Sunday, December 25, 2016

What's So Sweet About Sweet Sixteen?

2015 kicked my ass. 2016 kicked everybody's ass. We need not chant a litany of failure and frustration, we know all these cruel sights are too real.

It is exactly one year since I last even posted to this site. Thankfully, I have been writing for others. In fact, I am indeed lucky to be featured on one site that represents the spirit of adventurous pop culture that defined my adolescence, and another that represents the spirit of divergent film programming freed from the pressures of mass appeal, though the masses are always welcome, or of making the rent, because the curator is also the landlord. The honor of seeing my prose under the mastheads of Night Flight and New Beverly Cinema gives me strength in good and bad times.

In addition, my services are associated with other terrific arts organizations in Los Angeles, in a less showy fashion, and I take enormous pride in my quiet, specific, and valued role with them.

On the one hand, I have Six Jobs and Counting precisely because no single one of them, unfortunately, can provide the security to cover my monthly obligations and pay off the massive debts occurred in the last few years of wandering the employment wilderness. But on the other hand, I am working with people who cherish and respect me, getting access to exciting things happening within and without, and I don't have to wear a name tag, sit through a seminar, or fulfill a "sales incentive".

I get to walk into my house justified.

Okay, it's not a house, it's a rent-controlled apartment. Let me have my Peckinpah moment.

Unfortunately, much like last year, first-run filmgoing was more of a luxury than a mandate. I again wrestled hard with the notion of canning the list completely due to feeling that it was grossly uninformed. More importantly, I am concerned that in many ways this list will be merely parroting the same few hegemonic titles that are currently dominating Award Season, because those are the works I saw, whereas the films I live to elevate, who can benefit from getting name-checked here since I have an ostensible following...I didn't see them this year. Yes, I missed that many new movies. However, since there have been so many good souls who have directly told me they await hearing the rundown as part of their holiday, I am going forward with it.

So to put it in baseball colloquialisms, this list carries a huge asterisk, pending peer review by an elite, Blue Ribbon fact-finding commission consisting of whoever gives me the most grief, or hooks me up with the most opportunities to catch up. And remember, there's always the Decade list to redress wrongs.

Presenting now, without the express written consent of Film Twitter, The Top 13 of 2016*














"If I cannot bring you comfort,
Then at least I bring you hope
For nothing is more precious
Than the time we have, and so...

We all must learn from small misfortune
Count the blessings that are real
Let the bells ring out for Christmas
At the Closing Of the Year."

Monday, December 19, 2016

Sorry for Porky Rocking

Night Flight’s April 12, 1985 “New Film and Video” episode, devoted to movie soundtrack tie-in videos, featured Dave Edmunds’ “High School Nights” from Porky’s Revenge, which has just been released for the first time on Blu-ray. The prolific musician/producer assembled an all-star lineup of performers for the film’s soundtrack, including a then-inactive George Harrison. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

The late Bob Clark’s loosely autobiographical horny teenager romp Porky’s was a surprise hit, ranking #1 at the box office for eight weeks (bested only by E.T. which held the spot for sixteen weeks), and returning over $100 million during its healthy five-month theatrical run in 1982.

The film — shot in Florida and released by 20th Century Fox — was a Canadian-backed project, thus setting a record as the highest grossing Canuck film of all time, a title it held for twenty-four years.

A sequel, Porky’s II: The Next Day, was written, shot, and released in under fifteen months from the debut of the original, with almost all the original talent retained, the most notable absence being Chuck “Porky” Mitchell.

While it underperformed by comparison, it was still a good-enough hit that Fox wanted a third film. Clark declined to participate, though he would make two more unrelated films for the studio.

Comedian and TV producer James Komack — whose shows “Chico and the Man” and “Welcome Back, Kotter” launched the stardom of Freddie Prinze and John Travolta respectively — took the director’s chair for Porky’s Revenge; the screenplay was by another TV veteran, Ziggy Steinberg, who would go on to write the final Gene Wilder & Richard Pryor collaboration, Another You.

Chuck Mitchell returned as the duplicitous titular tit merchant.

In this promotional behind-the-scenes footage, Mitchell and fellow villain player Nancy Parsons were happy to be back for more:

With the rise of music video as a promotional tool, it was decided that an original song that could be released as a single should be commissioned. The previous two installments had used familiar original recordings of period hits for their song scores.

Dave Edmunds — the versatile Welsh artist who founded Rockpile with Nick Lowe — was particularly fond of ‘50s-style rock, and was asked to create a song for the movie.

While not a huge star in America, he had earlier chart hits with “I Hear You Knocking” and “Girls’ Talk,” recent popularity from his video for the Jeff Lynne-produced “Slipping Away,” and as a producer, he was in heavy demand, supervising the Everly Brothers’ reunion concert and follow-up albums, as well as similar tribute projects for Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison.

As Edmunds gathered talent to join him, he decided to go further than the studio requested, and deliver them a complete soundtrack album.

When Fox and Edmunds’ record label saw the names he brought with him to the project — Perkins, Jeff Beck, Clarence Clemons, Robert Plant, and Phil Collins for starters –- they were probably more turned on by that talented body than by any of the attractive actors in the movie itself.

To accompany the original songs “High School Nights” and the title instrumental theme Edmunds had composed, his friends covered many beloved standards.

Perkins re-recorded his own immortal “Blue Suede Shoes” backed by two-thirds of the Stray Cats, Clemons performed Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme,” Beck performed Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk,” Plant and Collins (as “The Crawling King Snakes”) joined Edmunds on Charlie Rich’s “Philadelphia Baby,” and The Fabulous Thunderbirds belted out Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee.”

The participation of the Fabulous Thunderbirds dovetailed with Edmunds’ biggest coup: luring George Harrison — who had not released any new music since his mostly-ignored album Gone Troppo in 1982 — to participate.

Session player Jimmie Vaughan describes an encounter that took place during the making of the album:

“[We] were in Los Angeles recording, and George Harrison was doing something, and he liked what the Fabulous Thunderbirds did on some record. He just asked if we wanted to come in and record, and we’re like, ‘Sure, sure!’… He was great. We were trying to be cool, like, I wanted to go ask him all these questions…we did ‘Stagger Lee,’ but we also had this other [Thunderbirds] song, ‘Look at That, Look at That,’ and George goes, ‘Yeah, that sounds like –‘ Well, he named a song he thought it sounded like. A Larry Williams song or something. He knew every Larry Williams song. He loved Larry Williams.”

For the soundtrack, Harrison recorded a previously unreleased 1968 Bob Dylan song, “I Don’t Want to Do It,” which he had originally made a demo for and pitched to Phil Spector during the making of All Things Must Pass, but did not finish for that album.

Two versions were produced, one used in the film and on the album, featuring an organ solo, and another that was issued as a single shortly after the film opened, replacing the organ with a guitar solo. The latter version has yet to be reissued in any medium since.

During this time, Harrison asked Edmunds to pass word to Jeff Lynne, who was producing Edmunds’ next album Riff Raff, that he wanted to meet up for a possible collaboration. He relayed the message to Lynne some time later.

Once the men met, they would subsequently go on to create Harrison’s hit comeback solo studio record, Cloud Nine, along with the two Traveling Wilburys records. In a way, we have Porky to thank for building the bridge between these wizards of rock!

A track not produced by Edmunds was Willie Nelson performing “Love Me Tender.” The song was prominently featured in a scene where Nancy Parsons as frequent nemesis Beulah Balbricker finally receives redemption through a reunion with a lost love.

Despite the game cast and the pedigreed soundtrack, Porky’s Revenge was a large disappointment upon its release in March 1985. The film was negatively reviewed, and only grossed slightly over $20 million, a tenth of the original’s return.

While the album got good notices, it too was met with poor sales, and the single “High School Nights” never got past #91 on the Billboard Top 100.

The soundtrack’s good reputation, however, has led to three subsequent CD reissues, which have offered bonus tracks, including Carl Perkins remaking his original “Blue Suede Shoes” single B-side, “Honey Don’t.”

Porky’s Revenge is now available on Blu-ray, paired with Porky’s II, and its soundtrack album is back in print, offering old fans and first-timers a new opportunity for raunchy fun and rocking tunes!

In another timely footnote, this vintage episode streaming now at Night Flight Plus also includes the unique promotional video for Milos Forman’s Amadeus introduced by David Lee Roth, where Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40 in G Minor” accompanies a mix of wild pop music moments interwoven with scenes from the film, to present the young composer as his century’s irreverent, convention-rocking, game-changing genius.

As Billboard recently declared Mozart to have the #1 CD sales of 2016, beating Beyoncé, Drake, and Adele (albeit through a clever technicality) that video’s message is still relevant.

Watch our 1985 “New Film and Video” — which also features videos by David Bowie, Glenn Frey, El Debarge, and more — right now on Night Flight Plus!

(This essay was originally written for Night Flight Plus. It has been recreated in the style it was presented in at the site, and matched to its original date of publication. Tremendous thanks to Stuart Shapiro and Bryan Thomas for the platform.)

Friday, November 18, 2016

Love is the Seventh Grade


David Wechter & Michael Nankin’s adorable 1978 short film Junior High School drew praise from critics, led to making a Disney cult classic, and it was also the first exposure for singer/choreographer Paula Abdul. It’s now available for streaming on Night Flight Plus!

Childhood friends David Wechter and Michael Nankin spent their tweens making Super 8 mini-epics with like-minded pals, adding extra excitement to the already rattling period of early adolescence.

Like many aspiring directors of the ’70s, they went to the burgeoning film schools of the day –- David to USC, Michael to UCLA -– and when they had an opportunity to make a dream project, they decided to revisit that innocent time.

Unlike most beginning directors of that era, however, they staged their reverie as a musical!

With college classmates Steve Jacobson and Briana London, they created Junior High School, a song-and-dance saga about the first day of school, and one boy’s fumbling attempts to navigate strict authority figures and mean older kids, while just maybe, getting the attention of the prettiest girl in class.

Directors Michael Nankin (far left) and David Wechter (holding clapboard); photo courtesy of Steve Jacobson

David’s application to make it during his USC classes was rejected due to its expansive scope, so Michael set it up as a senior project at UCLA, enrolling in an extra quarter of classes to get access to the film school’s lights to save production costs.

With seed money from selling a spec commercial to the L.A. Times, and donations from friends and family, they raised $35,000 to make the 40-minute low-budget short.

Wechter & Nankin auditioned upwards of 200 kids from greater L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, almost all non-professionals, to fill the prime roles.

The adults were played by the filmmakers’ family members and their friends, such as comedians Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall, who had opened for The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, and Art Ginsburg, owner of popular power-lunch destination Art’s Deli in Studio City.

P. David Ebersole (far left) gets hazed by coaches and squad leaders; photo courtesy of Steve Jacobson

The young neophytes were incredibly well-cast. P. David Ebersole as Jerry embodied every kid who ever felt invisible, or worse, all too visible at the wrong time, but could sparkle like a gem when good fortune came around.

Karen Capelle as Lori was the kind-hearted blonde-tressed dream girl so many boys imagined their first crush to be.

Toni Mazarin

Toni Mazarin as Vicki inhabited her manipulative mean girl with relish; she’s a mistake any boy could make, and even look back upon with fondness. In a video recollection included on the Blu-Ray, Ebersole revealed that during filming, he was more attracted to Toni than Karen.

Even the supporting characters left an impression on audiences.

Who could forget Mikal Robert Taylor as nasty nerd Keith, wielding his brain and briefcase for evil, likely destined to grow up and become a GamerGater?

Or Jan Russell as the perpetually fuming, unnamed leader of “The Itty Bitty Titty Committee”?

Of course, the featured player with the most impact was Paula Abdul as Sherry, whose Friday night party puts the plot in motion.

She didn’t yet have the polished singing voice that took her to the Top 40 in the ’80s, but she was already doing leaps, landings, and twirls in five-inch platform wedgies, so her dance skills were already in effect.

Paula Abdul (left) and some of the girls in the studio, recording a track for Junior High School; photo courtesy of Steve Jacobson

David Wechter composed the libretto of songs himself, using some compositions he’d written during his own adolescence. The score and song arrangements were done by David’s father Julius Wechter, a frequent collaborator with Herb Alpert who founded the Baja Marimba band.

Julius enlisted top session musicians, including Tommy Tedesco of The Wrecking Crew, to perform on the soundtrack, as well as Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technician Larry Levine to engineer the recordings.

Kirk Burnett and Kirk Howe recording vocals with David Wechter; photo courtesy of Steve Jacobson

While the musicianship was professional, the filmmakers wanted to make sure the kids sounded untrained.

