Translation of Beauty : A Conversation with Michael Alago
We’re often reminded that beauty exists in the eye of the beholder. But that revelation takes for granted that the beholder is already positioned in front of the subject she or he is admiring. Seldom do we hear about the influencers that make the relationship between subject and admirer possible. Without them, how would we even have the opportunity to recognize beauty? Michael Alago has made a career of interpreting art and presenting it for large audiences. Who the F**k is that Guy?: The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago, director Drew Stone’s documentary about Alago’s life and career, explores Michael’s ability to translate his personal passions into shareable ideas. Whether in the role of show booker for the legendary Ritz club in New York, A & R (Artist & Repertoire) scout for Elektra Records, or as an independent photographer, Alago has a vision for understanding the talent that makes his subjects unique and different. And in the film, we get to see the world through his eyes.
Much of Who the F**k is that Guy? is an attempt to understand Michael Alago as a common thread through some of music’s biggest moments from the late 1970s through the 1990s. John Lydon recounts his relationship with Michael that began when PiL (Public Image Limited) played one of its first major American concerts and almost caused a riot. The members of Metallica recall how Michael’s openly gay lifestyle opened their eyes to different experiences in an otherwise dominant heterosexual heavy metal culture. The members of White Zombie discuss how they realized the potential of their band to reach popular audiences after Michael signed them to a major label contract with Geffen Records. Cyndi Lauper credits Michael for helping to shape her career. And we learn about Michael’s partnership with Nina Simone during the latter stages of her life, resurrecting the icon with one last burst of creative energy. We hear many stories that illustrate Michael’s ability to harness and develop talent. At its core, though, this portrait reveals a man that’s just as passionate about people as he is about art.
It’s not until the latter stages of the film that we see Michael began communicating through his own creations. After beating drug addiction and learning that his HIV health crisis was in remission, Michael reinvented himself as a photographer. His work is a study of the unconventional beauty of male porn stars, hustlers, tattooed models, and bodybuilders. He approaches each of his subjects without projection, letting their bodies reveal stories to the camera. This choice to guide instead of intervene is the hallmark of Alago’s career. In his photographs, it’s the fullest expression of his gift for bringing the best out of others.
I am thrilled to talk with Michael about his music career, his new life as a photographer, and the process of digesting his life into a film. I hope the conversation gets you excited to check out Who the F**k is that Guy? when it hits select theaters on July 21st and VOD and iTunes on July 25th. The film deserves 4.75 hairpieces for offering crucial insight into pop culture history and for helping us all recognize the many different faces of beauty. New York music historians and enthusiasts will see Michael akin to the great Danny Fields in his power to recognize great artists and work his way into every crevice of the local scene. Who the F**k is that Guy? is produced by, among others, Peter Spirer, whom I chatted with in regards to Spirit Game, in association with XLrator Media.
Alan Vega, lead singer of Suicide, and Michael in 1976
A special thanks to Michael for contributing this photo from his personal archives.
For more information on Danny Fields, check out Brendan Toller’s documentary, Danny Says (2016), for which Michael Alago was interviewed. For more information about Suicide, the godfathers of electropunk who Michael and I discuss in the podcast, check out Jon Wilde’s profile of the band for The Guardian and Paul Gallagher’s analysis of their discography for Dangerous Minds. You can also read about Alan Vega’s lasting legacy and a gallery exhibit in his honor in a New York Times profile by Frank Rose.