(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2022)
“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass writer trots out that old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?
God, I hate that.
But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Anyway, whoever did say it originally, probably can’t remember if they were in fact the person who said it first…so it’s moot.
Here’s the good news. While the ethos that informs Lonnie Frazier’s Box of Rain has inescapable, foundational roots in 60s counterculture, I’m happy to report her documentary about the “Deadhead” community features minimal archival footage of antiwar demonstrations and love-ins, and “Fortunate Son” is nowhere to be heard. Nor will you even hear any Dead songs…which I assume is due to a licensing issue.
That said, Frazier’s film isn’t so much about the Dead …or their music per se, as it is about a multi-generational community of devoted fans blissfully nonplussed by ever-shifting musical trends (the band’s final studio album was 1989’s Built to Last ). As Jerry Garcia once observed “We didn’t invent the Grateful Dead, the crowd invented the Grateful Dead. We were just in line to see what was going to happen.”
This uniquely symbiotic relationship between the Dead (arguably the first “D.I.Y.” band) and their fans was the impetus for their famously mercurial live performances-which could run 1 hour…or 5 hours, depending on the vibe between audience and artist:
The  Bickershaw Festival [in the UK] brought together a number of West Coast American acts such as Country Joe McDonald, the New Riders, and the Dead with some of the big British names, including Donovan and The Kinks. The Dead played on the last day of the three-day festival. And by the time they came out, the crowd had been drenched and muddy for the entire time. Not had it rained throughout at the flood-prone site, but the organizers had emptied a pool used for a high-dive act – there were various circus-type performances – right in front of the stage. But none of this dampened the Dead’s playing or the crowd’s enthusiasm for it. Reportedly, Elvis Costello – just an eighteen-year-old unknown pub singer – stood in awe throughout the [nearly 5-hour] set and convinced him he should start a band.
Now that’s dedication. Or something. Whatever “it” is, it enables thousands to feel “at home” hippie-dancing in the mud for 5 hours (creating a psychedelic maelstrom of paisley and tie-dye you could see from space). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as everybody had a good year, everybody let their hair down, and nobody got hurt. And if “home” is (as they say) where the heart is, then the heart of Frazier’s film is about how she found a home away from home as a Deadhead.
In the intro, Frazier intones “Most dictionaries define ‘home’ as the place where one lives permanently, as the member of a family. Home is a place where you feel safe, loved, accepted, and where you feel like you belong. But what if the family you’re born into doesn’t offer you these things? When the house you live in looks perfect from the outside…but feels quite the opposite behind closed doors?” She then recounts a traumatic experience that plunged her into a suicidal depression at age 17.
I know what you’re thinking. “Isn’t this supposed to be about peace, love, and good vibes?” Patience, grasshopper. Fortunately, a free ticket to a Dead show proved to be a deus ex machina that placed her on a path to healing and happiness. Frazier looks up the two friends who hooked her up with the ticket and retraces the road trip the three women took in 1985 to see the Dead perform at Red Rocks in Colorado.
However, this isn’t solely a stroll down memory lane, but a Whitman’s sampler of the fan culture, direct from the mouths of beatific Deadheads. I know we live in a cynical age and all, but these folks seem so genuinely…nice, and the interviews do convey a lovely sense of “family” within the Deadhead community. It’s a breezy enough 72 minutes, even if I found the road stories and “favorite concert” minutiae less than gripping; but hey, man-I’m only a casual fan who never felt compelled to go see the Dead live, so you can take my opinion with a grain of salt …and a touch of grey.
“Box of Rain” is streaming now on various digital platforms.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)
London swings like a pendulum do. A breezy doc about pioneering, self-taught fashion designer/entrepreneur Mary Quant (still kicking at 92). Sadie Frost’s portrait is a pleasant wallow in 60s nostalgia, connecting the dots between fashion statements and gender politics (“I didn’t have time to wait for women’s lib,” Quant says in an archival interview). Her heyday may be long past, but her influence is indelible. Commentators include Vivienne Westwood, Kate Moss, and Dave Davies.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2021)
We went to see those movies with Elvis. They’d all scream when he came on screen. So we thought “That’s a good job!” – John Lennon, from a television interview.
By the time the Beatles “debuted” on The Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964, they already had a rich 7-year history. The four polished pros in slick suits didn’t simply pop out of Liverpool fully formed; they had paid their dues toiling in sweaty cellar clubs and seedy strip joints (including the pre-Ringo “Hamburg period” from 1960-1962). But for fans here in the colonies, they descended like gods from the heavens.
People of “a certain age” reflexively say they “remember” watching the Beatles perform on Sullivan nearly 57 years ago (whether they did or not). For me that “memory” is fuzzy, for a couple of reasons. On February 9, 1964, I was 7 years old; too young to grok the hormonal/cultural impact of this “screaming ‘yeah-yeah’ music” (as my dad labeled any rock ’n’ roll song he heard wafting from my room throughout my formative years).
Also, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the time, none of the local TV stations were equipped to carry live network feeds. We would get Walter Cronkite a day late (the tapes had to be shipped from Seattle via commercial jet). And weekly programs like Sullivan were broadcast anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks later than they aired in the Lower 48. So technically I “remember” watching the Beatles “live” on Sullivan…on a slight tape delay.
In the Summer of 1967, I discovered two things that changed my life. As much as I would like to be able to tell you that it was body painting and tripping on acid…I can’t. Mainly because I had only recently turned 11. The first thing I discovered was Mad magazine (which undoubtedly explains much to long-time readers).
The second thing was record collecting. I scored my first-ever haul of vinyl, blowing three months’ allowance at the JCPenney in Fairbanks, Alaska. I bought two LPs (at $3.98 a pop), and a 45. The LPs were Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the 45 was “Penny Lane” / “Strawberry Fields Forever”. That was my gateway drug to all the music (from psychedelic and garage to metal and prog and punk and new wave and everything in between) that has become a crucial element of my life to this day.
Flash-forward 35 years. I was enjoying my first visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. At the Beatles exhibit, I happened upon a glass case that contained some weathered pieces of paper with hand-written lyrics. I lingered over one, which was initially tough to decipher, with all the scribbled-out words and such:
But you know I know when it’s a bean? Huh? It still wasn’t registering as to what I was looking at. However, when I got to: I think I know I mean-er-yes, but it’s all wrong. That is I think I disagree I realized that I was “this” close to John Lennon’s original handwritten draft of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. My mind was blown. Here I stand, head in hand, with my eyes but inches away from a tangible manifestation of genius.
Suddenly, I panicked. Was I worthy enough to look at it? Should I turn my face away, so it wouldn’t melt like the Nazis’ in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Belloq lifts the lid of the Sacred Object? “Don’t look at it, Marion!” I exclaimed to no one in particular. At any rate, I was overcome; there was something profoundly moving about the experience.
By 1969, the Beatles had done enough “living” to suit several normal lifetimes, and did so with the whole world looking in. It’s almost unfathomable how they could have achieved as much as they did, and at the end of all, still be only in their twenties.
Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road?
Hindsight being 20/20, should we really be so shocked to see the four haggard and sullen “old guys” who mope through the 1970 documentary, Let it Be? Filmed in 1969 and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the movie was originally intended to be a TV special but ended up documenting the “making of” the eponymous album (there were also snippets of the band working on several songs that ended up on Abbey Road).
Sadly, the film has since weathered a rep as hard evidence of the band’s disintegration. Granted, there is some on-camera bickering (most famously, in a scene where an uncharacteristically riled-up George reaches the end of his tether with Paul’s fussiness).
Still, signs of a deeply rooted musical camaraderie remain in that outdoor mini concert filmed on a London rooftop. If you look closely, the boys are exchanging glances that telegraph they’re having a grand time jamming out; an affirmation that this is what this band of brothers were put on this earth to do, and what the hell …it’s only rock ’n’ roll.
The Let it Be movie doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how tumultuous 1969 was for the band. As Ian MacDonald notes in his excellent 1994 assessment of the Beatles’ catalog, Revolution in the Head:
The day after the rooftop concert, the band recorded three songs unsuited to recital in a moderate gale [“Two of Us”, “Let it Be”, and “The Long and Winding Road”] before winding the [recording sessions for the “Let it Be” album] up in some relief. An ignominious failure which shook their faith in their collective judgement, it had pushed them to the verge of collapse. […]
[soon after the “Let it Be” sessions wrapped] a fatal rift in the group’s relationships opened when Lennon, Harrison, and Starr asked the Rolling Stones’ American manager Allen Klein to take over the Beatles’ affairs. McCartney, who favoured Linda Eastman’s family firm of management consultants, immediately opened a court battle which long outlasted the remainder of the Beatles’ career.
