Tag Archives: Rock opera

CAPSULE: CATCH MY SOUL (1974)

AKA Santa Fe Satan

DIRECTOR: Patrick McGoohan

FEATURING: Richie Havens, Lance LeGault, , Tony Joe White, Season Hubley, Bonnie Bramlett, Delaney Bramlett

PLOT: An adaptation of “Othello,” set in the Santa Fe, NM area in the summer of 1967. Traveling preacher Othello (Richie Havens) comes across a remote commune in the desert and eventually settles there, becoming the defacto leader and falling in love with and marrying Desdemona. This does not sit well with Iago, who plans revenge on Othello, manipulating everyone around him, including his wife Emila.

Still from Catch My Soul (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Catch My Soul is definitely of an artifact of its time, and the merging of Shakespeare and gospel makes for a unique interpretation, but it’s a pretty straightforward presentation of the basic story.

COMMENTS: Catch My Soul was an intriguing moment in the careers of everyone involved. It was the only feature film directed by Patrick McGoohan, who’d proved himself earlier directing episodes of “Danger Man,” “Secret Agent” and “The Prisoner”; it featured the acting debuts of singers Richie Havens and Tony Joe White, as well as performances from cult favorites Susan Tyrell and Lance LeGault; and on top of all of that, the cameraman was Conrad Hall of “The Outer Limits,” In Cold Blood and Cool Hand Luke, among others. It was based on an acclaimed stage show and with that pedigree, it should have been a memorable addition to the genre of rock musicals. Instead, Catch My Soul barely opened at all—practically ignored by the public at large and garnering scathing reviews, the film disappeared from theaters only to reappear a year later under the title Santa Fe Satan, and was as successful under that title as it was under the original. The film then pretty much disappeared from view, never released on VHS and barely mentioned at all. McGoohan disowned Soul shortly before release and barely talked about it, except for one mention in a mid-90’s interview. For a long time the only available evidence of the film’s existence was the soundtrack LP, the most praised element of the film, which could be still be found in used vinyl bins even well into the 2000s. It was long thought to be a lost film, until the recent unearthing of a 35mm print in North Carolina and the subsequent discoveries of a 16mm print and the camera negative found in the bowels of 20th Century Fox studios.

Now that Soul has been rediscovered and can be seen with some 40 years of perspective, it seems that the initial reviews were too harsh and mean spirited. Far from being a hippie-themed train wreck, the film is an interesting curiosity showing how Shakespeare’s work is constantly adapted to reflect contemporary times. It’s especially fitting that McGoohan was the one to direct this, since he starred earlier as an Iago-inspired character in another musically-oriented Continue reading CAPSULE: CATCH MY SOUL (1974)

366 UNDERGROUND: ALEISTER CROWLEY’S THE RITE OF MARS: A ROCK OPERA (2014)

Eleusyve Productions

FEATURING: Jon Sewell, Sunnie Larsen, Kristin Holsather, Richard Cardone, Leith McCombs

 PLOT: Part of a larger series of works, this installation features an ensemble of leather clad, deadpan, sexually androgynous and glittering cast members who act out Aleister Crowley’s “Rite of Mars” on a darkened sound stage as a rock opera.

Aleister Crowley's Rites of Mars
COMMENTS: Theater can be a difficult medium in which to stage ambitious concepts, especially when the form has been grossly over-saturated with trite, treacly fare targeting audiences looking for some token of tourist prestige when sightseeing on Broadway. This type of creative environment could engender creative stagnation, but due to a lack of lavish budgets, theatrical performances often rely on their own intuition and invention to flesh out their imaginative designs.

Initially, what caught my attention about this filmed performance was the sheer nuttiness of its concept: Aleister Crowley’s “Rite of Mars” re-imagined as a rock opera a la Roger Water’s The Wall or Queensrÿche’s “Operation MindCrime” (which, by the operatic vocal stylings and shredding 80’s progressive metal guitar riffs, seems to be where Rites‘ sonic influences lie). The jams can sound kind of goofy, but your reaction depends on whether you find the musical design endearingly nostalgic or insufferable (I found it amusing, yet impressive in its technical prowess).

Before I begin my critique of the recording of the performance, allow us to review the thesis of this production. The following statement of intent appears on the producers’ website:

Our goal at Eleusyve Productions is the presentation of the seven plays comprising Aleister Crowley’s Rites of Eleusis as musical theater pieces in a manner that will render them more fully accessible to a broad and discriminating audience, using music, light, dance and drama to enhance the poetry and symmetry of the original works. It is further our goal to make these completed productions available in as many formats and to as many markets as possible, in order to more widely circulate our artistic interpretations of this material.

