Transcending Dio: The Man & the Music

Legend. Icon. All-time great. Metal’s best singer ever. All of these adjectives describe Ronnie James Dio perfectly, even if the late singer would cringe at the categorizations. Dio was as humble a rocker as you could ever hope to find. Devoted solely to his music and fans, the singer never indulged in a life of luxury or clichéd rock star behavior, he never forgot his humble roots, and always chased his dreams.

Ronnie James Dio’s story is an amazing journey from modest beginnings in upstate New York to becoming one of, if not the greatest, heavy metal vocalists, through his time with Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and as a solo artist. Now, the man’s remarkable life story is being told in the outstanding new documentary, DIO: Dreamers Never Die.

The film tells Dio’s story through rare, archival footage and photos sure to astound fans, and through interviews with his wife, Wendy Dio, and close friends. Co-directors Don Argott and Demian Fenton do an excellent job in relating a story with appeal across the spectrum, from hardcore fans to those that have never heard of Dio. (Hopefully, Stranger Things fans will be motivated to check out Dio’s music after main character Eddie Munson was seen consistently sporting a Dio patch on his jean jacket.)

DIO: Dreamers Never Days traces Dio’s life from a young trumpeter in grade school to a crooner in the 1950s with Ronnie and the Redcaps and Ronnie Dio and the Prophets. The singer went on to form Elf, which released three albums in the early 1970s. He first gained prominence during his time with Rainbow, the band led by former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. After leaving Rainbow, Dio helped resurrect Black Sabbath, proving to fans and his fellow band members that the group could both survive and thrive without Ozzy Osbourne. Finally, he went out on his own and became one of the most popular figures in heavy metal.

Dio’s legacy includes a plethora of hard rock and metal classics, from Rainbow’s “Man on the Silver Mountain,” “Stargazer,” and “Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll,” to Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell,” “Neon Nights,” and “Children of the Sea,” to solo output like “Holy Diver,” “Rainbow in the Dark,” “Stand Up and Shout,” “Last in Line,” “We Rock,” “Sacred Heart,” and much, much more. 

DIO: Dreamers Never Die will hit big screens across the country for a special, two-night engagement, on Wednesday, September 28, and Sunday, October 2. We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Wendy Dio, Don Argott, and Demian Fenton ahead of these screenings.

Is “DIO: Dreamers Never Die” a natural follow-up to “Rainbow in the Dark,” last year’s biography?

Wendy: It was probably that way. People have been asking me to do a documentary for many, many years and the time was never right. I did want to get the book out and I worked on that for a year or so. In the meantime, BMG came to me about doing a documentary and brought in different producers and directors, and to me, none of them were right. I’m very protective of Ronnie’s legacy. Then I met with Don and Demian. I was like, “Whoa, these guys are fans of Ronnie.” They knew all about him, they played his music. It just seemed right so we started to work together and it went better and better as we went long. 

How did you guys get involved in the project?

Don: Kathy Daum from BMG had seen one of our previous documentaries. BMG was starting to do original docs on some of the artists they had. She sent me a message with Dio in the subject line and asked if I had any interest in a Dio film. I responded in like 0.2 seconds: “Yes!” with a series of exclamation points.  Then I forwarded it to Demian, like, “Dio!” That was the beginning of it.

We met with Wendy and spent a lot of time talking to Wendy about what she wanted the film to be and the materials available to us. It happened very organically and I think that Wendy saw we were fans and that was obviously very important to her. I think for a story like this – and I always like to think that we go into a documentary whether we’re fans of the music or not. If we are fans, great,  but we don’t always have to be. It just has to be a great story. But for this project it checked all of our boxes. Yes, Dio, and yes, heavy metal. It was very much a labor of love. 

How did you decide what you wanted the story to be, and not to be?

Wendy:  It wasn’t going to be sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, that’s for sure. That’s not what Ronnie was about. It needed to capture Ronnie as he was, as a person, and go through his life – to show how not only was he a great talent but he was a great person, too, and to show all the ups and downs we had. He didn’t become a superstar overnight. We had lots of trials and tribulations. They captured what I wanted and more. They did such an excellent job. I’m so, so proud of them and I think Ronnie would be so proud of them, too. 

So now it’s, “We’re doing a film.” Where do you go from there, how do you decide the story arc?

Demian: There are two layers of the story. One tells people, “Here’s his music, take a listen to this stuff, the mechanics of the story.” The second layer is deeper and transcends the music, what was this guy about. What made him tick? How do you get from playing music in the fifties, before the Beatles, to playing onstage in ‘86 in Philadelphia with an animatronic dragon? These are the questions that we wanted to figure out. We knew what was so great about Ronnie is his music but also his message we got as kids, which, frankly, is part of the reason we’re filmmakers now. He tells you to chase your dreams, go for it, and [not] care about what anyone else says. That was at the core of the story. 

