Tag Archives: Rock and Roll

LIST CANDIDATE: HUMAN HIGHWAY (1982)

Weirdest!

 

DIRECTED BY: Neil Young (as Bernard Shakey),

FEATURING: Neil Young, , Dean Stockwell, , , Sally Kirkland, Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo

PLOT: A formless counterculture comedy centered around a garage/coffee shop in Glowtown, an irradiated community located by a nuclear plant in the dystopian near future.

Still from Human Highway (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Did you know that, in the early 1980s, Neil Young farted around with filmmaking under the pseudonym “Bernard Shakey” and got Devo and a bunch of aging Hollywood acidheads (Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell) to run around in a goofy apocalyptic musical comedy? You gotta hand it to Young–he can’t act, he can’t direct, but he can make a weird movie.

COMMENTS: Just a hunch, but when Neil Young invited Dennis Hopper and pals out to the California desert to make a movie, there may have been drugs on the set. The cast is not afraid to go all out and look ridiculous, which might be due to being too high to care. Human Highway is a series of mostly improvised vignettes set in the Southwestern dystopia of “Glowtown,” centered around a gas station/diner, with side trips to the local nuclear power plant where Devo work as singing, glowing waste disposal engineers. There are several plot threads: imminent nuclear war, a harried Dean Stockwell trying to cut costs and raise prices to turn a profit, Young’s Lionel’s hopeless crush on a waitress, and an upcoming talent show. There’s also a flying saucer piloted by “oil-rich Indians” that shows up every now and then. All of these storylines get dropped when Lionel is conked on the head with a wrench and has a dream sequence consisting of about three Neil Young music videos strung together. He wakes up to the apocalypse, and a dance number.

If nothing else, the cast is interesting. Devo is featured prominently, and Booji Boy (a childlike band mascot/character played by Mark Mothersbaugh in a rubber mask and falsetto) gets some of the best bits. Hopper plays a couple of different roles besides the cook, but he isn’t memorable in any of them. Stockwell doesn’t have a lot of material to work with, and Tamblyn has even less, relegated to the role of Young’s sidekick. With fake buck teeth and oversized glasses, Young is OK, I guess, as the dopey hick mechanic—but why give himself the toughest comic role, rather than handing it off to one of his buddies who knew how to act? After Neil jokes that he should have died of radiation poisoning because he worked on radiators all his life, we start to get the feeling that the comedy might be intentionally lame, just like the backgrounds he and Tamblyn pedal past on their bicycles are intentionally fake. It’s like a parody of a movie (which is different than a parody movie).

Despite the fact that the flick, which was a goofy lark up to that point, grinds to a halt when Lionel has his rock star dream sequence, more songs would have been nice—if they had been scattered more evenly throughout the film. The musical highlights include Devo doing the folk standard “It Takes a Worried Man (To Sing a Worried Song)” (twice), and a novel New Wave-y collaboration with the band on Young’s “Hey Hey My My” (with Booji Boy squeaking the lyrics while Neil delivers and acidic guitar solo). And who can forget the closer, a surreal post-apocalyptic Casio deconstruction of “Blowin’ in the Wind” (recast as “Breakin’ in the Wind,” with Booji reciting lyrics like “and how many sweating hands will pull pulsing pickles, bright and orange, spewing liquid vile and green”)? Pitched as an anarchic musical rather than an improvised indulgence, Human Highway may have had a shot at being a successful cult film, instead of a legendary oddity sought out by fans of the featured performers.

Human Highway was made in 1982, and for some reason filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio—did they have a TV audience in mind? (It was made at the dawn of MTV and the USA Network’s edgy “Night Flight,” where it would have been a perfect fit). In any event, Highway was barely screened during its initial theatrical run, but found a small audience on VHS. In 2016 it had a limited run re-release in Young’s “director’s cut” edition, which trimmed 8 minutes off the running time. A budget DVD, in a cardboard sleeve, followed later in the year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…never released until it came to home video in 1996, which is surprising: while it’s certainly way too weird to have played to mainstream audiences, it should certainly have done well on the midnight circuit that still existed when it was made.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

1962 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: MONDO CANE, EEGAH, AND WILD GUITAR

“All the scenes you will see in this film are true and are taken only from life. If often they are shocking, it is only because there are many shocking things in this world.”

