When you think about the music of Doug and the Slugs, what comes to mind first are mostly likely the band's upbeat early-'80s radio hits, "Too Bad" and "Making It Work". Or maybe it's the catchy, singalong vibe of the whimsical "Day By Day". But for Teresa Alfeld, director of the new documentary Doug and the Slugs and Me, none of those tracks are her Number One.
"My personal favorite undoubtedly is one of the most non-Doug and the Slugs songs," she says, on the line from her home near Vancouver City Hall in the Fairview neighborhood. "It's one that I spotlight at the beginning of the film as well as the end. It's called 'Partly From Pressure', and it's a deep cut from their second record, Wrap It!, which I think is their best record. It's this bittersweet mid-tempo ballad—unlike the more popular Doug and the Slugs tracks—that I think really showcases Doug [Bennett]'s complexity and talent as a songwriter, as well as the band's arrangement capabilities. The first time I heard it it got in my head and it got in my heart, and I've been really attached."
Alfeld's original bond to Doug and the Slugs goes way back to when she was a small child, and living next door to the Bennett family in East Van. Shea Bennett, one of Doug and wife Nancy's three daughters, was Teresa's best friend, but—as friends and neighbours often do—they grew apart. The reconnection to the Bennetts started after Alfeld licensed a number of Doug and the Slugs songs for her first feature documentary, The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical, about the life of local lawyer, city councilor, and socialist icon Harry Rankin, which was released in 2018.
"We actually used Doug and the Slugs songs exclusively in that film," says Alfeld, "and to my absolute pleasure we witnessed such a positive response to the music. People were talking about it; [band member] Simon Kendall came to one of the screenings and when we introduced him there was a huge outpouring of love in the audience. So [The Rankin File producer] John Bolton and I turned to one another and said, 'Oh, well this is an obvious fit. Let's do a film!' Because they have the built-in fanbase, and it's a great story, and these are great characters."
To tell the story of Doug and the Slugs, Alfeld enlisted the group's original members—keyboardist Kendall, guitarists John Burton and Richard Baker, bassist Steve Bosley, and drummer John "Wally" Watson—to offer reminiscences on Bennett, who passed away at age 52 while the band was touring in Alberta. (He died in a Calgary hospital on October 16, 2004, a week after falling into a coma, the cause of death reported as "a long-standing illness".)
Alfeld also offers on-camera interviews with various music-biz celebrities, including Boomtown Rats singer and Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof, who was music editor at the Georgia Straight in the '70s when Bennett worked there briefly as art director. At one point in the film Geldof notes that Doug and the Slugs made fun music but that "there was an overarching intelligence that sublimates fun into something other."
"I was so happy that Sir Bob made that comment," says Alfeld, "because it's so true. Doug and the Slugs are really known for their big hits, of course, 'Making It Work' and 'Too Bad', and those are wonderful, extremely well-crafted pop songs, but at the same time, when you get into some of the other songs that Doug and the Slugs wrote—and especially some of the lyrics—that really profound curiosity that Doug Bennett had about the world really comes through. It's my hope that the full catalog of Doug and the Slugs music get a second look, and I'm so glad that people like Sir Bob Geldof are heeding that call."
Another route the director took to get to the core of what Doug Bennett was all about came via a collection of his journals. The band members had told Alfeld about the notebooks, and some had taken peeks at them, but no one had fully studied them before.
"My first reaction when I got the journals was 'Oh my god, I've struck gold!'," she says, "and I didn't even know what was in them. And so that first step was just sitting down and reading all 39 books front to cover, and then doing it a second time. It was fascinating because I had already started to research and interview the Slugs themselves before I got the journals, and so I had sort of constructed my version of who these characters were and what the story was. And then suddenly I was given Doug's voice and Doug's perspective, and it occurred to me—as uncomfortable as it could be—that allowing my characters to actually have a conversation with Doug, by reading his perspective on certain events, would really enrich the story."
Some of the most memorable sequences in Doug and the Slugs and Me come when Bennett's band and family members read passages from his journals, for the first time, aloud on camera. But perhaps the most striking moment in the film comes during a segment shot on an old camcorder at a bowling alley. It features home-video footage captured when Alfeld herself, as a child, was out with the Bennett family, and at one point she's actually filming her friend Shea throwing a ball—with daddy Doug overseeing the action.
"At one point in my research journey Nancy handed over this white document box of home-movie tapes," says Alfeld, "and I just started watching. And I couldn't have prepared myself for it, because it wasn't just watching the Bennetts—it was watching myself, and my own childhood, reflected back to me in a way I hadn't seen. It was like suddenly it was back at the Bennetts' house, literally there I am, or over at the bowling alley. The moment where Doug gets Stella to hand me the camera, I had no memory of that ever happening, I was too young. So when I discovered that clip by myself one night I was just getting goosebumps, going 'Wow, our stories are more intertwined than I could ever imagine.'"
Doug and the Slugs and Me screens at Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward's on May 14 (evening) and 15 (matinee), and at Vancity Theatre on May 15 (evening) as part of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival.