I’m fascinated by the subculture of tribute bands. The groups that are serious work hard to replicate whatever act they are paying tribute to, and I’m intrigued by all the different reasons why they do it. It’s not just the bands that are interesting, but also the attendees of the shows, some of whom are fanatical. In the early 2000s, a few indie documentaries concerning the subject were released, but they’ve all been pretty much forgotten. Which is too bad, as the two I’ve seen are both worth checking out.
I first saw Tribute years ago on the Sundance channel, and have watched it a number of times. The film follows five tribute bands, and I found myself mesmerized by their stories. There’s a surprising amount of drama, often reaching Spinal Tap-esque levels of absurdity. In Tribute, we get to know the people who play in these bands, and for many, performing as a member of a famous group in front of an enthusiastic audience is the thing that makes them happiest. A frequent attendee of the gigs put on by Queen tribute act, Sheer Heart Attack, is profiled. His dedication is unwavering because he gets to experience a Queen live show, despite the fact that the Queen he loves no longer exists, and gets to see the band in an up close, personal setting.
Tributary – A Study of an American Pop Culture Subculture is the work of Russell Forster. The director first made waves with his 1995 documentary about obsessive collectors of 8-track tapes, So Wrong They’re Right. Tributary was his follow-up film. Forster aims for a scholarly approach here, dividing the bands into categories based on what he believes their motivations are. There are way more groups in Tributary—including the high concept and fabulous Ace’s High, a KISS tribute band whose members all dressed up like Ace Frehley—so you get more bang for your buck. At least you get more Aces…
It Takes a Little More Courage is the title and opening line to a brief, all too brief, conversation with documentarian Albert Maysles (1926-2015) filmed by Alfonso Nogueroles in 2012
The gravel-voiced Maysles (pronounced May-zuls) quickly riffed on his work with brother David (1931-87) and discussed what it is needed to make a good documentary—stories.
The Maysles brothers pioneered a brand of documentary-making called Direct Cinema in which they allowed the film’s subjects to speak freely, directly, for themselves without any questions or commentary. The main inspiration for their style of filmmaking came from a rather unlikely source—Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. This book led the Maysles to “experiment in film the way Capote had experimented in literature,” or as Albert Maysles later described it:
Making a film isn’t finding the answer to a question; it’s trying to capture life as it is.
Both brothers studied psychology at Boston University and after graduating Albert went onto document psychiatric conditions in Russia, while David moved into working in Hollywood as a production assistant. David grew “disenchanted” with conventional film-making and together with Albert the brothers began making their own documentary films with David on sound and Albert on camera. Their first works together were Russian Close-Up (although only credited to Albert Maysles) and Youth in Poland. Then in 1960, the brothers joined photojournalist Robert Drew’s film company where they worked on projects alongside the likes of Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker. After filming Truman Capote for the launch of his novelized work of non-fiction In Cold Blood (1966), the brothers decided to approach filmmaking in the same way Capote had documented the quadruple murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959 by Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, and detailed their subsequent trial and execution. Taking Capote’s book as their inspiration, the Maysles went onto create a new kind of revelatory documentary where the story seemingly developed organically. Their works included a look at the business of door-to-door Bible salesmen, Salesman (1969), the Rolling Stones’ fateful appearance at Altamont Gimme Shelter (1970), and the lives of two reclusive upper middle class women, a mother and daughter, who lived together on a derelict estate Grey Gardens (1976). Each of these films changed the way filmmakers thought about and made documentaries.
Nogueroles’s short film It Takes a Little More Courage is a bit like a student project and leaves you wondering how much interview was shot and how much was was edited out. On the up side, it leaves you wanting to go back and watch some of those old Maysles’ masterworks.
Seventeen is a made-for-TV documentary on American teenagers. Highly controversial before it even aired, it was pulled and never made it to the small screen. It went on to become an award-winning film.
Seventeen is the work of filmmakers Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines (note that DeMott is female, despite her traditionally male forename). The duo followed a group of Class of 1981 seniors during their final year at Muncie’s Southside High School. In the film, students mouth off to their teachers, curse up a storm, talk openly and graphically about sex, get drunk, get high, and are generally seen acting in an irresponsible fashion. Race relations is a recurrent topic—the language used will be shocking to the average viewer—with the threat of violence breaking out between black and white residents so frequent that it becomes unnerving. A number of students appear in Seventeen, but the focus is on Lynn Massie, a particularly outspoken and vivacious teen. Massie, who is white, is dating a black classmate, which is frowned upon by many in her community. At one point, racist neighbors burn a cross on the Massies’ front lawn.
As upsetting as cross burning is (though the Massies seem unsurprised by it), perhaps the most alarming sequence in the film takes place during a drunken house party. Amongst the high schoolers getting wasted is Lynn’s youngest brother—who can’t be more than twelve—who chugs beer after beer. When the keg runs dry, Lynn starts counting her cash for a beer run, when “Jeff” (likely filmmaker Kreines) is heard off-camera agreeing to chip in. Then Lynn’s mother appears in the room and it quickly becomes apparent that we’ve been watching a bunch of underage young people getting blotto at a party sanctioned by parents. Mrs. Massie even narcs on a couple of partygoers who didn’t pay the $3 cover. Unbelievable.
The most movielike instance in Seventeen occurs when, after the night of partying, the teens silently mourn the recent death of a friend while listening to music. It’s a moment in which it’s easy to forget that what’s happening on screen isn’t scripted—it’s real.
Seventeen is compelling cinéma vérité, for sure, but it just wasn’t the sort of thing that was seen on TV in 1982. Xerox, the corporate sponsor of Middletown, as well as PBS affiliates, had a largely negative reaction to Seventeen. There was also the threat of lawsuits from some of the Muncie residents who appeared in the film, and PBS likely had concerns that future federal funding could be cut. It’s unclear if Peter Davis, the producer of Middletown, pulled Seventeen, or if PBS president Larry Grossman gave it the ax, but on March 30, 1982, PBS announced the documentary wouldn’t air.
The invention of the polyurethane wheel in 1972 literally reinvented the wheel for the modern skateboard. While Team Zephyr etcetera were tearing up the empty pools of the west coast, it wasn’t for another decade that underground skateboarding began to seep into the cul-de-sacs of suburban America. More than just a surfer fad, skateboarding echoed the defiant self-expression of the nation’s youth subcultures. So it was no surprise then, that the sport often gravitated toward the thriving punk movements of the era. Ever the locale for political discomfort, Washington DC under Reagan was a mecca of punk and hardcore, with bands like Minor Threat and Bad Brains setting the nation’s pulse. Obviously, the skate culture came along with it.
The only problem was, in DC there was nowhere to skate. The short-lived scene saw a demise in the mid 80s, with the closing of the city’s only parks and backyard ramps. That was, until the Cedar Crest Country Club. Located in the middle of a forest in Centreville, Virginia, the half-pipe was built in March 1986 on the property of a golf club. The property owner’s son was given free-reign on expenses, resulting in the construction of a ramp like none other. Besides its behemoth-like qualities, the most notable feature of the ramp was its steel bottom, which ensured maximum speed and higher air time. There was nothing else in the country like it at the time, and it was free to ride if you could make the hour trek outside of the District.
Tony Hawk skates Cedar Crest
Before long, people from all over the world were dropping in at CCCC. Some of the world’s greatest skaters, like Tony Hawk and Bucky Lasek, all came out to skate. Camping was allowed, and people started showing up for the punk shows they had on the ramp. Bad Brains played, along with Government Issue, GWAR, and Scream (with a young Dave Grohl on drums). Fugazi was scheduled to play CCCC for one of their earliest shows, but the cops broke it up during the opener’s set (evening skating resumed, however).
When I die I want to see every gig I ever went to and every Morrissey-related experience flash before my eyes. Then I can die flat out.
—A Morrissey super-fan or an “irregular regular” on her dedication to the great and powerful Moz.
Though at times the various accents from some the fans featured in Love Bites are difficult to understand, it doesn’t prevent you from clearly seeing how utterly devoted they are to the former Smiths crooner. The documentary is based on a lovely group of people who followed Morrissey around during the early 1990s when he was out supporting his 1992 album Your Arsenal and 1994’s Vauxhall & Iin the U.K. The first-hand accounts from the “irregular regulars” is pretty endearing stuff—especially when it comes to how seeing Moz live makes them feel, such as a young female fan who equated the experience to “attending the church of Morrissey.” Many of Moz’s male fans have their hair styled just like their idol and there’s even a guy who tricked out his scooter with pictures of Morrissey all over it. Now that’s love.
I’m not going to share much more about the doc as I don’t want to spoil it. This is truly a heartfelt glimpse into the lives of people who were collectively moved by Moz’s live performances and being. It is also a rather engrossing watch and I found that all 38 minutes of it kind of flew by when I watched it, mostly due to Morrissey’s quippy and quotable hardcore fans. When asked about her devotion to the singer one of them shared the following melancholy thought:
I’m sure he loves us as much as we love him. I’m sure he thinks about us.
And with a quote that was seemingly plucked from Morrissey’s own brooding playbook, I’ll leave you to watch ‘Love Bites’ after the jump…
Show Me Your Soul: The Soul Train Years is a 2013 documentary produced for French television by filmmaker Pascal Forneri (who also directed the critically-acclaimed 2010 documentary Gainsbourg & his Girls). It uses wonderful rare footage, archival photographs, and brand new interviews to take the very first in-depth look at the history of Soul Train. Forneri not only highlights the amazing soul and R&B artists who performed on the program over its 35 year, 1,100 episode run, but also the real stars of the show: the in-studio dancers who would set the standard for future generations of contemporary urban dance.
Several recurring Soul Train dancers are spotlighted in this documentary who provide a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the show came together. Most of the dancers were not professionally trained, they would spend hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets to fly themselves out to Hollywood from cities all over the U.S. to be on the show. Those determined few who didn’t make the cut at the audition would sneak themselves onto the studio lot by any means necessary: including one dancer who got onto the set by hiding himself in the trunk of a car. As the show’s popularity in American households increased, so did the dancer’s popularity: week after week they’d try to outdo one another. First by their dance moves which became more and more wild, then by their fashion choices. Some dancers were so eager to get in front of the camera that they started bringing in props (a man known as “Mr. X” became famous for his dance routine that included a large, oversized toothbrush). Dancers began getting recognized on the streets of their home cities as if they were veritable celebrities.
Visionary host Don Cornelius always stated that Soul Train was a home for soul artists regardless of their race, and featured a long list of white artists who appealed to black audiences: Gino Vannelli, David Bowie, Beastie Boys, Elton John, Teena Marie, Hall & Oates, Pet Shop Boys, and Spandau Ballet were amongst the many white artists who appeared on the program over the years. As music trends slowly began to change, Don Cornelius struggled to keep Soul Train true to his original vision. When disco went mainstream, Cornelius made sure the show focused on only the most soulful disco artists that were being played on the radio. When rap music went commercial, however, Cornelius could not hide his contempt for the genre and made it very clear from the beginning that he wouldn’t get behind hip hop. Forneri documents this well, showing footage of Cornelius hanging his head in disgust following a performance by Public Enemy. As he slowly approaches Chuck D. and Flavor Fav for an interview he begins with a very long pause, and then exclaims, “That was frightening.” In the middle of a Kurtis Blow interview, Cornelius awkwardly admits on television “It’s so much fun, I mean, it doesn’t make sense to old guys like me. I don’t understand why they love it so much but that ain’t my job is it? My job is to deal with it and we’re dealing with it,” which was followed by uncomfortable laughter from the studio audience.
Watch ‘Show Me Your Soul: The Soul Train Years’ after the jump…
My favorite film that I saw last year was “Yes! Ham Goes Up An Escalator”, a one minute and seven second inspirational masterpiece created by the evil geniuses at Clickhole (makers of the viral hit “This Stick Of Butter Is Left Out At Room Temperature; You Won’t Believe What Happens Next”) in which footage of a ham going up an escalator is edited and scored into an epic story of triumph. French auteur cineaste Jean-Luc Godard actually used music very similarly, abruptly silencing the score before it has a chance to resolve, muting diegetic sounds, or just using totally incongruous music for a scene. The audience is unable to take for granted the “natural” and romantic use of score we assume of conventional movies, and our taste for the easy bourgeois payoff is left unsated. It’s a meme that sadly should have gone much further than it did.
In this same spirit of semiotic silliness, filmmaker Jim Archer manages to capture and skewer a plethora of corny and emotionally manipulative little film gimmicks, with his documentary parody trailer for Phil: A Tribute to a Man from 2015.
In Phil—who Archer describes as “a man that, to be honest, doesn’t really deserve to have a film made about him”—we hear the meaningless blathering of an inconsequential weirdo rendered into a story of somber introspection—the mundane (but hilarious) dialogue is entirely improvised.
More pointless emotional manipulation after the jump…
On May 24, 1971, the BBC program New Horizons ran a documentary about the new youth culture under the title “The Alternative Society.” Rather than make jokes at the expense of empty-headed young hippies, the segment, which runs about 22 minutes in this video (although it is missing both the start and the end) chose to seek the validity in the new generation’s need to communicate, experiment with illegal drugs, create new fashions and music, create social services separate from those provided by the state, and so on.
Featured in the show are several important figures from the U.K. counterculture scene who have popped up on DM before. For instance, the man addressing the camera in the opening sequence is Richard Neville, whose groundbreaking underground newspaper OZ has been highlighted at DM severaltimes.
Caroline Coon, an artist, music journalist and activist (who was featured in the documentary She’s a Punk Rocker) is interviewed as the founder of Release, which was a parallel organization to NORML in the U.S., providing legal services to those charged with drug possession. In the years to come she would become romantically involved with Paul Simonon of the Clash (she briefly managed the group) and serve as technical advisor on the cult punk movie Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains.
The narrator of “The Alternative Society” is Harvey Matusow, an extremely interesting fellow who was primarily known as being an FBI informer in the 1950s but worked with people in the Fluxus movement and not long after this documentary got involved with a hippie commune called Brotherhood of the Spirit. Always a joiner (or something), in the late 1970s he became a Mormon and took on the name Job Matusow.
