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“Everything Revealed! Nothing Explained!”–tagline for Teenage Tupelo
FEATURING: D’Lana Tunnell, Hugh Brooks, Wanda Wilson
PLOT: Voluptuous D’Lana Fargo is knocked up by local Tupelo singer Johnny Tu-Note. Her mother sets up an adoption, and Johnny wants her to get rid of the baby. D’Lana falls in with a group of “Man Haters” who are fans of stripper/sexploitation filmmaker Topsy Turvy, who is the spitting image of D’Lana.
- Teenage Tupelo was the first (and only) original production released by Something Weird video. It was released directly to VHS but never made the transition to DVD, going out of print and becoming unavailable for decades.
- Produced by legendary exploitationeer David Friedman, a longtime collaborator of The Acid Eaters (1968) and Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S. (1975). who also produced such oddities as
- The film was shot on Super-8 for $12,000.
- McCarthy’s adoptive parents appear as extras in the diner; their younger alter-egos are played by actors.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Almost certainly, you will remember the birth-of-a-baby scene (borrowed from the 1948 roadshow shocker Because of Eve). Even if you’ve seen a live birth before, it’s still shocking to see this sight casually shuffled into a narrative film context—and, accompanied by a tinkly music box rendition of “Frère Jacques,” it comes across as decidedly unwholesome. Viewer beware!
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Battered Johnny Tu-Note serenades vixen; chainsaw devil tattooist
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Teenage Tupelo plays like director McCarthy took Something Weird Video’s entire vintage VHS catalog, ran it through a woodchipper, and used the resulting pulp to sculpt his own phantasmagorical autobiography. It’s utterly unique, history’s first postmodern grindhouse film.
Trailer for the soundtrack release of Teenage Tupelo
COMMENTS: Not too many exploitation films open with an epigraph—even if it does come from a fortune cookie—but Teenage Tupelo is no ordinary exploitation movie. The first thirty minutes of this film do not prepare you for the madness that comes in the back end. With the grainy black-and-white Super-8 photography and rockabilly soundtrack, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re merely watching a fond sendup of B-movies from the Fifties and Sixties. It’s all setup, however. What you do get in those first thirty minutes is female-centered melodrama about a scandalous unplanned pregnancy, two comic catfights, some campy hicksploitation comedy, a Scopitone music video with wiggling bikini babes, an all-girl gang of “Man-haters,” and starlet D’lana Tunnell stripping to her undies while walking the deserted streets of Tupelo. But nothing weird.
The vibe grows much stranger at the end of the first act, when paunchy, unlikely local superstar Johnny Tu-Note lies on the floor of a Tupelo shed, unable to rise after being kicked half to death by the Man-haters. D’lana, wrapped in a long coat, walks in to confront her former lover. The prone Tu-note begins to serenade her, utilizing his limited two-note range to its fullest (which, remember, is only two notes). A bass begins its dum-duh motif and Tu-Note joins in, crooning “Darling, I’ll tell you what you want to hear/Those gal-friends of yours are a bunch of damn queers.” The unearthly accompaniment (from the excellent band Impala) sounds like the music Angelo Badalamenti would have been making if he had joined a garage band in 1959. A gauzy D’lana stares at him with an expression halfway between resentment and confusion, as the lighting shifts dramatically. “So darling, don’t hit me with brass knucks in your glove/I’ll take a punch in the gut before losing your love,” Tu-Note pleads in his duotone. His hand waves, and he taps out the tempo with his white saddle shoes. It’s a completely absurd scene, but also a macabre one, and it ends with a bizarre gut-punchline. And we’re off, because the movie soon brings in Bettie Page-esque bondage dream-sequences, a chainsaw-wielding Satanic tattooist, a color sexploitation-film within-a-film, an atomic explosion, and more confusing dream sequences, before winding up on a twisteroo that sees some of the cast literally doing the twist.
As confidently absurd as it’s script may be, Teenage Tupelo would not have succeeded half as well as it does without the voluptuous D’lana Tunnell. On the commentary track McCarthy notes that she seems to have dropped in from the Fifties; just put her in a beehive hairdo and garter and stockings, and let her Marilyn Monroe-measurements do the rest. Not only is it impossible to imagine any other actress in the role, it’s almost impossible to imagine Tunnell in any other role (she only has three more screen credits, two in McCarthy movies and the other in the equally low-budget Gore Whore). That’s a shame, because Tunnell looks like a young Isabella Rossellini with a permanent pout installed. The camera is enamored with her, as it should be; you could almost say the entire film was shot in Tunnell Vision. (In one subtly absurd scene, Tunnell picks up a worklight to examine a darkened trailer, but instead of pointing it inside the shadowy room, she holds it so it lights up her face instead.) She’s in virtually every scene of the movie. Hugh Brooks, her main co-star, is good enough in his role, mugging to the camera in a campy Southern style, but he seems to be cast mainly for maximum contrast with D’lana. The idea of a sex goddess like her having a crush on the flabby, middle-aged, two-bit Elvis knockoff is ludicrous (or maybe it’s a comment on the power of celebrity, even when it’s an exclusively parochial celebrity).
The eccentric regional flavor—a small Mississippi backwater awash in historical pop-culture significance—so permeates Teenage Tupelo that is seems to found its own genre. Is it redneck art-house (as El Rob Hubbard suggests)? Rockabilly surrealism? Southern-fried bizarro? There’s something intensely personal about this film. What that might be is not immediately apparent, but you might notice that the man looking to adopt D’Lana’s baby gives his name as “John McCarthy.” Couple this with one of the film’s taglines—“Wanna see some naked pictures of my Mother?”—and you’ll realize that this is Tupelo-born adoptee John Michael McCarthy’s imaginary recreation of his own conception and birth, set in an alternate history. (I like to think another tagline, “what if the other twin had lived?,” is meant to suggest that Johnny Tu-Note is Elvis Presley’s less successful twin brother—meaning McCarthy would have gotten an identical helping of the King’s DNA). What this means is that Teenage Tupelo is actually about the auteur’s search for identity, realizing that purpose by linking himself to American iconography through bold self-mythologizing. That’s pretty heady stuff for a movie in which misplaced edible panties are a major plot point.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It may be the mid-90s, but don’t tell that to writer-director John Michael McCarthy (The Sore Losers and Superstarlet A.D.). Ignoring the cultural trends and styles that engulfed the mid-section of the decade like an out of control head cold, Teenage Tupelo is here to prove once and for all that fully-fashioned nylon stockings are the epitome of sexy and that organized man-hating is alive and well… A humid blast of campy wind from the deep south, John Michael McCarthy has proven that his taste in music, women, cars, and clothing is right on the money in terms of righteousness.”–Yum Yum, House of Self-Indulgence (VHS)
Teenage Tupelo – this page announces a DVD that never materialized
IMDB LINK: Teenage Tupelo (1995)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Guerillamonster – A repository of John Michael McCarthy’s work, including comix, music and movies
Teenage Tupelo soundtrack – The film’s original rockabilly score by Impala (YouTube playlist)
Pod 366: “Teenage Tupelo” at 28 (with John Michael McCarthy) – El Rob Hubbard and Gregory J. Smalley introduce and interview John Michael McCarthy about Teenage Tupelo
HOME VIDEO INFO:
At present, Teenage Tupelo can only be purchased directly from the director. We’ll include the latest directions for ordering in the next paragraph, but you may want to email first, particularly if you’re reading this long after the original publication date.
As for the Blu-ray itself, it surely looks as good as the Super-8 footage ever will (I don’t think the film really suffers too much on VHS, but there is some color correction here to make some scenes less murky-looking). The disc features a solo commentary from McCarthy which explains much of the backstory (a coffee table book planned for later this year will reveal even more). Other featurettes include silent unused 16mm test footage; footage of Impala recording the film’s soundtrack and performing live; photo galleries; a local Memphis TV bit with McCarthy discussing the movie; a radio interview with McCarthy, Hugh Brooks, and starlet Dawn Ashcraft; the entire recorded output of Johnny Tu-Note and the Scopitones; the original trailer (poorly preserved on VHS, which serves mainly to show how much the picture has been improved with this restoration); a short Elvis-y Easter egg; no fewer than ten JMM shorts, including a two-minute Super-8 Dracula movie he made as a teenager; three feature-length bonus documentary films, including Native Son, which goes deeper into McCarthy’s personal story, his relationship to Elvis, and the inspirations for Teenage Tupelo; and even more.
As mentioned above, at the time of this writing Blu-ray copies of Teenage Tupelo can only be obtained directly from the director (in a set limited to 1000 copies). The last directions we received were to visit https://thesorelosersbluray.blogspot.com/ (which has not yet been updated to reflect the availability of Teenage Tupelo). Although we were quoted a price of $40 for the Blu-ray (shipped in the US), you might check price and availability via the email on that page before committing your PayPal dollars, especially if you are reading this at any other time than June, 2023.