Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Movie About The Song That Once Said Something New

It’s been said that before there was the printed word, songs and poetry carried stories to the people for centuries. One learned of ancestral tales and current events through verses and chorus. Then when the printed word allowed for printed music, the symbiotic relationship continued. And when motion pictures allowed for stories to be told with concurrent visuals, one of the first instincts was to reach to pre-existing pop songs to create them. Warner Bros. initially launched the “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” animated shorts to serve as prototypical music videos for the songs in their Warner-Chappell publishing catalog. The earliest films of American sweetheart Doris Day were often constructed from entries of The Great American Songbook – MY DREAM IS YOURS, LULLABY OF BROADWAY, ON MOONLIGHT BAY, BY THE LIGHT OF THE SILVERY MOON, YOUNG AT HEART, and more.

Entering into the tail end of the ‘80s, pop song needle-drops became one of the most important elements in entertainment. AMERICAN GRAFFITI, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, and PURPLE RAIN became legendary not only for compelling drama but for wall-to-wall music placement. Smaller movies that would otherwise have had marginal box office appeal gained extra promotion and longevity through radio-friendly theme tunes. Soundtracks dominated the Billboard Top100 Album chart. And after years of using cheap cover versions on random occasions, TV shows got serious and integrated music supervision using original recordings by original artists into the process after “MIAMI VICE” became destination television thanks to its striking use of pop songs as score.

It was within this climate that an energetic record company promoter/operator and a gig-hopping musician/producer decided to tap into this symbiotic circumstance. A.J. Cervantes had been a Regional Director of Promotion for Casablanca Records, pushing the earliest Donna Summer and Kiss singles, and the founder of dance music label Butterfly, whose roster included Saint Tropez, who recorded a disco cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je t’aime (Moi non plus).” Ron Altbach had been a founding member of King Harvest, famous for the 1972 lite rock hit “Dancing in the Moonlight,” and a frequent collaborator with The Beach Boys in the late ‘70s, writing and producing songs for the group, and playing in a Mike Love-fronted side band Celebration, who recorded the title theme for Martin Davidson’s 1978 teen comedy ALMOST SUMMER. The longtime friends had launched a new label, Destiny Records, in 1981, and as music video demand dramatically increased with the launch of MTV, they linked the company to an existing firm, Mediacom, who were producing clips and concert specials. And after a solid run of small-scale product, they took an ambitious step upward...

You've heard the song, now see the movie: A California-based company called Mediacom Industries is making a string of low-budget films titled after popular songs. For about $ 2 million each, it has already shot "House of the Rising Sun" and "Hot Child in the City," is now finishing "Nights in White Satin" and is in the planning stages for "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Fire and Rain." These won't be 90-minute rock videos, swear the folks at Mediacom, who prefer to dub the pictures "music-driven films." Most will include the original versions of the songs they're named after, though they'll obviously have to toy with plot lines to turn three verses and a chorus into a full-length narrative. "House of the Rising Sun," for example, is about a female reporter investigating the world of expensive prostitutes. "Hot Child in the City" follows an innocent Kansas youngster to Los Angeles to look into her sister's murder. So far, none of the movies has a distribution deal.

- from wire news report published in The Washington Post, September 16, 1986.

This initial three-picture slate assembled a curious mix of young technicians from Mediacom’s music video activities and some grizzled veterans of television production dating back to the fifties to create the films, with generally experienced but not name-recognizable talent to act in them. In effect, producers Cervantes and Altbach were trying the same retrofitting strategy as WB likely did with their cartoons and Doris Day vehicles: find a familiar evocative song title, come up with a story that it could plausibly anchor, pour through a catalog of other available tracks and see which ones can provide justifiable dramatic placement, and shoot it quickly in a specific part of Los Angeles, giving all three films a sort of uniform aesthetic. In addition, while released to video unrated, with occasional topless moments and plots involving racy behavior, they were chaste enough that their cassette releases stated, “Suitable for broadcast in all media; parental supervision suggested,” ready to adapt to the strictures of any potential country’s low threshold for sex, or what is derisively referred to today as “Amazon Prime Erotica” or “PG-13 porn.”

