The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years

October 17, 2019

declinewesterncivPenelope Spheeris is a quirky and talented director whose films include The Boys Next Door and Suburbia. Her feature filmmaking career really started with a 1979 documentary called The Decline of Western Civilization.

Aside from being a potent look at punk music and something of an almost-underground classic, that film set Spheeris up for a sequel that would have an even funnier title. That sequel is here, and it is called The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.

Needless to say, the ore of the title is mined from the term “heavy metal,” the head-banging, hard­rocking music that stakes out rock’s noisiest territory and frightens the bejeepers out of parents everywhere. As in her earlier movie, Spheeris mixes performance footage and interviews.

She talks to some of the heavyweights in the metal world, such as Alice Cooper, Steve Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS, and Ozzy Osbourne. But she also pays attention to some of the up-and-­coming young metal groups in the Los Angeles scene.

Spheeris is a savvy filmmaker, and the result is a lively and wittily made slice of hard-rock life. Her visual sense is strong, both in the busy movement of the film and in the interview set-ups (Gene Simmons comments from the showroom of a lingerie store, while Alice Cooper speaks lucidly as he perches next to one of the blood-spattered mannequins from his stage show).

One attraction of the movie is, obviously, the fact that its characters look like refugees from This is Spinal Tap, but without intending to be funny. There are any number of hilariously boneheaded sentiments, among them the beer-soaked members of the group Odin opining that they expect to be remembered for generations.

But Spheeris clearly likes music and young people and rebelliousness too much to ridicule the scene. Some of the people in the movie are quite endearing, including a straightened­-out Ozzy Osbourne (who no longer bites off the heads of doves, but is shown preparing a suburban plate of bacon and eggs). Some of the more disturbing aspects of the music are also on display, such as the rampant contempt for women and the abuse of drugs.

Decline obviously has a limited audience, but it’s a very well-made movie. Remember, as someone in the film says: “If your parents don’t like it, it’s good.” They surely won’t.

First published in the Herald, 1988

Spheeris is one of those filmmakers – you wonder what kind of projects she didn’t get to make along the way, and what those might have been like. Odd career. I interviewed her once, I think for The Boys Next Door, and she was a cool character. Now where might that interview be?

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Crossroads

October 8, 2019

crossroadsDirector Walter Hill has been wavering between gritty, realistic films (The Long Riders, 48 HRS.) and outlandish forays into pure stylization (the urban-punk musical-western Streets of Fire). Of course, Hill’s gritty movies are stylized in their own way, and he’s at his best when working with strong storytelling rather than simple metaphor (as in the Vietnam-microcosm mess, Southern Comfort).

In his latest project, Crossroads, Hill indulges both sides of his personality. For the first hour and more of its running time, it’s a wonderfully rendered yarn, a typically American kind of journey told in nifty, authentic language. For its denouement, however, Hill suddenly heads into la-la land, and pulls a bizarre shift into the supernatural.

The plot springs from a terrific idea. A guitar prodigy (Ralph Macchio of The Karate Kid) from Long Island is classically trained but has his heart in the blues. He’ll do anything to track down a mythical lost blues song by Robert Johnson, the great bluesman who was murdered before his 21st birthday after recording an output – 29 songs – that changed the way American music sounded.

Macchio has tracked down a harmonica player (Joe Seneca) who was present for Johnson’s recording sessions. But the bluesman won’t give Macchio the lost song unless Macchio breaks him out of his New York nursing home and takes him back to Mississippi.

They break out, head south and Seneca starts teaching the young greenhorn some ot the rules of the road. He claims the kid is technically gifted but utterly without a sense of the blues, so he needs to throw a few hellhounds on his trail.

The kid gets an education fast. They’re dumped onto Highway 61 without any money, thrown into a mugging at a motel and arrested for sleeping in a barn. Macchio also hooks up with a tough-as-nails hitchhiker (Jami Gertz) and he learns the essential blues lesson about unrequited love.

All of this provides great pleasure. The similarity with The Karate Kid, in which Macchio also learned  wisdom from an old-timer, is unfortunate, but Crossroads creates its own distinct world; Ry Cooder’s music enhances this immeasurably, although I wish there were even more music in the film.

When the travelers reach Mississippi, and a crossroads at which Johnson and Seneca supposedly sold their souls to the Devil for a taste of blues success, the film starts to hint that this supernatural contract is real, and the finale is an update of The Devil and Daniel Webster, with Macchio trying to pick and strum his way out of Seneca’s contract.

Hill’s films are usually about myth-making, so in a way this conclusion is appropriate. But it’s also just plain weird, coming after the down-to-earth realism that has gone before. And the hokiness of the climactic get-down session is sometimes laughable.

The sequence probably wouldn’t seem so bad if the film hadn’t begun so promisingly. As it stands, it is a strange, seemingly misguided ending to a promising, still largely enjoyable film.

First published in the Herald, March 13, 1986

Huh. Well, I was really thinking a lot about Americana around this time, and I may have really wanted a movie like this to work. It all sounds pretty painful from this distance, and I haven’t watched it since. Screenwriter John Fusco subsequently wrote the Young Guns movies and Hidalgo. The movie’s also got Joe Morton, Harry Carey Jr., and Steve Vai. The actor Robert Judd, who plays Scratch (and died in ’86), has exactly one other movie credit: in the incredibly nasty exploitation picture Fight for Your Life (1977).


Back to the Beach

October 1, 2019

backtobeachWe are riding the crest of another wave of retro-fashion/music/style—or is it just another ripple in the never-ending tide of nostalgia? “La Bamba” is back on the charts, Newsweek puts Elvis Presley on its cover and declares surfing clothes the hip new look, and Stanley Kubrick makes the sublimely ridiculous “Surfin’ Bird” a showstopper in his new movie.

All right, so it’s silly. But it beats facing reality.

With that in mind, consider Back to the Beach, a perfectly timed ode to the stupefying Beach Party movies of the early 1960s. If drinks in coconut shells with little umbrellas are your thing, and the sound of the words “Surf’s Up!” sends a thrill down your spine, we’ve got a movie for you.

Back to the Beach finds the now-married Big Kahuna (Frankie Avalon) and Annette (Annette Funicello) in something of a mid-life crisis. They’ve lived in Ohio since the ’60s, when Frankie swore off surfing after a disastrous encounter with a legendary wave called the Humuonga Cowabunga from Down Undah. Frankie sells cars, while Annette fixes her two kids endless sandwiches with Skippy peanut butter (there are mucho Pirandellian in-jokes in this film).

So they take a vacation with their punked-out son (Demian Slade) and land in Los Angeles. Their college-age daughter (Lori Laughlin) is living with a surfer (Tommy Hinkley), which sets Kahuna’s helmet-shaped hair on end. Romantic misunderstandings occur all ’round. The solution, as it always was in the original films, is for the guys to make the gals jealous, and the gals to make the guys jealous.

This is how it always worked.

So Frankie spends time down at Daddy-O’s with Connie Stevens. Annette flirts with a hunk named Troy (John Calvin) who states his romantic philosophy thusly: “I dig chicks. Chicks dig me digging them. Dig?”

And there’s a happy ending. The fun of all this comes from the loopy affection this film has for those old movies. All the old conventions are kidded, including the corny back-projection shots of Frankie perched in front of a huge wave, and the crazy beachwide dance numbers (here Annette teaches a thousand people to do “The Jamaican Ska”).

Plus, characters say things to Frankie and Annette that you’ve always wanted to say. When Annette hits the sand after hanging ten, Troy marvels, “After all that surfing, her hair’s perfectly dry!” And it is arguably one of the great moments in cinema history when an awed surfer observes that Frankie was once the king of the beach: “Which is extra cool, ‘cuz you look like an Italian loan shark.”

Lyndall Hobbs, an Australian-born filmmaker who has made some music videos, directed this movie, and she’s found just the right slaphappy tone. The whole thing’s keyed in day-glo colors and tiki architecture, and the action never flags.

Also, there are a bunch of goofy cameos: Bob Denver and Alan Hale, Jr., from Gilligan’s Island, much of the cast of Leave It to Beaver, Don Adams, Edd “Kooky” Byrnes, and Pee-wee Herman, who performs “Surfin’ Bird” (don’t tell Stanley Kubrick).

