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Strength

Provo filmmaker Russ Kendall on his documentary about The Alarm's Mike Peters.

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MARK NOTT
  • Mark Nott

"The first time I heard The Alarm? Probably 1983," filmmaker Russ Kendall says. He was a freshman at Las Vegas High and his parents had just divorced. He sought refuge in music, losing himself in the college radio station, KUNV. "It's that crazy time when you're just tryin' to figure out who you are and what's goin' on, and your life's disrupted—and I heard this song," he recalls.

It was "Sixty-Eight Guns," one of the Welsh punk/new wave band's many fighting anthems. The lyrics spoke to him: "And now they are trying to take my life away/ forever young I cannot stay." Suddenly he knew, "There's somebody there. I don't know who this is, but they get it, and I felt less alienated."

The same week, while watching MTV, Kendall saw images of the band for the first time in the music video for "The Stand." It was another highly charged, inspirational song. The memory of the spiky-haired band performing and spray-painting the lyrics on the wall was indelible. "I was, like, 'Yeah! I get that. They get me.'"

All music fans have stories of the first time they understood music as catharsis, and there are no bigger music fans than musicians themselves. Serendipitously, in 2011, BYUtv hired Kendall and his partners at Provo-based Kaleidoscope Pictures to produce the series The Song That Changed My Life, in which he'd travel the world making half-hour documentary profiles where musicians discuss a pivotal song from their lives. It got him thinking about the songs that were the most transformative for him. Although he wasn't a fan of the band's later work and had lost track of them, "Sixty-Eight Guns" still made the list.

Kendall commenced digging and realized, "Wow, there's quite a story here." He contacted The Alarm vocalist Mike Peters and arranged to tell his tale, flying to Wales in 2012. At the time, the singer was fronting Scottish band Big Country, whose original vocalist, Stuart Adamson, had passed away; Peters named the group's signature hit as his "song that changed my life." "Mike Peters: In a Big Country" aired as the second season's second episode.

Peters' story sang to Kendall, who told the musician, "This needs to be a full documentary." As it happened, Stash Slionski was working on a similar project. They joined forces—Kendall as director/producer, Slionski as director of photography/producer/field director, along with cancer survivor and filmmaker James Chippendale as producer—and the result is The Man in the Camo Jacket. The film chronicles The Alarm's meteoric rise through Peters' solo career and health problems, employing archival clips, Peters' home videos, extant and new footage shot in Wales and Tibet, and interviews with Peters' former bandmates, along with The Cult's Billy Duffy, The Damned's Captain Sensible, Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan and MTV VJ Martha Quinn.

The film's 20-minute first act covers the band's 1977 genesis as punk rockers The Toilets, which morphed into the mod/power-pop group Seventeen the following year. In 1981, they became The Alarm and subsequently caught fire. By 1982, U2 agent Ian Wilson was their manager, they had a deal with I.R.S. Records and they were touring with U2. Through the ensuing eight years, the band amassed a devout fanbase, releasing five studio albums, but ultimately succumbed to creative differences. On June 30, 1991, at Brixton Academy, Peters shocked the world—bandmates included—by announcing that the set's final track, "Blaze of Glory," would be his final moment with The Alarm.

The rest of the doc confronts the aftermath. Peters continued to make music on his own and with various side projects—even through his 1995 diagnosis with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He achieved complete remission in 1996 and soldiered on, reviving The Alarm with new bandmates in 2000 to some success, releasing new music and touring. Then, in 2005, Peters learned he'd developed leukemia. Once more, he continued to perform while in treatment, emerging victorious—and he did it all over again in 2014.

The stirring, award-winning film takes its title from Peters' decision to suit up in camouflage attire daily for motivation during all three battles for his life. Throughout his journey, he refused to quit performing; he even climbed Mt. Everest, staging a performance there. In 2007, he founded Love Hope Strength, named for lyrics from The Alarm's impassioned 1985 hit, "Strength." The charity sets up booths at concerts by supportive artists like Robert Plant, Mumford & Sons and Paul Weller, educating the public about bone-marrow donations and signing them up for the donor registry. To date, the foundation has added upward of 150,000 names to the list, resulting in more than 3,000 matches and $3 million raised.

For Kendall, it reaffirms his appreciation for Peters' work, and the understanding that music can get you through the tough times. He has a new favorite Alarm tune: "Unsafe Building," the band's first recorded single, released as a 7-inch in 1981. Kendall says he's taken on the song's message as kind of a personal philosophy. "When everything's stacked against you, sometimes you've just got to tear everything down and start over," he muses. "That's what Mike's been doing throughout his career; throughout his life."

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