets can be reserved by going to LeataFilms.com. The running time of the film is 73 minutes and a $5 donation is suggested. Information: 323-804-2556.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.