“Don’t trust anyone over 30.” – Jerry Rubin
DIRECTED BY: Barry Shear
FEATURING: Christopher Jones, Hal Holbrook, Shelley Winters, Diane Varsi, Ed Begley
PLOT: A rock star parlays his immense popularity and the ascendant power of the youth vote into the Presidency, which he then uses to marginalize the country’s adults, banishing them to concentration camps and dosing them with LSD.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A true document of its time, Wild in the Streets takes its premise of a counterculture gone mad with power to its outrageous extreme. Viewed half-a-century later, the sheer 60s-ness of the thing makes it feel strange and even absurd. But strip away the hippie affectations and what remains is a straightforward sociological horror film, revealing the dangers of demagoguery that lurk in every generation.
COMMENTS: Wild in the Streets is the tale of a temperamental, rich celebrity with parental issues and no political experience who capitalizes on the support of an angry and marginalized electorate, co-opts a group of venal, self-interested politicians who think they can control him, and proceeds to undermine the very core of American democracy for his own corrupt ends. Any similarities to current events are entirely coincidental, of course.
If the plot of Wild in the Streets seems to echo today’s tango with a tangerine-tinted tyrant, rest assured it’s because these provocateurs seem to pop up throughout history in similar ways. In truth, the film sometimes plays like a psychedelic cover version of It Can’t Happen Here. We’ve seen the celebrity-driven, public-aided rise of fascism in other films, from A Face in the Crowd to Bob Roberts, to say nothing of the history books.
Wild in the Streets is so very, very Sixties, though. The vivid costumes, the perpetual drug use, the liberal use of groovy lingo…they all root the film firmly in its time. Providing an additional anchor are the rock songs performed by aspiring dictator Max Frost and his band, the Troopers. It may stretch the imagination to think that these songs represent the sound of a revolutionary generation; to these ears, they sound like The Animals. (Their best song, “The Shape of Things to Come,” was a genuine hit, and re-emerged nearly 40 years later in a Target ad; the revolution will be commercialized.) But Wild in the Streets isn’t quite as concerned with the “how” as it is with the “what comes next.”
Legendary schlockmeister producers James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff backed the film with one of the biggest budgets they had ever laid out on a single picture, and it shows. Editors Fred R. Feitshans, Jr. and Eve Newman earned an Oscar nomination for capturing the feel of Max’s unsettled mind, the production design is bold and colorful, and the movie boasts an unusually strong cast for what was essentially an exploitation picture. (Blink and you’ll miss a very young Richard Pryor, underused in a non-comedic role as Max’s black-power drummer). This is still an American International Picture, however, with carefully chosen stock footage, heavy-handed narration by Paul Frees, and all topped off by Shelley Winters, so over-the-top as Max’s horrible mother that one longs for the relative calm and dignity of The Poseidon Adventure. Her awfulness is absolute (the moment she gets behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce, she runs over a child), but as the root cause of Max Frost’s lust for power, it’s oddly appropriate. Mixing high production values with low satire, the film has a tendency to feel like an extended riff on the famous “Blue Boy” episode of “Dragnet.”
At times, the strident tone of the movie threatens to dull the impact of its message, but the threat posed by fascism and a failure to take responsibility seriously is never far away. Consider Max’s girlfriend Sally, a zonked-out former child star whom he conspires to get elected to Congress. The realization that this glassy-eyed burnout is the linchpin of Max’s strategy is one of the movie’s biggest laughs, but when Sally takes her place in the House of Representatives and manages to push away the drug haze long enough to set Max’s plan in motion, the funny quickly drains away, and the mood shifts first to deeply uncomfortable, and then to outright horror. The idea that politics is a joke isn’t so funny once you start to treat it like one.
Because ultimately, Wild in the Streets isn’t a joke at all. It’s a nightmare. Go beyond the surface conflict of unruly youth declaring war on intransigent adults, and you find the story of a fascist who rises to power on the backs of an outspoken movement which he never truly intends to appease. It’s telling that, in the movie’s “Twilight Zone”-ish finale, Max discovers the one true downside to absolute power: when you’re king of the hill, someone’s always waiting to knock you off. Again, any similarity to your power at the ballot box in November is entirely coincidental, of course.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Shelley Winters, as George’s mother, gives the most tasteless performance of her career, while Barry Shear directs as if he’d seen Dr. Strangelove a few too many times.”–Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader