Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"It's Good to be the King"

“Night Flight” viewers in early 1984 got a lot of laughs from watching the racy and politically incorrect music video for Mel Brooks’ “The Hitler Rap.” They may not have realized they were watching an historical trailblazer, as Brooks’ song was not only an unlikely hit single, it wasn’t even his first time as a rap star!

In late 1981, shortly after the release of his comedy History Of The World, Part I, Mel Brooks joined with producer/songwriter Pete Wingfield, and together, using the running catchphrase uttered by Brooks as Louis XVI in the film, they created the single “It’s Good to Be the King.”

In the persona of the monarch, Brooks raves about living large in the days before the French Revolution claimed his head.

The single was put out in 1982 by Philadelphia soul label WMOT Records, best remembered for releasing Frankie Smith’s “Double Dutch Bus.”

The song received heavy rotation on New York station WBLS, and, while it did not enter the Billboard Top 100, it reached #67 on the Billboard Dance music chart and #69 on Billboard’s R&B chart.

Thus, Brooks became the first white artist performing a full-fledged rap song to penetrate the R&B chart, a feat that would not be repeated until the Beastie Boys reached #55 with “Hold It Now, Hit It” in 1986.

In France, “It’s Good to Be the King” was an even bigger smash, selling 375,000 copies and going all the way to #2 on their equivalent SNEP chart.

Most strikingly, in the tradition of rap hits like UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne” and M.C. Shan’s “The Bridge,” Brooks’ surprise hit provoked an answer record, from the very woman who helped put hip-hop in the American consciousness.

Sylvia Robinson, founder of Sugarhill Records, the label that launched the Sugarhill Gang and their immortal “Rapper’s Delight,” recorded her own reworded version of the song called “It’s Good to Be the Queen,” which surpassed Brooks’ single on the Billboard R&B chart, reaching #53. Robinson also invited Brooks’ writer/producer Wingfield to collaborate with her, and together they wrote “The Lover in You” for the Sugarhill Gang, with Wingfield playing keyboard and singing back-up, which went to #55 on the R&B chart.

In 1983, to promote the film To Be or Not to Be, starring Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft, and directed by his longtime choreographer Alan Johnson, Brooks and Wingfield reteamed to record “To Be or Not to Be” (the actual title for “The Hitler Rap”), using roughly the same melodic structure and comedic principle of Brooks in character bragging about the good life until history brought him down.

To promote both the film and the single, Brooks and his director/choreographer Alan Johnson made an accompanying video, featuring Brooks as Hitler, rapping and (through a body double) even breakdancing, while scantily clad dancers engaged in sexy moves designed by Johnson.

While some outlets chose not to air the clip due to its Nazi imagery and suggestive poses, the clip got substantial play on “Night Flight” as well as BET’s “Video Soul” program, and was screened in European cinemas as a short subject.

Chris Blackwell’s Island Records released the single worldwide, though in the U.S. it was handled by its independent subsidiary Antilles.

While only receiving a modicum of novelty success in America, “To Be or Not to Be” was a substantial hit in other English-speaking countries. The song went to #12 on the UK Singles chart, and all the way to #3 on the Australian Pop chart.

The video was later included in a Vestron Video Comedy Music Videos compilation tape alongside other frequent “Night Flight” favorites like Garry Trudeau’s “Rap Master Ronnie” and the Fat Boys’ “Jailhouse Rap.”

While Brooks, who recently marked his 90th birthday, long left hip-hop behind to concentrate on creating musical stage versions of his classics The Producers and Young Frankenstein, his brief sojourn continues to garner respect.

In an article on the history of white comedians’ use of rap, Brian Raftery of Vulture declared, “[What’s] most surprising about ‘Hitler Rap’ is that it’s not awful. Brooks has a decent enough flow, and he’s smart enough not to wink the joke to death.”

His earlier single received significant homage from the French mixed-race rap group Alliance Ethnik in their 1995 song “Respect”: the melodic background is a variation of the riff Wingfield created for “It’s Good to Be the King,” and the phrase is openly referenced at 3:13.

As such, history can safely say that by not only being a king of comedy, but also preceding Eminem and The Beastie Boys in earning the respect of the community that created rap music, it’s good to be Mel Brooks!