Eight months later, in May 1987, the trusted independent video label Prism Entertainment announced their partnership with Mediacom (and their California Limited Partnership company Music Video Associates) to release the trio to all media. The budgets for the first three films were cited as between $1.8 million -$2.5 million, likely a combined total for the entire trilogy. While Prism promised a theatrical release in advance of cable and home video availability, no record can be found of any American playdates, and while shot on film, all the entries are clearly edited on standard definition tape with videoburned credits, and seem to adhere to a 1.33 composition, so that claim was likely either wishful thinking at best or outright ballyhoo to gin up video store buyers’ interest, since being able to tout “Direct from Theatrical Release!” was considered a selling point. Prism also reiterated Mediacom’s plans of two more movies to come, this time titled “Blue Suede Shoes” and “September Song.”

Viewing these films in the present day, they are definitely time capsules of their zeitgeist. And considering the ‘80s are still of great fascination to people who were born so long after that time it would be as far away to them as, say, watching The Bowery Boys would be to a ‘70s grade schooler, they’re pretty entertaining on a prime level of anthropological stimulation. All three movies focus on female protagonists and have plots reminiscent of soap operas and Harlequin novels (additional producer and contributing writer Giovanna Nigro-Chacon had previously worked on the syndicated series “ROMANCE THEATRE” hosted by Louis Jordan), so there is a canny appeal to couples rather than just men. More importantly, despite producers trying to impose a template on all of them, by the nature of the parties that made them, there is a vibe and personality to each that makes them interesting beyond just serving as retro eye candy. While the details are subject to a fudge factor, they are being reviewed in their ostensible pattern of release in the second half of 1987 – the year that I started college, Rick Astley released “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the first National Coming Out Day took place, and KFC opened up in China…

Release: VHS street date not located; HBO debut September 16, 1987

Plot: While staging a fashion shoot in one of downtown L.A.’s dormant loading docks, successful but restless photographer Jordan (Kip Gilman) spots a bedraggled homeless girl (Priscilla Harris) who walks through the area, who piques his interest. Tracking her down at a local shelter, he learns her name is Lisa, and entreats her to come pose for him. She ends up crashing at his home studio, and after some awkward attempts at communication, agrees to apprentice under him. The more he discovers about her life, including her long-dormant love of dance, the more he is motivated to detach from his superficial work. But leaving behind familiar environments is difficult for them both.

Creators: Writer William Kronick worked mostly in documentary programming, writing and producing several works for George Plimpton and The Wolper Organization along with behind the scenes looks at movie stunts, plus occasional second unit direction on the Dino DeLaurentiis productions of KING KONG and FLASH GORDON. Director Michael Barnard, doing double duty as editor, was significantly younger than Kronick, and operated a digital production/post-production company, LightningBolt PIX, along with being a frequent collaborator of outsider director Avery Crounse, editing his films EYES OF FIRE and SISTER ISLAND, and directing several videos for Motown. This would be his only narrative fiction film, sticking to directing documentary projects and other tech work, and continuing to keep a foot in the music world, serving as sound editor for Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” video.

Cast: Kip Gilman starred in a string of several one-season shows for CBS, including “JESSICA NOVAK” with Helen Shaver, before lucking into a supporting role on “TRAPPER JOHN M.D.” during their 1986 season. He also headlined William Fruet’s surprise hit thriller BEDROOM EYES. And in serendipity to the music-oriented origins of this film, he appeared in one of the best-loved episodes of CBS’ 1986 revival of “THE TWILIGHT ZONE,” “Nightsong” with Lisa Eilbacher, which took its name from the Crosby Stills Nash & Young track. Priscilla Harris has been a resident dancer on Lorenzo Lamas’ synicated music show “DANCIN’ TO THE HITS,” and after a few other credits, left acting to start a dance/fitness studio in Seattle. Kim Waltrip, who plays a predatory model named Stevie, is now a producer/director, with THE DISAPPAREANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY among her credits.