Back to the Beach also contains: a pajama party, Frankie swearing, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dick Dale doing “Pipeline,” and Annette in a pink polka-dot one-piece, which testifies to the fact that she still has—let’s be the teeniest bit blunt about it—a really amazing body. All that’s missing is Erich von Zipper. For aficionados, this film is a must-see.

First published in the Herald, August 8, 1987.

A fond memory, this one. And so much has changed in the world! Annette is gone, Stevie Ray is gone, Pee-wee’s career veered off course, and Lori Laughlin faces jail time. Hobbs did a few TV episodes and according to Wikipedia is now a designer; she was Al Pacino’s life partner for a while. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense. And oh hey, this site is also back, after a brief six-year break. As Ethan Hawke once said, time is a lie. So we’ll just resume as though nothing else happened, shall we?


La Bamba

March 25, 2013

labambaRichie Valens was the other great rocker who went down in a plane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper near Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959, “the day the music died.” The Buddy Holly story has already been well immortalized on film; now, with La Bamba, it is Valens’ turn.

Valens is hardly as familiar a figure as Holly, of course, and he notched only three hits and 17 birthdays before his death. But La Bamba provides ample evidence of why he is worth celebrating.

The film is the work of writer-director Luis Valdez, whose previous film experience includes the interestingly disastrous Zoot Suit. Valdez has made a carefully balanced movie. It’s a very traditional film biography, and unafraid of the clichés of the form. But it’s also an uninsistent description of the Hispanic experience, a topic Valdez explores without ever losing the solidly entertaining main thread of the film.

The crucial way Valdez does this is by making La Bamba the story of two brothers. Richie (Lou Diamond Phillips) is the nice good-humored boy who becomes a star; Bob (Esai Morales, of Bad Boys) is violently insecure, more volcanic and ill-adjusted. Valdez allows these two to represent twin sides of a single personality—Richie yearning to tap into the American success story, Bob retreating to Mexico to seek the wisdom of the old ways.

Planted throughout this stimulating conflict are the hallmarks of the movie biography: Richie’s mom (Rosana DeSoto) pays for a live performance at a small local hall; Richie is spotted by a talent agent (Joe Pantoliano) who suggests a name change from Valenzuela; lovestruck Richie writes “Donna,” a hit single, for his white high-school girlfriend. Along the way, Valdez beautifully re-creates the humid milieu of Richie’s youth in the California fruit-picking world.

Valdez makes up for the occasional syrupy patch with some exhilarating music. There’s a marvelous scene when Bob takes Richie to a Mexican bordello for a rite of passage; Richie becomes more interested in the house band as it performs an old Mexican folk song, “La Bamba.” His subsequent, sizzling rock ‘n’ roll reworking of that song embodies the movie’s theme: that traditional Mexican ways may be incorporated into new American forms, without denying either. It helps, of course, that Valens’ recording of “La Bamba” is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever laid down.

His music is re-created here by the brilliant Los Lobos, who also appear as the bordello band. There are other clever cameos: Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats plays Eddie Cochran, and Marshall Crenshaw appears as Buddy Holly.

La Bamba was a bit hit at the opening night of the recent Seattle International Film Festival, and Columbia Pictures is clearly counting on the strong word-of-mouth the movie has already generated to carry it past the lack of stars or high concept. It should work, and La Bamba could be this summer’s little movie that goes all the way.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

Fun movie. In retrospect, I assume Luis Valdez’ approach here was to deliver something that wasn’t commonplace in mainstream American films—a straight-ahead portrait of a Hispanic community—by putting it into a very conventional container. Which worked very nicely. Neither Phillips nor Morales quite took off the way one might have thought, although they’re both hard-working actors, with a few eccentric detours along the way. I just watched Esai Morales in Atlas Shrugged Part II, and you want to talk about an actor flashing his professionalism under absurd circumstances, you got it right there.


Let’s Get Lost

January 23, 2013

letsgetlostAs sad and romantic as its evocative title, Let’s Get Lost is a documentary about the great jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, whose death in a fall from an Amsterdam hotel window in 1988 was the final step in a lifelong dance of self-destruction. Much of the movie was shot in 1987, when Baker was clearly near the end of his long, painful road.

Let’s Get Lost is no straightforward documentary. Filmmaker Bruce Weber, a longtime fan of Baker, has created a dreamlike, black-and-white collage of interviews, music, old photographs, film clips, and new footage. It tells Baker’s history, but also conjures the feeling of a long, mournful jazz wail.

In the 1950s, young Chet Baker was a great white hope of jazz, a key figure in West Coast cool jazz, a beautiful trumpet player and a wispy, romantic vocalist. He also looked like James Dean, and Hollywood was grooming him for stardom.

He had talent, he had charm, he had…something ineffable. William Claxton, whose famous photographs of Baker in the ’50s are featured prominently in the film, says that photographing Baker gave him his first indication of what photogenic meant.

These early glimpses of the young Baker are interspersed with the wreck Weber interviewed in 1987. Baker, not yet 60, looks like an angel of death, his face heavily lined and toothless, his spirit shredded by constant drug use. Interviews with his wives, girlfriends and children create a portrait of a master manipulator, a totally unreliable friend and father.

Some will see this film and dismiss Baker as a self-destructive jerk. Fine. But that doesn’t explain the music, which is as graceful and fugitive as a trail of smoke. Baker seems to have been a person so racked with pain and hurt that he was simply unable to function in the world, except to express himself through music.

Bruce Weber is a fashion photographer whose Calvin Klein campaign set the tone for advertising in this decade. As a filmmaker, he’s still drunk on images: the story in Baker’s face, the glamour of the jazz set in the 1950s. (This movie is unimaginable in color.) Weber may be mostly concerned with surfaces; he can’t explain Chet Baker. But he can fashion Baker’s dream state, his lost world.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

Slightly surprised this isn’t considered more of a classic documentary, but maybe it doesn’t fit the mold; also, it was out of circulation for a long time. The treatment fits the subject, for sure.


The Little Mermaid

January 9, 2013

littlemermaidThe Little Mermaid is No. 28 in one of the movies’ great traditions: It is a full-length animated feature from Walt Disney studios. And, like many of the films Uncle Walt supervised, it is based on a classic fairy tale.

It’s a loose adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story (one that ends rather more happily in the Disney version). ‘Tis the tale of a mermaid, Ariel (voice by Jodi Benson), who falls in love with a prince and dreams of joining him in the world above the sea. To do this, she would have to sprout legs, which involves driving a hard bargain with a dreadful sea witch, an octopus called Ursula (Pat Carroll). Ariel also runs the risk of displeasing her father, a ruler named Triton (Kenneth Mars).

As is the Disney wont, there are some cute characters who play off the heroine (and who, to speak more cynically, make themselves very available for mass merchandising). Flounder (Jason Marin) is, as you might guess, a fishy friend; Scuttle (Buddy Hackett) a frequently confused seagull; and Sebastian (Samuel Wright), the Jiminy Cricket of the movie, a musically inclined crab.

After an opening reel in which it appears the movie might drown in cuteness, The Little Mermaid begins to swim in its own high spirits. The vernacular is modern and the songs (by Alan Menken and producer Howard Ashman, the team who created the musical Little Shop of Horrors) are fun, particularly the two Jamaican-flavored numbers sung by Sebastian. There’s also a funny patter song by a French chef (at the prince’s castle) who warbles on about the joys of cooking—horrors!—seafood.

But, as is so often true, the movie is stolen by the villain. The great purple-and-black octopus Ursula is the Disney animators’ triumph, a rolling mass of tentacles, each of which seems to have its own life. She taunts the goody-two-shoes Ariel with her devilish bargain; later, when she takes the form of an above-water maiden, she surreptitiously kicks the prince’s dog. Hissing is allowed.

Ariel is a bit of a drip, as is often the case in these Disney films; she’s perfect-looking, and her waving hair tends to overwhelm any sign of personality, aside from a certain spunkiness. (In case you’re wondering, the mermaids wear what appear to be little sea-shell brassieres, a Disney tradition of modesty that goes back at least as far as the nymphs in Fantasia.)

The film is directed and written by John Musker and Ron Clements, who also created Disney’s enjoyable The Great Mouse Detective. Their assured work, which manages to be both respectful of tradition and just a bit hip, plus the top-notch achievements of the younger animators, bodes well for the future of Disney’s most cherished legacy.

First published in the Herald, November 17, 1989

Well, yes, it’s an understatement to say that it worked out well for Disney after that, animation-wise. In that sense, the turning point that The Little Mermaid represents makes it one of the more significant movies of its era—this was the moment Disney went from being a moribund dinosaur to a giant player again. This is also a chance to remember how important Howard Ashman was to Disney’s turnaround; by most accounts he had a lot to do with making The Little Mermaid a smart movie.


Metropolis

January 1, 2013

metropolis_6Metropolis first became a gleam in Fritz Lang’s eye when the great German director visited New York City in the mid-1920s and was dazzled by the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Lang spent the next two years—and a whole sackful of his studio’s money—creating a futuristic movie about workers struggling against inhuman overdeveloped “progress” in the year 2028.

Audiences were even more dazzled by Lang’s majestic vision. When it came time to export the three-hour film, however, somebody decided that overseas viewers would benefit from a shorter version. These original exporters thought it best to cut out a character named Hel, for instance, because they feared American audiences would misunderstand the name. Hel just happened to be the mother of one of the main characters, but never mind about that.

So English-speaking audiences have never seen the full-length film—and they never will. Too many pieces are lost for good.

But the film has been restored to as full a length as possible by extremely surprising hands—those of disco maestro Giorgio Moroder, he of Flashdance and American Gigolo. It seems Moroder got the idea to give Metropolis a vibed-up soundtrack, but he got sidetracked. He started hunting down bits of the movie that had fallen out along the way.

This reissue of Metropolis, then, is Moroder’s unique contribution to film history. He’s gotten some of the movie off the shelves of collectors. He’s also given it a rock music score, complete with Pat Benatar, Adam Ant, and Bonnie Tyler.

Now, that rock score, in theory, sounds pretty cringe-worthy. And in fact, some of it stinketh. The songs, which feature lyrics that stupidly comment on the action, are somewhat obtrusive.

But the instrumental music is often quite good, and certainly does not seem outrageously out of place in Lang’s bizarre dream world.

Ultimately, the movie rests and falls on its visuals. It was shot as a silent film, and can thus presumably stand on its own. Does it?

The answer from this reporter: an unqualified, slack-jawed, weak-kneed Yes! Wow! What a movie. The theme, as stated, is basic: “Between the head and the hands, the heart must mediate.” The head is the ruler of Metropolis, Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), who runs the city from his office high among the skyscrapers.

The hands are the workers, who exist in slavery in horrific quarters deep below the city. The heart comes into play when Frederson’s son (Gustav Frolich) has his consciousness raised by the presence of a good woman (Brigitte Helm), despite the efforts of a mad scientist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to stop them from leading the workers to the light.

Lang visualizes this simple theme with astounding ingenuity that goes beyond the spectacular production values. But oh those production values: the huge underground city, the transformation of a woman into a robot, and—would you believe 11,000 bald-headed extras constructing the Tower of Babel?

Frolich is something of a wash-out in the lead role, and Abel’s part seems shortened by the original editing. But two of the performers have been immortalized by their roles. Klein-Rogge is the ultimate mad scientist, and Helm is disturbingly weird as both the Lillian Gish-like good girl and as the lusty, utterly crazy robot.

The film has, for years, been called a prediction of the rise of Nazism. It’s interesting to note that Lang, who was sometimes accused of being a dictator on the set, left Germany in the early 1930s after Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels invited Lang to make official party films for the National Socialists. Thea von Harbou, who wrote the humanistic message of Metropolis—and was also Lang’s wife—stayed on and worked for the Third Reich.

Historical considerations aside, Metropolis is a spellbinding movie experience. Even with Moroder’s win-a-few, lose-a-few soundtrack, it puts the current competition to shame.

First published in the Herald, August 30, 1984

An early showing of this version was a benefit for the Seattle Film Society, as I recall. Of course, film history has gone far beyond the running time of Moroder’s cut of the movie, what with reels found in Argentina and all. Whatever your opinion of Moroder, the movie did look really cool on a giant screen again. There were a few zany moments, including one etched in my brain that involves the creation of the robot and Bonnie Tyler bellowing the words, “Here she comes!”