The dream was over. Or so it seemed. The boys were not about to go out on a sour note (at least in a creative sense). As Bob Spitz writes in his exhaustive band bio, The Beatles:
The tapes from earlier in the year that would eventually become “Let it Be” languished in the can, abandoned, a victim of haste and sloppy execution. “[They] were so lousy and so bad,” according to John – “twenty-nine hours of tape …twenty takes of everything – that “none of us would go near them …None of us could face remixing them; it was [a] terrifying [prospect].” “It was laying [sic] dormant and so we decided ‘Let’s make a good album again,’” George recalled.
One drawback with the Let it Be film (aside from the fact it’s been out of circulation for decades and unavailable on home video outside of the odd bootleg) was its relatively short running time. Considering director Lindsay-Hogg had 60 hours of footage at his disposal, the original 81-minute theatrical cut feels stingy; leaving little room for nuance or providing context to the on-camera bickering the 1970 film is chiefly remembered for.
Perhaps predictably in this age of Tweet-length attention spans, there has been much lamentation and rending of garments regarding the decidedly less stingy running time of Peter Jackson’s nearly 8-hour long Get Back, his oft delayed and long-awaited re-edit, sifted from Lindsay-Hogg’s trove of footage (now streaming on Disney+ as a 3-part series). All I can say to those folks is I’ve got no time for you right now, don’t bother me.
The beauty of Jackson’s film is that his extended cut allows room for nuance and context around those storied studio spats, which in fact did not “cause” the break-up of the Beatles; rather they were symptoms of a longtime creative partnership that was literally “aging out”. Three-quarters of the band (John Paul, and George) had been collaborating since they were in their mid-teens; now they were all in their late 20s.
Like any other human being, as each member of the band matured, their individual priorities (as people and as creative artists) diverged. This was evidenced by the release of solo albums from all four members in 1970, the same year Let It Be saw its belated release: Ringo’s Beaucoups of Blues and Sentimental Journey, Paul’s McCartney, John’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and George’s epic triple album All Things Must Pass.
In fact, one of the film’s greatest delights is catching snippets of songs (still in their infancy) that would end up on later solo albums. John sings “On the Road to Marakesh/Child of Nature” which would turn up in 1971’s Imagine (with different lyrics) as “Jealous Guy” and works on refining a few lines of verse for “Gimme Some Truth” (also destined for Imagine).
George runs a song by the lads that he’s “been working on” called “All Things Must Pass” (it’s already well-formed at that stage). Paul noodles out a recognizable bit of “Another Day” on the piano, which would be his first solo single hit in 1971, and the gorgeous intro to “Backseat of My Car” (a highlight of 1971’s Ram).
Get Back apes the basic structure of Lindsay-Hogg’s Let it Be; the shoot (initially intended to end up as a TV documentary) begins with fitful and half-hearted rehearsals on a sound stage in the drafty (and acoustically-challenged) Twickenham Film Studios. Paul tries to play cheerleader to his cranky band mates (leading to some of the on-camera “bickering”, although it mostly manifests as passive-aggressive asides).
Director Lindsay-Hogg comes off a bit fitful and half-hearted himself; obviously self-aware that precious shooting days are passing by with relatively no narrative to hang his hat on, he prattles on through most of the first third soliciting ideas to spruce up the planned live performance that the film will culminate with.
At one point, Lindsay-Hogg has a brainstorm to film the concert in an ancient amphitheater in Libya, with the audience shipped in from England on the QE2, but the lads won’t have it (I assume this vignette inspired the “Stonehenge” bit in This Is Spinal Tap). Interestingly, the 1972 Pink Floyd documentary Live at Pompeii included a live performance filmed at the ancient Roman amphitheater in Pompeii, Italy (interspersed with footage of the band working on Dark Side of the Moon in the studio, à la Let it Be).
Once the action moves to the basement of the Beatles’ Apple Corps offices, where a makeshift recording studio has been assembled, the band (and the film) begins to perk up considerably. With the deadline pressure of the now discarded TV special off the table, the band focuses on laying down some tracks, enlisting Glyn Johns as producer (George Martin is seen popping in and out of the sessions on occasion, but for the first time, he was not invited to be at the helm …which in hindsight was an unfortunate decision).
But it’s not until keyboard maestro Billy Preston joins the sessions that the band really begins to bring their “A” game. Ironically, Preston would have never been part of the equation had George not (temporarily) walked out of the project (“See you ‘round the clubs,” he deadpans to his stunned band mates before storming out of frame).
