Ken Russell’s Woefully Misunderstood 1970 film, The Music Lovers

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Music Lovers Still

The Real Tragedy Within The Music Lovers

Common sense would dictate that if it were the intention of Roy Baird, the producer of The Music Lovers, to make a concise reconstruction of the life of legendary Russian composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, he should’ve considered someone other than Ken Russell to direct the film. Being that Baird had produced Russell’s previous film, 1969’s Women In Love, a dazzling adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel, as well as Lindsay Anderson’s groundbreaking surrealistic film about youth rebellion, If…, I would think that he knew exactly what he was getting into, as should’ve anyone else who had seen Russell’s previous work, and therefore all should have expected that the film was going to be the flamboyant director selecting what he needed from the composer’s life to emphasize his central thesis, rather than the construction of a long biopic with painstaking (read: tedious) detail to Tchaikovsky’s life story.  So I ask, why were critics surprised and disappointed in 1970 with The Music Lovers?

Then a young critic for The Chicago Sun Times, Roger Ebert upon seeing the film during its original release wrote, “Tchaikovsky may not have been dealt with in the fairest possible manner,” adding that, “The Music Lovers is totally irresponsible, then, as a film about, or inspired by, or parallel to, or bearing a vague resemblance to, Tchaikovsky, his life and times.” I, for one, have always taken the line “based on a true story” very seriously, and if you have read my review of the 1976 horror film that was “based on a true story,” The Town That Dread Sundown, you would know that I came down rather hard on their use of the facts associated with the very real murders that occurred in Texarana, Arkansas in the 1940s, but with The Music Lovers, I feel that the facts were augmented for a greater purpose than just simply sensationalism. I truly feel that there is one necessary fact of the film that Russell wants to make abundantly clear: Tchaikovsky was indeed a homosexual who would’ve done anything, selfish or not, to disguise that fact during a time when his sexual preference would have cost him the one thing that he truly loved, his music.

The Music Lovers screened with Freud, John Huston’s superb, but equally unorthodox, biopic on the father of psychoanalysis, at The Egyptian Theater on May 7th as part of a double feature tribute to the late London-born cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe, who passed away at the age of 103 on February 22 of this year. The Music Lovers was Slocombe’s only effort with Russell, and the visuals, as they would be in many of the pair’s individually subsequent films, are truly stunning as are the performances of Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky and Glenda Jackson as Antonina Milyukova, the mentally ill woman who suffered from nymphomania and who the composer married to cover up his true sexuality, and through his disdain of her, Tchaikovsky helped to end her life in an insane asylum. Here, Russell augments the timeline as to when her institutionalization occurs as compared to his demise to add drama to the story. Also, the character of  Count Anton Chiluvsky (Christopher Gable) never actually existed but serves as a composite of Tchaikovsky’s lovers over the years. The one pure fabrication in the film is that Tchaikovsky’s benefactor, Madame Nadedja von Meck (Izabella Telezynska), took away her beloved composer’s money upon hearing that he was a homosexual. So, now that we are armed with the knowledge of the fact changing (and unflattering) choices that Russell made in telling Tchaikovsky’s life story, does it reduce the impact of the film’s central message and make it a less successful film? For me, it now comes down to whether or not Russell put his style over substance.

Russell has always possessed this uncanny ability of presenting the most human affecting moments while creating a narrative that is frenetic to distraction at times. I don’t feel that The Music Lovers consistently achieves these moments in the same confident way that Russell would in his next film, The Devils. For example, I think of the quiet pastoral moments when Father Urbain Grandier marries his true love to exemplify his pure faith in the face of the aristocracy of the Catholic Church in between the grotesque exorcisms of the nunnery that give balance to the film, and this level of peace in chaos does not exist in The Music Lovers. The many scenes in The Music Lovers that are actually related to musical performance (yes, Russell does mention his compositions a few times more than critics would lead you to believe) are whimsical but ultimately purposeful in seeing into the composer’s thought process, which given the masquerade Peter was forced to live, are a tad ghastly (the 1812 Overture montage does have a lot of decapitation through cannon fires, which strikes me as about right). Though not given the same level of space in the madness as Oliver Reed’s performance as Father Urbain Grandier in The Devils,  the moments of genuine pain, illness and sadness that are experienced by Antonina Milyukova through Glenda Jackson’s bravura performance are not lost in the frenzy of music, ribbons, and cholera nightmares of The Music Lovers. Remember that the title of this film is The Music Lovers and not Tchaikovsky (although the title was actually changed from Tchaikovsky as to not complete with a Russian film released a year earlier with that title). I feel that Russell’s final intentions to show that the real victim of the composer’s decision to conceal his sexuality was less the composer himself but more of the woman he duped into marrying him. Russell concludes that Tchaikovsky’s agonizing death from cholera was a self-inflicted wound brought from drinking diseased water, but Antonina Milyukova’s death in the snake pit was due to believing in a man whom she genuinely admired who put his selfish needs above her no matter what the cost.

 Original 1970 Trailer For The Music Lovers


So, was Russell’s decision “unfair” as Ebert suggested? The facts do bear out that the real Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky destroyed another person so that he could continue doing what he loved, and although the film takes a heavy hand at times to drive this truth home, it is ultimately successful by painting a portrait of a man who was not only a great composer but also a man who was beneath contempt in his personal life. The Music Lovers is also the story of another very flawed person, Antonina Milyukova, who was led to believe that the person whom she admired for his music was as majestic as a human being as he was a creator. This isn’t a mindless musical biopic to get you humming tunes when leaving the theater, like Milos Forman’s Academy Award winning 1984 slop, AmadeusThe Music Lovers is a flawed but beautifully realized tragedy that is less about music and more about the evils of maintaining a false identity in the face of fame. 

 

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Nero, Palance, and Corbucci Team Up Again In 1970 For The Zapata Western, Compañeros!

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Franco Nero and machine gun, together again

No one seemed to complain in 2000 when Wong Kar Wai followed up his melancholy tale of unrequited love from three years earlier, Happy Together, with his equally melancholy tale of unrequited love, In The Mood For Love. To be accurate, it actually went beyond not complaining, as Happy Together, though it was critically praised, did not receive one-tenth of the accolades garnered by In The Mood For Love . The latter film, a perfectly sculpted narrative centered around two once-in-a-lifetime performances, ended up on many critics’ lists as the best film of the 2000s. Sadly, WKW should’ve quit while he was ahead as his eagerly awaited follow-up, 2046, was a universally panned, needlessly sentimental, muddled mess.

It is a common practice in film, among even the finest directors, to take an earlier work of their own creation and to refine it to their satisfaction, so even a film that was well received will sometimes get a do over. This process of revisiting and renovation is common with theater directors who will change a production for each year of its run, but I feel that we still look at this retooling in cinema as odd due to the fact that filmmaking is an expensive process that produces a physical medium which can be seen again, making it ripe for scrutiny. So why would Sergio Corbucci, the famed director of the original Django, want to follow up his popular 1968 Zapata western, The Mercenary, complete with its overdone, left-of-center politics, with Compañeros!, which similarly uses the 1913 Mexican revolution as its setting to push Corbucci’s political stance? And, why for main characters, would he have, again, two adversarial protagonists/buddies who hate/love each other? Corbucci even recruited Franco Nero and Jack Palance from The Mercenary for the leads, but I suppose to nuance his earlier film, he made the decision to switch out the slightly terrifying Tony Musante for the even more terrifying Tomas Milian, two actors who possess pairs of the craziest eyes in spaghetti westerns this side of Klaus Kinski. You may think that with all of this hemming and hawing that I don’t like Compañeros!, but that is not the case. It is more action packed than its similarly themed and cast predecessor, and despite losing some steam in the second half, Compañeros!, without giving too much of the plot away, has one of the better endings of any Corbucci western.