Last night before diving greedily back into binge watching Daredevil, I was extremely happy to see that Netflix was streaming Toby Amies’ 2013 documentary, The Man Whose Mind Exploded—and even featuring it prominently on their “new releases” homepage. I first saw the film last summer and it was easily one of the very best things I saw last year, as I enthusiastically related to our readership at the time. However, at that point to actually see the film yourself, you’d have had to have gone to the iTunes store, something that I’m reasonably sure that only a tiny percentage of you bothered doing… I know, I know, give me convenience or give me death. Although it’s difficult to imagine too many things easier than simply downloading something as you just sit on your ass otherwise, now that Netflix is ready to pump this extraordinary film right into your home like water or gas with the mere push of a button or two, you’ve got no excuse. I wanted to republish this interview with Toby Amies from 2015 to get this film on our readers’ radar screens again, in hopes that they’ll be watching it later tonight on their HDTV screens. We’re in the Age of Consumer Enlightenment, people. Why not take full advantage of the modern world before President Trump starts World War III?
Anyway, I think it’s very safe to say that you’ve never seen a story like this one before.
The titular focus of Toby Amies’ extraordinary, sensitive and lyrical 2013 documentary, The Man Whose Mind Exploded is one Drako Zarharzar, who is, when we meet him, 76 years old, exotic, theatrical and utterly flamboyant, but due to brain injury, he cannot remember much of anything about his long and eventful life. He “knows” for instance, that he knew—and posed for—Salvador Dali and that he once had a career onstage in show business, but he doesn’t remember what happened yesterday. Or who someone is from one day to the next.
Drako lived “completely in the now,” his mind unable to create new memories, a condition called “anterograde amnesia.” In order to get around this obviously monumental handicap, he created a 3D collage—a sprawling, kaleidoscopic, pornographic hoarder’s mobile hanging from string around his tiny, unhygienic flat in Brighton—to compensate. When one entered Drako’s cave-like dwelling, they were in effect entering his autobiography and mind. Additionally he modified his own body with Memento-like tattoos, including his motto/philosophy “TRUST ABSOLUTE UNCONDITIONAL” which was how he saw—or at least coped with—the outside world as he encountered it.
The Man Whose Mind Exploded, beyond being a moving portrait of an extremely eccentric (and unwell, yet happy) character facing life against such daunting headwinds, brings up all kinds of philosophical notions about time, memory (or complete lack thereof) and gives the viewer a great sense of empathy for what it’s like to care for someone who literally cannot remember who you are each time they encounter you.
The soundtrack, which is gorgeous, was done by Adam Peters (who I think is a musical genius).
I asked Toby Amies—who you might recall from MTV in the 1990s—some questions via email.
Richard Metzger: How did you meet and befriend Drako?
Toby Amies: I first saw Drako in Kemptown in Brighton, he swished past me on his bike in a cape like a Surrealist superhero! Then I met him properly through a mutual friend David Bramwell when I made a film for his band Oddfellow’s Casino that starred Drako. When I saw inside Drako’s extraordinary and bizarre home, where every room was filled with a sprawling 3D autobiographical collage, it reminded me of the so-called “outsider” art I’d seen and studied in the US. Ever since visiting S.P. Dinsmoor’s “Garden of Eden” in Lucas, Kansas I’ve long been fascinated with what I call “automonuments” where people, usually men, build tributes to themselves, but there was something very sweet and intimate about Drako’s home work, as it was designed to remind him of his self.
Drako and Toby Amies
Yes, he’s a bit of an outsider interior decorator, isn’t he? How long before you started visiting him with a camera? Was he okay and cooperative about you making a film from the start?
I began filming him on the second day I met him. Initially it was disconcerting, because of his mantra “Trust Absolute Unconditional,” he would happily agree to anything that we asked him. And this made it obvious to me from the start that there was a tremendous responsibility associated in working with someone who had chosen to believe, as a result of brain damage, in a completely benevolent universe. The onus was on us to make sure we did right by him. There were times when Drako clearly tired of my questions, and in one instance this is recorded in the film. Because I’d made a radio documentary about him first, we contacted his immediate family and his closest friend to ensure that we had a consensus that it was okay by the people who cared most about him that we were recording and documenting him. Consequently this tight community of concerned individuals became part of the film, because one of the things it explores is what our responsibility is towards someone who may not be able to care for themselves, and from a filmic point of view they are exceptional, funny and kind people.
Although there is the Salvador Dali story that he keeps repeating, and the photo of him in the singing group, there’s precious little of Drako’s past life and career that’s touched upon in the film. Was this a deliberate decision on your part, to keep Drako, as it were tabula rasa and in his “eternal now” for the audience, or was it more a matter of him having precious few memories of his past that he could even tell you about?
In the early stage of the editing we found that much of the biographical material was interesting from a cultural and historical point of view but looked like pretty boring cinema, or, as I call it: “television.” What was much more compelling to me and my editor Jim Scott was the actuality, the experience of being in Drak’s never-ending now. Film is such a great medium for communicating the emotional immediacy of a situation and I wanted to make the audience feel what I felt in visiting that bizarre and wonderful environment, though no film, could come close to the olfactory experience of that place, it would defeat even the greatest practitioners of Odorama. The biographical elements that remain are usually there to provide context to understand the comedy, battles and struggles that happen in the moment. Drako’s memory worked in such a way that whilst he had access to memories of events that happened before the accident that damaged his hippocampus, he remembered them in a way that seems more biographical than autobiographical. And also he would often tell the same story in exactly the same way no matter the circumstance. Often ending it with a very sweet “Did I tell you that already?”
He might have lost part of his memory but his manners were always immaculate and likewise his sense of humour was always present. That became the foundation of our friendship, our ability to make each other laugh, and what better version of “the now” is there than two people laughing with each other? Those were the moments I wanted to record and share, the ones where the greatest empathy is possible. In making the film I was very careful never to present Drako as an object except when we see others react to him on the street. It was important to keep the audience’s relationship with him subjective, even though to many folk he might look weird and behave in a bizarre manner, I wanted to make sure he was included in our definition of what it is to be human whilst expanding the possibilities of that definition a little. In other words, he’s one of us, but broadens the definition of “us” in the process.
The body modification and tattooing that he was into—is this something that happened before or after the events that stole his memory?
Even though when I knew him, Drako was in the process of externalising his memory to compensate for the loss of inside his mind, hence the film’s title, I think it’s fair to say that he had started the writing of his story on himself long before. Some of his tattoos were to remind him of things said to him in a coma, but most were there before, and he was a pioneer in piercing and extreme tattooing long before they became ubiquitous. His superb “ram fucking the moon” body tattoo was done by the properly legendary Alex Binnie. Even though I didn’t meet him then I am pretty sure Drako and I were first in the same room together at the Stainless Steel Ball, a get together organized by the Piercing Association of the UK in Brighton, waaaay back in the day.
Do you think that it was in fact brain damage that caused his perpetual sunny outlook on life?
Well, I can only offer an opinion, but following a conversation with our superb Neuropsychological Consultant Professor Martin Conway I wondered whether Drako had in a sense hypnotized himself to cope with the loss of so much of what he used to take for granted. As his friend Mim suggests in the film, perhaps the mantra, said to him in his second coma: “Trust Absolute Unconditional” had transformed from a question into an answer. This upset me for a bit, the idea that Drako had to hypnotise himself to happiness, but then I thought about the meaningless of my existence as I hurtle down the shrinking highway of my life towards inevitable death; and I thought don’t we all in some sense hypnotize ourselves into thinking that in spite of our grim fate there is still a point, of our own invention, to life, in spite of death? Also as his nephew Marc says, within his ability to do so, Drako lived how he wanted, and did exactly what he wanted to do, without harming anyone else in the process, which is a lifestyle that would make most folk happy I reckon.
When you pointedly ask him if he remembers you, he says that he doesn’t, that “you’re new every time.” Did you have to establish who you were each time you visited him or did he kind of recall you after a while? Like when his sister arrives after some time and starts speaking French to him, he seems to immediately know who is speaking and responds enthusiastically (without seeing her, she’s on the intercom outside of his flat)
There was a good lesson there for me—even though I knew Drako had a unique mind and had suffered serious brain trauma, who the fuck was I to decide how consistent his memory loss should be? I had the sense that he had a rough idea of who I was after several visits and was comforted to see my name appear on notes in the house, but then there were moments even late in the relationship where I was clearly someone new. I dealt with that by thinking that pretty much any opportunity that teaches you how little you matter in a wider context than your own head is helpful, and by following Drako’s lead and trying to be as present as possible in the moment. That made the filming intense, difficult, and exciting, a kind of improvisational theatre that put my background as a photographer and TV presenter to effective use. Drako still had access to memories from before his accident, but could not record ones effectively afterwards. He described it in terms of a magnetic tape machine, the playback head works, but the record doesn’t. So Anne existed for him but the time they spent together didn’t so much. Perhaps that ended up being harder for the people who wanted him to remember the time they had together, their shared narrative, than for Drako himself. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I made the film, to preserve and share my part of that extraordinary story.
