Am I the Drama?: Notes on Fleetwood Mac on Film

illustration by Tom Ralston

“We’re dramatic. Lindsey and I will always be dramatic. When you were almost married for seven years, and then you’ve been in a band for 30 years, it’s never not going to be dramatic. We are who we are and we were dramatic kids going together. That never really goes away.”

– Stevie Nicks, 2012

Maybe I’m being hyperbolic here, but I think I’m allowed to be when I ask the first of many questions: Does anyone better exemplify sex, drugs, and rock and roll than Fleetwood Mac? Unless you just awoke from a 40-year-long coma, you probably don’t need me to tell you all the messy details of the infamous British blues-turned-Cal-rock band comprised of two couples and one very tall man—five people whose art was fueled, and arguably made better, by their behind-the-scenes soap operatics. At the center of it all was the golden power couple that could have been: Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, tangled together until the day they die whether they like it or not, permanently entwined in the will-they-or-won’t-they, he-said-she-said narratives they created for themselves to perform to various degrees over the past 50 years. 

“When ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ came out, we took it with a grain of salt,” Stevie Nicks said in 2011. “We thought, Well, video’s not gonna kill the radio star. It did. The song was prophetic.”

Video killed some radio stars, but not Fleetwood Mac. Unlike many of their ‘70s counterparts, the band evolved from the earliest popular forms of video (pre-recorded performances for television programs) to playing the MTV game in earnest, whether creating elaborate multimillion-dollar music videos, or, years later—as the network cashed in on nostalgia—a reunion concert. 

See, Fleetwood Mac was never just a rock band; it was a commercial enterprise from the moment they signed with Reprise Records in 1969 and traded the blues for raucous rock, then traded again for Bob Welch’s jazz-infused hypnotism in 1971. Their choice four years later to adopt the FM radio sound of Buckingham and Nicks would launch the band to mass popularity. Surely they looked at video as another medium through which to ascend—to assert Fleetwood Mac not just as a band, but as a brand. And certainly, Stevie and Lindsey looked at video the same way they sometimes looked at recordings: as an opportunity to plant the stakes of their competing stories in the ground and broadcast the tumultuous narrative—both real and exaggerated—of their lives. 

If you’ve spent any time mindlessly scrolling the internet this past year, you’ve probably heard “Am I the drama?” at least once. The viral TikTok sound, taken from a promo with drag queen Scarlet Envy for RuPaul’s Drag Race, soundtracks videos of people realizing that they might be the source of their own problems: “Is it me?” Envy’s voice asks, mockingly incredulous. “Am I the drama? I don’t think I’m the drama!” Then, with winking delight, she cuts the feigned innocence. Whatever it is, she’s in on it: “Maybe I am! Am I the villain? I don’t think I’m the villain…”

Hero or villain, we can’t help loving people who are the drama—the ones who know their purpose is to entertain, to fill our pedestrian lives with frivolous excitement. We’re drawn to those who are the drama not in spite of it, but because of it.

Lindsey Buckingham is singing a song about Stevie Nicks leaving him, and when he snarls the line about what a slut she is—“packing up, shacking up’s all you wanna do”—he can’t even look at her. Standing just behind him, tears brimming in her eyes, Nicks can’t take her gaze off of him. Just a year before, she’d considered themselves “absolutely married.” Surely their issues weren’t so bad that she couldn’t choose to give independence a go without him taking it too hard. She’d been mistaken, and now here she was, with no choice but to harmonize on his venomous reaction. “I very, very much resented him for telling the world [that]. He knew it wasn’t true. It was just an angry thing that he said,” she told Rolling Stone 20 years later. 

It’s October 1976 and the band is appearing on the British television music program The Old Grey Whistle Test to perform their still-unreleased single, “Go Your Own Way,” for the first time. In a few months, Rumours will make them global superstars. It will be a shimmering spectacle of sex, drugs, and rock and roll at their most hedonistic, an LP packed front to back with tracks that pull the listener into the center of the storm that engulfed the band: high school sweethearts Stevie and Lindsey breaking up (and getting back together, and breaking up again, and…), John and Christine McVie divorcing, and Mick Fleetwood reeling from the dissolution of his marriage to Jenny Boyd. But right now, no one knows about any of that. Not the at-home audience, blissfully unaware of the melodrama they’re about to see play out before their eyes, nor the band, fairly certain that their personal hell at least led to some good art, but still unsure how it will be received. 

“Every time those words would come onstage, I wanted to go over and kill him,” Nicks said decades later. It shows. Over the next three minutes, she transforms from a woman gulping back her own tears to one using them as vengeful fuel. She turns her body away from her mic to glower at Buckingham any chance she can, shakes her tambourine at him, twirls—anything to catch his attention, daring him to look at the person about whom he’s singing these cruelties. By the end, she’s smirking. He’s never going to do it, and she’s not as hurt by it as she is amused. Sure, he’s mean. But he’s also a coward. It’s Nicks who gets the focus of the camera’s lingering final shot, the winner of the face-off, shaking her tambourine triumphantly above her head.

Aided by the popular television appearance, “Go Your Own Way” was a marketing success. When the single was finally released in December 1976, it didn’t take long for it to climb the Billboard charts and stoke a ravenous appetite for the blockbuster release of Rumours. The play was cast, and Buckingham and Nicks found themselves cemented into two roles they’d grow more comfortable playing over time in their on-again/off-again feud: Nicks—at once both the victim and the victor, humiliated but headstrong—versus Buckingham—the tortured and torturous tormenter.

Relationships are, put simply, complicated. There’s no real way to know the entire, nuanced story between two people—not as a critic or a fan, anyway. It’s easy to cast a pair of exes neatly into their respective roles as the villain and the victim-turned-hero, but reality is rarely ever that black and white. It’s more like this: Most relationships are full of minor atrocities on both sides. It’s possible to both love and hate someone who wasn’t always kind to you. Setting fire to a relationship does not always burn feelings out completely; sometimes there are still-smoldering embers left in the ashes. But those aren’t the kind of complications that sell 10 million records in a single year, are they?

I don’t doubt that Nicks is telling the truth when she calls herself and Buckingham dramatic, nor do I think that either’s art is insincere. But I can’t help but wonder: When art is made out of private affairs for public consumption, where’s the line between leading a dramatic life and dramatizing life for a more compelling narrative? When does art become a product, and performance become a sales tactic? Rock stars aren’t just artists; they’re performers, too. Their emotions may prickle just below the surface—ready for easy access to recall the truth of a moment long since past—but they know, too, how to manipulate them, play them up or down for the sake of a good show. 

How do you follow up a cultural phenomenon like Rumours? If you’re Fleetwood Mac, you get to work on an even more expensive, even more coke-fueled, even more ambitious double album that subverts all expectations—and film the entire process. By the late 1970s, as home video cameras became more accessible to the masses, rock stars of the day began documenting their every move. Motivated by a self-important belief that they were doing something special enough to preserve on film, it became an act of prescient genius. The more time that has passed, the more it’s become an industry norm. Name a major pop star of the past decade who hasn’t filmed and released their own behind-the-scenes documentary, both as another product to sell and another way to give the illusion of access while controlling their own image. 

Maybe Fleetwood Mac were early industry adapters of the idea that they could own and control a three-dimensional view of a narrative they were inventing in real time. Or maybe it’s more innocent than that. Maybe there’s no acting here, just five people who’ve been in a studio together for far too long, earnestly trying to give some transparency into their creative process. Over the hour-long documentary The Making of Tusk (1980) and the additional ‘lost’ footage from the sessions, it’s hard to tell. The film is a display of both well-mannered control and unfiltered honesty in equal measure: For every composed talking head-style interview and performance to arenas packed with screaming fans, there are glimpses into the less-than-glamorous moments of rock stardom. Buckingham shows cameramen his janky jerry-rigged setup to record inside his bathroom; I’m fairly certain that there’s no footage of John McVie sober or less than bored; long stretches of recording time are spent sitting around doing nothing in the studio they’re paying top dollar for by the hour. 

In the years that follow Tusk, the narrative will twist. The group will claim they were miserable—that Buckingham was a poor leader, too caught up in his own obsessive work habits to notice that his enthusiasm wasn’t met by his bandmates. Nicks will speak at length about the frustrations of the recording process, comparing it to “being a hostage in Iran, and…Lindsey was the Ayatollah.” Maybe it was. But what’s caught on film tells a different story. Together, the two are friendly—warm, even. As Buckingham works out harmonies with Nicks on her song “Angel,” he’s soft-spoken and gentle with his suggestions, respectful of her work and mindful of how he can best serve it. The two seem like the teenagers they once were, just two kids whose voices were meant to sing together and who can’t help but grin, delighted—and perhaps a little turned on—by the singular timbre they create. Are we really supposed to believe that these two hate each other?

As the moment in the studio becomes the fully realized song in concert a year later, the camera’s gift of close-up captures details of a stage performance that escape the rapturous crowd. Nicks steals flirtatious looks at Buckingham. He edges his way closer to her, leaning in to put his arm around her and pull her close, sharing a mic to sing together. The energy is impossibly horny, and the audience goes wild for their onstage flirtation. But the camera catches the tell. Or, rather, the suggestion of a tell. The playful looks they share could go either way, depending upon which direction you tilt your head. Are they letting an off-hours affair make its way onto the stage? Or, are they thinking: They bought it? The older I get, the more I tend to believe that the less salacious and more unsatisfyingly boring answer is often the one closest to the truth. 

Even if the motivation for The Making of Tusk was driven by ego and a desire for narrative control, that ends up lost in its messy, naive (and inebriated) execution. There are too many moments of not just raw honesty but accidental showings of puppet strings that would never fly in today’s corporate rock machine. That could be why the band—who seemingly release some super-deluxe edition of something or other every year—have never officially revived this rare VHS, avoiding any endorsement that comes with re-release and instead letting it lie in bad bootleg form. Maybe, as the group have embarked on their own revisionist history—both together and individually—it’s a part of their past that doesn’t fit with the story they want to tell. Forget about now; Nicks already had cold feet in 1980: “It was so personal we were scared. There’s a part, for instance, where Lindsey and I are sitting at a piano, singing ‘Angel’ and looking at each other. There’s a certain thing that goes on between us—it always has and probably always will. But it’s there, on the tape! It’s incredible—and kind of frightening.”

“There aren’t a lot of Fleetwood Mac videos that didn’t suffer from some element of being flawed by virtue of just the collective persona of the band not jiving with the sensibility of the video.” 

– Lindsey Buckingham, 2018

Video wasn’t going to be what killed Fleetwood Mac, but it wasn’t going to help them, either. As MTV broke, the band leaned all the way in—but competing with younger and younger acts for attention and relevance meant making some extravagant music videos. What a recipe for success: Put a bunch of squabbling, inflated egos with too much money and too many drugs together on an arduous shoot, and ask them to pretend that things are just swell. 

In Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Fleetwood Mac’s scant four pages of anecdotes read like an airing of grievances. The most tactful thing anyone can say is director Steve Barron’s admission that “Fleetwood Mac were, um, not easy to work with.” It’s evident in the few videos they made at the time—big-budget productions for smash singles consistently derailed by the band’s interpersonal discord. Producer Simon Fields describes “Hold Me” as “a fucking nightmare, a horrendous day in the desert.” On film, the increasingly fractious nature of the band seems all but written into the script; they’re never even shown together. The closest that Buckingham and Nicks get is a clever shot in which Buckingham gives up on a portrait he’s painting of her as she lounges. He walks away, and she paints it herself instead.

The mood on “Gypsy”—the most expensive video ever made at the time—was downright chilly: “I was coupling up the members of Fleetwood Mac…and people were pulling me aside saying, ‘No, no. Those two were fucking and then they split up and now he’s sleeping with her.’ I got very confused, who was sleeping with whom,” director Russell Mulcahy says. Nicks and Buckingham, now forced to actually act together, fall short. In a scene where the couple has to dance, Nicks looks—and remembers feeling—like she wants to break Buckingham’s arms. “If you watch the video, you’ll see I wasn’t happy,” she says. “And he wasn’t a very good dancer.”

The vibe only continues to deteriorate. The singles from 1987’s Tango in the Night could no longer create an illusion of five people enduring in spite of it all, let alone one of popcorn-worthy drama. No longer having even the energy for performative hate, the videos for “Big Love,” “Little Lies,” and “Seven Wonders” are stiff, lifeless affairs. By the end, the band can’t even stand to be in the same room long enough to appear on camera together. The final two music videos they’ll ever make—for “Everywhere” and “Family Man”—are filmed with actors and stock footage.

The best video that Fleetwood Mac ever made is one they didn’t even know they made. Rather, it’s an old transfer of a covert VHS tape from a Rolling Stone photoshoot with Nicks that someone uploaded to YouTube. 

There’s nothing histrionic about it, no performing for posterity. It’s just Nicks, barefaced and singing along with instrumental demos that Fleetwood Mac has been working on. “This is one Lindsey wrote that kills me. This is the one that kills me,” she says when a new track begins to play, unable to temper the girlish smile on her face. As she sings the earliest inklings of what would become her solo cut, “Wild Heart,” her unguarded humanity is on full display. The idea is fresh in her mind and hasn’t been over-thought or performed take after take, the emotions practically choreographed. It’s impossible to feel bad after watching it; its unbridled joy is infectious. I wonder sometimes what Nicks thinks of the video now, about this moment where she was so wholly herself—unaware that people were watching then, unaware that they’d watch decades later. 