Franco Nero plays the well-coiffed, avarice-fueled Swedish (?!) arms dealer, Yodlaf Peterson, who has come to Mexico during the revolution of 1913 to sell his wares to the tyrannical General Mongo (yes, this film was made before Blazing Saddles, and yes, I was giggling a bit when I heard the name). Soon after arriving in town to make his deal with Mongo, Peterson meets Vasco (Milian), the leader of a group of banditos who have assumed power along with Mongo after they have killed the army colonel in command. The pair exchange macho stares, and a mysterious coin gifting occurs between the two before Peterson checks into the only hotel where he finds Lola (German actress Iris Berben), who is leading a group of student counter revolutionaries led by Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey). Xantos has been imprisoned by the United States army after refusing the terms for the money the U.S. government has given him to fund his non-violent revolution against Mongo; the terms being that the U.S.A. wants the rights to all of Mexico’s oil resources. So, where is the money that Xantos got for his revolution? It is in an indestructible safe, and only Xantos knows its combination. As Mongo needs the money to pay for more arms, he sends the dueling pair of Vasco and Peterson to bust Xantos out of the army jail. Standing in their way, besides the U.S. Army guarding the prison of course, is an American named John (Jack Palance), who wants Peterson, his former business partner, extremely dead. Some time ago, the greedy Peterson had left John to die after he was crucified, leaving John’s beloved, a hawk named Marcia, to peck his right hand off to save him. John has a legitimate gripe with Peterson and will go to some extreme methods to get him, including using a gopher as a torture device in one of the film’s more squirm-inducing scenes. The good news is that Peterson is ready for John as our Swedish arms dealer doesn’t only sell weapons, he is good at using them too, so you know that the obligatory Django-esque scenes must occur with Nero utilizing a normally too heavy to lift belt-fed machine gun to kill more bad guys than any six-shooter could ever attempt to accomplish. Yes, long before Rambo, Corbucci’s Django was the king of the one man army.

Now that you have a good idea of the plot, we still have to address the question that I brought up in the beginning and that is…What was left out of The Mercenary that bothered Corbucci enough to basically remake the film two years later? One thought is that, like many of the significant Italian directors who were making westerns in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the western was an excellent vehicle for attacking greed and, more topical for the time, the United States and their allies’ efforts against Communism around the globe, especially in Southeast Asia. After all, when Compañeros! was produced in 1970, the worldwide opinion against foreign military involvement in the war in Vietnam had reached it’s height, and what better struggle to reference American involvement in Vietnam than the 1913 Mexican revolution? But again, that political message was covered with The Mercenary, so what is the new message being delivered in Compañeros!? The character that stands out the most, is that of the non-violence preaching Professor Xantos, who I assume is a stand-in (and this is a stretch, mind you) for Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who famously immolated himself in 1963 to protest the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists. Weeks after Quảng Đức’s suicide, many other monks also committed suicide by fire, which raised awareness of their struggle worldwide, but I cannot imagine that the Thích’s message was in Corbucci’s mind when he created the character of Xantos.

The Dazzling Original 1970 Italian Trailer For Compañeros!

Lastly, if you are thinking that perhaps Corbucci was just trying to cash a check by banking on his most popular film, then why don’t we see Django IV in 1970?  Lord knows, every other spaghetti director did a Django ripoff during that time to varying degrees of commercial success, but Corbucci never did try and capitalize on that film’s immense box office receipts through sequels. Even though I cannot pinpoint the necessity for Corbucci to make a film so similar to The Mercenary, its heart seems to be in the right place, even if the political message is somewhat unclear, but more importantly, Compañeros! is an entirely entertaining western from one of the master directors of the genre, who like Sergio Sollima and Leone could still impress even when they weren’t entirely on point.  The film’s pacing is quite good, a mark above other westerns of that era, as are the over-the-top performances and the lavish, yet playful, score by Ennio Morricone. It was also a treat to see Nero in another film where he uses his own speaking voice. In The Mercenary, Corbucci had Nero play the Polish mercenary, Sergei Kowalski, just so Nero’s Italian accent could be masked, and he could use his own expressive voice. If  Compañeros! was solely invented just to have the popular actor, Franco Nero voice his own character to get the film’s message across to a global audience more genuinely than a potentially bad overdub, then perhaps this not too different take on the Zapata Western was worth the effort for that alone.

Lost Japanese Soldiers Train A Double Crossed Blaxploitation Hero In 1978’s Death Force

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Death Force Scene

James Ingelhart Learning The Bushidō

I don’t know too many men my age that never delved into the occasional Gilligan’s Island episode during their youth for a glimpse of Daisy Dukes wearing Mary Ann. A silly, yet borderline offensive show at times, Gilligan’s Island fit in well with the panorama of inane shows of The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres variety that intentionally seemed to have a bare minimum plot so that you could see an Elly May Clampett type parade around scantily-clad group of unwashed yokels to get an instant jolt of middle class superiority. There was perhaps one positive benefit from my years of watching the seven castaways fumble around the island trying to make batteries out of coconuts, and that came from of a 1965 episode entitled, “Sorry, My Island Now,” in which a lost “Japanese” sailor, ( “Japanese” because the sailor was played by Neapolitan actor, Vito Scotti) complete with super thick Mickey Rooney Breakfast At Tiffany’s-styled Asian glasses, holds the gang hostage as he is under the belief that World War Two was still an ongoing conflict in 1965. The episode is a morass of terrible racial stereotypes that were common for the time, so it is not worth hunting down, but the positive that emerged was that  twelve year old me wondered if such a thing had ever occurred, and I subsequently made my way to the main library to find out, and the truth was a tough one to swallow.

The “holdouts” as they would come to be known, were Japanese soldiers who had served in the Pacific Theater who were either stationed in remote islands or cut off from official communications, and as a result, they simply didn’t know that the war was over. Or, they were dogmatic fighters who refused to believe that the war was over, even though they had heard communications of the fact but yet held firm their military appointments without conflict or found another fight somewhere else and pretended that World War Two was still happening. What boggled my mind was that some of these “holdouts” held on until the early 1990s! The last of these men, Shigeyuki Hashimoto and Kiyoaki Tanaka, returned to Japan from Malaysia. After the Japanese surrender, they joined with the Communist Party of Malaysia guerrilla forces to continue fighting against the British, only returning after the CPM laid down its arms and signed a peace treaty. The story of the “holdouts”  was not wildly reported on in Philadelphia, where I was an adolescent in the 1970s, but I imagine that this was commonly known in Manila, the hometown of Death Force director, Cirio H. Santiago.

I often refer to director Santiago as the “Roger Corman Of The Philippines” as the producer/director was not only a pioneer of blaxploitation films like 1974’s TNT Jackson and 1976’s She Devils In Chains but also a production platform that helped launch the careers of Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, and Carl Franklin. He can film action, and in the case of Death Force, he can, along with screenwriter, Howard Cohen, come up with some rich characters and dialog that is at times, dare I say, touching. Death Force begins with three American Vietnam Veterans, Doug Russell (James Iglehart, the hunky weightlifter from Russ Meyer’s Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls), Morelli (Carmen Argenziano), and McGee (played by a pre-Penitentiary Leon Issac Kennedy), who have just stolen a ton of gold from Santiago’s native Philippines. Doug just wants his cut so that he could reunite with his gorgeous wife, Maria, and who could blame him as she is played by Jayne Kennedy, fresh from her appearance at the Miss USA Pageant, but Morelli and McGee want to take their cut back to Los Angeles and become ruthless crime kingpins, which suits Doug fine, so they board a boat with their new found riches and head for home. But boys will be boys, and McGee and Morelli, like five year old kids on Christmas Eve, cannot be patient and start their Michael Corleone fantasy trip on the boat as they cut poor Doug’s throat and toss him overboard so that the greedy jerks can keep his cut too. Michael Corleone at least waited until Fredo screwed him over before having him plugged on a fishing boat. Get with the program boys!

Amazingly (though not for blaxpolitation) Doug washes up on a beach with a pulse and is discovered by two Japanese “holdouts”(Filipino actors Joe Mari Avellana and Joonee Gamboa), an enlisted man and an officer. Even though they perceive him as the enemy, the holdouts nurse Doug back to health in the hope that he can at least help out with gathering coconuts on the island. Doug makes a smashing recovery, and the officer begins to see Doug’s immense strength and size as an asset, so he begins to show him the way of the Bushido and turns him into a samurai. It is in these early scenes that Death Force begins to stand out among the usual mid-1970s action film, as these scenes on the island, which may have gotten the Gilligan’s Island treatment in Hollywood, are done tastefully and more importantly are sympathetic to the holdouts and their code of honor. The holdouts instill in Doug their particular code of honor and teach him to use the katana, and he becomes one of them. After the enlisted man tragically dies in an accident and the officer commits seppuku when a group of Filipino soldiers attempt to peaceably locate holdouts on their island, Doug returns to Los Angeles where, as you can imagine, he is looking to get some payback on Morelli and McGee. The latter now hounds Doug’s wife and makes it impossible for her to get work as a singer after she remains loyal to Doug and rejects his advances. Doug wants revenge, but as his his Japanese mentor warns him, “You never win battles in anger.”

What occurs next is what you would expect from a mid-1970s blaxpolitation film in terms of violence, but the pacing of the film becomes another positive aspect of the narrative. This could easily go down after the island scenes as a quick bang-bang revenge film, which was so prevalent in the post-Death Wish era, but Santiago allows the characters whom Doug meets to develop along with the plot, and you start to develop genuine empathy for not only our main protagonist but also those who aid him on his quest to find honor, where honor has been removed from his life. There are no quick solutions and as the film veers towards an ending, you have some much needed space between the beheadings (yes, there are a bunch) to feel the stories of all involved.

                                           Original Trailer for Death Force 

Though not as tightly put together as Mike Hodges’ masterfully crafted 1971 British gangster revenge film, Get CarterDeath Force does remain true to Doug, our hero, as Hodges’ film does to Jack Carter. Death Force is an impressive feat for a low budget film shot in the Philippines, which at the time was a breeding ground for many a schlockfest, which were quickly done to get the most bang for your dollar. Death Force is not Melville’s Le Samourai, but it does wisely incorporate the code of the Bushido, allowing that doctrine to energize the story and provide a interesting motivation, past simple revenge, for its main character which is more than I can say for any Hollywood production of its time.  One can only credit the influence of Bruce Lee and the proliferation of martial arts films in the West during the 1970s for the change in the stereotypical depiction of Asians in films here in Hollywood.  Sadly, this didn’t last long as the 1980s brought in an entirely new middle class generation that needed to pray on these outdated Asian stereotypes with characters like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles and Ben Jabituya in Short Circuit.  After John Woo and the bullet throwing Hong Kong action films of the 1990s, there was a brief reprieve from the thick glasses and funny English found in the Asian characters of 80s films, but here it is, 2016, and we have Fresh Off The Boat and Outsourced.  I guess the only thing that Hollywood can ever respect from the East, is when they can depict violence like the West.

Dante And Arkush Make A “Corman” Movie: 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard

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Hollywood Candy Shooting

Candice Rialson From Hollywood Boulevard

Back in March of this year, I was fortunate to have chatted at great length with one of my favorite actresses of my youth, Mary Woronov, for an interview that I conducted for Forces Of Geek to help promote her appearance at a screening at The Cinefamily here in Los Angeles of the uproariously funny, 1982 dark comedy that Mary starred in and Paul Bartel directed, Eating Raoul. If you’ve never seen Eating Raoul, I highly recommend an immediate viewing; it is an outrageously funny, last nail in the coffin of the 1970s swinger scene in Los Angeles as its plot revolves around an exceedingly straight couple, played to eerie 1950s perfection by Bartel and Woronov, who pose as swingers to rob and kill oversexed deviants for the cash they bring as payment for a promise of fetishistic pleasure.

The midnight screening of Eating Raoul drew a full house, which seemed to surprise Mary and her costars from the film who were also in attendance, Robert Beltran and Susan Saiger, who were visibly touched that so many people came out to this old film that they viewed as more of a lark when they starred in it over thirty years ago. I, for one, was not so surprised, as I still find the film as funny and as audacious as I did when I watched it for the first time in the dorm room of my friend Ian Koss during our freshman year of college back in 1986 when we were forced to reside in a sub-leased hall at Emmanuel, a Boston-area all-girl Catholic college (it sounds cheekier than it was). I have always been indebted to Ian for picking that film out of the video store rental racks from a shop in the school’s neighborhood, the Fenway, which was, at the time, a predominantly LGBT area in Boston (again, sounds more daring than it was, but it oddly fit the film that we were watching). OK, I will say that the location of our 1986 screening made watching the film a better overall experience (Catholic guilt kicked in there), but it was the pairing of Bartel and Woronov that made it a movie that I will always turn to when I am feeling a bit off.

From my conversation with Mary earlier this year, there were a few surprises that came up whenever I mentioned her multiple collaborations with Paul Bartel. Most surprising was her hatred for a film of theirs that I have always loved, the Mazursky-esque 1989 film, Scenes From The Class Struggle In Beverly Hills, which Mary loathed due to Bartel’s desire to make a more “serious” film with no improvisation, and her love of their 1976 Roger Corman/exploitation film send-up, Hollywood Boulevard, that was co-directed by Joe Dante of Gremlins fame and Allan Arkush, who would later direct Mary and Paul in the classic Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.  I was surprised by this opinion from Mary, as even though I love both her and Bartel, I had never heard of this film, but based on her effusive review, I quickly hunted down a copy.

The backstory for Hollywood Boulevard is nutty, even by Roger Corman standards… Producer Jon Davison wagered Corman that he could create the least expensive movie in the history of Corman’s New World Pictures. Corman gave Davison ten days to shoot this magnum opus and a budget of sixty thousand, which, again, is low for even mid-1970s Corman standards. As per usual in the Roger Corman factory, young talent who were already working for Roger and who were eager to direct something with any budget were brought in to helm the film. In this case, Allan Arkush and Joe Dante were tabbed for the honor of assembling a narrative from clips of New World’s previous exploitation films and whatever acting they could get out of a cast in the aforementioned time period allotted.

Our film opens when a stunt woman is killed after her parachute fails to open much to the disaffected dismay of Miracle Pictures director, Eric Von Leppe (Paul Bartel). If they are going to finish this movie, they are going to need a new stunt woman and quick. We soon meet the buxom Candy Wednesday (Candice Rialson), who has just landed in Los Angeles in the hopes of making it as a actress, and like a true exploitation thespian, Candy meets her up to no good agent Walter Paisley (the eternally shifty Dick Miller), who signs her up to replace the recently squashed stunt woman for his friends at Miracle Pictures. It’s the classic Hollywood story you’ve come to love with the bonus sleaziness of a 1970s Roger Corman production.

Candy takes to her new role as a daring stunt woman and makes friends with her fellow starlet, Jill (Tara Strohmeier) and the screenwriter Pat (Jeffrey Kramer), but Mary (Mary Woronov), the grand dame at Miracle, isn’t too happy with the way that Candy is quickly fitting into her role and becomes quite threatened. Despite the tension from Mary, the crew is off to the Philippines to shoot Machete Maidens of Mora Tau with the help of a lot of footage from previous Corman films with bigger budgets to add that certain something, but the production takes its toll as Jill is shot in the stomach. No matter, the show must go on, and they wrap this classic and head home, where they attend the premiere of their new film at a local drive-in theater. The night turns into disappointment when Candy finally realizes that she isn’t making the next Citizen Kane as she is horribly disgusted at what she sees, but she still stays with the company, even though it soon becomes clear that someone else is also not too happy with Miracle Pictures as some other foul play wreaks havoc on the set of the next film, sending everyone into a panic while they continue to work diligently to finish the film.

You almost have to invoke the Tarantino “Grindhouse” rule when watching Hollywood Boulevard, meaning that when you are making a movie that emulates something that is inherently flawed, you have the a lot of latitude in making it as messy as you want and believe me, Hollywood Boulevard is messy as it parodies the shambolic New World universe, but it is really the stars who carry you through the film. Dick Miller plays Walter Paisley as a wonderfully sweet sleaze, a kind of affectionate uncle who appears to means well, but might “accidentally” grab your friend’s ass when he is saying goodbye. Paul Bartel as the pompous director and Mary Woronov as the psychotic lead actress steal the film away , as they do in many a Corman production with their wit and larger than life presence, from the supremely adorable but bland lead character. Mary’s performance as the villainous soon to be forgotten starlet in Hollywood Boulevard recalls the absurdity and expressiveness of her role as Calamity Jane in Death Race 2000, overshadowing many of the other performances because Mary is just too entertaining in her caricature of the maniacal actress taken to the extreme. Candice Rialson does the most with her role as Candy, but, again, invoking the “Grindhouse” rule, she is, like most leads in an exploitation film, a lovely woman for you to put in the middle of the poster to sell more tickets.

Original Trailer for Hollywood Boulevard

During our interview, Mary brought up Hollywood Boulevard to exemplify the comedic talents of her late friend, Paul Bartel, who she claims was one of the funniest people whom she has ever met. As the audacious director of slop in the film, Bartel delivers every line of ridiculousness with deliberateness and the slightest touch of surprise; Bartel knows what he is saying is absurd, and he says it with contradictory seriousness and humor. A man who could improvise brilliantly at the drop of a hat to make anyone in the room burst out with laughter, Bartel proves that here and in the countless films that he and Mary starred in together for years to come, and although Hollywood Boulevard may be purposefully or accidentally rough around the edges, I am still glad that I gave it a watch.  Thanks Mary.

 

“The Cars That Ate Paris,” Peter Weir’s Fiendishly Funny Debut Is The Prequel To Mad Max

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George Miller, I Think You’ve Seen This Car

During the idyllic opening scene of Peter Weir’s debut film, The Cars That Ate Paris, we spy a well-to-do couple who are footloose and fancy free getting into their snappy roadster. They are wearing the finest vines, and sport that seventies natural-looking hair while smoking fine uppity cigarettes as they take a drive in the scenic Australian countryside, but things don’t stay lovely for long as the couple is hurled off the side of a hill and killed in a gruesome roll out. Crash. You see, our commercial-quality travelers were living the high life that few lived in 1970s Australia, but now they have crossed the town line of Paris–Paris, Australia that is, where cars and the people who drive them become the solution to a community’s financial woes.

Yes, all is not well in the Weir’s genre-defying town of Paris, Australia. Travelers who dare to broach its gates soon find a “boneshaker” of a road that is complete with “traps” designed by the town elders to guarantee that tourists donate more than a few coins for a picture postcard at the local gas station. There is a process in place for these visitors that is divided into two categories: those who die and those who survive. Those who die have their smashed up cars taken to the local chop shop to be salvaged for parts that will eventually be made into bizarre post-apocalyptic road rockets to be driven by Paris’ wild and uncontrollable youths. Next the deceased’s clothes, money, and gadgets will be first divvied up by the town’s government, led by their righteous Mayor (John Meillon, who most American audiences will identify as Crocodile Dundee’s dimwitted sidekick, Walt), and whatever remains will be distributed to the remaining common Parisians who use the items as bartering tools for food, gas, etc like a dysfunctional farming community.

Those who live will not only get the aforementioned pilfering of their valuables like their deceased fellow travelers but also will get the special prize of a free lobotomy at the local hospital so that they can turned into various states of “veggie.” Why make the damaged tourists into “veggies” you may ask? To use them as guinea pigs for experimental procedures that the local doctors are dying to try out, since “you can’t do these things in a city hospital,” one doctor explains. You now begin to think of the town of Paris as a Spam factory: There is no waste as they use every single part of the animal.

There is another unofficial use for the living as evidenced by the mayor’s beautiful “adopted” children and a recent arrival, Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri), whose brother George is killed when their caravan unsurprisingly goes flying off of one of the town’s many road traps. Arthur, is a heartbreakingly sullen, and seemingly nonthreatening fellow who escaped death with nary a scratch, which makes him eligible to become the makeshift offspring of our jolly mayor. Through his own admission, we find out that Arthur, who is still crushed from his brother’s untimely demise, is also a convicted felon, who years earlier was responsible for vehicular death of an elderly man, so he is not too eager to get behind the wheel of a car again, which is good because no one really makes it out of Paris alive anyway, which appears to be Weir’s gentile nod to a protectionist Australia which barred immigration until the late 1970s. Yes, Arthur is “fixed” to take in the sights and is content to be stay put. Content in a way that would make the denizens of a Yorgos Lanthimos film simply green with envy.

Arthur is given a job at the chop shop/hospital and gets a lot of half answers from the doctors and orderlies as to why the wards are packed with the Monty Pythonesque bandaged (my brain hurts anyone?) mentally disabled “veggies.” Arthur doesn’t particularly care for his new employment as a guardian of the lobotomy farm, but as he is still going into a mad panic of flashbacks whenever he sits behind a wheel, he will stay and accept a new position that was recently created by his father/mayor, that of “town parking supervisor,” which will put the sheepish Arthur right in the cross hairs of the town’s rambunctious and growing swell of young Road Warrior extras who, judging from their western attire, seem to be auditioning for a new Sergio Leone film, and who have more than a few jalopies that Miller would use in subsequent editions of his own post apocalyptic films of the Max variety.

The Town That Ate Paris mostly succeeds both as a comedy and as social commentary throughout even though the last third of the film is more Animal House than Dogtooth in terms of examining societal woes of a then economically challenged Australia. One scene does hint as Weir’s societal focus on a future project: the scene where the mayor’s unflattering aboriginal sculpture is defiantly destroyed by the hands of Paris’ renegade hot rod driving teens. That moment provides the strongest reminder that Weir would eventually create a film that stays on point with its clever attack on contemporary Australian society and its history of the treatment of the Aborigines, 1977’s The Last Wave.

                           Trailer For The Cars That Ate Paris

Nonetheless, Weir’s film is quite an impressive debut as it is chock full of wretchedly insane ideas and not too gentile pokes at the ruling class who must confront an ever increasing population of unemployed youth before the big one hits and the elderly are at the mercy of these desperate teens and their soon to be new leader, Lord Humongous.

 

The Lucio Fulci Bloodbath Goes West In 1975’s “Four of the Apocalypse”

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Thomas Milian As The Mansoneque Chaco

One of the more amazing experiences that Lily and I made had our recent visit to Rome was a visit to Cinecitta, the famed Italian movie studio that was built by Mussolini in the late 1930s to save the fading film industry which not only produced propaganda films during the early years of fascism, but also created many popular narrative films, including those of directors such as Raffaello Matarazzo. Unfortunately, the studios were bombed during the final months of World War Two, the damaged buildings and sets became home to thousand of displaced refugees for a few years before being revived as a functioning production studio during the Neo-Realist period.  This Neo-Realist era would subsequently turn into the golden age of Cinecitta with the rise of Italian directors, Frederico Fellini, and Bernardo Bertolucci. as well as the studios becoming the place to shoot sword and sandal films by not only Italian auteurs but also famed American directors like Joseph L. Mankiewicz who shot his epic, Cleopatra which starred Elizabeth Taylor there in 1963.

As the 1960s rolled on, the studios began to crank out numerous Italian or spaghetti westerns. a fact that shouldn’t be lost on anyone who reads this blog as I have reviewed several rare titles within the genre over the last few years.  What I did not know until visiting Cinecitta is that many of these films are not revered in Italy as they have been deemed too colonial in their message by a predominance of Italian film goers.  That message of the antiquated perception of these titles was made quite clear during our tour of Cinecitta, though the museum still chose to honor this genre with an impressive, albeit smallish portion of their museum. Long gone were the western town sets that littered the lots of the studio, they were demolished in the 1980s to make way for the construction of sets depicting ancient Rome which were needed for a new generation of  sword and sandal films like HBO’s 2004 series Rome.  This fact being somewhat bizarre to me as the spaghetti western was originally the genre that took sword and sandal out of Italian mainstream popularity.  Lily and I were still thrilled to see their spaghetti western exhibit which had a film tribute to the genre, Clint Eastwood’s actual poncho from Sergio Leone’s classic, For A Few Dollars More,  and a few rare film posters strew around the western saloon edifice for effect.  One such poster was that of a rarely seen 1975 spaghetti that surprisingly was directed by horror master Lucio Fulci (The Beyond, Zombie) that caught Lily’s eye, Four Of The Apocalypse. I was also intrigued and immediately went online to pick up a copy through the folks at Blue Underground who had it waiting for us when we returned from Italy.

Released in 1975 when the western was fading out of vogue for the less costly to produce Eurocrime film, Four Of The Apocalypse was banned in several countries on its initial release because of, you guessed it, the graphic violence and sadistic cruelty that mark many a subsequent Fulci film and although the violence is fairly disturbing at points that should not dissuade you from seeing a very personal and at times, emotionally complex late spaghetti western. No stranger to the western genre after two successful adaptations of Jack London’s White Fang in 1973 and 1974, Fulci drew from two well-known 19th century short stories from famed western writer Bret Harte, The Outcasts Of Poker Flats and in the last third of the film, Fulci uses Harte’s heartwarming tale, The Luck Of Roaring Camp. Our film begins with gambler Stubby Preston (an extremely well-coiffed Fabio Testi) as he arrives via coach to the rollicking gold town of Salt Flats with a plan to bust the town’s casino to only be met by the town’s sheriff, who immediately locks up Stubby in the town pokey with a pregnant hooker named Bunny (Lynne Frederick), the town drunk, Clem (Michael J. Pollard, the wheel man from Bonnie and Clyde) and Bud (Harry Baird), an African American man who does not have all of his marbles. The four quickly bond in the cell and are soon shuffled out of town by the apathetic sheriff when vigilantes decide to do on a murderous coup.

The quartet are cast out upon a wagon but are not at odds with one another.  Sure, there is sometime acrimonious sexual tension between Stubby and Bunny, and Clem is savagely jonesing for a drink but all in all our protagonists have accepted their roles as outcasts and are supportive of one another as they travel onward.  Our group soon stumbles upon a well-meaning wagon train of religious crusaders who distill of bit of homespun wisdom on our misfit travelers but after a few words and a meal, they all go their separate ways.  Juxtaposing the harmony is the sudden jarring inclusion of Chaco (Thomas Milian) a vile Charlie Mansonesque killer, complete with tattoos fashioned under his eyes, who seems to unable to move an inch without killing something in his way and whether that target is a wild animal or the lawmen that are following Chaco, they are doomed to die and in the case of one sheriff, he is brutally tortured and mutilated before dying. Following the carnage, there is a scene that seems to be pulled from Jodorowsky’s psychedelic western El Topo, when Chaco feeds our four misfits some peyote but a trippy voyage does not follow as indeed this Chaco is bad news for everyone he touches and this moment of letting their guard down will cost our broken heroes dearly. Even though the four escape death through the hands of Chaco, they are more damaged than ever before and must make their way to safety with a wounded member on a stretcher and a soon to be delivering Bunny.  They will walk through blazing heat and snow, landing in a ghost town before an eventual visit to an all male mining camp which provides some of the most hopeful moments in Four Of The Apocalypse, moments that are directly pulled from the pages of Harte’s whimsical story, The Luck Of Roaring Camp.

Beautifully lensed by cinematographer Sergio Salvati, and a folksy score that is more McCabe and Mrs. Miller than Morricone, Four Of The Apocalypse consistently strives to be a cut above the later Italian westerns of that period.  All of our leads put in fine performances with special notice going to Milian who completely embodies the horror within the maniacal Chaco.  Milian is absolutely terrifying and gobbles up screen time whenever he appears in the film.  As for the well-noted graphic violence that Fulci employs in Four Of The Apocalypse,  it does in fact hurt the film to the extent that it goes beyond what is necessary to amplify Thomas Milian’s performance as Chaco.  It is almost like Fulci felt the need to add the red stuff because be believed  that the character of Chaco wasn’t compelling/dreadful enough to be the target of the viewer’s ire. Milian’s psycho method-acting driven performance is definitely enough to make you burn with hatred against Chaco and thus audiences could’ve been spared the extra cruelty that is more off-putting than emotionally effecting.

                            Original 1975 Trailer for Four Of The Apocalypse

Regardless of the extemporaneous violence, I would still would place Fulci’s Four Of The Apocalypse along with Enzo G. Castellari’s 1976 masterpiece, Keoma as one of the best examples of a late-era Italian western.  Though these films may not be seen as high art in preset day Italy, to me they still resonate as having a brave originality that most American westerns of the same era never possessed.   

 

 

The Comedic And The Tragic Meet In Lee Man-hee’s Final Film, 1975’s “The Road To Sampo”

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The Deranged Road Film That Is Lee Man-hee’s The Road To Sampo

Before reading any review of the 1975 film, The Road To Sampo, one must first gain an appreciation for the film’s director, Lee Man-hee, who holds the dubious distinction of being the first South Korean director to be arrested for violating his country’s National Security Law.

