Director Dick Carruthers knows something about pressure.
When you’ve spent your career making live concert films for the likes of Oasis, The White Stripes, The Killers and Aerosmith, the stakes can be high to capture lightning in a bottle. Carruthers even directed Celebration Day, a document of the very last live concert Led Zeppelin ever performed.
But not even that compares to the pressure he was under for his new film – heavy metal band Black Sabbath’s final ever live gig in their home city of Birmingham. A band that invented an entire genre. Only one chance to get it on film. No do-overs. And that’s the way Carruthers (pictured below) likes it.
‘I love the pressure of filming a live gig,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘I used to skydive, and for that you had to be really meticulous and you had to pay attention to detail, otherwise the consequences would have been very severe! So I have that skydiving approach to filming a live gig. Things can obviously go wrong. You’re shooting with a lot of cameras, and there’s sometimes a disaster you have to fix half an hour before the band goes on stage, but you just have to get every detail right. Take some risks, sure, but calculate those risks.'
Black Sabbath: The End Of The End reaches screens just seven months after Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler took their final bow at the Genting NEC Arena, and in that time Carruthers has been living with his film every second of every day. It comes to cinemas at a time when an enormous number of live concert films are being released, from Rammstein to David Gilmour, and no man is so well positioned to answer the question that a lot of people ask about these kind of features – can they be as good as actually being there?
‘Are you trying to make the audience feel like they’re actually there?’ he muses. ‘Or are you giving them a better experience than actually being there, because in many ways I think you do. You get the close-ups, the wide shots of the stage with the lights et cetera. With this film, I wanted to make you feel like your nose is practically on Tony Iommi’s fretboard. We show Tony’s guitar playing closer than ever, closer than I even did with Jimmy Page.’
For the look of the film, Carruthers took inspiration from the band’s heavy, dirty sound, and the result is anything but slick. The cameras jump in and out of the action, rarely sitting on a shot. As he so accurately puts it himself, ‘it grabs you by your balls and your eyeballs.’ He also ran the cameras at a ‘funky’ frame rate to ensure a unique look to the onstage action.
‘I used slow motion throughout the concert, but you almost can’t tell it’s in slow motion. You have these anchor points where a flame will come up, or Geezer will throw his neck down on a note, and you synchronise to that note. That down tuning sound Black Sabbath create, the one that they pretty much invented - this is a visual representation of that. Sabbath songs have terrific gear changes in them. They start slow, then jump up two gears and then back down again. I needed to have visual signifiers of that.’
‘A film like this succeeds or fails on access to the subject. Unless you’re Nick Broomfield, where you make a feature of the fact you don’t have any access! But even if you do have access, the band are on tour, and there’s a lot of fitting around them to be done. There are no gaps in their daily schedule. They meet in the hotel lobby, get in the motorcade, get on the plane, get in another motorcade the other end, get to the venue, do a sound check and then do the gig. So we really only formally interviewed them in Dublin, when I got all three of them in a room for an hour or so.’
Carruthers is also at pains to make clear that – like a lot of his previous work – this isn’t just a concert film. Carruthers and his team tagged along with the band during the entirety of their final world tour, grabbing interviews when they could in order to try and give a sense of why Black Sabbath are so important to so many people and to music in general.
One topic of conversation that came up frequently is what Carruthers labels the fifth member of the band – the city of Birmingham.
‘This was sort of like a prize fight at Madison Square Garden. They’re leading up to this final gig in the city where it all began. This is a journey that’s gone full circle, from when they first played at the Crown pub to doing their final show in the city. Ozzy talks about how there’s a Birmingham tram named after him, Geezer talks about Aston Villa. Birmingham features quite a lot in the film.’
Carruthers has been a fan of Black Sabbath since his teenage days, but to his credit, he muzzled his inner fanboy and wasn’t afraid to ask some of the tougher questions. Sabbath’s history has been a rocky one which has taken in drug addiction, financial debacles, Ozzy leaving the band and spats with original member Bill Ward (who wasn’t present for the final show), and those are topics that Carruthers wanted to ensure were covered.
‘They let me ask them anything. Nobody wants a puff piece. That turns everybody off, including most artists. But people have their pride and their egos, there are certain things you have to be careful about. But Sharon (Osbourne) and management encouraged me to ask them any questions. So we talked about Bill Ward, we talked about addiction, we talked about Ozzy leaving and about them being ripped off in the 70s. All of that. This isn’t a definitive history of the band by any means, but we cover a lot of their past.’
So the approach has been ‘warts ‘n all’ since the beginning, but these kind of films are always a collaboration. Carruthers is effectively in the employ of the band, and you wonder what kind of say the members of Black Sabbath have had over the final cut. They were certainly shown a work-in-progress version of the film, but Carruthers is adamant that they never really put their foot down over anything.
‘They had some changes they wanted, but nothing big.’ Is that usual for a band as big as Sabbath?
‘Every band is different. Some bands, you get 127 pages of changes.’ Bands like…? Carruthers laughs. ‘Obviously, I’m far too professional to be so indiscreet as to tell you that! Somebody like Noel Gallagher will watch something through, say ‘have a bit more of this, a bit less of that’, but they trust you. I’ve made a career of these kinds of films, so they trust me to get it right.’
As the interview winds to a close, Carruthers reveals this is the first time he’s talked to a journalist about The End Of The End, and he’s clearly bursting to talk about something in particular that hasn’t yet been revealed.
‘Can I tell you? Hmmm, I’m not sure. Okay yeah, I’m gonna tell you! It was the band’s idea after the final gig that they should get together in a studio and have a jam, just play some oldies. So I filmed that and got to hear what they thought about that final gig, after they‘d had this huge weight taken off their shoulders. It’s amazing hearing them talk about it all. I’ve inserted those bits into the film as a sort of flash forward, and they really are the jewel in the crown for me.’
There is one final question, though. Considering how many rock bands and singers renege on ‘retirement’ vows or ‘last ever’ gig proclamations, does Carruthers think this is really it for Black Sabbath playing live?
‘Yeah, this is it. This is the final gig. And there’s a reason for it being the final gig, and when you find out why in the film…well, it’s a real sucker punch.’