Chile-born musician and producer Alain Johannes is the subject of a new biopic called Unfinished Plan: The Path of Alain Johannes, directed by Rodolfo Garate. The movie is a superb piece of work that seems to start off as a regular music documentary, but it soon becomes apparent that it’s a tragic love story.
Johannes was in the band Eleven with his wife, Natasha Shneider, releasing a string of albums that were enjoyed by critics and other musicians but didn’t perform commercially. The pair were inseparable for 25 years, until Shneider died in 2008 after being diagnosed with cancer.
Garate’s film tells that terrible story with a deft touch. Johannes is seen meeting his birth father in Chile for the first time; later, we learn that his father, mother and uncle all died during the movie’s timespan. The interviews with Chris Cornell (Jonannes and Shneider both played in his solo band) are poignant, given that we’ve also lost the Soundgarden frontman.
So it’s a movie filled with grief but also hope. Johannes’ spells with the bands What Is This? (featuring future Chili Peppers), Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures are given airtime, and we’re left pondering a film that is heart-wrenching and achingly beautiful. We spoke to Johannes about all of this…
L.A. WEEKLY: This movie is so intensely personal — how good a job did director Rodolfo Garate do?
ALAIN JOHANNES: I think he did an incredible job. Granted, just imagine how bizarre it is that a movie appears about you and you’re still alive. And basically coincides with me going back to Chile. I mean, I was born there but really whisked away before I could speak. I started speaking German in Switzerland, then we moved to Mexico, then I moved to the States in ’74 and started my whole journey meeting Hillel Slovak [Chili Peppers] and Jack Irons [Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam] and forming my first band. Then Flea and Anthony [Kiedis] before the Peppers. I met Natasha, and just kept going through that whole period. Then I find out that I had a real father who I had never met, in my 20s. I never managed to go back. I wasn’t sure whether I was blocking it but I didn’t feel the pull to go back and meet him. After Natasha passed away, he wrote me an email and my Uncle Peter, who was in the movie, arranged that meeting. After Natasha got sick I left the Queens [of the Stone Age] but stayed close with Josh Homme and we were in the [Crooked] Vultures together — he said to me, ‘Look, we’re going to go to South America and I think it’s time to meet your dad.’ He invited me to open up all those shows, and then I went down to South America and that’s when I met him.
As they were filming, my mom got sick with cancer and she passed away, then my dad passed away, then my Uncle Peter, who was my mentor — he put a guitar in my hand when I was 4 years old. Then Chris [Cornell] suddenly was gone. Two weeks after he was gone, I went down there for the first premiere and I had to sit in the back of the theater and see the movie for the first time. I can’t even describe it. I made myself watch it. In one way it was cathartic, because it gets abstract. But then you also start to relive all the grief. At the end of it, I had to go down in front of the screen, grab my cigar box guitar and play a few songs. It’s just been really bizarre. I’ve only watched it the one time, but it was very powerful for me.
I think it’s a beautiful work. Once my sister was interviewed, when she said that it’s a love story, I think something clicked in [Garate's] head and he got to see it from a different perspective. I’m sure, initially, it was a little bit about how cool this Chilean is doing all this cool stuff.
The camera crew seems to be with you at the most raw of moments. Were you at all reluctant to lay yourself that bare?
They were very respectful but as filmmakers they kept trying to push things. Not trying to change things, but when my father passed away, my brothers texted me and said that the funeral service was tomorrow. I got off the phone and got an expensive flight to Chile to get there. When I got to the church, they were there. I was just like, no. This is not cool. It was incredible for me, because there was this feeling of being moribund and lost after losing Natasha because we were an unusual couple. We were so connected 24 hours a day for almost 25 years that we had almost become a single breathing unit even though we were so different personality-wise. I never felt like I had a home, so I wanted to go back to the place I was born, to connect with an entire half of my genetic life that I had no access since being a young boy. That helped me to heal, and also it was beautiful because there were so many fans of the music we had made. That’s why I started playing with Chilean musicians, playing that music again, which I never thought I’d do without Natasha. But we were so connected that her voice stays with me, and I got this feeling of approval. So I started to go down there all the time, and I still do. I keep going back every year.
The Chilean fans took to you from the start — there’s footage from a show in the movie where somebody in the crowd shouts, “We’ve been waiting for you, dude,” and you say that it took you 45 years to get there because you walked…
I felt blessed and honored that they welcomed me in that way. With Eleven, we had such a hard time of it. It just happens. The labels weren’t good. There were always good people at the labels trying to help but the overall structure didn’t help. The only way that we had any artistic legs and survived without getting heartbroken and bitter about it was because of all the love and support of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Queens and all these people who became our family and friends. Who kept putting us in front of people, opening for them. There was one tour where we had just lost our deal and didn’t have any money. Chris with Soundgarden called and wanted us to go on tour with them in Europe, and I said that we didn’t have any tour support. Chris called me back and said that everybody had chipped in $15 grand, so we’ve got $60 grand. Use their techs and travel with them. Who does that? Who gives their opening band tour support? It never happens. That’s the amazing connection that we always had.
Eleven isn’t the only awesome band that didn’t break big, but do you hope this movie might help raise the band’s profile, as well as that of Natasha and yourself?
What I really think [Garate] did the great job of is making it more universal and less specific. The movie is sad and intense, but I think it still has a sense of hope. Some of the interviews didn’t end up in there. I wish there was more Jack Irons.
Ben Shepherd (of Soundgarden) calls Eleven a connoisseur's band in the movie — are you happy with that description?
I’m not a good businessman, I just figure if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. All the things that have happened, like meeting Soundgarden at a truck stop, running into Josh Homme at Matt Cameron’s wedding, meeting Mark Lanegan and PJ Harvey at Desert Sessions — it just happens. Maybe that’s what people see as me being a good person to have around.
What’s next for you?
L.A.’s crazy expensive, so I moved in with my sister and have a studio set up. I have the opportunity to help bands. I help as much as I can. I composed the movie for the Ghost Recon: Wildlands video game. I finished my Alain Johannes Trio album, and I’m gonna do another solo album. More focus on my music and Eleven’s music. I’d love to get out and tour more. I’d love to see what’s out there and connect with people.
Unfinished Plan can be seen Dec. 14-20 at Laemmle's Glendale Theatre; 207 N. Maryland Ave., Glendale. It should hit streaming services soon.