The Rites of Eleusis (a series of invocations, penned by the most wicked man dead, Aleister Crowley) are elaborately designed to instill religious ecstasy into the audience. By its very nature, it is intended to be a metaphysical provocation to the sensibilities of the bourgeoisie, calling upon occult theology and decadent subversion to titillate and bring about a spiritual awakening in the viewer—in Crowelian terms at least.

Although the story is not conveyed directly to the audience through a conventional form, it could be described as a piece of inspired storytelling told through bombastic imagery, gestures, kick-ass guitar riffs, and Wagnerian tableaux. Militaristic motifs recur, often spliced with inspirational cues from S&M fashion design (God, do I love me some artfully-crafted sleaze).

All of this makes it all sound rather dreary and humorless, but here’s where this particular passion project delivers: it’s pretty goddamn funny.

Straddling a median between camp and deadpan, the acting ensemble should be commended for displaying a quiet sense of humility about their performance. The gender-bending make-up design was also very attractive and always delightful. The set design, bare and minimal, uses the blackened negative space to eliminate the excess layers of artifice between the audience and the performance—Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation effect,” similar to the gutted, chalk-etched set designs of ’s Dogville. A dystopian science-fiction influence is also present, and the  juxtaposition of military uniforms and violent acts with archival war footage—images of bloodshed, conquest, and advancement—have a hypnotizing effect upon the viewer.

The music ranges from interesting to very good, even kickin’ at times. For those who prefer their rock & roll with a little flair, flamboyancy and delicious kitsch flavoring those tasty tunes, you might find yourself doing air guitar while you’re alone and no one else is watching.

The performers are obviously indebted to the Crowleian experiments of , the seminal American avant-garde pariah and homoerotic poet of independent cinema (and basically the inventor of the modern music video medium); especially to the mind-meltingly trippy works Invocation of My Demon Brother and Lucifer Rising.  Both Anger and Eleusyve Productions strive to inspire a controllable chaos in their audiences and attempt to render vast esoteric mythologies and personal obsessions in a digestible form. The liberated sexuality, free-form slipstream of imagery, experimental impulses, and dalliances with rock-and-roll culture as a medium to present occult theology is also akin to Anger’s early works.

I wouldn’t say that there is anything here that is conceptually radical or deliberately offensive to Juedo-Christian sensibilities, but if you don’t mind some decent 80’s inspired jams, want to grab a beer after a long day, smoke some grass, and relax, then why not watch a low-budget rock opera? It sure beats having to watch “Cats” or some other sanitized dreck.

Follow this link for clips from Rite of Mars, and other performances in this cycle.

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: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)

DIRECTED BY: Norman Jewison

FEATURING: Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman

PLOT: The last days of Jesus Christ, including the Last Supper, his betrayal by Judas, and his crucifixion, sung to a propulsive rock score composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Still from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though the very premise – a rock ‘n’ roll passion play – is inherently offbeat, and this particular version is laced with anachronisms and unusual characterizations, this is at heart a straightforward, earnest account of the story.

COMMENTS: When Superstar debuted on the Broadway stage in 1971, the very notion of a rock-n-roll passion play must have carried an unmistakable air of sacrilege. (Although another pop-oriented take on the story, “Godspell,” premiered off-Broadway the same year, and a film of that musical also came out in 1973.) But the show struck a chord with audiences; spawned from a concept album that had sold millions of copies, the musical ran for nearly two years on Broadway and spent eight years on the London stage, closing as the longest-running show in British history. A film version was probably inevitable; that the adaptaion would be placed in the hands of the director of In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair might not have been.

To Norman Jewison’s credit (the screenplay is credited to him and British broadcaster Melvyn Bragg), the movie faithfully retains the show’s determination to treat its characters as human beings, rather than the religious icons they have become. Lyricist Tim Rice sparked some controversy by suggesting that he and partner Andrew Lloyd Webber simply wanted to portray Jesus as a man, but they doggedly stuck to that vision, and the results are intriguing: Jesus is beleaguered and plagued by doubts. Judas is a buzzkill true believer, hectoring Jesus for being insufficiently pious and ultimately betraying the man he idolizes out of a sense of moral outrage. Pilate is the most reasonable man in Judea, Mary Magdalene is hopelessly confused, and the apostles are shiftless hippies. It’s probably not the version taught in Sunday school, but it lends the events a greater dramatic heft.

If Jesus Christ Superstar is controversial, it’s because it doesn’t traffic in the more mystical Continue reading CAPSULE: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)

LIST CANDIDATE: TOMMY (1975)

Scott Sentinella’s writing has appeared in “The Carson News”, “The Gardena Valley News”, “Animato”, “Videomania Newspaper”, “Cashiers du Cinemart”, Dugpa.com and ALivingDog.com.