Thus, Mondo Cane not only introduced America to the mondo name and genre, it also was the first shockumentary to play in cinemas internationally, unsettling both critics and audiences who had never seen anything like it. It became a grandfather to countless pseudo-sequels and imitations, including the infamous Faces of Death, and for that reason alone Mondo Cane is of historical importance to bizarre cinema aficionados. Although dated and outdone by its successors, Mondo Cane retains its power to provoke—and that is the sole purpose of this film, which further renders it an original in every way.

Still from Mondo Cane (1962)Although Mondo Cane has been accused of having a xenophobic perspective, its hard to make that point when the filmmakers (Paolo Cavara, , and ) consistently contrast primitive and western customs through condescending narration. It’s really a series of mostly unrelated film clips. Food is the theme most explored: from Asians eating dog, to rattle snake entrails in the marketplace, to pigs beaten to death in New Guinea, to civilized diners devouring ants in a posh restaurant.

A scene of a sea turtle slowly dying on a radioactive beach is beautifully harrowing and juxtaposed against the extended, revolting spectacle of a bull goring a man to death. While recommending the film to anyone with suicidal tendencies probably would not be a good idea, Mondo Cane is not without some humor, seen in its pet cemetery vignette, and in the contrast of savage native women being fattened to become the bride of a chieftain with Western women rolling their fat away on the floor. Very well-shot and surprisingly endowed with a sterling score (by Nino Oliviero), Mondo Cane is cinema at its most bi-polar and nihilistic. How nihilistic is it? It’s the only film I know of that will inspire the viewer to pity a man-eating shark.

Eegah often makes top ten worst movies of all time lists for a very good reason: it is one of the most wretched movies imaginable. This is another sadomasochistic endurance test from the Arch Hall Sr./ team, which justifiably landed a showing on . That exposure has made Eegah Hall’s most famous film, such as it is. This low budget effort was clearly trying to ride the teen monster fad that began with I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and, impossible as it may seem, Eegah was actually something of a hit for its producers.

Hall Jr mantles his typical pouty, coiffed protagonist teen persona as Continue reading 1962 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: MONDO CANE, EEGAH, AND WILD GUITAR

CAPSULE: THEORY OF OBSCURITY: A FILM ABOUT THE RESIDENTS (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Don Hardy, Jr.

FEATURING: Assorted

PLOT: Various talking heads (including a member of the Talking Heads) reminisce and opine about the longest lasting and perhaps most creative performance art group of the past half-century, the Residents, interspersed with clips of performances, videos, and news appearances.

Still from Theory of Obscurity (215)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Modestly disappointing, Theory of Obscurity slams through all the familiar tropes of the modern documentary form, with the subject matter its weirding grace. Oddly for a documentary, this seems to be aimed at those who only care to know very little about the subject.

COMMENTS: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” is undoubtedly a hyperbolic aphorism to use, but the underlying message is apt in describing Hardy’s underwhelming Residents documentary. Setting his sights on the pop-underground ensemble, Hardy has whipped up a love-letter worthy of a high school freshman. The sentiment is correct, and the delivery is in earnest, but he somehow says far too much without conveying anything of depth. The technical competence of his documentary cannot be argued, but one is left wanting something more than a film version of an All Music Guide bio.

Assorted entertainment luminaries, each with a varying degree of modishness, sit in front of the camera and talk about their feelings or experiences with the mysterious troupe from Louisiana. Les Claypool from Primus particularly shines, likening his first experience of a Residents tune to hearing the “music that plays in Hell,” then explaining it came to be “like a fungus” that he learned to appreciate. Penn Jillette pops in fairly often, but his presence is largely unilluminating, as he wears his fandom (quite rightly) on his sleeve. Tossing in a slew of other less famous individuals (including the soft-spoken gentlemen who made up the original “Cryptic Corporation”, the Residents’ administrative and marketing crew), the viewer is left with not quite an hour and a half of sentimental tales, enthusiastic praise, and archival clips. The fact of the matter remains, and is emphasized, that this group really can and should be judged based on their output.

