Rockin’ in the Film World #9: JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH (2015)

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Back in March, I attended the “Experience Hendrix” live show, featuring guitar gods Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Buddy Guy, Zakk Wylde, Dweezil Zappa, Jonny Lang, and others jamming to the music of Jimi Hendrix. But as they say “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby”, and the documentary JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH is a full-on aural assault chronicling Hendrix’ 1970 performance at the Atlanta Pop Festival.

Director John McDermott begins the film with some famous talking heads (Paul McCartney, Steve Winwood, Susan Teschi, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis), as well as residents of the tiny town of Byron, where the festival was actually held (and they seem to be having a ball reminiscing!). There are clips of Hendrix on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW and of segregationist Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox (who hates them damn hippies!).

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Then it’s showtime, as Jimi and his band dive into classics like “Fire”. “All Along the Watchtower”, “Foxy Lady”, “Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe” , ‘Voodoo Child”, and “Stone Free”, which segues straight into “The Star Spangled Banner” and “‘Straight Ahead”. Jimi’s at the peak of his powers, using every trick in his repertoire, playing with his teeth, bending over backwards, working that whammy bar to bend those beautiful notes. It’s easy to forget what a powerhouse drummer Mitch Mitchell was in light of Jimi’s brilliance, but damn if he doesn’t approach Keith Moon territory with his furious playing. Billy Cox keeps a steady bass beat while Hendrix and Mitchell bounce off each other into the stratosphere.

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The performance was filmed on July 4, 1970, and less than three months later Jimi Hendrix was dead at age 27 of a barbiturate overdose. The footage for this film sat in filmmaker Steve Rash’s barn for over thirty years before being made into this documentary and released on the Showtime network. It’s been a long time coming, but now fans can enjoy this seminal piece of rock’n’roll history. It’s on DVD and Blu-Ray, and would make a fine Christmas gift for the classic rocker in your life.

Turn That Frown Upside Down With ANCHORS AWEIGH (MGM 1945)

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(Post-election blues got you depressed? Cheer up, buttercup, here’s a movie musical guaranteed to lift your sagging spirits!) 

Gene Kelly  and Frank Sinatra’s first screen pairing was ANCHORS AWEIGH, a fun-filled musical with a Hollywood backdrop that’s important in film history for a number of reasons: it gave Kelly his first chance to create his own dance routines for an entire film, it’s Sinatra’s first top-billed role (he was red-hot at the time), it gives viewers a glimpse of the MGM backlot in the Fabulous 40’s, and it features the iconic live action/animation dance between Kelly and Jerry the Mouse (of TOM & JERRY fame). It’s a showcase of Hollywood movie magic, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Kelly), Color Cinematography (Charles P. Boyle), and Song (Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn’s ” I Fall in Love Too Easily”), winning for George Stoll’s Best Original Score.

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The plot’s pretty basic: Kelly and Sinatra are two sailors on four-day shore leave in Hollywood. Kelly’s a notorious wolf, ready to go out and chase “dames”, while Sinatra’s the shy type (a former assistant choirmaster from Brooklyn!). Kelly once saved Sinatra’s life, so now Frank feels Gene “owes” him, and wants to learn how to pick up girls. They come across a little boy (cute-as-a-button Dean Stockwell) who’s run away from home to join the Navy. They return the tyke to his pretty Aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson), an extra trying to break into movies who Frank falls for. Kelly concocts a yarn about Sinatra being friends with famous conductor/pianist Jose Iturbi, and promises Aunt Susie an audition. He’s also fallen for her, though he tries to deny his feelings, and the usual musical comedy complications develop.

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What’s important about ANCHORS AWEIGH isn’t the thin plot, it’s those incredible musical numbers that help carry it from routine fluff to a higher level of art. Kelly and Sinatra perform together on “We Hate to Leave”, “I Begged Her”, and “If You Knew Susie” (a raunchy tune with funnyman Grady Sutton as Grayson’s would-be suitor). If you look closely at the dance numbers you can see Frank’s eyes watching Gene’s feet as he tries to follow his steps. The skinny-as-a-rail singer was no hoofer, and Kelly had to teach him to dance, later chiding Sinatra that he made him look “adequate”. Frank gets his chance to shine in his solo singing efforts with that incredible phrasing of his, interpreting the aforementioned “I Fall in Love Too Easily”, “Brahm’s Lullaby” (sung to Stockwell at bedtime, which also puts Kelly to sleep!), “What Makes the Sun Set”, and “The Charm of You”, all of which no doubt had the bobbysoxers swooning in the aisles.

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Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen choreographed all the dance numbers, and the success of this film led to the pair eventually co-directing such classics as SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. They’d met on Broadway when Kelly starred in PAL JOEY, and were reunited in Hollywood for his breakthrough in COVER GIRL. ANCHORS AWEIGH made them a force to be reckoned with at the movies. Gene’s athletic dancing in a number with Sharon McManus as a little beggar girl to “Las Ciapanecas” is a delight, and the fantasy “The Princess and the Bandit”, where he finally confesses his love for Grayson, is a marvelous precursor to the AMERICAN IN PARIS ballet.

But it’s for the sequence with Jerry Mouse that fans cherish most. Reportedly, Kelly and Donen approached Walt Disney with the idea of using Mickey Mouse as Kelly’s dance partner, but the cartoon giant turned them down flat. The duo then went to MGM’s own animation department, where producers William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were more than eager to take part in this joyful scene. Kelly visits little Dean Stockwell at his school, and enthralls the kids with a tale of how he once served “in the Pomeranian Navy” and brought laughter back to an animated fairy-tale land by teaching the King (Jerry) how to sing and dance. This whimsical set piece still holds up 71 years later , a true work of Hollywood art that hasn’t lost any of its charm:

Beautiful Kathryn Grayson’s operatic warbling has never been my cup of tea, but she’s more than okay as Aunt Susie, and I did enjoy her singing the Spanish-flavored “Jealousy” in a very well shot nightclub scene. Jose Iturbi’s flashing fingers on the piano uplift the standards “The Donkey Serenade” and Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” (performed by Iturbi and a battalion of young pianists at the Hollywood Bowl), and he brings humor and warmth to his small but pivotal role. A battalion of Familiar Faces is also on hand, including Pamela Britton as a waitress (from Brooklyn, of course!) with designs on Sinatra, Leon Ames , Henry Armetta, Bobby Barber, Steve Brodie, Chester Clute, Ralph Dunn, James Flavin, Billy Gilbert, Edgar Kennedy , Henry O’Neill, Milton Parsons, Rags Ragland , Renie Riano, and the entire United States Navy Band! With MGM, it was always go big or go home!

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Director George Sidney pulls out all the stops in this lavish Technicolor marvel. Sidney started in MGM’s shorts department, most notably the OUR GANG series, before being promoted to features, and quickly became one of their top musical directors. His friendship with Hanna and Barbera helped secure their services for the Jerry Mouse segment, for which we can be forever grateful! Isobel Lennart’s screenplay doesn’t get in the way of the wonderful musical numbers, and has more than enough good jokes and quips to keep the viewer interested between the dancing and singing. ANCHORS AWEIGH is one of the great 40’s musicals from MGM’s dream factory, a film to be viewed and enjoyed over and over again. As they say in show biz, “Now THAT’S entertainment!”.

Halloween Havoc! Extra: Bobby “Boris” Pickett Does THE MONSTER MASH With Zacherley!

Happy Halloween! One of my favorite Halloween traditions is hearing Bobby “Boris” Pickett sing his 1962 smash THE MONSTER MASH, and this year I’ve discovered a real treat. Bobby doing a live performance at the Chiller Theater con in 2005 with none other than the late, great Zacherley! Enjoy!

Halloween Havoc! Extra: SCREAMING JAY HAWKINS, the Original “Shock Rocker”

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Before Alice Cooper brought his theatrical “shock rock” to audiences, before Black Sabbath sang hymns to Satan, there was Screaming Jay Hawkins! A blues belting maniac from Cleveland, Hawkins incorporated horror into his stage shows, the likes of which had never been seen. Crowds ate it up as Screaming Jay popped out of his coffin, dressed as a voodoo priest complete with cape, top hat, and a smoking skull named ‘Henry’ atop his staff, performing his best known hit, “I Put a Spell On You”:

The story goes Hawkins and his band originally planned “I Put a Spell On You” as a slow blues ballad, but they all got roaring drunk at the session, resulting in Hawkins guttural screaming, and turning the song into a frenzied rock classic. The tune has been covered by dozens of artists, from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Annie Lennox and beyond. Screaming Jay recorded many other horror-themed hits like “Frenzy” (featured in an episode of THE X-FILES) and the gruesome, cannibal themed “Feast of the Mau Mau”:

Like many early rockers, Hawkins found greater fame in Europe than his native country, and toured incessantly until his death in 2000 at age 70. He’s said to have sired between 50-75 children, thirty of which showed up at a reunion. Whether that boast is true or not, it only adds to the legend of one of the most colorful characters in rock history, the original “shock rocker” Screaming Jay Hawkins!

