During the last four decades, Philly singer-songwriter Kenn Kweder could only watch as others who came out of the local rock scene he helped midwife in the 1970s rocketed past him. The late Robert Hazard, the A's, and the Hooters are just some of the acts that landed national recording contracts while he remained virtually unknown outside the Delaware Valley.
Yet it's the 64-year-old Southwest Philly native who is the subject of a full-length documentary feature that has its world premiere in two screenings at International House on Friday.
Adventures of a Secret Kidd: The Mass Hallucination of Kenn Kweder is a film by John Hutelmyer, a 27-year-old Coatesville native and longtime Kweder fan. Made with his subject's complete cooperation, the 105-minute flick details Kweder's childhood, including a mother with an outsize personality and a lifelong regret of not pursuing a show business career; his early days as a Rittenhouse Square busker; his mid- to late-'70s run as the city's most buzzed-about rocker (backed by several generations of the explosive Secret Kidds); and his still-thriving, decadeslong career as a journeyman performer grinding out a living with gigs five or more nights a week at area taprooms and cafes.
Hutelmyer has been cinematically chronicling Kweder since he did a short piece based on one of Kweder's songs as a high school student. His fascination with the musician only strengthened after he entered Temple University as a film/media arts major.
"He was playing at a bar across the street from my dorm every Thursday, and me and my buddies started going to see him," Hutelmyer recalls. "I got to know him better in person. My senior year, I did a 10-minute mini-documentary on him.
"The idea of doing a feature started there. After I graduated, we stayed in touch, and eventually it turned into going for it and doing a full-length project. Kenn is such a character. He really can capture a room. Even if you've never seen him before, you'll start following him. So I just thought he lent himself to a feature project."
Kweder's youth and parents are the only glimpses of his personal life in the film; the rest deals with his career. Hutelmyer and Kweder say that was at the latter's request.
"He didn't want us diving into any kind of relationship stuff," says the director, adding that this wasn't an issue for him or his partner in the project, Rob Nicolaides.
Kweder says he restricted coverage of his personal life out of respect for those who've been part of it.
"I didn't want to get into anything that would hurt anybody's feelings," he says. "I wanted it to be neutral in terms of that. It's John's movie, but there were certain things I wasn't going to talk about."
That aside, he says he was "happy to just let the chips fall where they may in a random, serendipity way, and see what kind of picture he gets out of it."
Among the subjects covered are the still-remembered guerrilla marketing campaign Kweder used to launch his "brand" - specifically, the ubiquitous poster featuring the famous photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald's murder by Jack Ruby. Also addressed at length is the real reason Arista Records mogul Clive Davis failed to sign Kweder in 1977. It's not necessarily as sexy a story as the one that had been accepted as "truth," but it speaks to Kweder's steadfast belief that art is not just a commodity.
The segment sure to raise eyebrows details the singer's long-established alcoholism. Kweder takes ownership of his condition and almost belligerently dismisses it as little more than a combination of "bad choices" and circumstances.
Name-checking writers Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, he notes alcohol has always fueled creative types and that being a well-known imbiber adds "romance" to his persona. But he is adamant when it comes to labeling.
"There's a point in the movie where I'm talking about how my drinking is really a bad habit," he says. "It's not an addiction. I'm not going to take the easy way out and blame my central nervous system for a bad habit.
"A lot of people do that. They go, 'Oh, I have an addiction problem.' I'm not sold on the addiction thing. If I want to burglarize someone's house, that's a bad decision. I'm not addicted to being a burglar. I was just taking responsibility for my drinking, and I just wish more people would take responsibility for theirs."
Drinking with Kweder is a rite of passage for fans who insist on keeping him lubricated throughout a typical three- or four-hour set, he says. "I don't go out every night thinking I want to get blasted. Everywhere I go, people want to buy me drinks. It's difficult to turn that stuff down."
Neither Hutelmyer, who hopes to get the movie entered into film festivals, nor Kweder harbors any illusions that Adventures of a Secret Kidd will catapult Kweder to superstardom. But Kweder admits he'd like to win some new fans from the film, and he's hopeful there will be at least one takeaway for those who see it.
"I think there's a lesson in this movie," he says. "The lesson is you get into the arts ... and if you go into it 100 percent, it's a tricky life, and it can get dangerous."
For more on the movie, go to kwedermovie.com.