Along with the main feature, there are some forty minutes or so of remastered Residents material in the supplements, from a (very) bad recording of their first live performance (before they had even adopted their name) to a “found footage” dream narrative put together in the mid-Oughts. While watching these selections, their evolution from unlistenable neo-Futuresque troubadours to dominanting icons of weird, the correct way to study the Residents became even more apparent. Ditch the commentary and listen to (and watch) the source material.

I may be judging Don Hardy and company a bit harshly here, but that is because such a bold topic as the Residents deserves a far, far bolder documentary. He and his team were allowed, the disc says, previously unrivaled access to the group’s archives. However, either through inability or disinclination to expand on what’s already been made available, Theory of Obscurity languishes. Its quality is sufficient for those who know nothing of the group and seek a loose frame of reference, but anyone who has had any interest in the Residents will likely already know everything the movie recounts, and more. A quote from Matt Groening in the film’s first half acts almost as a disclaimer: “Our knowledge [about the Residents] is incomplete.” Unfortunately, Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity does nothing to further this knowledge.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…fans and newbies alike will be delighted by much of Don Hardy’s documentary, which draws on an expansive archive of surreal expressions from an (alleged) quartet whose creative emphasis was as much visual as sonic from the start.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE DOORS (1991)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Oliver Stone

FEATURING: , Meg Ryan, , Kathleen Quinlan

PLOT: In the 1960’s, Jim Morrison (Kilmer), the lead singer of the rock group The Doors, plunges headlong into the world of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. He doesn’t make it out alive, dying at the tragically young age of 27 (just like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin); the film ends on a shot of Morrison’s gravestone in Paris in the same cemetery as Chopin, Bizet and Oscar Wilde.

Still from The Doors (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Just because a movie features a large number of hallucinatory LSD “trips” doesn’t necessarily make it weird.

COMMENTS: No one does overblown insanity like Oscar-winning writer-director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Any Given Sunday). On a huge movie theater screen, with huge movie theater sound, The Doors was a stunning, overwhelming experience—particularly the concert sequences, which Stone said were inspired by the orgy scene in DeMille’s Ten Commandments. But on television—even a big screen HDTV—all that spectacle is reduced to an entertainingly silly and pretentious camp exercise, redeemed by one unforgettable performance by Val Kilmer that almost alone makes the film worth seeing. Although Kilmer essentially reduces Morrison to a caricature (he never seems to be sober), he looks and sounds so much like the real thing that it’s eerie. How Kilmer didn’t get at least an Oscar nomination for this is beyond me. He blows everyone else off the screen (with the arguable exception of , perfectly cast in a cameo as ). Meg Ryan fights her girl-next-door-image as Morrison’s doomed lover Pamela Courson, and Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whaley have nothing to do but a slow burn as “The Lizard King”’s increasingly frustrated bandmates. Morrison is increasingly haunted by visions of his own death, the ghost of Dionysus (or something), and an elderly Native American man (Floyd Red Crow Westerman); as everyone on screen descends deeper into drugs and despair (Morrison and Courson each try to kill each other), the movie spins so far out of control it almost ventures into territory. The result is that nearly everyone in the film comes off as seriously unlikable. Morrison seems to believe he deserves to be buried with Balzac, Proust and Moliere–which he ultimately was—from frame one. That being said, some of us like silly and pretentious spectacle, so, if you are one of those, try to see this film on the biggest possible screen and the best sound system around. This would at least attempt to do justice to the Doors’ legendary music and Robert Richardson’s staggering cinematography.

Stone’s 141-minute wallow in hysterical excess and bombast is nutty and ultimately exhausting, but far from weird, particularly when it comes to movies about drugs and/or rock music.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s most peculiar about the film is Stone’s attitude toward his hero. He’s indulging in hagiography, but of a very weird sort. A good part of the film is dedicated to demonstrating what a drunken, boring lout Morrison was. But while on the one hand Stone acknowledges how basically pointless and destructive his excesses became, on the other, he keeps implying that it’s all part of the creative process… Amid all this trippy incoherence, the performances are almost irrelevant.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

218. HEAD (1968)

“Quite frankly, there was a bit of acid involved.”–Bob Rafelson on the genesis of Head

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Victor Mature

PLOT: An official is cutting a ribbon on a bridge when the ceremony is interrupted by four young men (the Monkees) who leap off the bridge and into the water. We then see a number of sketches that find the Monkees in the trenches fighting a war, performing live concerts, enjoying hookahs in a harem, fighting boxer Sonny Liston in the ring, trapped in a giant metal box, and acting out other absurd vignettes that blend into each other. Throughout the film they find themselves pursued by a giant man played by Victor Mature, and the movie ends where it began as the entire cast is seen chasing the Monkees onto the same bridge, off which they once again leap.

Still from Head (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Monkees were formed in 1965 for a TV sitcom about a band “that wanted to be the Beatles.” Although Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork were cast for their acting abilities and presumed appeal to teenage girls rather than their musical chops, they developed into a tight band and had several hits. Their self-titled debut album reached #1 on the Billboard charts.
  • Despite the band’s financial success, the actors were dissatisfied with the goofy television scripts, which featured stories like the band spending a night in a haunted house. “The Monkees” TV series lasted for only two seasons before cancellation.
  • Head was the feature directing debut of Bob Rafelson, who had originally pitched the concept for the TV show and directed several episodes.
  • The script was co-written by , in his “acid” period. (One source says Nicholson directed at least one scene, uncredited). Nicholson also produced the soundtrack album, including assembling the sound collages.
  • The Monkees themselves contributed to the original brainstorming sessions, but were denied screen writing credits; they staged a mini-protest, but were placated when the producers offered more money.
  • With its surreal imagery and drug references, Head seems to be intended to destroy the Monkees wholesome image. The ad campaigns avoided mentioning the Monkees altogether.
  • Head‘s notable cameos and bit parts include Rafelson, Nicholson, , Victor Mature, , Annette Funicello, (in his final role), Timothy Carey, Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke, boxer Sonny Liston, and celebrity stripper Carol Doda. A pre-fame Terri Garr and Toni Basil can also be seen in the film. Furthermore, is featured prominently in clips from The Black Cat.
  • Rafelson’s next project as director was Five Easy Pieces (1970), starring Nicholson as an underachieving piano prodigy. It was nominated for four Oscars.
  • Tork left the band soon after Head was released, and Nesmith resigned soon thereafter. The Monkees broke up by 1970, although Dolenz and Jones later recorded under the name with substitute musicians.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Monkees posing as dandruff in “the Big Victor”‘s hair. (In fact, a surprising number of Head‘s most memorable images involve the giant version of Victor Mature, especially if we assume that oversized eyeball Davy Jones finds staring at him from out of the medicine cabinet also belongs to Vic).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Psychedelic mermaids; eye in a cabinet; “the Big Victor”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It is tempting to describe Head as what might happen if a young Jack Nicholson were hired to write a treatment for a bubblegum boy band, then dropped acid and wrote a script that reimagined the boys as psychedelic tricksters wandering through a surreal series of cynical, self-aware scenarios set everywhere from the old West to a dandruff commercial, sprinkling in the most bizarrely eclectic assortment of pop-culture cameos imaginable. Actually, that’s pretty much the true story of how Head came to be, meaning reality scoops metaphor once again.


Theatrical trailer for Head

COMMENTS: In 1964, A Hard Days Night turned a little band from Continue reading 218. HEAD (1968)

179. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

“The reason Fox found it unwieldy — the scabrous humor about the music industry, the unhappy love story and the weirdness of some of the characters — are exactly the reasons why people love it now.”–Gerrit Graham on Phantom of the Paradise (quoted in the New York Times)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: William Finley, , , Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli

PLOT: Swan is the world’s most powerful music producer, who dreams of opening a grandiose concert venue called the Paradise, while Winslow is a composer who has created a rock cantata version of “Faust.” Swan steals Winslow’s work; while seeking revenge, an accident disfigures Winslow’s face and destroys his vocal cords. Now wearing a mask, Winslow takes up residence in the basement of the Paradise and strikes a deal with Swan to rewrite the opera for Phoenix, a female singer whom both men lust after.

Still from Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although Brian De Palma became famous for thrillers and action movies like Dressed to Kill, Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission Impossible, he began his career making subversive underground comedies, and his earliest films for major studios were oddball farces. Phantom of the Paradise marks the apex of De Palma’s comedic phase; his next film would be the horror hit Carrie, following which he would largely abandon his burlesque and experimental impulses.
  • De Palma was inspired to write a satire on the commercialization of rock music when he heard a Muzak version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” in an elevator.
  • Paul Williams, a successful songwriter who had penned hits for The Carpenters, wrote and performed the soundtrack (dubbing in William Finley’s singing voice). Williams was originally cast in the role of Winston, but asked to play Swan instead, and proved a natural for the role.
  • The movie was a financial flop, but Williams’ score was nominated for an Academy Award.
  • A bizarre bit of trivia: although Phantom was a box office bomb, for some reason it was immensely popular in Winnipeg, Canada, where it played screens on and off for over a year. (I like to imagine famous weird Winnipegian , who would have been about 18 at the time, was a repeat customer).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the assassination of Beef, who is killed in improbable fashion by a neon lightning bolt. To ecstatic applause from the spectacle-hungry audience. Not only is it an unforgettable sight, it’s also the moment when the operatic Phantom solidifies its weird credentials.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s a wadded-up plot of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Faust,” with a bit of “Dorian Gray,” rolled up into a music biz satire ball and sprinkled with a dusting of crazy.


Edgar Wright commentary on the original trailer for Phantom of the Paradise (from Trailers from Hell)

COMMENTS: There’s a critical cliche that says that you can’t deliberately fashion a cult movie; it must be discovered. In other words, it’s the Continue reading 179. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)

CAPSULE: A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Wilfrid Brambell

PLOT: A day in the life of the Beatles as their handlers try to prepare for a show that night—but the lads are always goofing off, chasing girls, and trying to track down Paul’s grandfather.

Still from A Hard Day's Night (1964)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For all its cult cachet, all the talk about its irreverent anarchy and its “surreal humour,” and all of the “underground” techniques it mainstreamed (using techniques pioneered by the French New Wave, Day’s Night is also often credited with inventing the music video), the Beatles’ first feature isn’t “weird” (except as a corrective to the overly-stiff style of 1950s filmmaking it was reacting to).

COMMENTS: “They’re ‘fab’ and all the other pimply hyperboles,” goes one typically sparkling line in A Hard Day’s Night. The speaker, a cynical, unhip adman specializing in teen marketing, was talking about shirts, not the Beatles, but he might as well have been expressing the dismissive attitude most grown-ups shared for the Fab Four before Richard Lester’s rollicking A Hard Day’s Night recast the group as trickster archetypes rather than just four young men pandering to underage girls’ romantic fantasies. Lester makes the Liverpudlians universally lovable: the movie caters to the spirit of rebellion and style kids and teens connected with, while simultaneously disarming adults’ fears and contempt with a witty script. The jokes and wordplay (“I’m a mocker,” Ringo says when asked if he’s a mod or a rocker) were too sophisticated for the crowds of screaming, erotically ecstatic girls (mostly pre-teens, as the concert footage reveals—the Beatlemania demographic, it turns out, was the same age group that later embraced the Backstreet Boys or One Direction) who populate the film’s electrifying concert sequences. The script aimed at broadening the group’s audience by playing up the group’s reputation for clever wordplay and irreverent ad-libs, while not apologizing for their boy band magnetism. It worked. After A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles were no longer just kids’ stuff: they were spokesmen for a youth movement with a cool new insouciant attitude.

Although each of the band members has a distinct personality (wry John, boyish Paul, quiet George and mopey Ringo), “the Beatles” as a group emerge as the movie’s principal character. The boy’s adventures tweak the status quo without eviscerating it; the film’s satire is so gentle that its targets—joyless adults, out-of-touch media, and the humorless of every stripe—laughed at the jibes, not recognizing themselves. Yeah, its pro-youth, but it doesn’t alienate older folk, most of whom would rather identify with Paul’s mischievous (but clean) grandfather and his penchant for sneaking off to the casino than with the wrinkly sourpuss who refuses to open the windows on the train. The spirit embodied by Lester’s Beatles was welcoming, and it wasn’t about chronological age: it was about choosing “parading” over propriety. The plot, such as it is, is a constant stream of sequences where someone wanders off to do his own thing, leaving the authorities (the band’s manager, the television producer) wringing their hands. Paul’s grandfather is constantly getting into trouble; the boys leave practice to go frolic in a field; with only an hour left until the big show, Ringo goes off on his own, ending up in police custody. In the end, naturally, the lads pull it together and bring down the house, proving that the stuffed shirts needn’t have fretted—they should just enjoy the ride, like the rest of us.

Naturally, the Criterion Collection gives A Hard Day’s Night the royal treatment. Aside from the restored picture and (possibly more important) audio (including a new stereo mix), the 2-DVD (1 Blu-ray) set collects four short documentaries on the film, interviews, and more. The commentary track includes almost a dozen people who worked on the movie–including extras, editors, the cinematographer—but unfortunately, nothing from director Lester. Of major interest to cinephiles (and of some interest to weirdophiles) is Lester’s short “The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film,” with Spike Milligan and , a series of silent gags (such as a man who places a record on a tree stump and plays it by running around in a circle holding a needle) that was nominated for an Oscar and was a big favorite of John Lennon’s. Rounding out the package is an 80-page booklet with an appreciation by Howard Hampton, an interview with Lester, and behind-the-scenes photos of the Beatles. The release is a must-have for movie fans and Beatlemaniacs alike.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… looks chaotic and slapdash enough (and just occasionally, for me, depressing enough) to count as an experimentalist or underground movie.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (2014 reissue)

CAPSULE: METALLICA THROUGH THE NEVER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dane DeHaan, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, Robert Trujillo

PLOT: A roadie goes on a mysterious errand during a Metallica concert.

Still from Metallica Through the Never (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a weird movie for fans of Metallica, not a Metallica movie for fans of the weird.

COMMENTS: Obviously, aficionados of hard rock outfit Metallica’s shredding guitars, brutal pounding rhythms, and morbid macho posturing will be thrilled with this 90-minute testament to their precision musicianship and sweaty stage presence. Fans will be happy to hear that the 14-song set isn’t a plug for the latest album, but instead is of a classic greatest-hits survey of crowd favorites. To me, on the other hand, every Metallica song sounds like a guy with anger-management issues yelling at his malfunctioning washing machine. Then again, I think popular music never recovered from the wrong turn it took at Bill Haley & the Comets. Still, as a pure adrenaline/testosterone concert concoction, Through the Never is near the top of the heap. The elaborate stage production features walls of video monitors (and even a video floor that sometimes “fills” with blood), green lasers shooting skyward, the assembly and demolition of a colossus, and a sequence where the electrical wiring goes haywire and speakers come crashing down onto the stadium floor, all captured with some impressive crane shots. Even with the receding hairlines, the performance is of sufficient energy to avoid Spinal Tap syndrome. All of this will, obviously, play to fans looking for the virtual concert experience. Through the Never‘s extra ambition comes in its feature-length music video style narrative about a roadie named Trip who’s sent to recover a mysterious parcel while the band plays. His mission takes him through a surreal Vancouver nightscape ruled by rioters and a horseman in a gas mask. Director Nimród Antal indulges his visual imagination with weird moments like a bleeding guitar and a walking voodoo doll. These music video styled semi-narrative excursions effectively break up what otherwise might have become a tedious visual exercise in determining how many ways you can shoot a guitar so it reminds you of a phallus. And, although the symbolism will be obscure to outsiders, there is a touching point to Trip’s quest that Metallica diehards will surely pick up on. Non-essential for non-fans, but not nearly as bad as it could have been, and infinitely better than the last movie we reviewed in these pages sponsored by a band.

I find echoes of the fascist concert sequences from Pink Floyd The Wall in the call-and-response exercises with the adoring audience who chant angry lyrics about death like holy texts. That’s not unique to Metallica, of course: this Dionysian abandonment, the adolescent’s desire to dissolve his individuality into the headbanging collective, is the thing I’ve always hated most about rock concerts.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Who says a movie has to make a lick of sense to be entertaining?… If half an hour of bizarro side-narrative fever dream is the price of admission for a gorgeously lensed, best-seat-in-the-house hour of chugging rock brutality, I’ll pay gladly.”–Colin Covert, Minnesota Star-Tribune (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THIS MUST BE THE PLACE (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Paolo Sorrentino

FEATURING: , Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch

PLOT: A retired Goth rocker hunts for the Nazi who persecuted his deceased father in a concentration camp.

Still from This Must Be the Place (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s worth watching just to see Sean Penn in Goth drag, but one of the world’s weirdest movies this ain’t.

COMMENTS: The reason to see This Must Be the Place is Sean Penn’s high-concept, high-pitched performance as an emotionally stunted man-child serving a self-imposed sentence of early retirement while living off royalties from his pop star youth. I think that the movie probably works better with an against-type movie star in the lead than it would with an unknown or a character actor; seeing Penn, who has a reputation as an onscreen firebrand prone to fits of violence, playing an effeminate ex-rocker in makeup adds another level of incongruity to an already oddball tale. Penn plays Cheyenne as a man who’s completely drained, so much that you might think his corpse-like pallor comes not from foundation powder but from a total lack of circulation. He walks slowly, as if his bones ache, and with his eyeglasses on a rhinestone lanyard, he often looks like someone’s grandma. At least in the early part of the film, his answer to nearly every question is a bemused “I don’t know”; he seems to be waiting to die in a kind of post-heroin, pre-senility middle-aged twilight. Unfortunately, the script starts off reflecting the same bored aimlessness as its subject, spending its first half-hour dithering around in Cheyenne’s retirement in Ireland, focusing on an extraneous menagerie of quirky friends (an overweight Lothario, a Goth girl and her straight-laced paramour, a mother whose son has gone missing) who serve no function in the main plot. The story picks up speed once Cheyenne gets the call saying that his estranged father has died and makes his way to America, where he discovers pop’s lifelong quest to track down a small-time Nazi who tormented him as a boy at Auschwitz. Following the clues uncovered by his father gives Cheyenne a purpose, and he morphs into a laconic angel of vengeance, touring the United States and engaging in eccentric conversations with middle Americans (including a brief encounter with as a retired airline pilot obsessed with luggage). He encounters several casually weird and dreamy bits on his odd journey, including an incident where he’s trapped in a traffic jam caused by a giant promotional bottle of whiskey, visitations by a goose and a buffalo, and a vision of an elderly Hitler passing by on a platform pulled by a tractor. “A lot of unusual things have been happening to me lately,” Cheyenne tells a trucker in his detached falsetto after his rental pickup truck spontaneously catches fire. Penn has some great confessional moments that explain Cheyenne’s lassitude, and he brings this unique and scarcely credible character to life; it’s a shame that the script couldn’t be more economical in introducing the rocker. When Cheyenne’s not hunting Nazis, his halfhearted, girlish giggle and stoned, distant demeanor can get annoying.

The film’s title was suggested by a Talking Heads song, which is performed live by David Byrne in the middle of the movie, and then sung again later by a freckle-faced kid. “You’re delusional,” Cheyenne calmly explains when the lad insists that Arcade Fire wrote the song.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As juxtapositions go, regressed Goth rock star and Holocaust could hardly be more bizarre, and bizarre can be good when it’s done deftly. In this case, however, it’s done ponderously and sententiously.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by dwarfoscar, who said, “there is a fair amount of weirdness in it. I really loved that film and its always low-key and quiet craziness.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

GIMME SHELTER (1970): AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN SEMPER

Gimme Shelter (1970) is a documentary film about the last ten days of the 1969 Rolling Stones tour. The film was directed by brother documentarians Albert and David Maysles. It is best known today for having captured footage of the murder of a black man by a Hells Angels security guard at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. Gimme Shelter recently received the Criterion treatment on DVD. This is an interview with John Semper, Jr., who worked for Albert and David Maysles while they were editing that film.

John Semper Jr’s experience with Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers, documentary filmmaking, the film industry, and film as art and commerce.

“What happened was in high school I knew this guy named Gregor Shapiro. In fact, we’re still friends even though he lives in Sweden these days. Somehow Gregor had a connection to the Maysles: Albert and David. I already knew who they were because I was a budding young filmmaker back in the days when nobody under twenty saw any future in being a budding young filmmaker. It was a completely different time. We were not as drenched in media as we are today. For most of my peers being in the media was not a viable career option. That’s how long ago that was, but for me it was, and I was paying a lot of attention to the documentary filmmaking that was going on.

The Maysles were unique because they had created a custom-built,16mm hand-held camera. This was cutting edge technology. They had designed this camera. I think David had designed it. It was balanced so they could have it on their shoulder for a long period of time and it would not cause them a great deal of fatigue. The idea of something hand-held that would not cause you a great deal of physical discomfort was a huge breakthrough.

The other thing about their equipment was that the camera ran silently. 16 mm cameras in those days were extraordinarily noisy and blimps that you would put on them to make them quiet were huge. You couldn’t really do documentary filmmaking without being very visible and very loud. Not only could the Maysles carry their equipment unobtrusively, without causing them physical pain, but it was silent so after a while people forgot that they were there.

They did this one documentary that got a lot of attention called Salesman [also a Criterion release] where they followed around a bible salesman in New England, following him from door to door. The fact that they could get this candid footage was unheard of. Also, the fact that you could record sound on the fly. Remember sound had to be recorded separately from pictures. There were no cameras really that recorded sound while you were recording picture. That was all very new and exciting. The footage that they got, which today we would call “reality” footage, in those days it was very much “documentary” footage. The Maysles ability to capture people in their regular lives was unrivaled and amazing

Still from Gimme Shelter (1970)This was the late 1960s. I knew the Maysles’ work because I had seen Salesman and I was heavily into watching and studying documentaries. Gregor went and worked for the Maysles during one Christmas vacation. Gregor came back to school afterwards, and he had somehow got hold of a duplicate of the footage from Gimme Shelter where the guy gets killed: the one guy that the Hells Angel is knifing, a poor black guy who is wearing a lime green suit. Gregor had this footage and he showed it to us. We were all just mesmerized that this had happened and that Gregor had the footage.

As I recall, Gregor was not as interested in film as much as I was. He had just kind of stumbled onto this job. Gregor was more interested in still photography. He turned to me and said: “I know you are really interested in film. Why don’t you come to New York with me next summer, I will introduce you to the Maysles. Let’s see if we can work there again.”

That summer Gregor and I went to New York and stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. The first night we walked in who was in the lobby, drunk out of her mind, but Janis Joplin! We were checking in and Janis Joplin comes walking Continue reading GIMME SHELTER (1970): AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN SEMPER