Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Forgotten Movies, New Year's Eve edition: Allan Arkush's GET CRAZY!

Back on Memorial Day weekend of 2002, I attended a screening of GET CRAZY that was part of a Malcolm McDowell retrospective at Lincoln Center. McDowell was there for several films in the series, and pretty much the only reason he stuck around for GET CRAZY was because it screened right after A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which was understandably a much hotter ticket (couldn’t score one myself, sadly). McDowell’s intro was refreshingly honest – he didn’t remember much about the movie, as he’d only seen it once at the cast & crew screening back in 1983 - but he was looking forward to seeing it again. I hadn’t seen it in a long time myself, not since its cable TV days, but my memories of it were good ones, and I’d long loved director Allan Arkush’s ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, so I was quite enthused to see it again. However, seeing it with a crowd of Walter Reade Theater regulars and Kubrick devotees who were only staying for another Malcolm McDowell film, the film just died; though a few laughs did seep in, I was assuming that my memories of the film made it something more than the film I was seeing. McDowell was almost apologetic afterwords, explaining that he needed some work on his house at the time and that, along with the fun of playing a rock star and getting to do a comedy (which he said he did enjoy) was why he did it. He didn’t seem to enjoy the film much and wondered why they played it (the programmer explained she felt it was a great McDowell performance, which is true), but McDowell flippantly said, “Well, I’m sure it must have some fans”, to which a young man in the audience raised his hand and explained that GET CRAZY was his favorite movie and that he drove all the way from Connecticut to be there. Not that this shut anyone up, but it sure as hell proved that GET CRAZY was sure as hell not a movie for the Lincoln Center crowd.

Moving forward to February 2009, they screened GET CRAZY at the Alamo Drafthouse as part of the Music Mondays series, and I almost wasn’t going to go, in part because of my memories of that screening and also because I’d been having a shitty day. But I’m glad I did. It played a lot better than it did back in 2002, and the audience (and the context of the screening) had most everything to do with it. To go from one audience who couldn’t get into the film to one who openly embraced it made a huge difference, and I’m happy to say that I’m a fan of GET CRAZY once again. It’s not that the Alamo crowd was easy to please and predisposed to like any early 80s comedy (and trust me when I say that it sometimes is the case), but that they went in either as fans of GET CRAZY or were ready to love it because they get where it’s coming from. As it was a Music Mondays show, they were ready to rock, ready to laugh, and knew a little something about what Arkush and his collaborators were poking fun at (and playing tribute to). Based on Arkush’s years at the famed Fillmore East (and, in a very nice touch, dedicated to his fellow staffers) GET CRAZY is certainly an exaggerated account of those experiences (updated to then-modern late 1982), but it gets right its love and respect for the world of rock ‘n’ roll music, at least when it’s all about the music and not the money or the egos. Yes, it pokes a lot of fun at various types in the scene – punk rockers, new wavers, bluesmen, hippies, megastars, tortured artists, the fans – but it’s also an unquestionably affectionate spoof of the scene. As long as you love the music and don’t concern yourself with money, then you’re OK in GET CRAZY’s book.

What I particularly like about GET CRAZY is that Arkush takes the same controlled madness approach that he also applied to ROCK ‘N’ ROOL HIGH SCHOOL; the film flies off onto wild little tangents from time to time that have nothing to do with the plotline, but always finds its way back without any issue. This not only allows Arkush and co-writers Danny Opatoshu, Henry Rosenbaum and David Taylor to come up with lots of crazy ideas (this is one movie that really lives up to its title), but to also give the excellent supporting cast moments to shine. Best of these finds none other than Lou Reed playing a reclusive, Dylan-esque rock star who agrees to play the film’s New Year’s Eve rock show, but spends most of the night in the back of a cab looking for inspiration. Whoever had the great idea to cast Reed (or whoever turned the role down before he said yes) deserves big thanks, because Reed almost walks away with the show, displaying unfathomed dry comic skill and energy (even the first cutaway to him is hilarious). Everyone gets a moment to shine, especially McDowell (as the film’s Jagger stand-in, Reggie Wanker), Lee Ving, John Densome of The Doors (unexpectedly animated as McDowell's drummer), Lori Eastside as new wave star Nada (she gets the film’s best line) and Bill Henderson as King Blues, who does a great rendition of “The Blues Got Soul”. They’re all great, but this truly is Arkush’s show. He never really had it this good again (he’s specialized mainly in TV since, winning an Emmy for directing THE TEMPTATIONS), but with this and ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL he’s proven himself a master of the rock ‘n’ roll comedy, one of the few directors anywhere who really knows how to artfully combine the two (you’re damn right I used the word “artfully”, and I’ll do it again in a second). I think it’s probably more a matter of Arkush being someone who loves rock ‘n’ roll who also knows comedy, but no matter what he’s made two of the best rock movies ever. Perhaps he’s peaked early, like too many rock ‘n’ rollers, but he left us with two great ones, and his place his history is assured because of this. Rock ‘n’ roll and movies; this is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

No comments: