Project X Goes Hollywood

mmatos | August 6, 2007 2:50 am

As part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Jackin’ Pop editor Michaelangelo Matos breaks down rankings from every genre imaginable. After the click-through, he cracks open the classic Marshall Crenshaw-edited book Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock’n’Roll in the Movies and looks at the book’s 10 highest-ranking movies released between 1959 and 1964:

In 1994, the great pop-rock singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw edited Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock’n’Roll in the Movies; it’s long out of print but relatively easy to find. It’s not a rigorous book, which is part of the charm; there are 257 pages of full reviews and two appendices (“More Rock Films” and “Concert Films and Rockumentaries”) to sweep up the rest. The tone of the entries, written by Crenshaw and 26 others, is breezy in a Geeks-R-Us manner. Few of the contributors were film scholars, and there’s no better way to tell that than the book’s three-tiered grading system, which awards one to five stars in the categories of Music, Attitude, and Fun. Crenshaw’s introduction explains the middle honor: “The Attitude rating is meant to reflect how well the movie succeeds on its own terms. In other words, did the reviewer think the film was cool.”

There aren’t any numbered lists in Hollywood Rock, but you can make your own. The book grades 328 movies, with 52 receiving five stars each for Music, Attitude, and Fun–about 16 percent. Arrange them chronologically and they break into fairly neat Top 10s. Take, for example, Hollywood Rock‘s 15-Star Movies from 1959-64, in alphabetical order:

1. Beach Party (dir. William Asher, 1963) 2. Bikini Beach (dir. William Asher, 1964) 3. Bye Bye Birdie (dir. George Sidney, 1963) 4. A Hard Day’s Night (dir. Richard Lester, 1964) 5. Jazz on a Summer’s Day (dir. Aram Avakian & Bert Stern, 1959) 6. Muscle Beach Party (dir. William Asher, 1964) 7. One Man’s Challenge (dir. Dale Smallin, 1962) 8. The T.A.M.I. Show (dir. Steve Binder, 1964) 9. Wild Guitar (dir. Ray Dennis Steckler, 1962) 10. The World’s Greatest Sinner (dir. Timothy Carey, 1963)

Standard rock historiography tells us that the years between 1959 and 1964 saw the cooling off of rock and roll’s initial flash–Chuck Berry in jail, Elvis Presley in the army, Buddy Holly dead, Little Richard a minister, Jerry Lee Lewis essentially finished thanks to marrying his underage cousin, etc.–then a fallow, teen-idol period, and finally a Beatles-fueled reemergence. These movies more or less line up with that version of rock history.

Or they would have, had I seen them all. The one I missed is One Man’s Challenge, which is one of those movies that only absolute lunatics even know exist. Neither the picture nor its director, Dale Smallin, has a listing in the Internet Movie Database. I came across an outdated Web page offering the film for sale, but even Seattle’s Scarecrow, the most comprehensively stocked video store in the U.S., didn’t have it. (Aside from A Hard Day’s Night and The T.A.M.I. Show, which I own, everything else here was rented from Scarecrow.) Not that One Man’s Challenge was any easier to find when Hollywood Rock was written; Crenshaw’s introduction notes that his book’s write-up came courtesy of a viewing of “perhaps the only existing copy of [the] film in the offices of Dick Clark Productions in Los Angeles.”

In terms of bulk, this isn’t a huge loss: One Man’s Challenge is only 20 minutes long, a featurette about Southern California surf culture that features the earliest extant footage of the Beach Boys, who do “Surfin’ Safari.” Technology being our friend, though, that clip is on YouTube:

One Man’s Challenge was reviewed by Domenic Priore. He championed all the American International Pictures beach movies on this list as well, and as my brain kicked back to life when my viewing of Beach Party came to a merciful end, two names jumped out of the credits: Gary Usher and Roger Christian. Of course! Priore compiled Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!, a chronicle of the making and unmaking of the Beach Boys’ Smile. As well as helping soundtrack AIP’s beach movies, Usher and Christian helped write some early Beach Boys songs. Instantly, it all became clear: Who else but a Beach Boys historian would award aces in every category to one–much less three–of these godforsaken things?

Priore’s write-ups of the beach movies in Hollywood Rock discuss them entirely in terms of how much Actual Early Beach Culture they contain. “The absolute highlight is an appearance by the Pyramids, an authentic garage-surf band,” he says of Bikini Beach; his write-up of Beach Party avers, “So-called sophisticates who dismiss these films must realize that what they’re missing is the beat,” before going on to laud Dick Dale’s underwhelming appearances in them. But to watch these movies is to wonder why the beat–or really, the music–is so chintzy. Just because the Musical Genius Brian Wilson co-wrote a half-dozen songs for Muscle Beach Party doesn’t mean they’re any good. The movie goes flat from the opening number, “Surfer’s Holiday”:

Notice how Annette Funicello cracks up right after singing the line, “Cuddle up and I’ll hold you tight now,” to Frankie Avalon. The anodyne sexuality of these movies gave her good reason to laugh. But that’s almost the only sign of life in these things: apart from the bodybuilding troupe led by trainer Don Rickles in Muscle Beach Party, most of the time these movies are neither repressed enough to work in hindsight as camp nor wild-assed enough to work as entertainment. The exception is when Avalon disses the Beatles as the English pop star Potato Bug in Bikini Beach, performing a song called “Gimme Your Love (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)”:

But forget about dragging rock out of teen-idol fluff: Comedy’s turn away from the zoinks-laden shtick the beach movies ladle on like sunscreen is something to be even more grateful for than the Beatles. It’s hardly an accident that A Hard Day’s Night made believers even out of parents; they must have been as sick of watching Buddy Hackett and the godawful Harvey Lembeck mince around as their kids were. Not only did the Beatles sing better than Frankie and Annette, they were slyer comedians than the Borscht Belt guys:

Besides, the real low-budget wonders of the list aren’t set on beaches. Wild Guitar is one of a handful of movies Arch Hall Sr. (as “Nicholas Merriwether”) wrote and produced for his blonde, would-be heartthrob namesake son, who plays Bud Eagle, an aspiring singer newly transplanted to L.A. from Spearfish, South Dakota. Hall Sr. also stars, under the name William Watters, as a crooked record-label owner who scoops up Bud and makes him his newest star. (The fad that accompanies the records has high schoolers wearing eagle feathers in their hair.) “Art imitates life in Wild Guitar,” Crenshaw writes. “According to an article in that superb journal of American culture, KICKS magazine, Arch Hall Jr.’s movie career was masterminded by his dad. Wild Guitaris one of six films produced by Arch Sr.’s company, Fairway International, that star the young blond bombshell.” One of the others, Eegah!, was included in Harry and Michael Medved’s 50 Worst Movies of All Time.

Arch Hall Jr. is a far worse singer and actor than Frankie Avalon, and the songs aren’t even up to the level of Brian Wilson’s castoffs. “Vicki,” sung to the girl (figure skater Nancy Czar) that brings him to the exec’s attention, is repulsive. But Wild Guitar is one of the movies on the list that actually lives up to the book’s hype. The trailer for the Something Weird DVD condenses it nicely:

Wild Guitar also occasioned my favorite piece of writing in Hollywood Rock. Crenshaw: “The script for Wild Guitar…has many bizarre twists and turns that defy rational judgment. But rational judgments aside, I love this movie. I think it’s better than Gone with the Wind.”

Actually, Wild Guitar looks like Gone with the Wind compared to The World’s Greatest Sinner, which was shot over a three-year period just outside of L.A. by the writer/director/star Timothy Carey, who played the villain of East of Eden, The Wild One, and Paths of Glory. In Sinner, he’s an insurance seller and family man who up and quits his job one day to become a roving self-help preacher, then runs for president after changing his name to God. He also becomes something of a rock star:

Later, he makes out with old ladies and smashes a guitar under a visible boom mike. That clip should give you an idea about the rest. Sinner seems to be missing a few dozen shots, but its roughness grows on you–it’s not a great or even good movie, but it’s hard to forget. (It’s also very difficult to find; Scarecrow’s VHS copy is only rentable for a $150 deposit.) It also has about as little rock content on its surface as you can get away with while being included in a book like Hollywood Rock. (Behind the scenes is something else; the score is by a very young Frank Zappa.) Similarly, Jazz on a Summer’s Day has only one real rock performance, but despite some questionable editing (a problem with the entire movie, in fact), it’s a great one:

Chuck Berry appears in two movies from this list. In Jazz on a Summer’s Day he’s an anomaly in a show featuring Jimmy Giuffre, Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, and Mahalia Jackson. (Sacrilege time: Jackson is the most boring thing in the movie besides the random shots of sailboats in the water.) In The T.A.M.I. Show he’s an elder statesman. The role suits him well, though this movie is so jam-packed you almost forget he’s in it–so jam-packed I’m almost embarrassed to be using this clip of Billy J. Kramer, the only one I could find on YouTube, instead of damn near anything else:

It’s not simply that Berry, Marvin Gaye, the Miracles, the Supremes, Leslie Gore, Jan and Dean, and the Beach Boys all outclass Kramer in passing. It’s that The T.A.M.I. Show is worth whatever you can find it for to see James Brown deliver the greatest single filmed musical performance in history. I saw the movie at the theater inside the Experience Music Project; when Brown finally hit the ground after a minute-plus of excruciating tension, I almost leaped out of my chair. Unbelievably, not only do the Rolling Stones not make fools of themselves by following this, they kill. Apparently there’s an officially released DVD of The T.A.M.I. Show available from Amazon in Canada, but little information has come forth. (Commenters? Anything?)

The Beatles are one glaring omission from The T.A.M.I. Show lineup; Elvis Presley is the other. Elvis is why Bye Bye Birdie continues to attract school productions: Who can resist the biggest pop myth ever? The movie certainly can’t; while it’s honest enough to make “aren’t teenagers stupid?” its overt point rather than a queasy undercurrent, the kid stuff leaves the adults in the dust. What works best is the heat generated by both Presley’s doppelganger, Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson), and his biggest fan, played by Ann-Margret. In Michael Stewart’s play, the role was an innocent. Wisely, though it’s probably not as if they really had a choice considering the actress, Irving Brecher (screenplay) and George Sidney (director) allowed her to be otherwise:

Jesse Pearson’s entrance is the most remarkable thing in the film; lanky, in a gold jumpsuit, leading from the hips, his Conrad Birdie slays every girl in an Ohio high school, a killer grin sliding into a leer as each one drops. It’s stagy, and it’s also entirely plausible. How appropriate, then, that Pearson eventually went on to direct porn, under the name A. Fabritzi. (Thanks, IMDB!) By coincidence, I’d already seen his best-known work in the field, 1978’s The Legend of Lady Blue, a gauzy, slow-moving drama about star-crossed high-school sweethearts, and one of the more notable attempts at a mainstream-porn crossover. Sorry, kids–no YouTube clip, unless Fleshbot wants the baton.