In the history of heavy metal, perhaps no one is more beloved than Ronnie James Dio. And for good reason.
Ronnie's passion for the hard stuff delivered him from a promising pop career in the early-'60s to a life devoted to metal a decade later. Through his time in Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath and his eponymous band, Dio, Ronnie was a champion of hard rock, uncompromising in his creative vision and endlessly inspiring to other artists.
As Dio: Dreamers Never Die documentary co-directors Don Argott and Demian Fenton learned while researching their subject, there were numerous inflection points in Ronnie's career where it must have looked like he was making huge mistakes.
"A lot of people obviously just go down those roads [in their careers] because they feel like if they don’t, they won’t have a career," Don tells Q104.3 New York's QN'A. "That tells you everything you need to know about Ronnie’s character. He was willing to throw it all away, but in his heart, he knew he had this talent to fall back on. He had so much belief in himself and his ability that he wasn’t scared by those things."
Ronnie's widow, Wendy Dio, and the co-directors Argott and Fenton caught up with QN'A earlier this month to discuss the unique challenges of making Dreamers Never Die and what makes Ronnie's story is so empowering.
The long-awaited documentary premieres worldwide on September 28.
The movie is essential viewing for any rock fan. It explores Ronnie's life, career and artistry in revelatory detail, highlighting the ambition and sensitivity that made him such a magnetic force.
Read the conversation via the QN'A below!
(The following transcription has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
For Don and Demian, when was the first time you heard Dio?
Demian: The “Last in Line” music video for me [on MTV], probably fourth or fifth grade.
Don: I think the first time I heard Dio was probably “Heaven and Hell.” I was into Sabbath when I was in high school. I probably heard "Heaven and Hell" when I was probably 18 or 19, even though it came out obviously in 1980.
I probably had heard “Man on the Silver Mountain” prior to that, “Long Live Rock and Roll,” just in the circle that we ran in was a bunch of metalheads listening to ‘70s and ‘80s metal. But it probably didn’t register at this point that it was Ronnie singing in Rainbow. I went back and fell in love with all the early Dio records. It’s hard to pinpoint a specific time.
That’s one of the things that’s so cool about this film coming out for people that know Ronnie to see his story for the first time being told in this form. But then for people that don’t know a lot about Dio … and afterwards, not only do they love the movie, but they love Ronnie and they want to go and buy his record. Mission accomplished.
Wendy, how you and Ronnie met is covered in the film, but I’m wondering whether you knew his music when you met him?
Wendy: When I met Ronnie, they had just completed their first Rainbow album and not toured yet. So obviously I hadn’t heard it, but I was very into Deep Purple, I loved Deep Purple’s music — that was one of my favorite bands.
What led you to trusting this project to Don and Demian?
Wendy: Well, I didn’t really trust them in the beginning (Laughs). I’ve been approached many times about doing a documentary on Ronnie, but it just wasn’t the right time. Then BMG came to me and they financed the documentary and they gave me a bunch of different directors that they wanted me to listen to and talk to, and none of them were right at all.
Then I met Don and Demian and they were already fans of Ronnie. We talked about the way we wanted the film to go and they were kind of on the same page. I slowly gave them little bits and pieces, then we got to know each other more and more and more and then I gave them everything they wanted.
I mean, what they did was more than what I wanted. They just went the extra mile and I am so so proud of this and I know Ronnie would be proud of this.
A big theme of the film is Ronnie's sense of conviction and belief in himself. From leaving Rainbow when he did, leaving Black Sabbath when he did, forming Dio and then sticking with it in the '90s, even though he was kind of an industry pariah.
Don: That’s one of the things that’s so empowering in Ronnie’s story. He is someone who very much walks the walk.
Ronnie was consistent. The idea that he didn’t want to write love songs and he didn’t want to go down that traditional safe path and get a hit song and do all the things that Ritchie Blackmore wanted to do [in Rainbow]. And I don’t fault [Ritchie] for wanting a hit record, but clearly that wasn’t where Ronnie’s heart was.
That tells you everything you need to know about the music that the guy puts out. It’s exactly what he wants to say. He’s not doing it for a paycheck; he’s not doing it because someone said, ‘Oh, you’ll make more money, you’ll be on the radio more and you’ll be playing bigger shows and stuff.’ Especially early in your career, that is one of the hardest things to do. It’s very difficult to stick to your convictions because you don’t know that you’ll have another opportunity to do the next thing.
A lot of people obviously just go down those roads because they feel like if they don’t, they won’t have a career. That tells you everything you need to know about Ronnie’s character. He was willing to throw it all away, but in his heart, he knew he had this talent to fall back on. He had so much belief in himself and his ability that he wasn’t scared by those things.
The film has a sense of humor throughout that it seems like Ronnie would have appreciated. How did you determine when it would be necessary or appropriate to shoot those re-enactments?
Don: It’s all in the spirit of how we’ve approached this film. How do we convey our love for this guy? How do we make it fun? How do we bring you into this guy’s story when we don’t have the photos to back it up and things like that?
The story of Holy Diver that Wendy and Gene Kirkland told us was really the gateway, like, ‘Oh, we should re-enact this and see what it feels like.’
The behind-the-scenes part of it is they went to do that photoshoot at Paradise Cove in Malibu, so we went there to film the exterior of it, but then the re-enactment was actually done in Atlantic City — ‘cause we’re based in Philadelphia — in February. So we’re the idiots in the water in February freezing our asses off in wetsuits.
Once we put that together, we were like, ‘Wow, this could be something that we can do throughout the film.’ It opened up some doors creatively for us.
So when you’re splashing around in the Atlantic Ocean, pretending to be in the Pacific Ocean, shooting the Holy Diver cover, are you checking in with Wendy, like, ‘Here’s what we’re doing today?’
Wendy: I had no idea!
Don: She didn’t get the call sheet on that one (Laughs).
Demian: That’s what also what’s really cool about this project. We had a general agreement that we didn’t want to do a tired old behind-the-music rockstar gets famous, gets into drugs, wastes all his money — that’s not Ronnie’s story. Ronnie’s story is the opposite of that.
Once we kind of agreed on that, Wendy was so cool. She let us roll, she let us do our thing. We just made the whole movie and got it to the point where it was a really solid rough cut and took it out to Los Angeles and screened it for her.
What do you remember from showing the first edit to Wendy?
Demian: I’ll never forget that day, which is a nerve-wracking day as a filmmaker, to show your film to either the subject or someone like Wendy, who is basically the subject.
We know it would be an emotional screening. We got some tissues. We went to a CVS and we couldn’t find the small pack of tissues, so we had to buy like the whole pack. So we came in like goofballs with this big box of tissues. And Wendy’s tough. She looked at us like, ‘Yeah, I’m not gonna need any of this.’ And then when the film was over, she might have used a few of those.
Wendy: Maybe the whole box! It was very, very emotional the first time I saw the movie. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. It took me through so many ups and downs. Everything that I wanted about Ronnie was there.
The diehard fans think they know everything about Ronnie, but there’s a lot of stuff they don’t. Like the doo-wop days, the terrible car accident he had. Those things that the fans don’t know about Ronnie. And we wanted to find things the fans didn’t know about Ronnie. They achieved that and more.
Lots of Ronnie’s former bandmates are in the movie, but Vivian Campbell is not. Did they never reconcile?
Wendy: Vivian is not in the movie because he’s the only person I know in the world who says bad things about Ronnie. And even after he passed away. So that’s why. There is a little bit of him [from an archival interview].
Don: A lot of these things that we thought would be bigger story points, like the Ritchie Blackmore and Vivian Campbell stuff, they really weren’t that big of a deal.
As filmmakers, we’re always looking for dramatic moments and pivotal moments, things like that. The more impactful moments, the bigger things that we covered in the film, were outside of those personal grudges or whatever. For us, if we felt that they were big moments, we put them in the film.
Vivian Campbell leaving was a big moment. But it didn’t stop Dio from being Dio; he kept moving. Ten times more impactful was grunge and the changing of musical tastes, and at that time, that had very little to do with whether Vivian Campbell was in the band or not.
Wendy, what were some of the things you asked for in terms of the film’s final cut?
Wendy: (Laughs) The one thing I wanted—
Don: She didn’t make us take anything out. The only request that she had that we honored was Ronnie as the frog in The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast. She wanted to make sure that that came out. We found a place for it.
It comes later in the film, so I could feel her [waiting for it]…
Wendy: I was like, ‘Where is it? Where is it? Where is it?’ (Laughs)
Demian: What’s funny is every time we talked after that, while we were cutting, all about heavy-duty important stuff, I thought The Butterfly Ball would just go away.
Wendy: No! (Laughs)
Demian: But every conversation, it was, ‘Did you get The Butterfly Ball in there yet?’
Wendy: It’s very special to me because it was Ronnie’s first gold record he ever received. He got a gold record for that from Belgium, of all places. He got a gold record for “Love Is All,” so it was very special to me that that be included.
Demian: Everybody smiles when they see it.
At a time when so many documentaries go straight to a digital streaming platform, it must be really exciting to have a theatrical release for this.
Don: We’re releasing this in a very limited two-day event because it has the spirit of going to a Dio show together. Getting likeminded people together in a room to celebrate Ronnie’s life, his music, his legacy.
As cool as it is to be able to watch stuff as your leisure, there is something so cool being together in a room with people that are all digging it together.
Wendy: It’s like being at a show. It’s a really warm wonderful feeling with everybody all there together.