Ten years ago I was at a garage sale with my husband Steven in our hometown of Nottingham, England. On a stall filled with cheap ornaments and dog-eared paperbacks, standing proudly at the front of a box of faded vinyl records, we found this album:
Orion: Reborn. Sun Records. Collector’s gold vinyl. Release date on the back said 1979. No songs we’d ever heard of, but that cover… Who was this mysterious masked man, standing hand on hips, with his perfect raven hair and sta-press trousers? What the hell was his story?
We took the record home, put it on and within seconds the mystery deepened. Whoever this guy was, he sounded exactly–and I mean exactly—like Elvis. Except these weren’t songs that Elvis ever recorded, and there was no mention of the King on the record. But there was the fact of Sun Records and this odd story on the back sleeve about this guy called Orion Eckley Darnell and something about a coffin, and a book… Most of all, though, there was this guy in the blue rhinestone-studded mask with the voice of Elvis. I had to know more.
The story I uncovered was one of the strangest I’ve ever encountered. As a documentary-maker, I’ve long been fascinated with stories that peek under the surface of popular culture and the machinations of the music industry, or explore just how important music is in our lives. Stories like The Great Hip Hop Hoax–about two Scottish chancers who faked their way to a record deal by pretending to be American rappers; SOUND IT OUT about the very last record shop in my home town in Teesside or Goth Cruise a documentary about 150 goths (along with 2500 “norms”) taking a cruise in the sunshine to Bermuda.
But this story had it all. A roller coaster tale of the Nashville music scene in the wake of Elvis Presley’s death, taking in deception, a quest for success, a search for identity and ending in brutal and tragic murder.
Even if you’ve never heard of Orion, you probably know about the “Elvis is Alive” myth. What I uncovered was that the story of Orion is the story of how that myth got started. In the marketing offices of Sun Records, maverick producer Shelby Singleton came up with the plan to utilize the incredible pipes of Alabama singer Jimmy Ellis – a voice which was both a blessing and a curse to the singer. Ellis had found it hard to get a solid foothold in the industry because of the similarity of his voice to Elvis’ –a similarity which was wholly unpracticed. Jimmy didn’t try to sound like Elvis, he just did. That made it hard for any record company to use him.
Shelby had already tried one tack, dubbing Jimmy Ellis’ vocals uncredited onto the Jerry Lee Lewis tracks in the Sun catalog, releasing the recording under the name of Jerry Lee Lewis “and friends.” He’d leave it up to the audience to come to the conclusion –if they saw fit—that it might just be a previously unheard recording from the depths of the Sun vaults. After all, it sounded just like Elvis…
“I was born in Sun Records, in the studio.”
But it wasn’t until Shelby came across a novel by Georgia writer Gail Brewer Giorgio that the stars aligned for Jimmy Ellis. Orion was the story of the world’s greatest rock star and how he fakes his own death. As a character, her “Orion” was not a million miles away from a certain Memphis-dwelling King. It was a fantasy that so easily could be true. A fantasy that could be made true… In a move that Shelby himself later described as “part madman, part genius,” Sun Records put a mask on Jimmy Ellis, rechristened him “Orion” and unleashed him on an unsuspecting world. In Jimmy Ellis, Shelby had “The Voice.” And the book gave him a name, and a backstory.
A copy of the letter announcing the name “ORION” for the first time. The mask was the beginning of the Orion mystery.
In May of 1979, one month after his announcement of the imminent arrival of “ORION,” Shelby Singleton sent the first single to the radio stations. The cuts were “Ebony Eyes” and “Honey,” but there was no label on either side. Shelby wanted to build the mystery. The voice was the thing. He knew that the moment they heard that voice, they would have a million questions. And they’d want to see the mouth it came from…
Orion’s first album was readied – but hit controversy when there were complaints about the depiction of the masked singer appearing to rise from the dead from an open casket. (It was replaced by the blue cover above, which was later to catch my eye.)
Orion was now out in the world. Performing across America, always in the mask, always in character (legend was that Shelby would fine Jimmy if he were caught not wearing the mask at any time). And the crowds came. Hundreds and thousands of them, many coming for that voice–and many simply coming for the fantasy, the fantasy that the thin mask kept precariously in place. But for Jimmy, it was a frustrating ride.
Orion traveled the world while on Sun–including, bizarrely, performing with Kiss in Germany—putting out seven albums on Sun in just five years, but Jimmy hated the mask; the gimmick that provided the all-important mystery was ultimately a trap. He could never be himself.
“Look Me Up”
When the gimmick wore thin, Ellis discarded the mask. The fragile spell was broken – but Jimmy was free. However, he struggled to step out of the shadow of Presley and the voice he was “blessed and cursed” with. He tried out many different identities – Ellis James, Mister E – he put the mask back on, then took it off again - but he never really found the same bright spotlight again.
Note the presentation by David Lynch. Lynch actually had nothing whatsoever to do with the film, but allowed his name to be used for promotion.
The famous myth about the 1994 documentary Crumb is that director Terry Zwigoff only got Robert Crumb to agree to make it because Zwigoff threatened to kill himself if Crumb didn’t participate. This was a legendary miscommunication that stemmed from a comment made by Zwigoff describing the intense nine years of production. During that time, Zwigoff was living off of “about $200 a month and living with back pain so intense that I spent three years with a loaded gun on the pillow next to my bed, trying to get up the nerve to kill myself.” It’s from this statement that Roger Ebert clarified the film may have saved Zwigoff’s life, meaning that his obsession with completing the film might’ve tempered his suicidal impulses.
Although Zwigoff and Crumb actually were very good friends at the time the film as made (they still are and once even played in a 1920s-style string band together), it is true that Crumb was hesitant to make the film, and it’s easy to see why. While Crumb has always portrayed himself as a sort of deviant/pervert/degenerate, he is most definitely the most normal one in his family. The Crumb boys grew up with a pill-addicted mother and a violent alcoholic father. Crumb also features Robert Crumb’s brothers, Maxon and Charles and both come off like victims of parental-inflicted PTSD.
Charles—a brilliant artist in his own right and R. Crumb’s childhood artistic collaborator—identified as a pedophile, and though he never acted on his urges, he refused to leave his mother’s house. He committed suicide by overdose in 1993. Maxon Crumb is more functional, and a talented painter (as per the family genre, he portrays incredibly disturbing sexual subjects like incest and abuse). Despite his own sexual obsessions, Maxon remains celibate, as he believes sex causes him seizures, although he admits to molesting women and girls.
In spite of all this, it’s an incredibly moving portrait of an artist—and there is grateful sense of relief at the film’s end, when R. Crumb and his family leave behind Maxon, Charles and their mother for France.
Musician/actor Michael Des Barres has worn many hats over his decades-long career. As a vocalist, he’s fronted such acts as the Power Station, filling in for the departed Robert Palmer on their lone US tour (with a high profile appearance at Live Aid), and the highly underrated Silverhead, one of the finest groups of the glam rock era. He’s also released a handful of solo albums, including Somebody Up There Likes Me, a neglected LP that deserved better. His biggest success (in the form of royalties) has been as songwriter, having co-penned “Obsession,” a worldwide hit for ‘80s synth-pop act Animotion. In addition, he’s a talented character actor, most known for his recurring role as TV villain Murdoc on Macgyver. His versatility is acknowledged in the title of the fabulous documentary, Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me To Be?, which is currently making the film festival rounds. Dangerous Minds got in touch with the director of the documentary, J. Elvis Weinstein, and asked him some questions via email.
How did you come to know Michael’s work?:
Weinstein: The first time I came to know Michael as a musician was when he joined the Power Station, but I recognized him from TV roles at the time. I was a TV junkie as a kid. He lived in my head as a trivia question for many years. I’d always notice him in TV and movie roles.
The many faces of Murdoc.
How and when did you approach Michael about making a documentary about him? Was he open to the idea or did it take some convincing?:
Weinstein: We met several years ago working on a TV series, me a as writer/producer, he as a cast member. We spoke about writing a book and even did some interviews at the time, but it never materialized. Then a few years ago, we ended up guests on the same radio show and I mentioned we should have done a documentary instead of a book. There was instant agreement; we were shooting within three weeks.
What drove you to make the documentary?:
Weinstein: I knew that there was a great story to be told and that there were things I could learn for myself from telling it.
Michael appears open and frank during the interview segments in the film. Were you surprised by anything he told you? One of the things I learned from watching the film is that Silverhead was really Michael’s project and the other members were hired guns—I never knew!:
Weinstein: Michael was very generous in his willingness to examine and re-examine his life as honestly as possible through this process. I think he realized very early on that I wasn’t striving for a sensationalistic telling of the story but rather a very human one.
As for surprises, I don’t have any specific ones that jump out. While Silverhead were hired musicians, they quickly became a very collaborative and tightly-knit band. Michael was very much the leader but the sound evolved from the players.
Vogue’s 1992 grunge feature, “Grunge & Glory,” becasue nothing says “grunge” like Naomi Campbell in Perry Ellis!
The “grunge speak” hoax of 1992 may be the greatest youth culture response to unwanted media hype in the history of “shut up, old man!” A reporter for The New York Times was working on a grunge story for its Style of the Times section—a little exposé on the scene’s hip, new slang. Trouble is, there really wasn’t such thing as a grunge slang, so when the Times contacted Sub Pop Records receptionist, she just made up a bunch of silly shit. The result was a comically ridiculous list of phony jargon titled “Lexicon of Grunge: Breaking the Code.” When Thomas Frank over at The Baffler pointed out that no one was calling anyone a “cob nobbler” or a “lamestain,” the Times was so miffed that they demanded Frank apologize before finally realizing they’d been had.
Like the grunge speak hoax, Hype! is a fascinating record of the grunge phenomenon, specifically because it’s about the tension between the scene and the media. The bands themselves tell the story (and I mean nearly all the bands—Mudhoney, Nirvana, Soundgarden, The Gits, The Melvins, Mono Men, Pearl Jam, 7 Year Bitch and a host of less famous acts), and though there is a genuine love for the Seattle scene and the community it produced, there is already a bitter awareness of grunge’s fate. Members of 7 Year Bitch point out the sexism of the coverage women in bands receive, Eddie Vedder expresses anguish over the immediate commercialization of the grunge phenomenon and the discomfort of living the shadow of Kurt Cobain looms large for many bands.
Far from the bitter, childish personas so often associated with angry young people and their guitars, the subjects of Hype! are thoughtful and clear-eyed, still professing a genuine love for the music and the organic nature of the scene, despite the obvious reality that Grunge has been thoroughly appropriated for mass consumption.
In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger admitted that Their Satanic Majesties Request wasn’t a particularly good album. Interviewer Jann Wenner actually compared it to Spinal Tap, and perhaps unable to deny the resemblance to “Listen to the Flower People,” Jagger answered, “Really, I know.”
However the hippie-dippy experimentation of 60s Stones is in no way their most Spinal Tap era—that would be the mid-70s. In 1975 Jagger would ride a giant inflatable phallus onstage. In ‘76, they released Black and Blue with the very Smell the Glove-reminiscent advertisement you see above; the feminist group Women Against Violence Against Women protested until it was removed from the Sunset Boulevard billboard it adorned. The tour that promoted Black and Blue was a singularly debauched affair, complete with elaborate riders and highly specific luxury travel demands.
This 1976 mini-doc is a great record of the period, with footage of the band, crew and adoring fans. Highlights include a crew member trying to explain the inflatable pee-pee stage design; watching Mick and Bianca taking pulls off a champagne bottle celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary; a short Keith Richards makeup tutorial, and a surprisingly candid Charlie Watts reflecting on his ambivalence towards fame. There is a tension to the film. A fan made the Beatles/Stones comparison, despite the Beatles being long gone at this point, and the the interviewer actually questioned the band on a final album.
Nirvana fans worldwide were devastated, when on April 8th, 1994, Kurt Cobain was found dead. Adding to the distress, it was revealed he took his own life, dying from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. Over 20 years later, a new documentary, Soaked in Bleach, examines the possibility that Cobain’s shocking death wasn’t due to a suicide, but a homicide.
Largely told through information provided by private investigator Tom Grant, writer/producer/director Benjamin Statler takes another look at the case. Grant was hired by Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, in April 1994, supposedly to find Kurt after he went missing following a stint in rehab. Almost immediately after taking the case, red flags started popping up, and Grant began recording all the conversations he had with Love and others. Statler airs selections from those audio recordings, along with interviews with Grant, various law enforcement experts, and friends of Cobain’s, taking the viewer down a path that is revelatory and often chilling. I was surprised to learn of all the myths we’ve taken as truth in regards to the crime scene, how much the media played a role in disseminating this misinformation, and just how badly the Seattle police department bungled the case. Statler also filmed several recreations, and while such a technique can often appear cheesy and cheap looking, here they are highly effective and stylistically pleasing.
Kurt in 1994
So if Kurt Cobain was murdered, who did it and why? In Soaked in Bleach, all roads lead to Courtney Love. Kurt was planning to divorce her and was drafting a new will at that time of his death; the two had signed a prenuptial agreement and Courtney had a lot to lose financially if the couple divorced. She’s portrayed, often through recordings of her own voice, as being highly manipulative and contradictory. In the documentary, she’s all but accused of orchestrating Cobain’s murder, which will surely be a stretch for many, while others will find it impossible to deny the possibility after watching the film. It’s worth noting that Love has yet to file a defamation lawsuit against Statler, nor Grant, who’s been pursuing the case, publicizing his findings—and his interpretations of those findings—for decades. (including his appearance in Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney documentary of 1998). Her lawyers did send Statler cease and desist letters and recently threatened theatre owners set to screen Soaked in Bleach, but no further action was taken.
Kurt and Courtney
Though the documentary is one-sided, and Statler doesn’t offer conclusive proof of foul play, what’s presented does raise many questions. One indication that Kurt’s death may have been a homicide is the unusually large amount of heroin found in his bloodstream. In the below clip from Soaked in Bleach, the query is put forth that if Kurt did inject the quantity of heroin that’s been stated (the toxicology report is still sealed by law), how could have he possibly fired that shotgun?
Soaked in Bleach will be released on DVD on August 14th. Watch the trailer and pre-order the disc via MVD or Amazon.