Friday, June 13, 2008

The Forgotten Movies: Arthur Dreifuss' RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP

God bless Lars Nilsen.

The host of the Alamo Drafthouse's Weird Wednesdays screening series, Lars is one of the smartest, wittiest, and most perceptive exploitation film experts in the world, and I always look forward to his weekly WW introductions sometimes more than the movies themselves. When Lars gets to talking about these films, he's more than just a mere cheerleader or supporter, he's someone who is telling you all this stuff for your own good; this isn't merely the information about that particular film that would be helpful to know, it's information that's imperative to know. Lars is not always able to make the films better, but his introductions makes the evening worth it and he's always able to get you excited about what you're going to see.

Case in point: His introduction to RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP, which screened this past Wednesday. He made a point of saying that RIOT was not an especially good film in a lot of ways; it was a 60s youth film that was made by old-time pros who had been working in movies as far back as the silent era, like producer Sam Katzman, who were looking to make a quickie teenage movie that would go in and out of theaters for a few months, make a small profit and that was it. RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP is pretty much that anyway, but when Lars introduced it, he told everyone, "No matter what, just wait for the scene where Mimsy Farmer takes her shoes off". The film would go downhill after that scene concluded, but man, was it worth it, Lars said and damn if he wasn't right as rain. RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP is really more a movie of moments - what's choice is very choice and what isn't isn't - but those moments when the film is on there's a little bit of a feeling of lightning in a bottle. It may not be the preeminent film of the late 60s youth movement, but it's not completely squaresville, either.

Something I though Lars would mention in his intro (something he should have mentioned) was that RIOT was produced back in 1966 (though released in '67), which for most people was the year that really defined what the 60s were all about. The revolution was just starting, the possibility of real change was in the air, and the youth of America was rioting on the Sunset Strip, so why the hell not make a movie about it? Hey, so what if it didn't last, no one knew that then. Even more so, '66 was quite possibly the finest year for music ever, from the likes of Revolver to Pet Sounds to Blonde on Blonde to Aftermath and such earth-shattering songs as The Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction"; The Sonics' "Psycho"; The Creation's "Makin' Time"; "Wild Thing" by The Troggs; James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's Man's World" and thousand other musical masterpieces still worth listening to. What little RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP gets right is those few moments when it's accurately recounting the era, namely in the musical performances of bands like The Standels and The Chocolate Watchband, and then there's a real electricity that reminds you of the great line Peter Fonda has in THE LIMEY about how the 60s really meant '66 and a little bit of '67. That's what RIOT ON THE SUNSET STRIP should be, but quite isn't.

The problem stems from the fact that the film took an exciting real-life event (the Sunset Strip curfew riots) and turned it into a cheap, quickie Sam Katzman production that was in theaters six weeks (six weeks?!?) after the riots occurred. It's a movie that wants to have it both ways; fair to the kids, who are most likely going to be the ones to see it, but it doesn't make the adults or the establishment into villains, casting Aldo Ray (a severely unappreciated actor) as a sympathetic police chief whose daughter (Farmer) gets mixed up with "the wrong crowd". It's this part of the picture that gives it an entertainment value that even the hippies of the day could appreciate, camp. Watching square adults trying to make the hippies of the day look like the juvenile delinquents of the 50s, but watching them not event truly understand "where it's at" still makes it a lot of fun. All you really need is for one character to turn to another and just say, "Freak out", and you've got some memorable movie entertainment, even if it is for the wrong reasons.

So RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP isn't especially great, but you can't deny that it has something that makes it worth seeing, even remembering a little bit. Lars sure nailed this one.

PS - Now that this piece is done, you can all go read Lars' new Weird Wednesdays blog, which I was going to mention at the beginning but then I realized you might get so caught up in reading it that you might not come back, so feel free to go there if you like now, because I'm done.

Go, shoo!

1 comment:

Lars Nilsen said...

Thanks for all the kind words. Another good source of that kind of endlessly hopeful, lightning in a bottle, sexy sixties pinnacle is MONTEREY POP. Look how beautiful everyone is. What could go wrong?