Friday, May 22, 2015

It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)

I've been a watching a lot of musically (specifically rock 'n roll) themed films lately; most of them documentaries.

The Wrecking Crew!; documentary; directed by Denny Tedesco; (2015) - Official Website
Lambert and Stamp; documentary; directed by James D. Cooper; (2015) - Official Website
The Decline of Western Civilization; documentary; directed by Penelope Spheeris; (1981) - Official Website
Wayne's World starring Mike Myers & Dana Carvey; documentary; directed by Penelope Spheeris; (1992)
Gimme Shelter; documentary; directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin; (1970) - Official Website
Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!; documentary; directed by Albert Maysles, Bradley Kaplan & Ian Marciewicz; (2009) - Official Website
Running Fence; documentary; directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin; (1978) - Official Website
Don't Think I Have Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll; documentary; directed by John Pirozzi; (2014) - Official Website


I saw The Wrecking Crew! at the Landmark Opera Plaza.

I saw Lambert and Stamp at the Roxie.  It was a documentary about the two men who managed The Who.

The Decline of Western Civilization (TDoWC) & Wayne's World were part of a Midnites for Maniacs event at the Castro. Director Penelope Spheeris was in attendance.  There was a third film on the program - The Decline of Western Civilization Part II:  The Metal Years.  I might have stuck around for it but it was getting late.  TDoWC is a documentary of the LA punk rock scene in the late 1970s.  TDoWC Part II gives the same treatment to the heavy metal scene in the mid 1980s.  I assume Wayne's World needs no introduction although some people may be surprised to learn that Tia Carrere sang her own songs in the film.

Gimme Shelter & Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! were part of a weeklong Albert Maysles tribute film series at the Vogue.  The noted documentarian and nonagenarian passed away in March.  I only caught one evening of the series  In addition to Gimme Shelter & Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, the evening's program included Running Fence which was about Christo's Running Fence art project in Sonoma and Marin Counties in 1976.  Gimme Shelter was supposed to be a film about the Rolling Stones' 1969 US concert tour.  That tour culminated in a free concert at Altamont which ended in tragedy.  Not surprisingly, the film focuses on that concert.  Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! is a 27 minute film consisting of outtakes from Gimme Shelter.  Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! chronicles the Stones' performances at Madison Square Garden approximately a week before the Altamont concert.

Don't Think I Have Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll is ostensibly a film about the rock & roll scene in Cambodia (mostly Phnom Penh) until the 1970s.  Any film set in Cambodia during that period has to address the Khmer Rouge genocide (aka the Killing Fields) of the late 1970s.


The Wrecking Crew was a nickname bestowed on a group of studio musicians in the 1960s and 70s.  There was never any formal membership to the group but the same people kept seeing each at studio recordings.  At the time, it was common for rock bands to  have their albums recorded by other musicians.

Directed by the son of Tommy Tedesco (a guitarist in the Wrecking Crew), the film is fairly paint-by-numbers.  However, the sheer volume of famous songs attributed the Crew was amazing.  It seemed like every hit record coming out of LA featured the uncredited music of the Wrecking Crew.  To say The Wrecking Crew! has a tremendous soundtrack is an understatement.

The film has been kicking around since 2008.  I believe the director has launched several successful fundraising campaigns for post-production.


Kit Lambert & Chris Stamp (Terrance Stamp's younger brother) were co-workers at a movie studio.  They decided to make a film together and despite knowing nothing about the rock-n-roll scene.  They set their sights on making a film about an up and coming rock-n-roll band.  The only problem was finding the band.  After some unsuccessful club hopping, Lambert & Stamp discovered the High Numbers who later became The Who.  The film wasn't too interesting for me until halfway through.  Lambert who was gay, took an interest in Pete Townshend who had attended art school.  He encouraged Townshend to develop his songwriting but it's not until The Who hit it big and Lambert bought a palazzo in Venice and got hooked on heroin that things became interesting.

Lambert died in 1981 while Stamp passed away in 2012.  Among the band members, drummer Keith Moon died in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002.  I'm not sure when the footage in Lambert and Stamp was filmed but Stamp & guitarist Townshend get most of the screen time while singer Roger Daltrey appears sparingly.  The absence of so many of the many players diminishes the accomplishments and influence of The Who.  Also, by focusing on the managers of The Who, it seems like the film is focusing on the derivative instead of the actual function.  At times, the focus shifted from the managers to the band and vice versa.  I was not able to get into the film despite being a modest fan of the band.


The Decline of Western Civilization is one of these films I have heard about for years.  I don't recall seeing it play at any local theaters and it hasn't had a DVD release.  I had never seen it and as the years have gone by, my interest in punk rock (never very strong to start with) has diminished.  After seeing TDoWC, I can understand the appeal of punk rock and more importantly the energy the crowds took from the performances.  Director Penelope Spheeris filmed the club performances of a half dozen or so punk bands.  She interspersed interviews with the band members between the concert scenes.  Finally, she book-ended the film with interviews of fans and audience members.

Among the bands I recognized were the Circle Jerks, Black Flag and the Germs.  Two bands that I was previously unfamiliar with captured my interest.  Catholic Discipline, fronted by Frenchman Claude Bessy (aka Kickboy Face), had interesting stage presence and song lyrics.  Fear (which was a favorite of John Belushi and appeared on Saturday Night Live) was fronted by the antagonistically charismatic Lee Ving.  Ving, taunting the audience with homophobic insults, nearly causes a riot.  In other words, he captured the true spirit of punk rock.

If nothing else, TDoWC is interesting as a time capsule of a specific cultural movement which may be difficult for people to understand today.  The film doesn't have a strong narrative structure but the vignettes gives the audience a revealing look at a subculture which has faded.  As someone in the film stated, punk rock music has an elevated tempo of up to 200 beats per minute.  That fast tempo elevates the music audiences' energy and aggression.  It also elevates the film audience's interest.  I felt like I was watching wild animals perform mating and territorial rituals...from a safe distance.

There is something undeniable outrageous about these punk rockers.  You would think they would look tame after 35 years but they still retained their hard edges.  That's fascinating in and of itself.

Watching Wayne's World, I couldn't help but notice how Wayne & Garth's public access television show predicted podcasts and internet series by more than a decade.  Not having seen the film in many years, I was surprised at how much I forgot.  I remembered the main plot with Rob Lowe's evil television producer trying to coopt Wayne & Garth's brand as well as move in on Wayne's girlfriend (Tia Carrere).  I forgot that Laura Flynn Boyle was Wayne's stalker ex-girlfriend and that Ed O'Neill, Chris Farley and Alice Cooper were in the film and I had forgotten that.

To be honest, Wayne's World doesn't age well or perhaps more accurately, I haven't aged well.  What seemed funny and accessible when I saw the film in 1992 (age 23) didn't seem quite so funny and accessible in 2015.  I couldn't help but think that times are different.  I wondered what Wayne & Garth would be doing in 2015.  Jesse Hawthorne Ficks stated before the screening that Wayne's World and most of Spheeris' films deal with losers and outcasts.  I didn't think Wayne & Garth were losers or outcasts in 1992 but in 2015 they're not as cool as I remembered them being.  I think what bothers me is that, by extension, it means I probably was not as cool in 1992 as I remember.

Rob Lowe's performance stood out in the film.  Tia Carrere's Hong Kong accent was distracting.  I don't even remember her character being from Kowloon or speaking with an accent.  Myers and Carvey's performances were pretty much as I recall.

The centerpiece of the evening were the on-stage interviews with Spheeris by Ficks.  From what I had read about her, I was expecting Spheeris to be full of piss & vinegar but instead she came off more like a kindly, sexy grandma who smoked too much pot in 60s and 70s.  Joined by her daughter (who was instrumental in getting all three TDoWC films released on Blue Ray on June 30 and whose name I cannot recall), Spheeris seemed to be having the time of her life before a respectful and respectably sized crowd at the Castro.  For his part, Ficks seemed smitten with Spheeris.

I don't recall much of the interview.  The most colorful story involved Spheeris happening upon Richard Pryor while walking across the UCLA campus.  Pryor said he was looking for someone to direct his film.  Spheeris volunteered and the resulting film was Uncle Tom's Fairy Tale (1968).  According to Spheeris, the film was completed and Bill Cosby owns the only print.  However, this article alleges that Pryor's daughter "Rain and Spheeris somehow conspired to take the film out of Pryor's home" in the 1980s.  The article goes on to state that Spheeris had given the film print "to the Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where it presumably still sits there today."

An intriguing story indeed but Spheeris added a personal touch.  While filming Uncle Tom's Fairy Tale, Spheeris fainted on set.  When she came to, the first image she saw was Richard Pryor standing over her and he said "This bitch is pregnant!"  Spheeris assured him she was not but she was mistaken.  She was pregnant with her daughter; the same one who was on stage with her.


I'm not sure if I have seen Gimme Shelter before.  Certain scenes looked familiar but I have seen several documentaries about the 1960s which focus on the Altamont concert so they may have used some of the Maysles film.

Let me start by saying that I was familiar with Gimme Shelter's lofty reputation before viewing it a couple Saturdays ago.  After seeing it, I can state that Gimme Shelter is one of the best films I have seen in 2015.

Gimme Shelter captures several moments.  First, it captures the Rolling Stones at the peak of their musical prowess.  From the film, you get a sense of what an event a Rolling Stones concert must have been in the 1960s.  They were showmen and so many of their songs had a hook which was more powerful during a show than listening to the same song on a record player or radio.  When the Stones play the intro of Brown Sugar, it feels like your heartbeat is synchronizing with the beat and it is doubly so in Gimme Shelter.

In 2013, I saw a documentary called Muscle Shoals.  From that film, I learned that the Rolling Stones recorded Brown Sugar at Muscle Shoals.  What I didn't realize was that it was recorded between December 2 to 4, 1969.  The song had its live performance debut on December 6, Altamont.