The Wild & Wacky World of Dickie Goodman

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“Sampling” in popular music today is as common as a cold, with hip-hop and electronica artists cutting in bits and pieces from other artist’s songs to create something entirely new. You could say Dickie Goodman was “The Godfather of Sampling” and not be far from the truth. Goodman and his partner-in-crime Bill Buchanan were the originators of “break-in” records, novelty discs that spliced snippets of contemporary hit tunes into comic scenarios, starting with the 1956 smash “The Flying Saucer Pts. 1 & 2”.

Goodman was born in Brooklyn on April 19, 1934. He was a struggling young songwriter when he and Buchanan came up with the idea of producing a comedy record based on Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, using lines from rock records as answers to man-on-the-street questions. Goodman played the DJ while Buchanan acted as reporter “John Cameron Cameron”, a play on noted newsman and Timex pitchman John Cameron Swayze. The silliness gained airplay in New York, and soon went national, climbing to #3 on the Billboard charts:

 The song created quite a buzz among listeners, but some of the artists sampled (including Fats Domino) were not amused, suing Buchanan and Goodman for copyright infringement. The case went to court, and the judge ruled in the defendent’s favor, stating the record was a parody and as such considered a new piece of work. Buchanan and Goodman went on their merry way poking fun at virtually every fad or trend that came along. They even parodied their own legal battles with “Buchanan and Goodman On Trial”:

The duo eventually parted ways, and Goodman went solo, parodying every trend from TV crime shows (“The Touchables”) to monster movies (“Frankenstein of ’59”) to spy flicks (“James Bomb”). One of my favorites is Goodman’s take on the mid-60’s superhero camp craze, “Batman and His Grandmother”:

Goodman continued in this satirical vein spoofing politics with records like “On Campus”, “Watergate”, and “Mr. President”. He went toe-to-toe with “Mr. Rocky”, flew into space again with “Star Warts”, and had his biggest success ever with the 1975 spoof “Mr. Jaws”:

Dickie Goodman’s life took a turn for the worst in the 80’s when his wife left him. Heavily in debt due to his gambling addiction, Goodman shot himself on November 6, 1989. The party was over, but his legacy lives on. Goodman’s son Jon wrote a book on his father called “The King of Novelty” in 2000, which is still available on Amazon. Dickie Goodman’s “break-in” records brought loads of laughs to his listeners, and are still funny today as a nostalgic look back at the fads and foibles of yesteryear. I’ll leave you with one of his latter-day efforts, the Reagan-era “Mr. President”. Enjoy!

Rosanna! Rosanna!

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Rosanna Arquette turns 57 today! The beautiful granddaughter of comedian Cliff Arquette (aka Charlie Weaver of HOLLYWOOD SQUARES fame) began her career in the 70’s with TV mini-series like THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME and THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG, which brought her acclaim playing Nicole Baker in the adaptation of Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel based on the Gary Gilmore case.

Soon Rosanna hit the big screen, costarring in John Sayles’ BABY IT’S YOU, then her signature role as the bored housewife who takes a walk on the wild side in DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, the first major film for pop princess Madonna. Rosanna did some  good movies (SILVERADO, 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE), then her career took somewhat of a nose dive, and she wound up in Europe a few years. Quentin Tarantino cast her as the dope dealer’s wife in the seminal PULP FICTION, and since then Rosanna has continued to act on television and movies, and branched out into directing documentaries.

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But Rosanna is mostly known for a video she didn’t even appear in. She was dating Steve Porcaro of Toto when the band recorded the smash hit “Rosanna”, and naturally music lovers assumed the song was about her. This wasn’t true, but the band went along with the rumor, which probably helped it’s popularity, besides the fact it’s a good tune. The lead dancer is not Rosanna, but Cynthia Rhodes, who went on to star with John Travolta in the bomb STAYING ALIVE. The video received heavy airplay on MTV (back when they were actually about the music), with it’s WEST SIDE STORY-ish feel (look for Patrick Swayze as one of the dancers). So in honor of Rosanna Arquette’s birthday, here’s a look at “Rosanna”: