My post today is a sort of belated coda to the book I published last year, American Masculinities in Contemporary Documentary Film: Up Close Behind the Mask (see my post on this book), whose Spanish self-translation Detrás de la máscara: masculinidades americanas en el documental contemporáneo, is now available in open access. In that book I chose Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Lauren Lazin’s Tupac: Resurrection for the chapter on the musicians. I wanted to strike a balance between white and black male stars and to write about indisputable icons, enshrined by their early deaths, hence the focus on Cobain and Tupac. Since they died in their twenties, I did not have room to consider ageing, but now that Gotham Chopra’s excellent documentary miniseries Thank You, Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story (Hulu, 2024) has met with so much success it’s time to do so.

            Apparently, John Bongiovi (known as Jon Bon Jovi) himself chose Chopra, known for his sports documentaries, to narrate his band’s four decades of existence, being himself a sports fan. As happens, the singer had been suffering for some time from an incapacitating injury in the vocal chords, whose treatment along 2022 and 2023 gave Chopra the ‘sports’ narrative angle he required. There is, indeed, an analogy between sports and music as mass spectacles, and between athletes and performers, which no doubt the case of Bongiovi highlights. The narrative tension along the four episodes is maintained by the suspense about whether the singer should undergo a delicate operation that might have averse results and, once he decides to undertake it in view of the failure of all other therapies, whether he will fully recuperate what he calls ‘his tools’. What is significantly different from any sports documentary is that the star is here an aged 62-year-old-man, struggling with the unwelcome idea of retirement and trying to recover, if possibly, the vocal power he had when he was a youthful 40-year-old, an age at which the career of most sports stars is over. Bongiovi (or Bon Jovi?) may not be dreaming of staying on stage until he is 80, like Mick Jagger, but his New Jersey buddy Bruce Springsteen, currently 74, is clearly a referent.

            Chopra may be the director of the miniseries, but Jon Bon Jovi clearly controls the final product, having opened his personal archives to build what might be called an audiovisual memoir for all audiences. I am not myself a fan of the band, which I always considered solid enough but too commercially oriented to interest me as a teen or later. I do appreciate hits such as “Livin’ on a Prayer” or the power ballad “Always” but I don’t own any Bon Jovi record, nor did I ever think of attending any of their shows. Since Bon Jovi were so popular it was, in any case, difficult to ignore their music videos and strong media presence in the 1980s and 1990s. To this I need to add the fact that, as the abundant visual and audiovisual documentation of the miniseries proves, Jon Bon Jovi has been an astonishingly beautiful man. Many male rock stars that are sex symbols are not objectively handsome or even minimally nice-looking; in contrast, Bon Jovi’s frontman used to be a charismatic sex symbol who was, as I say, very beautiful. This means that Thank You, Goodnight is not only a paean to lost youth but also to lost male beauty. Bon Jovi is today a graceful silver fox, no doubt, but his white hair and deeply lined face also indicate that it is the privilege of men not to have to care about their ageing looks, not even when they used to be as beautiful as he was once. In contrast, Madonna, just three years older, is subjecting her body to unspeakable torture to stay young at all costs. In any case, at points the contrasts between the younger Jon and his current self is almost painful, an impression I believe was not intended.

            The narrative arc of long-lasting rock bands is always very similar and Bon Jovi is no exception. The documentary covers from the beginnings, when starry-eyed 16-year-old John Bongiovi and his piano playing friend David Bryan started attending gigs at local Jersey Shore clubs, to the present, when the band prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary with yet another stadium tour and the members recruited along its long history. The original band, renamed Bon Jovi by a record company employee, by analogy with Van Halen, found success thanks to the perseverance, talent, hard work and good luck of its leader in the early 1980s. When Richie Sambora joined them, Jon found the ideal collaborator, and an element essential in the evolution of the band from their dark New Jersey corner into the worldwide spotlight. Bon Jovi toured hard all over the world to consolidate their reputation and learn their musical trade in depth until exhaustion and their new wealth almost broke them psychologically. A series of strategic withdrawals from public attention and well-timed returns prolonged their existence, not without serious crises: the dismissal of bass player Alec John Such for his alcoholism, the breakup with manager Doc McGhee (and his replacement with a company run by Bongiovi family members) and, above all, the abandonment of Richie Sambora, unable to cope with diverse addictions, a painful divorce and his feelings that he was not being a good father to his daughter. There are now sixteen albums and, we might say, as many Bon Jovi bands, one for each period, seen on stage by millions of fans.

            The members, including Sambora, look satisfied in the miniseries, perhaps because as drummer Tico Torres explains, they knew how to combine their intense professional bonding with personal interests, including family life and other occupations (Torres, for instance, is a painter). Thank You, Goodnight is a celebration Jon Bon Jovi’s rock stardom, but, above all, it is a celebration of the bonds linking the men in the band, even of the crises. Few careers involve team work for four decades, and with the same colleagues. Phil X, the guitarist that replaced Richie Sambora, has already been in the band already for twenty years, even though he still seems to be the new guy. If there were arguments and shouts at any point, these are concealed from us, the audience, by a careful selection of documents from the archive that emphasizes continuity and longevity. In the solo interviews no man complains about any bandmate, and Sambora ends up apologizing for standing up his former friends hours before the first concert in a long tour, a major sin for a musician. These aged men seem, as I say, happy and satisfied.

            Something is, somehow, a bit amiss, for in this long report of almost five hours, the men are seen performing and recording for long periods, but not enjoying themselves together, either alone or with their families. Apart from the professional circle, only Dorothea Hurley, Jon’s wife, appears regularly in the miniseries, usually to offer a testimony about a turning point in their career, but never to discuss what romance or family life were like during the long absences from home of the band. The miniseries mentions only in passing that wives and children joined tours until the kids needed to attend school. Nothing is said, however, about what can be presumed: that marriages must have been plagued by infidelity. Coinciding with the release of the documentary, Jon Bon Jovi created a certain stir when he declared in an interview that he “I got away with murder. I’ll say it again on camera. I’m a rock‘n’roll star. I’m not a saint. I’m not saying there weren’t 100 girls in my life. I’m Jon Bon Jovi; it was pretty good.” He added that his high-school sweetheart Dorothea knew everything about his lifestyle when they married aged 30 (they have four children). Beyond what personal arrangements Dorothea and Jon may have, I find it hypocritical that the miniseries does not address the issue, if only because, as the singer acknowledges, it’s part of what being a rock’n’roll star is for a man.

            Apart from documenting intensively the process of ageing of the band members, Thank You, Goodnight also documents a work ethic that seems to be disappearing among male musicians. There is a certain suspicion that rock is vanishing because it is very hard work, and John Bongiovi’s career seem to prove the point. As he narrates, he learned to play guitar as a teen from a neighbour who, as a professional musician, had no patience with dilettantes. This was a valuable lesson that young John incorporated to his own strict work ethic. Coming from a working-class family (his father was a hairdresser, his mother a florist) who supported his decision to be a musician, John knew that he had to give everything he had to his career. He did so by being hard-working, constant, and humble, qualities no longer appreciated in a world of fast social media success. Bongiovi’s work ethic extends in the documentary to his troubles with his vocal cords, which are not surprising considering how he must have strained his throat with the demanding singing of his songs and the constant touring. This is a man who could easily retire, and be done, but he is worried that his legacy, to which he often alludes, might be incomplete if he does not go on touring.

            This drive to go on working, which defines Bon Jovi as it defines Springsteen or Dave Grohl, is not a quality found in other popular music genres, though, of course, pop has its good measure of ageing star (I have already mentioned Madonna). The difference with pop, in which women are dominant today, is that the stars’ ageing is no risk for the survival of the genre, since there is a constant supply of young hard-working women aiming at stardom. I don’t see, however, the same amount of hard-working young men willing to get calluses in their hands learning to play rock guitar, or putting a lot of physical energy into playing rock live. It seems to me that this type of masculine energy is gone already among the young, and surviving only among aged men like Bon Jovi and others. This is the reason why Chopra’s documentary is so touching: it discloses that hits we may have unfairly thought were easy to compose actually took very hard work, and it reminds us that rock itself is ageing and might soon disappear with its male stars. Perhaps we keep the illusion that this will never happen because the Rolling Stones are still active, but it is important to recall that Mick Jagger is mortal, and that we should never take for granted that rock will survive with no problem.

            Enjoy Thank You, Goodnight and please encourage young persons of any identity to keep rock alive, it’s an important part of our culture that should not die with its stars.