Lee Towers: The Voice of Rotterdam

World Famous in the Netherlands

Tom Mes checks in from Tokyo to report on Lee Towers: The Voice of Rotterdam, a documentary on one of Rotterdam’s local heroes with its fair share of Spinal Tap moments.

The Rotterdam Film Festival is, beside international, also very local — in spite of wavering support from the municipality. Case in point: Lee Towers: The Voice of Rotterdam, a documentary about one of Rotterdam’s local heroes, largely financed by the city’s main broadcaster.

Lee Towers is a pure product of Rotterdam. Born Leen Huijzer in one of the blue-collar areas typical of the south-side of town, he was a harbour crane driver before a television appearance in the 1970s launched his singing career. In the decade that followed, he distilled the image of the tuxedoed Vegas crooner down to something palatable for a Dutch audience, combining the most time-tested tunes in Sinatra’s repertoire with Tom Jones’s penchant for glittery get-ups (minus the chest hair and horn dog hip-swinging), and presenting the resulting concoction dead smack in the centre of the Ahoy, Rotterdam’s 10,000-seat sports and concert arena, with his annual sold-out ‘Gala of the Year’ concerts. By humble Dutch standards, this was nothing short of miraculous.

Hans Heijnen’s documentary starts off on the eve of Towers’s return to Ahoy in 2011, after a string of personal tragedies saw him shun the stage for nine years. However local the singer’s celebrity may be, the setting and emotions are universal enough for international audiences to empathise: the revelation of a public figure’s private face through backstage frustrations, the still-emotional subject of his lengthy absence and the constant, comforting presence of the ever-devoted Laura, his wife of 42 years.

So far, so fair.

Perhaps the touchstone for all good music documentaries is Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, a film that paradoxically isn’t a documentary but whose tales of the absurdities of life on the road is so real that many a musician shuddered to confront it; Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler once said he freaked out when he saw it shortly after parting ways with guitarist and writing partner Joe Perry in a haze of dope, alcohol and bloated egos. (To prove that life can be sillier than fiction, later the same year the short-lived Perry-less incarnation of Aerosmith released an album with a picture of Stonehenge on the cover.)

Lee Towers: The Voice of Rotterdam has its share of Spinal Tap moments, which, certainly in cinematic terms, are more resonant and revealing than any of the singer’s teary-eyed moments: a few days before his triumphant return to Ahoy, Lee is hired to mime to a backing tape at the birthday party of a 42-year-old Down’s syndrome sufferer; taking the stage at a ‘Pirate Festival’ for an audience more suited to a Justin Bieber concert; vainly cracking jokes and belting out his best-known tunes in front of empty plastic country chairs and indifferent corporate bigwigs more interested in the catering; and the moment described in the festival catalogue, in which, waiting for his curtain call amid wholesale-sized tubs of mayonnaise in the storage room of a corner café, Lee earnestly professes his love for his job.

These Spinal Tap moments are equally revealing of the man and of the country in which he is, as one member of his entourage phrases it, ‘world famous’ — The Netherlands, its culture and its people: from tales of working-class hardship, via the herring parties, to the adoring mass of greying baby boomers at his climactic comeback Gala. And through it all Lee remains Leen, a guy from the south-side, a regular guy — precisely the way the Dutch prefer their local heroes.

Tom Mes was born in a blue-collar area on the south-side of Rotterdam. He is the editor-in-chief of MidnightEye.com and author of several books on Japanese cinema.