What were some of the challenges of making the documentary?

Don: Every film has its own set of challenges. This was no exception. We had a lot of stuff to contend with and all the archival stuff to deal with, and then obviously making it during the pandemic with all the travel restrictions and not being able to travel as freely. We had started the film before the pandemic. Then once it started, everybody was like, “Maybe a week, maybe a month.” Then it was all, “How much longer is it going to go on?” We were kind of tracking people when there was a lull and people started to travel a little bit more and we would try to pack as much time into that period as possible and all the while keep everybody safe. 

In one trip, we ended up doing Rob Halford, Lita Ford, and Don Dokken. Then we went to Los Angeles and did a ton of interviews in L.A. It was kind of like that sense that when you’re starving eat as much as possible as you can because you don’t know when the next meal is coming. It was with that mindset with interviews during the pandemic, because we didn’t know how much was going to stay open. 

Then with international travel, we wanted to get Tony Iommi and he agreed to do it. He’s such a big part of the story, but we had to do that remotely, and that was a bummer. As Demian said, we laid it all out and waited for the story to present itself. What’s great about Ronnie is he does have a very, very unique story in the sense that he has three huge milestone careers. Any one would be enough for one artist. The fact that he had three plus Elf and the early days as a crooner in the fifties… there was so much ground to cover. That was the hardest thing: to pair that down but not feel like we were rushing because all of that was important and the building blocks of him becoming Dio. 

Wendy, what were the range of emotions you experienced during the making of the film?

Wendy: Very, very bittersweet going down that road of looking at photos and looking at footage and remembering where Ronnie and I were at the time. Very emotional times. There were times where I couldn’t really deal with it and then other times when I was laughing and remembering what fun times we had together. I was wishing Ronnie was here to share them with me.

When he went out on his own after Black Sabbath,, starting all over again with nothing, was it a very nerve-wracking yet wonderful time, or just nerve-wracking

Wendy: It was very frightening and the added thing he threw on was, “You’re going to manage me.” It was a lot of work and a lot of apprehension. Were we doing the right thing there with the record company not caring because it was just a solo record? We just did it and the first show…. Well, it was worth every single thing to see those kids shouting and applauding. I had goosebumps. It was at the Antioch Theater and it was like, “Who’s coming here, a bunch of goats?” But it was packed with kids. 

What was Ronne like off the road?

Wendy: Actually, when he was off the road he did relax a bit. He would sit on the couch with his guitar and write songs while watching sports. He was a big, huge sports fan. Playing with the animals. Having friends over. We had a big bar we had brought back from England. Ronnie didn’t like to go out. He wasn’t a bad cook. He would cook some Italian food. He loved Indian food, which we would always call in because he liked to stay home when he was off the road. But he was always working, his brain was always going – he read a book almost every day.

Ronnie had a very English sensibility. How did he adopt that love of all things English? 

Wendy: I think Ronnie always thought he was an anglophile. He always liked the English humor, which is very sarcastic humor. He was a real prankster and loved all that English silliness like Monty Python. All the Sabs were British, Ritchie was British, Glenn Hughes was British, Simon was British. He would surround himself with English people. He loved English beer. We just had that difference about us.

What defined him as a musician, a person, and a partner?

Wendy: As a musician, he was an absolute perfectionist. A lot of people would say he was so hard on them when they were in the band but afterward it made them better players. He could be difficult, too. He was a control freak, I’m a control freak. Two control freaks together and we had some real doozies. But we always had the one goal and that was Ronnie’s career. He worked really hard, I worked really hard. I never interfered with his music; he never interfered with my business. And I think that’s why it worked. 

What do you think were his proudest moments?

Wendy: We know he was extremely humble but I think he was very proud of “Holy Diver.”  He very, very proud of all the stuff he did with Sabbath. I think that was his favorite time, playing with those guys, as they were such amazing musicians and everyone was up to the same caliber. That’s why I’m really, really happy that he got to go full circle and be back with the Sabs (renamed Heaven & Hell) before he passed away. 

This is more than the story of an incredible musician. It’s the story of an incredible man. How do you keep that balance in the film?

Don: That’s something that’s always important to us. We try to make the film for general audiences. There are certain types of films that are just made for a fanbase. They don’t really care if you don’t know the back story. One of the wonderful things is that he had such a full career.

By releasing the film on the big screen for two nights only, do you think it’s an event and more than just people watching a documentary?

Demian: The way we’re releasing the film for two nights only is so cool because it really feels like a show is coming to your town. We’ve been at a few festivals, screenings, and getting that audience there, rockers, metalheads, is really great. The film is really emotional. Whether you’re laughing or you’re crying it’s great to be in a theater with people who have a similar worldview. And afterward everyone’s hugging it out and talking about life. The film transcends music. It’s really about life.