If the name Michael Alago doesn’t ring a bell, it’s okay to ask, “Who the fuck is that guy?” The simple answer is that he’s the A&R rep responsible for signing Metallica to Elektra Records. But, his story is more interesting and far reaching than just that one event. In the late-70’s/early-80’s, he was a fixture of the New York City arts and music scene. He’s also a gay man who lived during the devil-may-care era of homosexuality, as well as the 1980’s AIDS panic. Most importantly, he’s still around to talk about it. Having gone on to forge a career as a successful photographer, Mr. Alago has a story that can reach many people. Not just metalheads and music lovers, but also those prone to romanticizing the glory days of Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s, as well as those who have been personally or tangentially affected by HIV/AIDS. What’s most remarkable about this film, and Alago’s story, is that it isn’t sad. In fact, the man radiates an enthusiasm for life and art.
Who the Fuck is that Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago (trailer) is a story of an individual who wasn’t famous, but certainly no wallflower or mere scenester. In fact, at 19 years old he was booking Public Image Ltd at the Ritz (now known as Webster Hall). The film, directed by Drew Stone, opens with Alago describing his childhood and going out to numerous NYC clubs at the young age of 17. Recounting the early days of seeing bands like Suicide and the Dead Boys, Alago’s exuberance is contagious. It wasn’t long before he began working for Elektra, and later Geffen, where his love for music expanded to working directly for the artists he admired – with no care at all for potential radio play, but relying on energy and performance as the qualities he was attracted to. As he states in the film, his taste for music ranged from the Great American Songbook to heavy metal. In addition to signing metal acts, Alago also worked with artists as diverse as Tracy Chapman and Nina Simone. Consequently, everyone from John Lydon to Cyndi Lauper are on hand to reminisce about Alago and the times they shared. Notably, members of Metallica (James, Lars, Kirk, and Jason Newsted), White Zombie, former Misfits guitarist Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein, and Phil Anselmo appear to pay their respects to the unique individual whose passion for music touched them all, in one way or another.
His story is one that traces movements in music and society. Obviously, gay men are not generally tied to heavy metal. However, his honesty and bravery about his sexuality is something that gave him an edge when recruiting bands. His openness to all genres of music also led to his ability to branch out beyond trends and work with the artists he believed in. Those he worked with came to admire this about him and soon he earned their trust and adoration. Not unlike the musicians he spent his time with, he later found himself in the throes of drugs and alcohol. At the tail end of this period, he contracted HIV and struggled with his health before cocktails emerged as a means where living with HIV became more common than dying from it. Thankfully for us, he remains a healthy individual whose story is both compelling and reaffirming for anyone who doesn’t neatly fit into the world’s stiff and unforgiving categories.
The film is full of archival footage and photos from Alago’s own collection and animated sequences of some of his stories help balance out the various characters recounting their experiences with him. Guided tours of both New York and Los Angeles landmarks add a touch of first-person history with Alago himself acting as the bridge between past and present. You may go into this film thinking he’s cool for signing Metallica. But, when it’s over you will have a deeper respect for him, as well as a broader appreciation of the world of music and those behind the scenes who help make it happen. Select screenings of the film have been selling out on both coasts, but luckily you can buy or rent the film on iTunes wherever you are.
– J. Kevin Lynch