Supporting player Kirk Howe (who played an oppressive Gym Squad member) supplied the sweet and innocent singing voice for Ebersole's character.

Junior High School hit the festival circuit in 1979, and drew rave reviews.

Roger Ebert saw it at the USA Festival in Dallas, and later programmed it into a curated block at the Toronto Film Festival that same year, proclaiming, “The movie remembers the funny and the painful aspects of [puberty]…a completely winning, sunny, and wickedly funny experience…”

Herb Alpert wrote a letter of congratulation to Wechter after seeing it.

(Image courtesy of Kritzerland Entertainment)

“Bravo! Lani [Hall] and I were totally swept off our feet (even though we were lying in bed). You made an incredible transition from amateur to professional in one film. Congratulations, and thanks for wanting to share it with me.”

The rave reviews drew the attention of the Walt Disney company, who agreed to produce a feature film debut for the duo, who were still not even old enough to rent a car. Their 1980 film, Midnight Madness, depicted a wild all-night scavenger hunt in Los Angeles.

While it did not feature any of the kids from Junior High School, it did provide an auspicious film debut for another talented kid, Michael J. Fox. It also involved another heelish nebbish character, played by dependable movie nerd Eddie Deezen.

Midnight Madness was the second Disney production to get a PG rating after The Black Hole, and the first time the studio removed their name from the credits, due to what was deemed racy material.

While it was not initially a hit film, inspired fans created their own versions of the sprawling hunt as yearly events, and it is now recognized as a cornerstone film of game and geek culture.

Wechter & Nankin would attempt to develop a feature-film version of Junior High School with Footloose producer Craig Zadan, but the project fell through, and the team went their separate ways.

After some initial airings on cable, their musical faded out of circulation, occasionally resurfacing in kids’ film series and school screenings.

The movie received a belated VHS release in 1990, with supporting player Paula Abdul given top billing on the cover to entice fans of hers unaware of this early performance.

Abdul’s management reacted with surprising hostility, which drew the attention of the tabloid press, including this segment from “A Current Affair.”

“A Current Affair” story on JHS tape release 1990

The foursome responsible for Junior High School are all still very active in entertainment today. David Wechter shared initial story credit with Bruce Kimmel on the 1998 Robert Rodriguez thriller The Faculty, and has been a producer and director on many reality TV programs, most notably “Penn & Teller: Bullshit.”

Michael Nankin wrote the 1987 teen horror classic The Gate, and is a producer and director on many fantasy and action TV shows, including the newly-revived “The Exorcist” series.

Briana London has edited episodes of “Sledge Hammer” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Steve Jacobson worked in on-air promotion for NBC and CBS, and more recently has been a story producer on one of David Wechter’s programs, “Cowboy U.”

P. David Ebersole

While most of the kids from Junior High School soon went back to civilian lives, star P. David Ebersole has been associated with a diverse body of projects.

With his husband and producing partner Todd Hughes, he directed Hit So Hard, a 2011 documentary on former Hole drummer Patty Schemel, and together they were executive producers on Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s speculative documentary on Kubrick’s The Shining.

In an odd convergence, Patty Schemel played a drummer in But I’m a Cheerleader director Jamie Babbit’s 2007 comedy Itty Bitty Titty Committee. However, despite the connection to Ebersole, this was not in homage to Junior High School.

In interviews during the film’s release, Babbit credited Guinevere Turner for coining the title, and Turner later expounded, “It’s just a thing that girls said in middle school to taunt those as yet unendowed!”

In a way, this proves that Junior High School recognized some catch phrases, as well as experiences, are inherently universal for all teens.

Nobody wants to relive the anxiety of homework, bullies, and bad choices that pepper many of our pre-teen years, but watching Junior High School will definitely bring back all the happier moments from those hormone-driven awkward middle-school days, and it will probably make you feel that same kind of guileless rush once again regardless of your age! Watch this short feature right now — and be sure to check out this candid conversation with David Wechter & Michael Nankin who give us a behind-the-scenes director’s commentary about the production and casting of this gem — on Night Flight Plus!

(This essay was originally written for Night Flight Plus. It has been recreated in the style it was presented in at the site, and matched to its original date of publication. Tremendous thanks to Stuart Shapiro and Bryan Thomas for the platform.)