The historic Lobero theater in Santa Barbara was buzzing with excitement on during the world premiere of the rock documentary about the unlikely rise of the band Kansas to superstardom in the film – Kansas: Miracles Out of Nowhere. Three members of the band, Phil Ehart (drums), Richard Williams (guitar) and Robby Steinhardt (violin) were in attendance, along with former band manager Budd Carr and the film’s director, Charley Randazzo, all of whom had a triumphant red carpet entrance.
The movie was screened prior to an extensive Q&A session. The film focuses on the “miracle” of how the band rose from their humble beginnings in the “expansive nothingness” of the state of Kansas to their phenomenal worldwide commercial success with mega hit songs like “Dust in the Wind” and “Carry On Wayward Son”. Both of these songs, were amazingly written at the last minute by the band’s guitaris Kerry Livgren, at the end of the recording sessions of the respective albums on which they appear. The film documents the relentless touring and self promotion that the band had to endure to reach their ultimate goal to be a successful rock band. From strong mentoring as the opening act with the English rock legends, Queen, to constant battles for sound control as the opening act for Aerosmith, and a disruptive diva Steven Tyler trying all manners of sabotage, the film is a fascinating look at the pop music world of the time.
Drummer Ehart acted as the bands spokesman during the Q&A and offered up many interesting anecdotes about the documentary and it’s making. Ehart said they wanted to keep the focus on “where these six guys came from and where they ended up, and what that trip was like. He adds, “If it’s a good story and a true story, and kind of a miraculous story, you don’t really need a lot of other stuff that doesn’t affect the story.” The film is not a typical rock documentary full of tales of sex and drugs and petty disputes. Instead there’s plenty of rock and roll, including studio tracks and vintage live footage.
The six band members each get extensive coverage in the film, as does the late music executive Don Kirshner. “We didn’t really realize all the stuff [Kirshner] had done for us,” Ehart says, “and how he hung in there with us until we went back and made this film.”
The fascinating and humorous story of how the band signed with Kirshner’s company is one of the highlights of the film. The band had submitted a demo tape, and eventually Kirshner’s right-hand man, Wally Gold, called them from New York City saying he wanted to check them out in concert. The band knew this was their one shot, so they rented the opera house in the tiny town of Ellinwood, Kan., and to ensure a large, enthusiastic audience they put up signs all over the area advertising that there would be free beer at the concert. The ploy worked and they got signed.
The funniest part of the film concerns Kansas’ opening slot for Aerosmith in the early days. It turns out that Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler didn’t appreciate having opening bands steal the show, and would sometimes resort to unplugging the opening band’s power cords during their performance. Anticipating this when Kansas played at Wichita, their crew set up dummy extension cords so that nothing happened when Tyler pulled them out. A confrontational visit from the hulking Kansas bass player Dave Hope put an end to Tyler’s antics for the rest of the tour.
In the most emotional scene in the film, all six original band members get together to re-create the iconic photo from the back cover of their first album. It was the first time they had all been together in decades, and it was particularly special because two band members have recently had serious health issues, including Livgren who had a stroke in 2009, and Steinhardt, who had a heart attack in 2013.
Singer Steve Walsh recently retired from the band, leaving Ehart and Williams as the only original members. When asked about the future, Ehart said, “We’re looking hopefully to do a new record in 2016. We just continue to tour, and love to tour and love to play. “We’ve got great music. People love to come see us. We’re just very fortunate to still be here. So those are the plans — to keep Kansas music out there.”
The DVD version of Kansas: Miracles Out of Nowhere will be released on March 24.