They thought it wouldn’t happen. The past decade had not been kind to the members of Fleetwood Mac. Buckingham quit the group following the production of Tango in the Night. Nicks kicked her cocaine addiction only to find herself under the care of a “groupie” psychiatrist who prescribed her debilitating doses of Klonopin. A bankrupt Fleetwood chased any opportunity for a quick buck. John McVie got sober, but only after an alcohol-induced seizure in 1987; Christine McVie all but retired. After two disastrous albums with new lineups, it seemed by 1997 that the likelihood of Fleetwood Mac continuing on in any form, let alone with its best-known lineup, maybe wasn’t quite hell freezing over (that would be reserved for the Eagles), but certainly not something you’d put any money on.

But there they were, older than the brazen young rock stars they once were, faces fuller and lined with battle scars, but healthy and on good enough terms to record a live concert special for MTV. Together again, our broken little dysfunctional family. That’s them up there, you think, Nicks and Buckingham, our divorced parents whom we still hope will bury the hatchet and reconcile even though we should know better by now, tenderly embracing each other at the end of “Landslide,” the song she wrote about their relationship when it seemed like they still had a fighting chance. The pull of nostalgia is impossible to resist. 

The Dance is a relatively by-the-book affair, an hour-and-a-half-long tour of greatest hits with a few new tracks thrown in to pointedly remind the audience that this reunion is not a funeral, it’s promotion for a new tour. But the mood can’t stay bittersweet forever; Fleetwood Mac is, after all, about the drama, which comes about midway through the show in the form of “Silver Springs.” Nicks’s wrenching breakup ballad about “what [Lindsey] could have been to me,” it had been controversially cut from Rumours and cast off as a B-side to “Go Your Own Way.” Rarely performed since then, it seemed like the kind of song destined to linger in obscurity for the rest of time—a hardcore fan favorite, not one that would go on to spawn countless memes and merch. No, that would come after The Dance cemented it in pop culture history.

After a solemn but perhaps reserved two minutes, Nicks turns to address Buckingham directly with the curse-out chorus: “Time cast a spell on you, but you won’t forget me / I know I could have loved you but you would not let me / I’ll follow you down ‘til the sound of my voice will haunt you.” All the air leaves the room when Buckingham meets her gaze and she unleashes the full force of her fury. It’s a role reversal of the “Go Your Own Way” dynamic from all those years ago; she actually has the guts to look him in the eye while she eviscerates him. “Was I just a fool?” she wails, and time becomes flat: It could be 1967, when Nicks first joined Buckingham’s psych-rock band. It could be 1977, when the wounds of their first breakup were still fresh. It could be 1987, when the two quite literally attacked each other in Christine McVie’s driveway. By the time that Nicks growls her prophetic words “never get away” over and over again, it becomes clear that it really is 1997, that this is the release of 30 years’ worth of tortured togetherness. 

In my younger and more impressionable years, I conflated grand displays of emotion with authenticity. Maybe it was youthful naivete, maybe it was that I didn’t yet know how to be vulnerable myself, but I was in awe of those who ripped themselves open night after night in front of other people to experience catharsis through their art. 

During this time, I forced countless people to watch The Dance’s “Silver Springs” clip if I found out they’d never seen it, sitting just over their shoulder to clock their reactions. We’d marvel, slack-jawed, over the emotional exorcism-as-performance. I never thought to consider that it could be, at least partly, performance-as-emotional exorcism.

The Dance was filmed over two nights. “I never did that before,” Nicks said of her feral performance before its airdate months later. “I left that for Friday night. The earlier shows were good. I just paced myself. They weren’t the shows I wanted to leave behind for posterity, just in case Fleetwood Mac never did another thing.” 

What are we to expect of rock stars as they transition into middle age? Does it soften them? Or do they just lean further into the roles they know how to play? Those seem to be the questions at the center of Destiny Rules, the 2004 made-for-television documentary that follows four dysfunctional people attempting, with varying degrees of tact, to make their first studio album in 15 years. 

By now, the sex and drugs have been traded in for sensible adulthood: Buckingham—a graying, married father of two, writing songs that question “What’s The World Coming To”—hinges on the verge of resembling an old man shaking his fist at the sky. Nicks has traded in her sky-high platforms for sensible Eileen Fisher separates and is—I swear I am not making this up—genuinely amused by a singing Big Mouth Billy Bass. Fleetwood does silver sneakers sessions at the gym, John McVie spends his spare time fishing, and Christine McVie has straight up retired. Even the rock-and-roll part has been co-opted by their mercenary existence. The fights are no longer about the music so much as they’re about what every other middle-aged couple fights about: money.

It’s 2003 and MTV may still reign supreme, but gone are the days where Fleetwood Mac does. The LP is dead, the CD is in sharp decline, and file sharing runs rampant. Is there a way to balance the fighting interests of art and commerce when the traditional music industry is in such disarray? “We think all these people that are our age are just gonna come out of the wall and say, ‘I’m going to start buying music again,’ when, in fact, they’re not laying around on the floor smoking dope, thinking about what the next record they’re gonna buy is…So we have to sell records to between 10 and 27 years old. That’s kind of who buys records now…They’re not gonna buy 22 songs on a record from people that are in their 50s,” Nicks laments. None of them wants to release a flop, but now they have more than just ego to worry about. They all, with the exception of Nicks, have young families they need to support, mouths to feed. Well, yes, but it’s kind of a funny thing—even downright gauche in retrospect—to watch millionaires pretend they’re just like us, that their concerns about supporting their loved ones are no different than those of the middle-class Americans they’re trying to sell themselves to.

Unlike The Making of Tusk, Destiny Rules revels in the uglier sides of the recording process. Knock-down-drag-out fights make it on camera: Preferred sound engineers become pawns in screaming matches about wasted time; betrayals occur when no one can agree on a double or single album. The word iconic is overused, but it undoubtedly applies to the moment when Lindsey cautiously suggests to Stevie that the syntax of her lyrics is a little confusing, and Stevie—who moments earlier declared, “This is not about art”—defends her poetry with “I don’t think you could say that to Bob Dylan.” There it is: the Fleetwood “Am I the drama?” Mac we know and love. Eventually, Buckingham, for all his comparing his work to the independent films of Todd Solondz and insisting “I’ll eat a fuck of a lot of money,” gives into the pulls of capitalism, and concedes to the others’ wishes for a more sellable single CD. If this is a representative portrait of the first generation of rock stars to reach an age where they can contend with—and begin to craft—their own legacies, it makes you wonder if the Who were right to hope to die before they got old. It doesn’t make them look bad, but it doesn’t make them look good, either.

How did they let this come out with so much petty footage still intact? It could be that’s exactly what they wanted. The documentary has plenty of moments of softness that show their emotional growth—times where someone course-corrects in the moment, expresses vulnerabilities and gratitude with therapy jargon, or treats another with gentle grace—but a healthy, mature Fleetwood Mac doesn’t sell. Not, at least, compared to the theatrics of their well-documented past. Why not give the audience what they want and expect? Perhaps they’re not even aware that they’re throwing themselves under the bus in the process; maybe by now, the delusional film of self-importance is too thick to see their more off-putting moments truthfully. Stevie said it, not me: This isn’t about art. 

As the autumn of 2014 turned into the bitter winter of 2015, back in the warm glow of the Obama era, before the simulation glitched, before I was as jaded as I am now, I spent six months following Fleetwood Mac up and down the East coast. Armed with my first credit card, I saw the classic lineup perform more than half a dozen times in arena after arena, from New York to Washington, D.C. to, on one occasion that’s too long a story to tell here, Virginia, often charming my way to stand with other young women like myself at the foot of the stage. My parents were furious that I was blowing my laughably little disposable income; my peers and coworkers were downright confused. Everyone had the same question: “If it’s the same show, why are you seeing it over and over again?”

I didn’t have a succinct way to explain that a Fleetwood Mac show was just that: a show. You didn’t just go because you loved the band—which I did, fervently, and still do, though with more reserve—or to see the brilliant musicianship—which often gets overshadowed—at work. You went for the drama. By which I mean, you went to see what version of the Buckingham/Nicks soap opera was going to play out that night. Would they be on good terms, touchy-feely, laughing, and chatting with the audience? Would things be frosty, animosity out in full force? You never knew which story they’d choose to tell. 

By the end of their last tour as a fivesome, Fleetwood Mac didn’t need to make music videos or documentaries anymore. They had a stage, and they had us, iPhones clutched firmly in hand, the audience-turned-cameramen, capturing it all.