Influence: Its structure of a diffident artist being stirred by a troubled muse definitely declares an attempt at making a subdued remake of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s BETTY BLUE. Its frequent use of neon colors and often barren, starkly furnished rooms suggests Beineix’s previous breakout hit, DIVA.

Song usage: “Nights in White Satin” shows up 2/3 into the movie at an appropriately pivotal moment: when Lisa goes to the roof of Jordan’s studio at dawn to dance about, and they finally kiss. Most of the other tracks either tap into the glam climate - “Obsession,” Art of Noise’s cover of “Peter Gunn,” “Don Quichotte (No Están Aquí)” - or augment onscreen action – Pat Benatar’s “Sex As a Weapon,” “My Sharona,” “Lay Your Hands on Me.” Amusingly, the video trailer to promote it uses “Rock the Casbah,” which is nowhere to be found in the film.

Reactions: Since Kronick as writer has a documentary background, his insights on the homeless have slightly more accuracy than the average John L. Sullivan screenplay, but it still smacks of typical “O their nobility!” romanticism. Harris recognizes this is her swing for the fences, and throws herself into making her otherwise stock character gritty and believable; she doesn’t speak a word until 29 minutes into the movie, so she does a better than average job keeping our fascination through her facial expressions and behavior up to that point. I think hers is the best acting to be found in the series. And I rather liked the social activist bent of the story’s resolution.

Release: VHS street date October 6, 1987

Plot: Kansas-dwelling Rachel Wagner (Leah Ayres) comes to Hollywood to visit her high-living record executive sister Abby Wagner (Shari Shattuck). But after a disorienting night of clubbing with Abby’s client and frenemy Charon (Antony Alda), Abby is found dead in a dumpster. While Rachel sets about finding her sister’s killer, she also finds herself taking on aspects of Abby’s personality, which may well make her the next victim.

Creators: George Goldsmith wrote several genre favorites beforehand: the adaptation of Stephen King’s CHILDREN OF THE CORN, FORCE: FIVE, and William Fruet’s BLUE MONKEY. John Florea had started out as a Life magazine photographer who became the unoffical chronicler of Marilyn Monroe early years, shooting several portraits of her from her debut in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE up to THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS. When the legend switched to other photographers, Florea went into television, directing several shows and the occasional feature and Movie-of-the-Week over three decades. HOT CHILD would be his final credit, after which he retired to Las Vegas, where he passed in 2000 at age 84.

Cast: Shari Shattuck had a direct connection to MTV, playing the mystery blonde in 38 Special’s videos for “Caught Up In You” and “You Keep Running Away,” and appearing in THE NAKED CAGE, DEATH SPA, the ‘91 season of “DALLAS,” and the ‘99 season of “THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS;” she is still active presently, and is also writing mystery novels. Leah Ayres started out as a catalog model for Kenner Toys’ Darci doll before appearing in ALL THAT JAZZ and THE BURNING, and being a resident player on “THE EDGE OF NIGHT,” “NINE TO FIVE,” and “ST. ELSEWHERE.” In keeping with her origin in children’s play, she left acting to found the educational products firm Imaginazium. Antony Alda was the half-brother of Alan Alda, and appeared in one episode of “M*A*S*H” and a role in his comedy SWEET LIBERTY, along with other character parts, before passing away in 2009 at age 52.

Influence: While all the films that constitute the golden period of the “erotic thriller” would not yet come until after this movie wrapped production, Joe Eszterhas’ screenplay of JAGGED EDGE and its “is he or isn’t he” dynamic had already been a big hit. And its equating of dance spots as the playground of potential killers has its roots in LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, CRUISING, and BODY DOUBLE.

