Sunday, June 29, 2008

Wild In The Streets

Over the years, I’ve caught snippets of Wild In The Streets (1968) on tv, but have never seen the whole the film. Much to my delight I came across the film last night while flipping through the On Demand free movies listings. The child was asleep, the wife was out of town and it seemed like a good time to take in this z-grade, teensploitation classic. Produced by Samuel Arkoff and released by AIP pictures, Wild In The Streets has all the markings of a lo-rent, b-movie trying to crossover. Appearances by Peter Tork, Melvin Belli and Walter Winchell plus starring turns by Shelly Winters, Ed Begley and Hal Holbrook all indicate the desire for this film to hit it big. But like most films from that era that try to play both sides of the fence, Wild In The Streets falls short. The film exploits generation gap politics. Hal Holbrook plays an up and coming senator with Kennedy-esque charm. He recognizes the need for the youth vote and is running for election based on the platform of bringing the vote to 18 year olds. To help his cause, he enlists the services or rock and roll star and rebel Max Frost. Frost signs on to the campaign but upstages Holbrook on national tv, calling for the voting age to be lowered to 14. This is the basis for the film’s best moment, the rabble-rousing rock anthem Fourteen or Fight (check out the You Tube clip below). Holbrook gets what he wants and then some. Frost and his stoned companions wreak havoc in Washington by enflaming the youth of America. Frost ultimately wins the presidency and in his first act as President banishes everyone over 35 to relocation camps where they are dosed up with brain-numbing amounts of LSD. In theory this movie should be awesome, but somehow it flat lines. There are certainly some great moments and great lines, but it all comes across as a little rushed and a little wooden. It doesn’t sparkle and snap like the great exploitation movies. The writing is nowhere near as sharp as in the brilliant Death Race 2000. Its biggest problem is in the character development department. Cardboard cutouts of drugged out hippies just don’t fly daddy-o. We never feel the real rage of the restless youth. The film’s characters lack believable frustrations like in Hair or Over the Edge, which mines a similar vein. Maybe it’s a good view with lots of people in the room and with the alcohol freely flowing, but I wasn’t so moved. Look for good performances by Shelly Winters as Frost’s estranged mother and Richard Pryor as the band’s drummer. Nice ending as well, as the 10 year olds get ready to rock the vote or rebel.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Chuck Barris & The Big Question

If you were a boy growing up in the 70s, there’s an excellent chance you were a huge Chuck Barris fan. Sure he created seminal game shows like The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, but all that really mattered to the pre-pubescent set was his masters of ceremony stint on the brazenly twisted Gong Show. TV at it’s finest. Ordinary folks acting like fools in front of a live studio audience with a panel of celebrity judges ready to gong them at a moment’s notice. Check out this clip of an early incarnation of Oingo Boingo tearing it up on The Gong Show stage. You won’t be disappointed. For much of the 80s and 90s Barris receded from of the public eye, but in 2002 he published Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind. Confessions was ostensibly his autobiography in which he claimed to have been a CIA agent in the 60s and 70s, working dangerous missions abroad, dancing with death, all the while maintaining his straight job as a Los Angeles-based television producer. Utterly baffling. Ultimately, Confessions is a brilliant book. It’s superbly written and spellbinding. A read that leaves you with question marks popping up all around your head. As implausible as it all seems, the writing is so stellar and captivating, that the story seems believable.

I recently picked up Barris’ latest foray into fiction, The Big Question (2007). Set in the near future, The Big Question focuses on a washed up television producer from the 60s who attempts to get back into the game by producing a new reality show, wherein contestants vie for a million dollar cash prize. The twist in the game show is that if the finalist fails to answer the show’s final question, they’ll be executed on national television. Bummer! It’s an absolutely stellar premise offering up many brilliant jabs at realty t.v.

Unfortunately the writing is nowhere near as sharp as in Confessions. The Big Question is littered with the storylines of the would-be contestants who come across as big, broad caricatures. Kind of like Harry Crews-lite. There’s so much time spent developing these unrelated characters that the game, which is the book’s driving force, is unveiled in surprisingly slow fashion. The book is almost half way done, before readers get a full glimpse into the show’s inner-workings. The show itself is relegated to the last 30 pages or so. But what a last 30 pages it is! As slow as things develop, once the game is on, the book becomes quite riveting. Which contestants will duke it out for the million dollars? Will there be a public execution? How’s it all going to end?

As inconsistent of a read as the Big Question is, it’s an easy read and there’s lots of high points to keep you moving to the end.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

To Skewer or Not To Skewer? The Raveonettes vs. The Polyphonic Spree and Other Derivatives

A couple months back I was listening to Sound Opinions, my favorite music podcast out there. During the show, hosts Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot were reviewing Lust, Lust, Lust, the new Raveonettes cd. They both skewered it for being trenchantly derivative of The Jesus and Mary Chain. That got me to thinking how music critics and aficionados often rip a band for being derivative, but sometimes they’re willing to give a pass to another band who is just as derivative. Why do some bands get raked over the coals, while others are lauded?

So I started thinking about some examples in my own collection. Why is it that I like the Raveonettes but detest The Polyphonic Spree? Within the first 40 seconds of hearing the Raveonettes for the first time it was obvious they were borrowing quite heavily from the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Spector Girl Group sounds. Yet I didn’t mind. In fact, it made me happy. Within the first 40 seconds of hearing the Polyphonic Spree, it was clear to me they were borrowing quite heavily from Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips. Within 50 seconds my blood was boiling. So what gives? At the end of the day I think it has to do with the listener’s attachment to the source material being ripped off. I was a huge Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev fan. I was a fan of both those bands since their first records, watched them develop over the years and find their patented sounds. So when I hear a band like the Polyphonic Spree rip off a sound that I saw develop over the years, a sound that I’m intimate with, I get angry. If I want to hear that sound, why would I bother listening to the imitators when I’ve got all the originals in my collection? In terms of the Raveonettes, I always liked the Chain and I think Psycho Candy is a great record. But I never owned it and never saw them play live in their heyday. My wife owns Psycho Candy and it’s been in my house for 15 years, yet I’ve probably only listened to it a half-a-dozen times in all those years. As much as I like that record and their sound, I honestly don’t have a particularly strong attachment to it. Same for the girl group sounds. I’ve always loved that sound, yet I’ve never delved that deeply into that canon. So when I hear the Raveonettes, I’m hearing sounds that I love, but because I rarely listen to those source materials on my own, I’m actually happy to be reminded that I like those sounds. And actually, listening to the Raveonettes is likely to get me to pull out Psycho Candy or my Shangri-Las records.

I’m not sure if this reasoning holds up, but that’s my two cents anyway.

As a side note, I wrote Jim & Greg a letter which this post is heavily cribbed from. I believe that letter inspired a show about one-note wonders, bands that have made a glorious career out of playing the same song over and over.

And for what it’s worth, the new Raveonettes record is not all that great. The opening track, Aly, Walk With Me is a sultry, slow-grind monster, but beyond that nothing too earth shattering on the record. Good to hear when it pops up in shuffle, but a little tiresome in its entirety.

Monday, June 23, 2008

You're Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson

Though I dug this doc on the legendary Roky Erickson, I'm starting to get sick of documentaries about fried artists and their dysfunctional, quirky families. This film skews heavily toward the tawdry family dynamics and not deep enough into the music. A little more time dissecting the brilliance of the 13th Floor Elevators and Roky's later endeavors would have been appreciated. I feel we saw more of Roky's brother's post-modern apartment in Pittsburgh than of the Elevators cutting it up. All good, but I would have liked the family/music balance flipped. Absolutely beautifully shot for a doc. Not a surprise that Lee Daniel was behind the camera for this one.

Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project

I've heard nothing but bad things about Mr. Warmth, the Don Rickles doc, but have been hankering to see it anyway. All told it was enjoyable, but I thought quite lacking in archival footage of vintage Rickles' performances. To be fair, I missed the first 15 minutes of the film, so maybe the performances were front loaded. Lots of great interviews with comedians and actors extolling the virtues of Mr. Warmth, but many of those interviews were aching for back-up from RIckles' stage show. More often than not, that support wasn't there. The clips from the Dean Martin Roast were priceless, but I wanted to see more moments like that.

Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem

This is the second Jonathan Lethem book I've read (Motherless Brooklyn being the other) and each time the specter of Louis Ferdinand Celine has come to the fore. Amnesia Moon structurally and thematically recalls Journey To The End of Night with a narrator running from place to place, trying to escape the madness of the world. However, each new port of call unveils a new set of horrors. While I enjoyed much of Amnesia Moon, I also found it distancing. The narrator is time jumping, dream-chasing, and morphing into different versions of himself so much that it's ultimately hard to grow attached to him or any of the main characters. There is no finite reality to root the character or story down. In a way, the book is undone by it's PK Dick-like, time/space-tripping style. At the end of the day, I remain intrigued by Lethem, but have yet to be fully satisfied by any of his work.