By A.D. Amorosi
When Philadelphia’s John Hutelmyer was in college at Temple University, he interned in California on a feature length documentary “about a successful band” for director Jared Leto (under the nom de plume “Bartholomew Cubbins”). Though he won’t say it out loud, the film was 2012’s colorful Artifact and its documentary’s subject was Leto’s slick but incendiary, platinum plated, alt-rock act with his brother, 30 Seconds to Mars, and the band’s headaches with their (then) record label.
“It was with that film that I realized that I could actually do something like that on my own,” says Hutelmyer. “I knew it would be hard, and that there would be much to learn, but from that internship, I truly realized that anyone can just go out and make something if they really try.” (That does not sound like a ringing endorsement for Leto, but, hey).
The result of Hutelmyer’s next round of hard work—a literate, harrowing, yet comic documentary about Philly folk rock hero Kenn Kweder, Adventures of a Secret Kidd: The Mass Hallucination of Kenn Kweder—premiered, Fri., March 25 at International House in University City with several screenings, Q/A sessions and, last but not least, an acoustic showcase by the film’s titular Southwest Philly-raised singer-writer who put songs such as “Heroin,” “The Ballad of Manute Bol,” and “The Girl with the Dylan Flowers” on the local map.
“We have been at the Kweder film for three years in our spare time between full time jobs, side jobs, school, marriages, etc., and the entire time we have been learning as we went along,” says Hutelmyer, noting that he made Adventures of a Secret Kidd with co-director Robert Nicolaides and camera person/cinematographer Carman Spoto. “We are really proud of the final results.”
For the uninitiated—say, dummies or sober college teens who have never been to a bar in the Tri-State area—Kweder has long been a Philadelphia institution and, of course, a rock star. Yes, it says so on his business card. Long before there was a Meek Mill, The Roots, G. Love, The Hooters, Cinderella or other Philly musical names of note, there was Kweder; a smart, caustically funny lyricist with a glam-to-folk music sense of inventiveness and an always-effortless loquaciousness that played itself out nightly (even daily as he is known to do several gigs a day). Making his bones at (now) long-closed, live music watering holes in the 1970s such as the Bijou Café, J.C. Dobbs and Doc Watsons (but no punk palaces, punk being the bane of Kenn’s existence as played out in his documentary) to the present day of university saloons everywhere, if a mic is available, Kweder is there. Stories of desire, drinking, woe and want sung in a forceful warbling voice made him a survivalist troubadour who continues crafting his own unique Philadelphia vision. “Kenn is an entertaining person and a bit of a character,” says Hutelmyer. “In my senior year at college, he let me follow him around for a few days to shoot a mini documentary on him. He is one of the nicest people I know and it just amazes me how he connects to everyone so easily. Add in his lifestyle and his mindset and you have the perfect subject.”
For his part, Kweder submitted tons of raw footage for consideration to the directors from his 30-plus years of performing (“which fans of mine gave me through the years”) and let the filmmakers go. “Warts, yes. Truth, yes; up and down and sideways,” says Kweder of the process that found his past dissected into the successes and failures of life and business (famously, he was set to be signed by Arista when the notion of artistic compromise got in the way and up his nose) and his bad relationship with punk Philadelphia. “The lowest point of my career would be in the period 1979 till 1984 where I was viciously bashed incessantly by folks in Philly that represented the punk “movement.” I was considered an over-the-hill pariah by all of them. They made my life miserable. Relentless hatred toward me. Relentless. I could not believe it. To this day if I cross paths with any of them, they still give me the evil eye.”
That the highs outweigh the lows (wins such as working with top-notch producers such as Chris Larkin, Ben Vaughn and Al Fichera; his big band Elvis gigs where he dressed as The King) through the present day is what makes Adventures of a Secret Kidd: The Mass Hallucination of Kenn Kweder more than just a victory lap. “Never stop,” says Kweder of his current situation where he plays eight days a week. “I gotta be in some sort of present tense artistic equation. Otherwise I have no meaning.”
Neither would the film of his life, as staying alive, living well and flourishing is the best revenge for Kenn Kweder.