Song usage: The opening credits get “Hot Child in the City” out of the way quickly, with the sisters driving around seeing all the pretty sights that would entrance a small-town girl. All the other tracks effectively convey the emotions of the scenes they underscore - “We Close Our Eyes,” “Eyes Without a Face,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” Fun Boy Three’s cover of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Flesh for Fantasy.” Also, since I am deducing that the club scenes were filmed at what had been the influential hotspot The Probe on 836 N. Highland, the song choices feel like they would have actually been heard there back in the day.

Reactions: This is clearly the best executed of the three films – the combined experience of the writer and director demonstrate they have polished instincts in plotting and staging. It’s pretty easy to figure out who the killer is, but it’s executed fairly enough and rather enhances the climax’s suspense. There’s lots of visual moments that are choice, like the colors the women garb themselves in, and an early scene when a poster of Shari reflects in the mirror that both her character Abby and then her sister are looking into. On the downside, the story is pathetically homophobic in presenting not one but two treacherous bisexual suspects, though despite his unrealistic presentation, Alda as the unstable fallen rock star Charon milks his role to the hilt so that it almost feels like he’s in on its ludicrousness. On the upside, it has an otherwise commendable sex-positive viewpoint: in a pivotal moment when the detective hurls slut-shaming language about Abby’s death, Rachel comes on to him, cuts him off abruptly, and tartly declares, “Women don’t get in trouble when they say yes; it’s when they say no.”

Release: VHS street date December 15, 1987

Plot: After a chance meeting in a bar, frustrated reporter Janet (Jamie Barrett) follows a lead from call girl Corey (Tawny Moyer) and goes undercover inside her palatial brothel to investigate the suspicious behavior of its sinister boss Louis (Frank Annese). Once embedded, Janet faces the twin risks of going all the way with her subterfuge, and whether she will be able to emerge with the truth of the house’s activities alive.

Creators: Producer Giovanna Nigro-Chacon, who along with the previously mentioned “ROMANCE THEATRE” series had a hand in the unusual 1977 NBC children’s series “THAT’S CAT,” shares screenplay credit with John Alan Schwartz, who wrote for several Glen A. Larson-produced TV series as “KNIGHT RIDER” and “THE FALL GUY,” but will ultimately be remembered for creating the infamous “mondo” documentary film series FACES OF DEATH. Director Greg Gold was among the founders of the influential production company Propaganda Films, along with future filmmakers David Fincher, Dominic Sena, and Nigel Dick, and producers Steve Golin and Sigurjon Sighvatsson; Propaganda would be responsible for several influential music videos and cult films. However, while he did several music videos and other projects after, this would be the only feature credit for Gold, who died in 2015 at age 64.

Cast: Leading lady Jamie Barrett seems to have only one other credit: Norman Thaddeus Vane’s drama CLUB LIFE starring Michael Parks, Tony Curtis and Kristine DeBell. Tawny Moyer was a former model who previously appeared in HALLOWEEN II It’s in the lower credits, however, that things get particularly interesting. Billed fifth is James Daughton, the immortal douche Greg Marmalard from ANIMAL HOUSE, almost unrecognizable as a buff, bleach-blond henchman who’s usually shirtless. Under him is John J. York, who spent decades as Mac Scorpio on “GENERAL HOSPITAL” and its spinoffs, along with playing Eric Cord on Fox’s “WEREWOLF.” Billed eighth is David Knoller, who didn’t make much of a splash as an actor, but now has several TV producing credits including “BIG LOVE,” “CARNIVALE,” and “LOVECRAFT COUNTRY.” And a special credit is given for Bud Davis, longtime stuntman, second unit director, and occasional actor, notable for embodying the Phantom Killer in Charles B. Pierce’s original THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN.

Influence: While not delving into the kink play of Adrian Lyne’s 9½ WEEKS, it is definitely aiming for the same sort of “sexual awakening through submission” message it propounded. And its placement of two Bryan Ferry songs - “Don’t Stop the Dance” and “Boys and Girls” - were likely chosen based on the use of “Slave to Love” in the former film. Auspiciously in turn, its “Nellie Bly in the Cathouse” plot eerily predicts the kind of scenarios that would be found on WEEKS’ screenwriter Zalman King’s “RED SHOE DIARIES” series years later.

Song usage: “House of the Rising Sun” only shows up during the closing credits, and it’s a gospel-styled rerecording by Denise Mitchell “and Friends,” which feels like a bit of a cheat after the example set by the previous films. A comparably stingy song score meanwhile, with only the aforementioned Bryan Ferry tracks along with “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and Icehouse’s “No Promises.”

Reactions: Gold definitely indulges his music video impulses in the staging and cutting of the movie; As Letterboxd contributor Hunter Cooper wrote, “28 freeze frames in the first 7 minutes of the film...And 5 of them being of someone ordering a Coke.” However, considering the infamous scenarios that John Alan Schwartz easily conjured up for FACES OF DEATH, the events unfolding here are deflatingly tame by comparison. It’s pretty much all garter belt and no stockings. But, it did manage a couple swerves that I did not anticipate, and I liked the running gag of Janet’s car being constantly on the fritz, so points for those.

Mediacom and Prism did follow through with their intention to continue the template, but contrary to the bullish promises of their press releases, there would only be one more film to follow after this initial three-picture offering. Behind the scenes, it was announced by a short Los Angeles Times blurb in February 1988 that Ron Altbach was stepping down as president of Mediacom, to be replaced by his vice-president of production, Strathford Hamilton, who had served as post-production supervisor on HOT CHILD IN THE CITY, and, coincidentally, would direct this final entry, now titled BLUEBERRY HILL. (Hamilton’s wife, Marcy Levitas Hamilton, served as editor on HOT CHILD as well.) The project was shot in 12 days for $500,000, which would seem to put it on par with the previous works, but when considering the marquee-level cast that was enlisted in this instance versus the lesser-known performers used before, some savvy dealmaking must have been achieved. At some point during the production, MGM got a look at it, and needing product to fill their barren slate, acquired all rights to it, and gave it a minimal theatrical release before it reached home video from CBS-Fox.

Release: limited theatrical run December 2, 1988

Plot: Within the dying mining town of Johnsondale, California, in 1956, teenaged Ellie Dane (Jennifer Rubin) bristles at the constant negging and browbeating from her mother Becca (Carrie Snodgress), who has never recovered from her husband Charlie dying the same night Ellie was born. Her boyfriend Denny (Matt Lattanzi) talks often about leaving the town to join a racing pit crew, and offers to take her along, but keeps dallying on his plan. A chance meeting with another local widow, Hattie Cale (Margaret Avery), opens the door to Ellie learning details of her father’s life she never knew before, tapping into her own aspirations. But they are details that Becca has refused to deal with for too long.

Creators: Writer Lonon Smith had previously written the “dachshunds dressed as rats” horror film DEADLY EYES, and later scripted some episodes of “MATLOCK.” Before joining the Mediacom collective, Strathford Hamilton had produced several music videos, particularly The Clash’s “London Calling.” Of all the personnel from these projects that are still living, he has firmly stayed in film production, producing or handling foreign distribution for several films, and occasionally directing. He also had a hand in launching “MIGHTY MORPHIN’ POWER RANGERS” upon America. Marcy Levitas Hamilton returns to editing duties here.

Cast: For once, the ensemble here needs no “You may have seen them in...” directions, but looking at where their careers were at the time does offer some insight. Carrie Snodgress and Margaret Avery had both previously received Academy Award nominations, but by the time of shooting, Snodgress was averaging roughly one movie a year in mid-budget projects, and Avery had not made a feature since appearing in THE COLOR PURPLE, working mostly in television. The fact that Avery gets to sing and even co-write a song was likely an incentive. Jennifer Rubin had been drawing attention modeling for print and commercials when she appeared in NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3, BAD DREAMS and PERMANENT RECORD around the same time as this production.

Influence: No articles have been located to describe what kind of plot was envisioned when “Blue Suede Shoes” was first proposed, but at some point after completing the first trio of projects, the producers probably saw the tremendous performance of the early ‘60s-set DIRTY DANCING (for which RISING SUN’s Greg Gold directed the video for “I’ve Had the Time of My Life”), and made the decision to transform it into a similar female-driven maturation tale, right down to losing the swaggering aura of the Carl Perkins/Elvis Presley song they first chose to the nostalgic melancholy suggested by BLUEBERRY HILL. Besides self-actualization, this movie shares the same elegiac portrayal of its long-gone Johnsondale setting as DIRTY DANCING had for its milieu for the outdated vacation colonies of the Catskills; it even ends with a post-credits cookie telling the viewer that in the very year of its filming and production, the entire town of Johnsondale went up for sale. (It is now a resort called R-Ranch.)

Song usage: “Blueberry Hill” pops up initially as Ellie’s go-to when she noodles on the piano, with the classic Fats Domino rendition playing over the credits. A decent amount of needle-drops throughout: “Tutti Frutti,” “Rip it Up,” “I’m a Man,” “Come Go with Me,” “Ain’t Got No Home,” Big Joe Turner’s “Jumpin’ Tonight,” Smiley Lewis’ rendition of “I Hear You Knockin’,” and The Moonglows’ “Sincerely.” Covers are substituted for “My Special Angel” and “Only You.” All of the songs Margaret Avery performs are originals, with her credited as co-writer on “No Good Man Low Down Dirty Blues.”

Reactions: It’s not truly fair to compare this outing to the other three, because even though it still follows their template, this is a quantum leap beyond those previous productions. The CBS-Fox VHS is standard 1.33, but this was clearly composed for 1.85 projection (and with widescreen TV zoom tools, fits perfectly), was edited on film with lab-finished credits (though the end credits are still videoburned, suggesting an early master prepared before MGM’s acquisition was supplied to the label), and befitting its atmospheric location shooting, has a lived-in production value that the other projects lacked. As a teenage blossoming story, it’s not breaking any new ground, and its portrayal of mid-50’s race relations is way too idealized, but everyone is sincere and empathetic, and it delivers comfort. And its ending where young love is shown not to be the solution to everything is a nice touch for 1988. If MGM had the resources to give it more than just a contractual obligation run, they could have had a hit with it in the manner they would years later with simple love stories as UNTAMED HEART and THE CUTTING EDGE.

Whether they felt they’d reached their apex with selling to a major studio, or that there were too many players competing for a limited slice of indie movie pie, Mediacom shut down operations by 1991. Cervantes and Altbach have continued to work together in other ventures; today they are respectively President and Corporate Advisor to Bonne Sante Group, “an emerging growth global nutraceutical company” with emphasis on hemp-based CBD products. And while strategic music placement is still an important and well-liked aspect of feature and television production, the retconned music drama format they attempted is for the most part a no longer viable template.

Today, the movies that came out of the Mediacom/Music Video Associates venture have been mostly forgotten. In a sad irony, the very element that made them a hot property – their song-heavy soundtracks – have made them unlikely to ever surface again on physical media; since DVD was not yet a reality, the contracts for the music only covered tape release, and seeing as there are now only three major labels that control the bulk of all recordings, the cost of relicensing those tracks for Blu-Ray has probably skyrocketed. Plus, aside from BLUEBERRY HILL, an HD upgrade would require a complete rescan of the elements and reassembly in the digital realm, adding further to the potential expense. NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN and HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN have been recently found available to stream in Standard Definition on Tubi, but the superior HOT CHILD IN THE CITY and BLUEBERRY HILL are not to be found online beyond used VHS copies.

But if you do track one of these down and watch them, much like getting Rick-rolled online, it’s kinda fun to go back to an older, more colorful place and time...

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