(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, August 12, 2016

History is Made in Cha-Cha Heels


Shortly after the release of his biggest hit, Hairspray, and his untimely death at age 42, Night Flight paid tribute to the groundbreaking midnight movie icon Divine — featuring choice portions from the thoughtful interview we did with him two years earlier — in a profile that originally aired on April 4, 1988. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

When Glenn Milstead first met filmmaker John Waters in Baltimore, Maryland in the ‘60s, it sparked a lifelong artistic collaboration and friendship.

Both of them were from conservative households, and as gay men, had no intention of leading the kind of quiet, closeted lives others resigned themselves to back then.

Waters bestowed the stage name “Divine” to Milstead, and borrowing elements from the exploitation movies and melodramas they loved, they became the public faces of a gleefully shocking series of films.

Waters with Divine on the set of their first movie with synch sound, Multiple Maniacs. (photo by Nelson Giles)

Divine lived the early part of his professional life very much like the loud and strong-willed characters he played in Waters’ films.

When not making movies, he acted in avant-garde plays and made wild nightclub appearances where he attempted bizarre stunts. He indulged in expensive tastes that his income could not sustain, and after repeated clashes with his parents over his debts, spent many years estranged from them.

The Divine we hear from in 1986 was a much more relaxed, soft-spoken individual. By this time, he had received positive reviews from mainstream critics for his role in Waters’ romantic satire Polyester, and had reconciled with his family.

If you’re used to seeing Polyester on high-quality widescreen DVD or streaming channels, you’ll get a kick out of seeing the old clips in this episode, as they reveal boom microphones and lighting grids that were meant to be cropped out in theater projection.

For early generations of home video viewers, this was how they had to watch Polyester, wondering if the exposed equipment was an intentional directorial decision!

Divine also addresses his foray into dance music, and you’ll get to see music videos for two of his songs, “I’m So Beautiful” and “Hard Magic.”

“I’m So Beautiful” is particularly notable as an early credit for producer Pete Waterman and songwriters Mike Stock and Matt Aiken, who, as Stock Aiken Waterman, created worldwide hit singles like Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” and the immortal “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley.

Imagine the possibilities if they had thought to team up Rick and Divine on a duet!

The most exciting, and retroactively poignant, part of the interview comes as Divine discusses his recent work with other filmmakers and his growing mainstream popularity, along with clips from those movies.

The actor talks with particular pleasure about his serious, non-campy role of gangster Hilly Blue in writer/director Alan Rudolph’s ethereal noir drama Trouble in Mind.

Rudolph specifically created the character for Divine, casting him opposite Academy Award nominees Kris Kristofferson and Keith Carradine. Divine enjoyed playing a dramatic male character and demonstrating his ability to act in roles that did not require female drag.

America seemed to be more receptive to Divine at this time, but they still weren’t quite ready for the movies that made him famous.

In his 1983 book of essays Crackpot, John Waters talked about how, after New Line Cinema had partnered with video label Media to create the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, they had planned to reissue his early films:

“[They] had the package designed, a great ad campaign ready ('Let’s get trash back into the homes where it belongs!') and I was all set to go on a promotional tour. When the company’s salesmen and jobbers in the Midwest saw the product they reportedly flipped out and refused to sell them. Mutiny. I was crushed. But because they had already sent out the press releases announcing the cassettes, the video reviewers had a better story than if the videos had been released without a hitch. So another [label] offered more money than we had with the first deal.”

One of those titles, Waters’ and Divine’s first feature Mondo Trasho, has never been reissued on DVD, and likely won’t be, due to its heavy use of unlicensed music. So if you see that tape in a thrift or second hand store, you’d better grab it!

Another long-unavailable title from that package, Multiple Maniacs, is currently back in theaters in a state-of-the-art restoration from Janus Films, with a Criterion BluRay and DVD release to follow.

You can see the original unrestored clips from the movie in this episode, and compare them to the footage in this new trailer for the reissue:

After initially taping this interview, Waters and Divine would make their most successful collaboration, 1988’s Hairspray.

Divine played in drag once more, as the mother of heroine Tracy Turnblad, played by Ricki Lake, a chubby girl who becomes the most popular dancer on an early ‘60s Baltimore teen show, and uses her fame to get the show integrated.

