THE PHYNX's epic saga of how our government manufactured a rock band to rescue celebrity hostages from a punishing dictator was too bizarre to even commercially offer in 1970, went on to flummox viewers like Steven Thompson during its days as a bootleg tape, and still leaves fellows like Paul Tabili of DVD Drive-In scratching their heads in its now wide availability. Perhaps the reason why Warner Bros. chose not to release a rock'n'roll espionage comedy called THE PHYNX - not in America anyhow - was because it seemed everything about it was unexplainable - from its title, to its use of relative unknowns in the leads, to its use of dozens of random cameos in its climax, to its point of view on its story and its audience. Was it supposed to be a riddle for the ages, as the title's homophonic cousin the Sphinx posed? Or was this riddle just a bad joke, and the title a deliberate misspelling to partially warn potential audiences that, much like the derided King from "THE WIZARD OF ID," that this collective was a band of finks?
In short, what the phuck were they phynxing?
Now, my close friend and longtime "BEAT THE GEEKS" dais companion Andy Zax could tell you the whole story, based on years of direct contact and conversations with people who were involved, and on his impressive collection of what little material from the film reached the public. Unfortunately for all of us, Mr. Zax and his luminous wife, The Lovely Lisa Jane Persky (yes, that is her official title), are incommunicado right now, no doubt blissfully relaxed in an undisclosed location taking the advice of Robert Fripp and watching the boring parts of Marguerite Duras' films until they are no longer boring. So, I guess it's up to me to attempt an explanation of this film, the better to prepare the hardy souls who either will be attending the highly-anticipated Los Angeles screening hosted by Patton Oswalt at CineFamily this coming Sunday, the 18th, or will later be inspired somehow to take the plunge and purchase the DVD released last fall by the genial fellows at Warner Archive.
Over the course of repeat viewings (and yes, to write this, I indeed watched the movie more than once), I have come to the conclusion that THE PHYNX is a movie that mirrors the evolving attitude of its creative process, in that it was conceived in cynicism but somehow stumbled into sincerity. The credits delineation of Booker & Foster recieiving only story credit while only Cornyn receives screenplay credit suggests that this may be less a philosophical shift and more of a studio salvage mission, but weirdly, these two conflicting ideas somehow do manage to flow into one another.
the Hamilton Camp role), failing in the prologue to infiltrate Communist Albania, is brought into a meeting of all field agents - dressed as Klansmen, Black Power activists, Madison Ave. suits, hookers, Boy Scouts, and others, suggesting that the Government has extended its reach to every fringe group in America, ostensibly in the name of the public good, but more likely just to keep its foot in the door. The newsreel declaring that novelty stars like Col. Harlan Sanders, Butterfly McQueen, Edgar Bergen, and others are "World Leaders" is the kind of over-the-top sarcasm you find and tire quickly of about every 17 seconds on Twitter. When the anatomically suggestive supercomputer M.O.T.H.A. declares the strategy of collecting four random youths to form a rock band to get invited into Albania, the longtime music snobs' arguments about how anybody can be made a teen idol if enough money is thrown into the effort (a trope beginning with Stan Freberg and continuing in the noughts with MTV's 2gether) is milked heavily, right down to the po-faced "raves" from Dick Clark and James Brown. A sequence where mercurial producer "PhilBaby" claims he's conceived a hit single for months but pulls the title from a nearby newspaper almost exactly mirrors an incident involving Monkees' songwriters Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart bluffing Don Kirshner over what became the hit song "Valleri," an artistic subterfuge that possibly stuck in Leiber & Stoller's craw as they wrote the score. The band's SSA-muscled success, bizarrely enough, found intellectual company in Peter Watkins' scathing 1967 mockumentary PRIVILEGE, depicting a future London where business, church, and state unite in backing a sullen pop star in order to keep youth diverted from any subversive activity, so in all likelihood "Phynx" indeed meant that our interchangeable heroes are no better than narcs. As critic Graeme Clark wrote in his recent review, "For all its wackiness, for all its attempts to be down with the kids, THE PHYNX was all about The Man, by The Man, and who knows, possibly for The Man as well. Maybe Warners [buried the film because] we'd see right through it."
The band discovers that, contrary to the limited intelligence the SSA has possessed, the Albanian President and his American wife are in fact virtual captives themselves to his Colonel Rostinov, because "he owns the tank." Taking advantage of their waning popularity in the States, the First Lady has in fact lured all the disappeared celebrities to her country to ease her separation hurt from America, since she is under the Cold War travel embargo of her Colonel, and appreciating the accommodations, the celebrities are in no rush to leave; much like Woody in TOY STORY 2, they are tempted to accept a sterile existence in a collection, feeling left behind by those who loved them first. The Colonel takes an roughly dim view of The Phynx, using them as publicity bait to pander to Albania's youth for the next likely-rigged election, not too far removed from the SSA's opinion of them as useful idiots. And amidst all this back and forth about the nature of fame and its outreach to people beyond a performer's home, followed by an ungainly curtain call of every former household name that's been cooling their heels in the President's company, Michael Barrett of Popmatters understandably posits, "...none of these cameos would appeal to the college crowd this film is supposedly courting or lampooning, and yet the whole project would turn off their parents too, and it did. So to whom did this barely released fiasco appeal except the 17 viewers who wanted bragging rights of having claimed that it wasn’t a hallucination?" But, I think I may just have the answer.
Now, consider what we mentioned earlier - the "World Leaders" that are disappearing from America in this tale are not our most august, valued artists. It's not Helen Hayes, Arturo Toscanini, or Norman Mailer that's gone missing - it's past-their-prime folks like Leo Gorcey & Huntz Hall of the Bowery Boys, Ruby Keeler, Andy Devine, Dorothy Lamour, Georgie Jessel, etc. Performers who subsisted for years off of one character role or their entertaining manner on talk shows, and whom were now considered "disposable." Just as disposable as handsome teen pop stars were being regarded, often by the exact same power brokers that were casting TV shows, making movies, and serving as our cultural arbiters. For that matter, how much difference is there really between a manufactured band of the '60's and, say, an untrained pretty girl in the '40's who got hired by a studio and received a new name and backstory and became, for a few short years, a movie star? If their intended audience ultimately takes pleasure in the work, does it matter if the performer's talent was organic or indoctrinated?
And after that big lovefest has taken place, naturally, we get to see our parade of guest stars eagerly sneaking out of Albania hidden in radish carts (Albania's best export hiding America's best export?), while the Phynx perform for the Albanian youth. No matter what their intended purpose was before, they have legitimate fans here now, and their sunshine pop takes on the quality that Sunday night's screening host Patton Oswalt so memorably admired about '80's heavy metal: it blows a hole in the walls surrounding the country so that our entertainment elders can get out, and the influence of future flavor of the month stars can come in. Of course it is naive to think that only killjoys with military hardware don't enjoy a good dog-and-pony show - after all, you should see the videotapes in Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin's collections - but this was made in a more innocent time. And they may have been on to something. Why was Deborah Raffin just another blonde on American TV but treated as a virtual goddess in China?
None of this admittedly way-too-deep analysis makes THE PHYNX a good movie, but almost every review I've read over the years wants to know what the point of this production was, and this is what I came up with. Perhaps if and when you decide to watch it, you will agree. After all, I managed to find one unabashed rave in my research. Or perhaps you'll phynk I'm a phlat out phoole. Whatever; I'd rather stick with my foolishly generous opinion. After all, if, say, I found my 1.5-game-show-years-of-fame self being absconded to Chechnya and forced to share living quarters with Stacey Q., Klinton Spilsbury, and that "Oi!" Jacko dude, I have the sad feeling nobody will be sending a rock band to retrieve my has-been ass.
So, for Lonny Stevens, mentoring under-the-radar actors in Studio City; for Dennis Sarokin, still making music somewhere in Nashville; and for Ray and Michael A., wherever they are: I'll gladly give a hand to the Boys in the Band. And say thank you as well, from one temporary solution to the leisure problem to another.