Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on April 24, 2011
The film series I program celebrated its 70th year anniversary last night with a concert film matinee from 1988, followed by a musician-studded film that was retooled last year, all of which was capped off with two live concerts in a building that was once an 800-seat film theater smack in the middle of downtown. I’m still recuperating from the festivities, which stretched out to into the morning hours. In the interest of full disclosure I should let you know that I’m writing this in a state of only semi-consciousness and am probably still legally intoxicated, this thanks to the 70-cent Imperial Stouts we had on tap to promote our 70th anniversary. If this post gets ugly or sloppy I’ll blame more than the booze and also point the finger to rock-and-roll. It’s what happens to be on my throbbing brain right now. Specifically: some of my favorite concert docs that are usually overlooked by the mainstream.
I’m going to bypass the usual suspects here. Stop Making Sense usually tops lists like this, and with good reason. It still remains one of the few concert films where I’ve seen the audience get up from their seats to dance in the aisles and on up onto the stage. Baby-boomers have plenty of docs that are commonly celebrated (The Last Waltz, Woodstock, etc.) and Gimme Shelter captured a pivotal moment in the zeitgeist. Personally, and I’ll give it a special plug here since it was just released on Blu-Ray, for my money the best captured footage of the Stones can be found on Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones. As a glam fan I’ll also mention Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as a fave. Thinking how vast the horizon is for other worthy titles simply adds to my pounding and throbbing headache; so I’ll cut-to-the-chase and – with one blood-shot eye on the clock – limit myself to five that usually don’t make the cut in mainstream publications.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me (Nicholas Triandafyllidis, 2001)
Who would have thought that a Greek filmmaker and distributor would end up providing such a comprehensive view on the African-American musician-singer known for scaring the crap out of kids in the 1950s with voodoo stage props and some seriously gutteral yowling? This doc provides a mesmerizing look at one of music’s first shock rockers and covers a lot of ground. There’s the usual mix of archive footage, but the bulk of the time is spent talking with people who worked or knew Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (born Jalacy Hawkins, July 18, 1929) and with Hawkins himself – interviewed here extensively and (serendipitously) very shortly before his death.
Although one would expect some seriously macabre material from the likes of Hawkins, when he recounts how he was tortured during in the Pacific theater during WWII and then got even with his main tormentor by taping a hand-grenade in his mouth, pulling the pin, and watching his head explode you realize this guy has a really dark side. It certainly didn’t help that he also had to deal with racism at every turn and was denied profits from the sales of his own music by the mob-controlled industry.
Given all the stuff Hawkins had to deal with, it’s amazing he made it to 70 with his sense of humor intact. It’s hilarious to hear him recount how he met Elvis back-stage for the first time (Hawkins told Elvis to his face that he didn’t care for his music, and then proceeded to threaten him for an autograph for the girl that had dragged Hawkins to the show). Jim Jarmusch is also interviewed (“I Put a Spell On You” was featured in Stranger Than Paradise), and talks about his casting decision to include Hawkins in Mystery Train. Hawkins, being a true entertainer, is prone to a bit of exaggeration at times, or even understandable memory lapses (at one point, when asked, he forgets how many wives he’s had, for example). But even when his stories seem speculative (Hawkins claimed that Sammy Davis Jr was stabbed in the eye as a warning to stay away from Kim Novak), they carry compelling weight.
The Big T.N.T. Show (Larry Peerce, 1966)
Here’s I came across this one: when I recently saw The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (which was also quite good) what impressed me the most was the concert footage therein of Ike & Tina Turner burning up the stage. Boy, did they whip up the audience. One time Creem photographer and also doc filmmaker Jerry Aronson, who had a front-row seat for such events, told me that Ike had the women perform in short skirts and without panties to further stoke the hormonal fires. (This had little effect on Jerry, who is gay, and simply adds to what is already known about Ike.)
Seeing early footage of Tina Turner in black-and-white totally transfixed me. I’m pretty sure Mick Jagger was paying very close attention to some of her moves and added them to his sexual stage struts. Suddenly obsessed, I turned to a friend who’s a bit of a concert doc freak and he turned me on to The Big T.N.T. Show – produced by Phil Spector and filmed at the Moulin Rouge Theater in Hollywood. A huge rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country, and folk bash of some of the biggest names in the business of that time.
The roster speaks for itself: David McCallum (Satisfaction), Ray Charles (What’d I Say), Petula Clark (Dowtown), The Loving’ Spoonful (Do You Believe in Magic, You didn’t Have to be So Nice), Bo Diddley (Hey Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley), Joen Baez (500 Miles, There but for a Fortune), Ray Charles (Georgia on my Mind, Let the Good Times Roll), Joan Baez & Phil Spector (You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’), The Ronettes (Be My Baby, Shout), Roger Miller (Dang Me, Engine Number Nine, King of the Road, England Swings), The Byrds (Turn Turn Turn, The Bells of Rhymney, Mr. Tambourine Man), Petula Clark (My Love), Donovan (The Universal Soldier, Reflections of a Summer Day, Berts Blues, Sweet Joy), Ike & Tina Turner (Shake, It’s Gonna Work Out Fine, Please Please Please, Goodbye So Long), and all topped off with McCallum in a reprise conducting the Ray Charles Orchestra (One Two Three). Excuse my French, but this lineup is completely unf–king real. Wow.
Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Andrew Douglas, 2003)
The plot summary is succinct: “Director Andrew Douglas’s film follows ‘Alt’ Country singer through a gritty terrain of churches, prisons, truck stops, biker bars and coalmines.” Music covered: The Handsome Family, Johnny Dowd, 16 Horsepower, David Johansen. Lee Sexton – which is to say the terrain veers from contemporary and alternative folk/country to oldtime banjo and gospel. I’ll admit to being totally biased here because 16 Horsepower hails from my state (they’re a Denver band), and I also happened to luck into having dinner with the husband-and-wife duo that constitute The Handsome Family. They’ve written some of the most beautiful murder ballads I’ve ever heard. “Beautiful” + “Murder Ballads” = bipolar, which makes sense when you realize that lead vocalist Brett Sparks suffered an emotional breakdown that was later diagnosed as being a part of a bipolar disorder. Also, Brett and his wife Rennie are from Chicago, which is probably a pretty good place to come from if you’re going to write murder ballads. (If I’m out of line saying this I’m sure fellow Morlock and Chicago denizen Suzidoll will correct me.)
Back to Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus: it’s a lovely film, hardly anyone has seen it, and you should definitely give it a shot. That Douglas went on to director the 2005 version of The Amityville Horror is kind of weird and irrelevant – except insofar as he clearly has a good eye for gothic settings.
Dig! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
Okay, this one’s not so-off-the-beaten-path because it did, in fact, make a big splash at Sundance and also has been part of the MoMA permanent collection. But last week I had the pleasure of bringing Timoner out for a screening of her fascinating documentary We Live In Public and I kinda fell in love with her. No, not in a creepy “I want to sleep with her” way, more in a “wow, she really cuts through the bullshit, exudes a fountain of self-confidence, and has the body language of Robert Plant circa Led Zeppelin in the early 70s.”
The thing about Dig! is this: I remember letting The Billy Nayer Show (the awesome musical force behind The American Astronaut and other films) crash at my house once, and they all ended up watching Dig! and they promptly crowned it the best documentary they’d ever seen about the whole being-in-a-band and on-the-road experience. The fact that it follows two of my favorite bands, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, over the course of seven years is both gravy and amazing. (The fact that I’m writing such things as “.. is both gravy and amazing” is clearly evidence of still being intoxicated.)
As my deadline looms large (whups, scratch that – I just missed it… again), I end with one last doc that kinda blew my mind. Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! (2006) usually gets props for doing something that certainly resonates with the YouTube generation; it let the audience of a Beastie Boys concert at Madison Square Garden go nuts by equipping 50 fans with Hi-8 and digital video cameras. This was a pretty inspired idea by Adam Yauch (aka: the founding member of The Beastie Boys, aka: MCA, aka: Nathaniel Hörnblowér). It gets points for being first, even though I say this without doing research, and suspect somebody else probably did this sooner, but getting launched at Sundance kinda makes it official.
Despite the preamble, I’m not giving my last pick to The Beastie Boys. Nope. Their doc is definitely part of the beaten path and already gets plenty of props in “top concert film” lists. I give it to:
Live in Praha (Radiohead, 2009)
Much like the aforementioned Beastie Boys concert, this is a video that was filmed by the audience itself. But, unlike Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! – which was pre-planned – Live in Praha is a labor of love by the fans who not only shot it themselves but also cut and edited all the footage into one seamless “you are there” concert experience that so impressed the band that Radiohead contributed their own audio master of the show (crisp, great sound) – and then! – it was released to the public as a free digital download. Talk about the new hive mind at work… A pretty good show too, but I have to admit that as far as performances go, it’s hard to beat the 16mm footage of The Stones prancing about a Houston, Texas stage in support of their 1971 Exile on Main St. album.
Actually, I’d like to amend that last statement by saying that last night’s performances definitely make my short list. Hats off to The Nuns of Brixton (“The only Clash cover band that matters”) and Veronica (“The garage-rock trio that will blow your mind every friggin’ time!” – And that’s MY quote from personal experience).
As to those curious as the title of yesterday’s concert film matinee, it was Tom Wait’s Big Time (Chris Blum, 1988) – which is also an exceptional and rarely seen performance film. This was followed by Straight to Hell Returns (Alex Cox, 2010) – which is a slightly revised version of his 1987 “hyper-caffeinated western.” Straight to Hell Returns is no concert film, but actors include Elvis Costell, Grace Jones, The Pogues, and Joe Strummer – the last being instrumental in my choice to include a Clash cover band to top off all the craziness – craziness that now calls for sleep. Ladies and gentlemen: goodnight.
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