The most shocking aspect of the movie was its family-friendly PG rating, though it still had Waters’ trademark grotesque humor.

Hairspray brought Divine the most glowing reviews of his career, and before the film had been released, he had booked more projects. The film did modest business in its theatrical run, but later became a frequently rented home video title, and was adapted into a smash 2002 Broadway musical, which itself was turned into a 2007 film.

Sadly, Divine did not live long enough to fully enjoy his achievement. Three weeks after the film’s release, on the eve of taping a guest appearance on “Married…with Children” in Hollywood, the actor died from an enlarged heart on March 7, 1988.

Watch Divine talk about his colorful career, and revisit its highlights, right now, on Night Flight Plus, and look for the restored Multiple Maniacs in theaters and on home video this fall!

(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.)

Monday, August 8, 2016

When the First Lady Facepalms

Night Flight’s “Take Off to European Rock” — which originally aired on April 14, 1984, and is now streaming on Night Flight Plus — features the uncensored version of Golden Earring’s “When the Lady Smiles,” which also briefly aired in an edited form on MTV before being dropped by the network completely due to content. The song caused unexpected controversy again in 2008, when it was played at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally.

Dutch band Golden Earring only had a few hits in America in comparison to their larger following overseas, but when they had stateside success, they always made a big impression, along with raised eyebrows.

The cover for their 1973 breakout album Moontan, which featured their first U.S. chart hit “Candy’s Going Bad” and their smash followup “Radar Love,” originally featured a naked dancer on the front and a naked butt shot of lead singer Barry Hay interlocked with a similarly-posed model in a hazmat suit.

While this has remained the standard in all other countries, in the U.S. it was quickly withdrawn and replaced with a generic, less inflammatory cover.

In 1982, their album Cut delivered their biggest American hit, “Twilight Zone.” The song reached #10 on the singles chart, and #1 on the AOR tracks chart. Much of that success was credited to its compelling video, directed by Dick Maas, starring Hay as a spy beset by pursuing enemies and sexy inquisitors.

Though MTV put the video in heavy rotation, they also made edits to the content, optically cropping out a topless lady assassin, and removing frames of Hay being injected with a syringe and then reacting in pain.

Golden Earring reunited with Maas to make the video for their 1984 single “When the Lady Smiles,” from their subsequent album N.E.W.S. While the song was a hit in other parts of the world, reaching #1 in the Netherlands and #3 in Canada, it only reached #76 in America, and in a reversal of their previous fortune, the video was cited as the reason for the single’s lack of popularity in the U.S.

“When the Lady Smiles” portrays Hay as a disturbed man who hallucinates a beautiful redhead — played by model Sandra van Echten — inhabiting the bodies of ordinary women he meets in public.

In his delusional state, what he thinks are welcome passionate encounters with his fantasy woman are revealed to be unhinged attacks on terrified victims.

The man is put on trial and sentenced to a Grand Guignol-esque lobotomy, which features the return of the sultry dancers from “Twilight Zone” as nurses.

Founding member and bassist Rinus Gerritsen remembered the production for the band’s The Devil Made Us Do It DVD compilation (translated from Dutch):

“Here we pulled out all the stops with Dick Maas as far as the story goes; Acting, costume changes, Monty Python-style humor…The wife of our truck driver wanted to play the old nun who was molested in the train.”

Many were not amused by the video, especially MTV. Scenes of Echten as the nun having her habit ripped to reveal a red bra, of Hay’s brain matter being tossed to a hungry dog by a drunken doctor, and other violent images were ordered removed.

Even after cuts were made, the clip was only aired after midnight, and disappeared from the network shortly after.

The censored version of video that aired on MTV and other video shows

Decades later in 2008, at a New Year’s Day rally for Hillary Clinton in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the candidate was late for her appearance. Campaign staffers played music to placate the crowd as they waited. Among familiar hits like “I’m a Believer” and “9 to 5” was “When the Lady Smiles.”

Initially, most in attendance paid no notice, since it was not a well-known song to them. However, Ron Linker, a Dutch reporter at the rally, definitely remembered the song and the attendant notoriety, and in his coverage of the event, asked incredulously if anyone in Clinton’s organization had ever seen the video.

Netherlands media picked up the story, which led to lots of amused reactions.