Gimme Shelter is elevated to greatness by the footage at Altamont.  The day progresses ominously as there are incidents involving the Hell's Angels.  There were several big name acts before the Stones came on stage - Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.  The Grateful Dead were scheduled to appear but refused to take the stage due to the violence.  These periodic outbursts of violence by the Hell's Angels are captured on film.

By the time the Rolling Stones takes the stage, the film makes it feel as though a riot is about to break out.  Subtly, the Brothers Maysles shift the perspective.  Up until them, the film featured shots from the audience looking at the stage and from the stage looking at the audience.  The Stones waited until evening to perform.  The night further added to the ominous look.  Apparently, some "bad acid" had been passed around Altamont that day.  The crowd and the Hell's Angels seemed fed up with each other.  The most disturbing aspect was how close the crowd was allowed to get to the stage.  On top of that, the stage was not elevated enough to create a sufficient barrier and the topography of the area was such that the stage was at the bottom of a hill so the audience "held the high ground."

From their first song, the crowd became restive.  Jagger repeatedly asks the crowd to calm down and back up.  As the trouble continues, he asks everyone to calm down meaning the Hell's Angels as well.  As the crowd's movements ebb & flow and the Angels periodically scatter a section of the crowd with swinging pool cues, you can sense Jagger becoming uneasy.

But the money shot is still to come.  Meredith Hunter, in a lime green suit, is clearly visible in the film.  There is footage of him drawing his gun (the barrel is clearly visible) and of a Hell's Angel appearing to stab him in the back.  All this goes on while the Stones are playing Under My Thumb.

If this had been the entire film, it would have been a powerful documentary.  However, the Maysles were able to get Mick Jagger & Charlie Watts into the editing room where they watch the footage of Hunter being stabbed.  Jagger rushes out, mumbling "Well that's it" while he has a glazed look on his face.  The film ends with a freeze on Jagger's face with his glassy eyes.

The total effect of the film is unsettling to say the least.  My emotions swung wildly from grooving with the music to feeling a sense of dread as the events at Altamont unfolded.

Running Fence suffers in comparison to Gimme Shelter which any film would.  Less than an hour, Running Fence tells the story of artists (and spouses) Christo and Jeanne-Claude efforts to build a temporary fence 24 miles long in Sonoma & Marin Counties in 1976.  Encountering difficulties with certain land owners, various governmental agencies and skeptics, Christo & Jeanne-Claude eventually persevere.  I think because a) I knew the fence was built before seeing the film and b) the significance of the installation seemed fleeting (or even trivial at the time), the subject matter didn't really seem to justify a documentary.

Two items from the film piqued my curiosity.  First, are there still cattle & dairy ranchers in Sonoma & Marin Counties?  I know Clover Stornetta has dairy properties in the area but the ranchers in the film seemed to be small family operations for whom the presumably small payments by Christo & Jeanne-Claude had surprising significance.  I wondered if the route taken by the Running Fence is now grape vineyards.  The second item is one of legality & ethics.  In the film, a state agency (California Coastal Commission?) ruled that Christo & Jeanne-Claude were prohibited from having the fence end in the Pacific Ocean due to environmental concerns.  There was never any footage to show that decision being reversed but in the film, Christo supervises the installation of the fence into the Pacific Ocean.  I wondered if there were any repercussions.

Running Fences entering the Pacific Ocean
Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! was made nearly 40 years after Gimme Shelter and consisted of outtakes from the filming of Gimme Shelter. Only 27 minutes long, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! consisted of footage from a photo shoot with Mick, Charlie & a donkey on a cold day and concert scenes from Madison Square Garden with Jimi Hendrix in the dressing room and Janis Joplin singing and clapping from the stage wings.

Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! (the Stones released a 1970 live album by the same name which featured performances from the same Madison Square Garden concerts shown in the film) probably gives an idea of what Gimme Shelter would have looked like if not for Altamont. As a companion piece to Gimme Shelter, Ya-Ya's doesn't add much except to further confirm the stage presence of the Rolling Stones.


There was a surprisingly large number of people at the Balboa on a Tuesday night when I saw Don't Think I Have Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll.  I can't believe there is that much interest in Cambodian music.  Don't Think I Have Forgotten was directed by John Pirozzi, who also directed Sleepwalking Through the Mekong (2007), a film about Los Angeles based band Dengue Fever whose lead singer Chhom Nimol is Cambodian.  The band travels to Cambodia so that they can (re)connect to the musical and cultural roots.  Pirozzi seems to have an interest in mid-20th century Cambodian music.

As I mentioned before, any film set in and/or chronicling Cambodia in the 1970s has to address the Khmer Rouge mass murders. In this case, musicians and singers fared even worse than their countrymen.  The Khmer Rouge believed in an agrarian society and artists such as musicians and singers were specifically targeted for execution despite their popularity and fame within Cambodia.

The film was satisfactory but the repeated introduction of singers whom I had never heard of made it hard for me to maintain interest or follow the interviews.

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