By 1965, Lee, an awarded Korean War veteran himself,  had become the godfather of the post-war government funded, anti-Communist war film with such popular efforts as 1963’s YMS-504 Of The Navy and Marines Are Gone when he set out to make The Seven Female POWs which depicts a North Korean officer who, while transporting seven female South Korean nurse prisoners, kills a unit of allied Chinese soldiers who attempt to rape the women. The North Korean officer then convinces his unit defect to South Korea to avoid possible court martial from his superiors. Upon seeing the full film, censors imprisoned director Lee as they felt that The Seven Female POWs  humanized the North Koreans while simultaneously showing the American soldiers as unsympathetic. Lee was subsequently released on probation after the South Korean film community protested his arrest but as part of his probation agreement, Lee was forced to edit over forty minutes of the final cut which made the final film virtually incomprehensible that led to the first negative reviews of his career. The arrest did damage Lee’s reputation, but he still ended up directing some thirty six films in the following ten years before his untimely death at the age forty five in 1975 during the editing of his counterculture road film, The Road To Sampo.

It should be noted that similar to American actor Robert Mitchum’s 1948 scandalous arrest for marijuana possession, which temporarily forced the actor out of contention for glamorous films into a career where he took more salacious roles like Harry Powell in Night Of The Hunter and Max Cady in Cape Fear, the Lee Man-hee’s arrest opened the director up to more experimental methods and themes away from the traditional filmmaking that marked his early career. What then followed in 1966 were Lee’s The Water Mill and Late Autumn: two groundbreaking and critically heralded films that depicted a never before seen open eroticism with the latter effort, Late Autumn being shot using a minimally written script that relied more on improvisation than scripting to create a film of palpable sensuality. In 1974, after almost a decade of pushing the creative envelope and with his health waning, Lee began to direct the iconic film, The Road To Sampo, which incorporated his desire for experimentation with bold sexuality along with his wry social commentary during one of the darkest eras in South Korean cinema.

Released a year after French director Bertrand Blier’s revolutionary anti-establishment road film Les Valseuses, The Road To Sampo similarly takes a pair of lost male protagonists through their homeland’s countryside where they engage in a myriad of rudderless, soul-searching situations through an economically depleted era where they soon encounter an equally lost woman whom they decide to take in on their adventures. The essential difference with Lee’s film is that the woman becomes the catalyst of change for our two men who are not only looking for good times and quick cash like our “heroes” in Les Valseuses but also for some sense of stability and place in a South Korea which at the time was growing but also still reeling from years of war.

Young-dal is a wandering construction worker wandering aimlessly through the snow covered landscape looking for work until he meets the middle-aged Jeong, who has just spent a dozen years behind bars and now only seeks to return  to his hometown of Sampo, a seaside town that Jeong describes as abandoned during the winter. The pair begins their journey together, and soon they descend down a hill to a small village where they grab a meal and listen to the proprietor’s lament of being understaffed as her waitress slipped away without her knowledge but with her purse which contained a lot of money. The desperate proprietor offers Young-dal and Jeong  substantial money to find her runaway waitress, and, as they are without a cent, they decide to take the job, and after a short search they discover their waitress, a frantic, hostile, but brightly clad young woman named Baek-hwa who claims to have not stolen any money despite bragging about her former bosses’ purse which she has in her possession.  Our men quickly realize that Baek-hwa carries more sadness than a potential for profit so they soon become a trio and head out towards Sampo.

Drawing further comparison to Les Valseuses, except with the gender roles reversed, our Baek-hwa is a fountain of overt sexuality. Baek-hwa wears the mantle of a prostitute with pride and boasts of her exploits as well as a proclivity to become undressed around Jeong and Young-dal who exhibit no sexual aggression towards her.  Jeong left an eight year old daughter in Sampo before his ten years in jail, so he becomes an almost father figure to Baek-hwa, and Young-dal brags of his days as a successful street vendor of rat poison but suggests that his wife may have died from accidentally ingesting the poison that he sold.  Needless to say, Young-dal is in no way looking for a woman and wishes to just work until he gets on his feet, which means that Baek-hwa’s endless sexual innuendos towards him mean virtually nothing as they travel onward.

Their intentionally loosely connected exploits include a hilarious scene where the three, who have not eaten in days, visit a village and crash a funeral in hopes of getting a meal, but they are  discovered when Baek-hwa gets plastered and begins to sing and dance, much to the chagrin of the actual mourners who turn violent as they are there to grieve.  In another scene, Baek-hwa leaves the group to work in a brothel but becomes violent when the johns start to assume that she is there for a sexual tryst.  The three seem always out of their element and become a sad reminder of a 197os South Korea which was full of post-war homelessness and run by a harsh government that was rapidly trying to build an infrastructure but in the process is also leaving many who cannot move with the pace behind. Baek-hwa, Jeong, and Young-dal are hopelessly out of synch with the real world, so as the narrative moves forward, the film goes from comedy to heartbreaking melancholy as you begin to see their time together coming to an end as there is no place for them. Director Lee gets wonderful performances from our leads, especially Suk Mun, who played Baek-hwa and starred in the director’s last three films. Suk’s performance is beautifully textured as she creates the emotional framework for a young woman who can be alternately hysterically gleeful as she is vengeful while eminently real and vulnerable.

 The Road To Sampo Complete Film w English Subs

In 2015, Suk Mun returned to acting in Jong-Teol Baek’s award-winning film, The Beauty Inside after a forty year absence during which time she only starred in one film post Lee Man-hee’s passing.  As for director Lee, his entire body of work was screened at the 2005 Pusan International Film Festival that occurred on the thirtieth anniversary of his passing. That festival sparked a national resurgence of his catalog. and an long-overdue appreciation for a director who took his moment of government produced strife in 1965 and turned it into an daring collection of work.

Ossie Davis Directs J.E. Franklin’s Harsh Family Drama: “Black Girl” From 1972

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Gloria Edwards As Norma in Black Girl

Needless to say that genre of inner city African-American films that were produced in the late 1960s through the 1970s called “blaxpolitation” had its positive and negative aspects. On the negative side, the message inside a morass of poorly made crime films did little in terms of speaking about the experiences of the bulk of African Americans during that time, concentrating on the worst stereotypes of urban life to sell tickets. On the positive side, the countless films that did give a more honest view the African American community, both contemporary and historical, would not have otherwise been made if not for the success of the aforementioned crime films. Films like Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree and Marton Ritt’s Sounder along with the mini-series creation of Alex Haley’s novel, Roots may not have happened if films centered on the African American experience were not deemed commercially viable by Hollywood standards.

Such was the situation of Ossie Davis, who was fresh off the immense commercial success of his second feature, the urban crime film, Cotton Comes To Harlem, in 1970. Davis set out to direct a film version of Houston-born playwright J.E. Franklin’s celebrated 1969 work, Black Girl, which was first produced that same year for WGBH, Boston’s public television station, and then run as an off-Broadway play in 1971. The film version of Black Girl centers on several generations of women in a family living in a small house located in the Venice Beach neighborhood of Los Angeles. The “black girl” of the title is Billie Jean (Peggy Pettitt), a seventeen year old who dreams of becoming a ballerina but who, for now, must be content with dancing at her local bar for tips while suffering the jeers from her two half-sisters and her mother. Her mother, who most everyone calls Mama Rosie (Louise Stubbs), gave birth to Billie Jean from a second husband after her first husband Earl (Brock Peters) left the family, leaving Rosie alone to raise their daughters, Norma (Gloria Edwards) and Ruth Ann (Lorette Greene). Also crammed in this tiny house are Rosie’s mother, Mu Dear (Claudia McNeil) and her live-in boyfriend from church, Herbert (Kent Martin), leaving young Billie Jean with only a small makeshift bedroom between the kitchen and the living room to practice her dancing. Unfortunately, Billie Jean’s aspirations come to a halt when Norma and Ruth Ann blab to Mama Rosie about Billie Jean’s dancing at a gin joint and dropping out of high school.

In the midst of all of this tension, Earl shows back up to the house in a new Cadillac, waving around a wad of cash, which is most likely acquired through some illegal activity and dispenses a bit of it along with a reminder as to why he left in the first place. A key moment here is when Mama Rosie suggests that Billie Jean should receive some of Earl’s gift to the family, but Earl doesn’t accept her as his own because he did not sire her and reacts with resistance to this suggestion. Billie Jean takes Earl’s initial hesitance as an insult and refuses the cash but is encouraged to take it by Mama Rosie, which speaks volumes as to Mama Rosie’s current feelings towards the raw deal she feels that she has received in having Billie Jean, her only child with a different (and unmentioned) father. Earl suggests a reconciliation with Mama Rosie, but her heart is hard at this point and closed to such things.

Making the situation worse is that Billie Jean, Norma, and Ruth Ann are constantly reminded of the real apple of their mother’s eye, the much lighter-skin colored Netta (Leslie Uggams), a boarder whom Mama Rosie took in when Netta’s mother (a silent Ruby Dee) lost her mind. Netta is far away at college doing her best but still draws the hatred of the three sisters in the house due to their mother’s clear appreciation of Netta over them, Mama Rosie’s actual flesh and blood. Soon, Netta comes home for a Mother’s Day visit, but after years of torment from Mama Rosie, Norma and Ruth Ann begin twisting Billie Jean’s mind against Netta, claiming that Netta is coming to take Billie Jean’s hovel of a room upon graduation. This sets up a tense third act where the well-intentioned Netta will walk into a buzz saw that is Mama Rosie’s three daughters.

Davis’ loose direction allows for some truly unpredictable moments, and thus the actors’ performances come through far above the plot. Gloria Edwards leads the charge here as she brings a real ferocity to her character of Norma, and the final third has a level of realistic tension that is borderline unbearable. Though the film is set around Billie Jean, Peggy Pettitt has to play with a mostly, silent, brooding character but does the most with her, especially again in the third act. Louise Stubbs is excellent throughout and paints Mama Rosie as a woman who is capable of great joy, as seen through her loving scenes with Earl, but is also someone filled with such an intense loathing of all who exist around her due to the mistakes she has made throughout her life. In the end Black Girl takes advantage of its poor socioeconomic confined setting to show you several generations of one family existing under one roof so that you can closely contrast the different attitudes based on age and skin tone. That amount of people from different eras living on top of one another soon becomes a story of missed opportunities, contempt, and the soul-crushing ability that a family can possess in destroying the dreams of those whom they are supposed to love and encourage to grow so that they can eventually leave the home for good.

Original 1972 Trailer For Black Girl

I, for one, am glad that despite its fostering of negative stereotypes, Cotton Comes To Harlem gave Ossie Davis the clout to make a film version of Black Girl. Though the advertising had to give the audience a false impression that they were about to see a blaxploitation crime film, Black Girl is an uncompromised and deeply personal story of an African-American family who is just trying to get over despite the pain they continue to cause to each another, addressing a perspective that was rarely discussed or seen in media during its time.

The Stunning Visuals And Sounds Of Nicolas Roeg’s 1972 Documentary: Glastonbury Fayre

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Fairport Convention At Glastonbury Fayre

As I finished writing this review, we were informed that David Bowie has passed away. Bowie was part of the concert featured in Nicolas Roeg’s documentary, but he was omitted from the film. Right now, I wish that he had been included, as there could never have been enough footage of David Bowie.

Last week’s entry into Lost In The 1970s With Generoso Blog featured a review of German director Stefan Paul’s 1979 concert film Reggae By Bus, which documented the 2nd edition of the now defunct Reggae Sunsplash Music Festival, which took place in Montego Bay back in year the film was released. As Jamaican music has always been near and dear to me, it was an unequivocal thrill to have finally have seen Paul’s film; though modestly shot with capable sound quality, Reggae By Bus successfully captures not only the music and energy of the event itself but of the community surrounding the festival and their thoughts on the importance of national music of Jamaica. So while I am still basking in the glow of that concert film, I thought to find Glastonbury Fayre, the only concert film directed by one of my all time favorite filmmakers and cinematographers, Nicolas Roeg, and although I am not a fan of most folk rock, I was curious to see what Roeg would come up with for an overall view of the event.

Glastonbury Fayre like Reggae By Bus chronicles the performers and goings on of the second incarnation of a world-renowned music event, the still going strong Glastonbury Festival, which continues to draw over 100,000 people a year to its southwest England location in Somerset. Going into Roeg’s film, I did have two overriding emotions: my love of Roeg’s body of work and what I would expect to be a brilliantly lensed film and my general disdain for the hypocrisy lying underneath the “free love and peace” concert events of the late 1960s/1970s. If that last statement seems unnecessarily caustic, you don’t need to look any further than the 1969 concert at Altamont that featured The Rolling Stones to get a picture of a group of people looking for flower power but instead getting open brutality. From members of Jefferson Airplane being assaulted on stage to the subsequent murder of an attendee, the violence at the Altamont Festival lead many to view that event as the definite cultural end of the peace movement that started in the 1960s.

The film does begin positively with the bassist of Kingdom Come wishing Arthur Brown a happy birthday onstage, a lovely moment for the artist whom many consider one of the pioneers of shock rock. Shortly thereafter, the event’s organizer Michael Eavis speaks directly into the camera as he explains the story of how he came up with the idea of producing the first concert, The Pilton Festival, as it was called before changing its name to the Glastonbury Fair and then finally to the Glastonbury Festival. You then see the masses of the hippy nation descend on the lush green of the fields with painted faces and instruments in hand whilst crews begin to construct the pyramid styled stage that would become the hallmark of the festival for years to come–a truly trippy sight indeed as its Egyptian-themed shape glows with a blue internal light.

As for the music, Terry Reid armed with a fantastic mixed race band of musicians (needs to be mentioned as the event itself is intensely Caucasian) pounds out a scorching version of “Dean” whilst the camera pans through the audience as the crowd gets freakier and more naked with each drum beat. There is some more random hippiness when suddenly the absolutely stunning sounds of Ashley Hutchings’ bass fuels a number played by his group, Fairport Convention. Still active to this day, Fairport Convention delivers one of the finest performances of the film. Once their number ends, though, it’s back to the drum circles and Big Bambu sized joints until an interesting meeting with a African-English Christian minister who explains his happiness with the peaceful attitude of the event. The minister’s positive report makes it fairly clear at this point that the event would not be mired in the same ugliness that had ended so many events in the states. In fact, the appearance and acceptance of a multitude of different faiths being practiced during the film clearly delineate Glastonbury from its American festival counterparts. You see a proper Anglican minister performing a small Sunday service for a crowd of somber ticket buyers whilst the Guru Maharaj speaks to thousands of flopsy mopsy dancing potential Hare Krishna recruits, which is soon followed by Arthur Brown as he ignites a few crosses for a theatrical Satantic ritual after a tune or two. Let’s just say that there is enough polytheism at the Glastonbury Fayre to make the Book of John burst into flames but at least the different tribes are all getting along.

The overall selection of music for the film surpassed my expectations, though I would’ve appreciated the omission of American folk singer Melanie and her crying and downright vicious vocal style. I imagine that some of the selections were made due to rights issues as other artists who performed at the festival such as David Bowie, Hawkwind, Brinsley Schwartz, and Pink Fairies did not make it into the final cut of the film. The final performance by Steve Winwood’s Traffic doing a an off-rhythm version of Winwood’s own hit with The Spencer Davis Group, “Gimme Some Lovin,” was a fitting end to the frenetic musical goings on at Glastonbury.

Glastonbury Fayre Trailer

One would expect that a Nicolas Roeg shot film would possess a dazzling visual style, and there are many moments that bear out Roeg’s daring camerawork, but the cinematography does vacillate between gorgeous and simply competent, which struck me as odd. I did a bit of research here and found out that although Roeg gets the credit as director, he walked away from the project after just a few days of shooting. The story goes that Roeg arrived with several cameramen in tow and shot a decent amount of film but was called away to work on his film Walkabout. An amateur cameraman, Peter Neal, gathered Roeg’s footage and blended it with the 16mm film shot by other amateurs. Though visually inconsistent, this randomness in style and quality does add to the raw energy of the event. Glastonbury Fayre stands as an important document in terms of seeing the genesis of an enduring music festival that scarcely resembles its humble origins now.

Director Stefan Paul’s 1979 Concert Film “Reggae By Bus” Travels To Reggae Sunsplash Two

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Reggae By Bus a.k.a. Reggae Sunsplash

After over nineteen years of producing the Bovine Ska and Rocksteady Radio Show and being a lifelong Jamaican music fan, I am still amazed that I come across the occasional ska or reggae single that I have never heard of before, much less a full documentary. Though the island was producing hundreds of records a month during the latter half of the era that my show covers (1955-1975), Jamaica is still a geographically small island with a population a bit under three million people. Much was done by Jamaican citizens to preserve the music and culture on vinyl and film, but on many occasions, foreign directors and producers arrived on the island to capture the finest artistic moments. Such is the case with German-born director Stefan Paul, who is most noted for directing two well-known Bob Marley concert films, Bob Marley: Live In Concert and Bob Marley: The Legend Live, and 1982’s Bongo Man which featured Jimmy Cliff. All three of these films are fairly standard concert films that offer little insight into the featured artist or the attending audience, which contrast the director’s 1979 film Reggae By Bus aka Reggae Sunsplash, which centered on the notorious reggae music festival that took place in Montego Bay from July 3-7th in Jarrett Park, Montego Bay.

The Reggae Sunsplash Festivals were the invention of Jamaicans Tony Johnson, Don Green, Ronnie Burke, John Wakeling, and Ed Barclay, who staged the concerts in their homeland to further reggae music as a worldwide phenomenon. The original festival ran annually from 1978 to 1998 and was revived one final time in 2006 to feature the most notable Jamaican artists of their time, many of whom, such as Yellowman, Toots and The Maytals, and Big Youth, would subsequently release their individual performances from the festival with great returns given their prominence in the industry and the popularity of the event. After the success of the first Sunsplash, director Paul traveled to Jamaica almost a decade after his first documentary, Open Air 70, to film the second appearance of the festival and to interview artists involved with the festival and Jamaican citizens about the appeal and importance of reggae music, specifically from the Rastafarian perspective, which was rarely seen in reggae documentaries of the time.  

Much like the soul music documentaries of the 1970s, Save The Children and Wattstax, concert scenes in Reggae By Bus are inter-spliced with the aforementioned interviews with artists and musicians alike. One poignant interview early on is with Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear, the consummate roots reggae vocalist and O.D. recipient, who just a year earlier had starred in the legendary narrative film, Rockers, directed by another non-Jamaican, Theodoros Bafaloukos. Interviewed playing a game of soccer in St. Ann’s Bay, Burning Spear is quick to tell director Paul that reggae reflects the voice of the Rasta community while the heavy handed, dry over narration reminds us that his music is “not about love or sex but is part of a political, nationalist Rastafarian propaganda machine.” When Paul asks Burning Spear about the togetherness of the Rastafarian community, Spear responds positively by saying, “We live together and play together. We are always together.” Soon we are oceanside with a group of Nyahbinghi drummers who sing along with their drumming and who then speak about the crucial nature of drums in Jamaican music in that the drum originated in Africa and is uplifting to the Jamaican and “puts them in the driving seat” as it brings them back to their pre-slavery roots. The drummers then discuss the “freaky nature” of modern reggae with its reliance of synthesizers and wah wah pedals, which draws away from the pure nature of the music.  

Of all the acts that performed at the festival, only four acts are singled out from the 2nd Reggae Sunsplash to make it into the documentary: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Third World, and Burning Spear, and each are given substantial performance time on screen. A few standouts are the thrilling funk/reggae performances by Third World on the tracks Talk To Me and Third World Man, Burning Spear’s heartfelt voice on Slavery Days and much of Bob Marley’s impassioned performance, which constitutes the final third of the film, with my highlight being a reggae version of the earlier rocksteady gem from 1968 written by Marley for The Wailers’ own Wail N Soul label, “Hypocrites,” with the I-Three’s, Marley’s backing vocalists, filling in brilliantly for Peter and Bunny. By 1979, Bob Marley was a worldwide phenomenon, and thankfully there is a lot of footage floating around of his performances from the late 1970s, but this one is truly special. A short interview with Marley from his yard on Hope Road was inserted between the songs, and he speaks openly about how the other rhythms from Jamaica are for other classes of people and that reggae is the true music of the Rasta. The narrator furthers Marley’s comments about the true audience of reggae while we observe footage of the residents and shanties of Trenchtown, where Marley was born, and the impoverished area of St. Andrew’s Parish, where, despite its desperate conditions, managed to produce some of the greatest artists ranging from Alton Ellis to Delroy Wilson. Paul correctly explains that from “the mento, ska, and the rudy boy tradition that these musics were only appreciated by the lowest classes of  that Jamaica” and stressed the “constant war between police and Rastas,” as they (Rastas) were still viewed in a negative way by polite Jamaican society. Though the narration is sporadically administered, and the style is delivered in an exceedingly dry way that doesn’t fit the overall feel of the film, it provides a mostly accurate cultural context for the music by showing you a 1970s Jamaica that was engulfed in political violence, which led to a mass exodus of businesses resulting in a faltering economy .   

Bob Marley’s Interview In Reggae By Bus

Past the essential performances seen in most concert films and the accompanying interviews, there is always one moment that stands higher for me in most films of this kind that becomes the reason why I would watch it again, and in Reggae By Bus, that is the rare glimpse of foundation deejay Charlie Ace’s Swing-A-Ling Van in action on the streets of Kingston. Born Vernel Dixon, Charlie Ace would take his reggae-modified Morris van into all areas of Kingston selling the latest releases while live toasting over versions of newly pressed records. In Reggae By Bus we see Ace and a younger DJ taking their turns on the microphone while performing for a crowd that had gathered by the van. It is a fantastic scene that I’m sure director Paul was glad to have captured it, but again I sadly say “rare” in terms of footage as Charlie Ace was gunned down near his van roughly two years after this documentary was released.

Charlie Ace

Foundation Deejay Charlie Ace

Unlike its soul music counterpart Wattstax, I wished that Reggae By Bus spent more time collecting the stories that would frame the importance of the Reggae Sunsplash festival in terms of its cultural impact. A few attempts are made to put it in context, and they do resonate, but a few more moments with the average citizens of Kingston would’ve provided a clearer frame for the event. Regardless of that critique, there is too much essential footage within Stefan Paul’s film to discount it as just another reggae documentary, and although there has never been an official home video release, fragments of the film do exist online and are well worth your time. It’s an essential watch for the reggae fan and a good introduction for any curious viewer who wants to learn more about reggae.