Dutch humor website posted a photoshopped image in response to the story reading: “I have that Golden Earring clip and checked it once again, and indeed; the role of the nun … that was her …”

In weird timing, the incident happened just as the legendary porn film Deep Throat was about to be broadcast on Netherlands public television despite political objections, leading to wild tabloid coverage of both events.

De Pers covering “When The Lady Smiles” while DAG covers Deep Throat (photo courtesy of Jeroen Mirck)

The news reached English-language websites like Boing Boing and Daily Kos, who also mused about the Clinton camp’s lack of awareness of its checkered history.

When the band found out from a stateside fan about the song being played, they too were surprised, and their manager replied, “There’s been no contact between Clinton’s team and us. But no doubt we’ll receive royalties.”

While they have not since matched the highs of “Twilight Zone” or the shock value of “When the Lady Smiles,” both artists have enjoyed career longevity.

Golden Earring recent marked their 50th anniversary as a band, putting out their last album in 2012.

Dick Maas would be best known for directing the ‘80s killer elevator movie The Lift, as well as a 2001 English-language remake The Shaft, with Naomi Watts.

That being said, to the best of our knowledge, not a single candidate for public office of any political party has attempted to use Golden Earring’s music ever since. Nobody wants to go that deep into the Twilight Zone!

See the uncensored version of “When the Lady Smiles” along with rare videos from Nina Hagen, Yello, Chagrin D’Amour and more in Night Flight’s “Take Off to European Rock,” available 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.)

Monday, August 1, 2016

Tonight, Every Teenage Girl is Listening

Take Off to Rock and Cult,” now available for streaming on Night Flight Plus, offers generous details of the diverse feature films the program showcased for years. Among them was Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, a movie that started with a script from an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, was chosen for production by a legendary music mogul turned director, and although it was ultimately dumped by its studio, it went on to become a cult favorite after it was regularly aired on “Night Flight,” beginning in 1985.

Nancy Dowd made waves in Hollywood with her screenplay for the raucous 1977 hockey comedy Slap Shot.  She was interested in the burgeoning punk rock music created by the Ramones and Sex Pistols.

On a trip to England, she was introduced to respected U.K. punk chronicler and The Clash manager Caroline Coon, and together they toured with emerging bands, with Dowd intent on writing a screenplay about the movement.

Nancy Dowd with Lauren Bacall after receiving her Academy Award for Coming Home

By the time her screenplay All Washed Up was finished, Dowd had won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the 1978 Vietnam drama Coming Home.

With this combination of hits, her music drama was bought by Paramount. The story followed the rough fortunes of three girls forming a band called The Stains to escape their lousy circumstances.

Over the Edge director Jonathan Kaplan had wanted to direct, but the project was ultimately set up with rock promoter and founder of the Dunhill and Ode record labels Lou Adler.

Adler, who previously produced The Rocky Horror Picture Show, had made his directing debut for Paramount with Ode-signed comedians Cheech and Chong in Up in Smoke, a $2 million production that earned a then-huge $44 million in its initial release.

The film provided early leading roles for Diane Lane, Laura Dern, Marin Kanter, and Ray Winstone, and supporting roles for members of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Tubes, and other musicians. Coon signed on as creative consultant. The project was shot in Vancouver in 1981, and Dowd was present for the shoot.

Dowd, who graciously answered email questions for Night Flight, recalled the time as a miserable, shaming business. The first day of shooting, the elderly camera operator groped her on the set, but Dowd insists it wasn’t, as had been reported, the harassment that got to her: it was when Adler made her punk heroine wield a tambourine.

She endured until the week before completion of principal photography, when she returned home. She was not allowed to see the completed picture, and used her pseudonym, Rob Morton, for credit on the finished film.

After what were deemed disastrous test-screenings, Lane, Dern, and Kanter were summoned a year after shooting was completed to film a new “upbeat” ending written by Adler.

By this time, Dern was significantly taller than she previously appeared in the film. All Washed Up was rechristened Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains.

Still doubting the film’s prospects, Paramount gave it a token release in Denver, Colorado, in 1982, and shunted it off to cable shortly after.

