Michael Alago didn’t look like much back in the glory days of late 70s/early 80s New York squalor and filth, when blue-jeaned punks bumped shoulders with headbangers, druggies, and drop-outs. A skinny, effeminate Puerto Rican kid from a Hassidic neighborhood in Brooklyn, Alago couldn’t have come across more unassuming and nonthreatening. But he harbored an passionate love of punk music and heavy metal, a love so powerful he became a regular in New York’s underground music circuit, cruising legendary spots like CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, and Save the Robots while still in grade school. Before he turned 20 he managed to mold his obsession into a career, becoming the booker for the East 11st Street nightclub The Ritz. Soon after he transitioned into that most hallowed of positions for music junkies, the A&R (Artist & Repertoire) agent. It was a dream come true: armed with a ludicrously generous expense account, Alago was tasked by various labels to identify, sign, develop, and produce burgeoning talent. And over the next several decades he became one of the greatest in the history of the job, signing and working with such luminaries as White Zombie, Nina Simone, an Cyndi Lauper. All of this paled in comparison to his greatest coup. After receiving a rare demo tape entitled “No Life ’til Leather” from four California transplants, Alago changed the course of popular music history when he signed the group that would conquer the world under the name Metallica. Signing Metallica would have been enough to immortalize Alago, but the fact that he did all this as an openly gay Latino in the openly homophobic 80s metal/punk scene makes him the stuff of whispered legend. And it’s this legend that Drew Stone’s documentary Who the F**k is that Guy? seeks to tell.
Financed partially through Kickstarter, partially through a matching donation from distribution company XLrator, Who the F***k is that Guy? is a labor of love seeking to bring attention to one of the more under-recognized movers and shakers of twentieth century music. Alago appears as himself, acting as the Virgil to his own life’s Divine Comedy, guiding the viewer through the gentrified remnants of his old East Village stomping grounds as he reminiscences on bands, clubs, and scenes long since disappeared. The film features a small army of industry talking heads, most of them coming from the acts he himself signed or booked such as members of Metallica, White Zombie, and Public Image LTD. But Alago himself keeps this barely 80 minute documentary from crumbling into blandness. He’s a font of fascinating insights and stories, such as the bizarre onstage bologna-and-snot antics of Dead Boys’ frontman Stiv Bators. But he’s also an intriguing chronicler of New York’s pre-AIDS gay scene: one of the best sequences in the film comes when he recounts a classic pick-up technique where gay men would masturbate in front of apartment windows, call random men passing by street phone booths beneath them, and ask them to look up and tell them if they liked what they saw. Apparently it worked! Even more interesting are Alago’s memories of the overlap between the homophobic music scene and the gay scene. Alago straight-up admits that one of the things that drew him to live music in the first place was the fact that concert audiences were full of rowdy, sweaty, shirtless men. And according to talking head Rob Zombie, Alago used them as prime hunting ground.
The last third of the film recounts Alago’s horrific drug abuse and his desperate battle to stay afloat during the AIDS crisis. Perhaps sensing that this kind of story had already been told hundreds of times in hundreds of other music documentaries, Stone keeps these sequences so brisk and to-the-point that they border on perfunctory. They may have been central to Alago’s journey, but they serve to distract us from what made him so unique in the first place. An outsider by design but an insider by choice, Alago forced the world to bend to his own passions and will. May we all be so lucky.