DIRECTOR: Ken Russell

FEATURING: , Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed , Eric Clapton, Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner, Paul Nicholas, , Pete Townshend, John Entwhistle

PLOT: Captain Walker is missing and presumed dead in World War II, but when he turns up alive, his wife’s new lover kills him. Unfortunately, Walker’s son Tommy witnesses this, and the trauma leaves him deaf, dumb and blind. But Tommy can still play a mean pinball, and he becomes an odd messiah to an army of idol worshipers.

Still from Tommy (1975)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because, with that story line, it’s a musical—literally a “rock opera”—and because Ken Russell stages every single scene like something out of a bad acid flashback.

COMMENTS: The Who’s original 1969 album, “Tommy” is wonderful to listen to, but its supposed story is impossible to figure out without, so to speak, illustrations. In this film, one of the first recorded in multi-channel sound, director Russell “illustrates”everything in the most garish hues possible—and that’s a good thing. This grotesque, excessive rock musical was clearly a predecessor to MTV, with its non-stop assault of insane imagery; Russell, not exactly the most subtle of filmmakers, is aided and abetted all the way through by an all-star cast. The Who’s lead singer, the great Roger Daltrey, inevitably plays Tommy with a vacant, blue-eyed stare, and belts every song to the back of the theater in the manner that made him famous (on the original “Tommy” album, his singing is much more low-key). Elton John, as the Pinball Wizard, parades around on stilts, while Tina Turner, as the Acid Queen, threatens to rip the screen apart with her intensity (although Paul Nicholas, as Tommy’s physically abusive Cousin Kevin, gives her a run for her money). Meanwhile, Eric Clapton as the Preacher, Keith Moon as the sexually abusive Uncle Ernie, Jack Nicholson (Ann-Margret’s old co-star from 1971’s “Carnal Knowledge”) as the Doctor, and Oliver Reed, as Tommy’s stepfather, are relatively subdued (and, yes, the last two are pretty terrible singers). Topping them all is Ann-Margret, in an unforgettable Oscar-nominated performance, as Tommy’s guilt-ridden mother. Obviously, Ann-Margret’s show tune-trained voice is really not suited to singing Pete Townshend’s music, but that only adds to the film’s strange appeal. Ann-Margret manages to be simultaneously brilliant and over-the-top (as she often is—see her Blanche Dubois in the 1984 version of Streetcar Named Desire), but when the part calls for her to roll around in baked beans and chocolate sauce, she doesn’t hold back. Then you have any number of frenzied images: Sally Simpson’s husband—a dead ringer for the Frankenstein monster, Tina Turner transformed into a giant hypodermic needle, Clapton preaching in a church filled with statues of Marilyn Monroe, Paul Nicholas burning Daltrey with a cigarette—this is a musical, all right, but it’s not exactly Meet Me in St. Louis. This version of Tommy may be bizarre to the point of self-parody, but anyone who’s ever seen the disastrous, but similar, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (produced, like Tommy, by Robert Stigwood), will understand the very special talents of the late Ken Russell.

Unfortunately, the Region 1 DVD (as well as the Blu-Ray) of Tommy has no extras, except for a paper insert describing the film’s “Quintaphonic” soundtrack. Luckily, the movie looks and sounds just fine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Russell correctly doesn’t give a damn about the material he started with… he just goes ahead and gives us one glorious excess after another… Tommy’s odyssey through life is punctuated by encounters with all sorts of weird folks, of whom the most seductive is Tina Turner as the Acid Queen.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

94. PINK FLOYD THE WALL (1982)

“It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before—a weird fusion of live action, story-telling and of the surreal.”–Pink Floyd the Wall Director Alan Parker on the movie’s Cannes premiere

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alan Parker

FEATURING: Bob Geldof, Kevin McKeon, Jenny Wright,

PLOT: The movie begins with a man sitting motionless in a chair in a hotel room.  A series of scrambled flashbacks, fantasies and impressions tell the story of Pink, who grew up fatherless but became a successful, if unhappy, rock star prone to tantrums and bouts of severe depression.  Eventually, Pink’s manager and a crowd of roadies and doctors break down the hotel room door and give him a shot which revives him; his body rots, he peels it away to reveal himself as a fascist dictator who goes onstage to perform.
Still from Pink Floyd: the Wall

BACKGROUND:

  • “The Wall” began life as a 1979 concept album by Pink Floyd.  The double LP and the single “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” both reached #1 on Billboard’s U.S. charts.  “The Wall” remains one of the 50 top selling albums of all time to this day.
  • Most of the incidents in The Wall stem from Roger Waters’ personal history; a few, however, are taken from the life of former Pink Floyd lead singer Syd Barrett, a psychedelic drug abuser whose erratic behavior caused him to be kicked out of the band and to eventually become a recluse.
  • Almost all of the songs from the original album appear in the movie, sometimes in slightly altered forms.
  • With Alan Parker as producer, The Wall movie was originally intended to be a concert film with animated sequences and a few specially shot live action scenes.  When the concert footage was found to be unusable, the project was reimagined as a (semi-) narrative film with Parker as director.
  • Pink Floyd singer/bassist and Wall librettist Roger Waters originally wanted to play the lead, but after a poor screen test fellow musician Bob Geldof was cast instead.  Ironically, Geldof, lead singer for the Irish punk band The Boomtown Rats, was reportedly not a Floyd fan.
  • Parker and Waters clashed on the set, with the director almost quitting several times.
  • Designer/animator Gerald Scarfe was a caricaturist and political cartoonist before he began collaborating with Pink Floyd.
  • The cheering extras at the fascist concert were actual white supremacists.
  • Director Parker called The Wall “the most expensive student film ever made.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Picking a single image to represent The Wall is a tough assignment.  Among the live-action sequences, the vision of British schoolchildren in faceless blob masks marching into a meat-grinder is fairly unforgettable.  It would be criminal, though, to elevate any mere photograph over Gerald Scarfe’s animations; even picking among them is a tough call.  Though short, these bizarre and horrific images blaze across the screen in such a haunting way that their impact makes up for the brevity. We’re going to select the scene of the goosestepping fascist hammers as the most unforgettable (partly because the hammer imagery that recurs throughout the movie reaches a startling peak with this scene, and partly because Sacrfe’s crossed hammer symbol proved so iconic that it was adopted by actual fascist groups).  If you chose the genitalia-shaped flowers who entwine, mate, and then grow teeth and viciously rip into each other before the female swallows the male whole, however, we couldn’t argue against it.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPink Floyd: the Wall is a collaboration between three separate


Original trailer for Pink Floyd The Wall

creative talents.  In 1979 Roger Waters performed a public self-psychoanalysis by writing a bombastic, self-indulgent rock opera, full of catchy melodies and sardonic lyrics.  When it came time to adapt the album into a movie, he enlisted political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to provide animated segments, which ultimately included a surrealistic version of the bombing of London during World War II, a judge who is literally an ass, and some of the scariest cartoon vaginas ever drawn.  Bringing it all together was director Alan Parker (Midnight Express), who devised fantastic over-the-top live action visuals to complement the music and found a way to weave the competing thematic strands (autobiography, social commentary, and spur-of-the-moment surrealistic flights of fancy) into something comprehensible, while nonetheless keeping it defiantly weird.  Trying to meld these three separate creative egos on a project whose source material was already grandiose and scattershot could easily have produced an incoherent, pretentious mess.  Remarkably, the result instead is a semi-coherent, pretentious near-masterpiece.

COMMENTS: Watching, or listening, to Pink Floyd: The Wall is one miserable experience. All Continue reading 94. PINK FLOYD THE WALL (1982)

LIST CANDIDATE: PINK FLOYD:THE WALL (1982)

Pink Floyd the Wall has been promoted to “Certified Weird” status.  Comments have been closed; please post all new comments on the official entry.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alan Parker

FEATURING: Bob Geldof, Bob Hoskins, Jenny Wright

PLOT: A rock singer, “Pink,” isolates himself in a hotel room and reflects upon his life while

Still from Pink Floyd: the Wall

slipping further into drug addiction and madness. The film has little in the way of dialogue and is heavy on visual interpretations of Roger Waters lyrics for the 1979 double album of the same name.  The metaphorical “wall” is constructed around the rock singer’s life separating him from the outside world and alone with his tortured thoughts and memories.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Possibly for one reason only: the fantastic and bizarre animation sequences rendered by British political caricaturist Gerald Scarfe.  Although the sequences are relatively short, the horrific images blaze across the screen in such a haunting way that the impact makes up for the brevity.

COMMENTS: Watching, or listening, to Pink Floyd: The Wall is one miserable experience. All the key elements of a depressing film are on display: madness, alienation, the atrocities of war, mind-numbing drug addiction, infidelity, fascism…well, you get my drift.  This is not an upbeat or fun movie by any stretch of the imagination.  Yet, the film is constructed in such a skillful manner by director Alan Parker that it is hard not to justify its reputation as a work of art.

Upon the opening scene we see the protagonist rock star “Pink” (Bob Geldof) in his hotel room staring blankly at the television screen with a long burned out cigarette perched between his fingers.  Pink is in this position and state of mind for many of his scenes.  It is open to interpretation, but perhaps all of the scenes of the film are what is playing out in his unraveling mind.  The images correlate to the lyrics of each song, and we start off things by learning of Pink’s father’s death in World War II.  His bunker was blown to bits by an air raid bombardment.  Pink never knew his father and it is clear that this had a major impact in his childhood, as evidenced by a scene where he is playing in a park as a young child and desperately tries clinging on to a hand of an unsuspecting and unwilling male father figure.  As Pink grows up and goes to school he’s subjected to the harsh British educational Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: PINK FLOYD:THE WALL (1982)