During the initial years of “Night Flight,” its broadcast home USA Network had been run as a joint venture between Time Inc. (before its merger with Warner Communications), Universal, and Paramount. The network was mostly programmed with films and TV shows owned by its parent studios that were deemed unsuitable for normal syndication, mostly for lack of star power or mass appeal.

As such, in 1985, “Night Flight” had been requested by USA to start adding feature films to their lineup that were available from the aforementioned studios.

Paramount provided a significant number of films to “Night Flight,” including Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, Brian Gibson’s Breaking Glass and Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains.

Stains would soon become the most-played and remembered of all the features programmed into the “Night Flight” block.

Stains never received an official VHS release in any country, due to its soundtrack. Like many films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, featured pop songs were initially licensed only for theatrical and television exposure, so to release a film on home video, a new deal had to be made, and often times the price to clear music would skyrocket.

Nonetheless, Stains slowly built its reputation through bootleg trading and zine culture. And it gained an important champion who used her unusual platform to boost its profile.

Sarah Jacobson was barely out of her teens when she moved to San Francisco to pursue filmmaking, studying at San Francisco Art Institute under avant-garde provocateur George Kuchar. Her self-distributed 1997 feature debut, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, drew rave reviews from Roger Ebert, John Waters, and Sonic Youth founder Kim Gordon. Jacobson became a loud voice in media for female filmmakers.

Jacobson frequently used her respect to elevate Stains, writing a definitive history on the film for the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine in 1997, followed by a 2000 documentary short for producer John Pierson’s IFC program "Split Screen."

Both projects featured interviews with many of the principals involved. Dowd, who agreed to speak to Jacobson after previously declining interviews on the film, had no idea of the mini-Searching for Sugar Man-like status that had grown around it, in fact, no idea of its fate at all.

Tragically, while her segment promised Stains would become available to own, Jacobson would not live to see it happen, dying at age 32 from endometrial cancer in 2004.

In 2008, Stains finally made its official home video premiere through Rhino Entertainment, who agreed to pay the music clearance fees. They also announced that the film’s soundtrack, advertised in the closing credits but never issued, would be released as well.

However, weeks before the street date, for reasons not made public, the soundtrack was cancelled and almost all pressed copies destroyed. Due to a communications error, mp3s of the album did go up for sale on Amazon for a week before getting pulled. The DVD is now out of print.

Even today, Paramount clearly has a less-than-enthusiastic attitude about Stains. While the film is available from them for streaming at Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube, this is an actual studio-approved synopsis of the movie found at those pages:

“The media and disaffected teens mistake the acerbic rants of an obnoxious teenage punk rocker as a rallying cry for the women of America, launching her and her talentless group to national stardom.”

The film has received comparably more respect from generations of musicians. In the past, it was championed by Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. In the present, all-girl power pop band Ex Hex released a video in 2015 for their song “Don’t Wanna Lose,” directed by Lara Jean Gallagher, full of visual and costume references to the film.

In 2014, Will Pettite, an archivist and editor at Paramount, passed away. A memorial was held at the studio, and Stains, his favorite film, was screened. Dowd wrote this statement which was read at the wake:

“I wrote the movie that will be screened. It was a personal catastrophe. [It] lingered on my soul as an abject failure. A wound. A shame. Yes, a stain. For years. Decades. I never spoke its name…I cringed at even the glancing memory of its production…And then in the mid-nineties a telephone call from the Writers Guild alerted me that an improbable underground cult had grown around this shackled orphan, this blot on my personal landscape. Since then, all the fans I have met, each and every one, have given me huge joy and a conviction that there is the possibility that our worst moments, our darkest days, may be/might be transfigured, given time, luck and the good intentions of perfect strangers. Or not…Certainly anyone who works in a studio knows that life is unfair and often brutal. But movies can bring us all closer together. They reach out, and we live on.”

Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains may have never reached the popular heights of rock films like Purple Rain, but over the decades it has found and touched the audience that Nancy Dowd was most concerned about reaching: artistically ambitious youth, especially young women, unwilling to accept a status quo that marginalizes them, and eager to grab an instrument and make a noise to be heard.

And that is a message always worth putting out.

The author gratefully acknowledges the indispensable assistance of Nancy Dowd.

Go here to learn more about the Sarah Jacobson Film Grant.

1985 fan art created by the author

(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.)