While on his hiatus, George hooked up with his pal Eric Clapton and attended a Ray Charles gig in London. Preston (who the Beatles had originally met on a 1962 tour with Little Richard) was playing organ in Charles’ band.
George invited Preston to hang out at the studio, and he ended up playing keys on several songs (most notably, “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down”), as well as sitting in on the rooftop set. At one point in the film, Paul asks Preston “Has anyone asked you yet if you mind coming in every day?” Preston beams like a beatific Buddha (as if someone is going to say “Fuck you…pay me” to an invitation to sit in with the Beatles!).
I was fascinated by the presence of gentle giant Mal Evans. An enigmatic member of the Beatles’ inner circle, Evans was their Man Friday; bodyguard, road manager, roadie, P.A., and apparently (as evidenced in one scene) an occasional co-lyricist.
In another scene, Evans registers childlike delight as he “plays” the hammer and anvil on an early run-through of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Evans was the person who “discovered” Badfinger and brought them to the Beatles’ attention-which got them signed to Apple. Sadly, in 1976 he was shot dead in his home by LAPD officers, who mistook his air rifle for a real weapon (Evans had been struggling with depression).
Spoiler alert: Jackson saves the iconic rooftop performance for the finale (as Lindsay-Hogg did in Let it Be…but how else could you end it?). Granted, it’s a long and winding road of “fly on the wall” observation to get there, but it makes the payoff of finally seeing the band perform several classic numbers in their entirety sound that much sweeter. For some, spending a day in the life with the Fabs may ultimately feel like it’s all too much …. but do you want to know a secret? I watched Get Back and thought:
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 19. 2021)
Nothing against Ben Fong-Torres, but I approached this film with trepidation. “Please, god,” I thought to myself, “Don’t let ‘Fortunate Son’ be on the soundtrack.” Thankfully, there’s credence, but no Creedence in Suzanne Joe Kai’s documentary, which despite the implications of its title is not another wallow in the era when being on the cover of the Rolling Stone mattered, man.
OK, there is some of that; after all, journalist and author Ben Fong-Torres’ venerable career began when he first wrote for Rolling Stone in 1968. By the following year he was hired as the editor and wrote many of the cover stories. Fong-Torres quickly showed himself to be not only an excellent interviewer, but a gifted writer. His journalistic approach was the antithesis to the gonzo stylists like Lester Bangs and Hunter Thompson in that his pieces were never about him, yet still eminently personal and relatable.
Just like her subject, Kai’s portrait is multi-faceted, revealing aspects of Fong-Torres’ life outside of his profession I was not aware of (like his activism in the Asian-American community, and how it was borne of a heartbreaking family tragedy).
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 27. 2021)
Kay: You know how naïve you sound? Presidents and Senators don’t have men killed.
Michael: Oh. Who’s being naïve, Kay?
— from The Godfather
While it is based on a true story and billed as a “biopic”, Shaka King’s new film Judas and the Black Messiah feels more akin to fictional early 70s conspiracy thrillers like The Conversation, The Parallax View or Three Days ofthe Condor. Those three films (released in proximity of the Watergate break-in scandal and President Richard Nixon’s consequent resignation) are permeated by an atmosphere of paranoia, distrust and betrayal that mirrors the climate of the Nixon era. That is not to imply Judas and the Black Messiah is made up from whole cloth. From a recent Democracy Now broadcast:
[Host Amy Goodman] Newly unearthed documents have shed new light on the FBI’s role in the murder of the 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969, when Chicago police raided Hampton’s apartment and shot and killed him in his bed, along with fellow Black Panther leader Mark Clark. Authorities initially claimed the Panthers had opened fire on the police who were there to serve a search warrant for weapons, but evidence later emerged that told a very different story: The FBI, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Chicago police had conspired to assassinate Fred Hampton. FBI memos and reports obtained by historian and writer Aaron Leonard now show that senior FBI officials played key roles in planning the raid and the subsequent cover-up. “It was approved at the highest level,” says attorney Jeff Haas.
Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies conspiring to assassinate an American citizen as he slept in his apartment? It happened. Haas, a founding member of the People’s Law Office in Chicago and one of the lead lawyers in the (posthumous) Fred Hampton civil rights case elaborated to host Amy Goodman (from the same broadcast):
But what [documents] showed was that [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover, [director of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division William] Sullivan and [head of the Extremist Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division George] Moore were following Roy Mitchell, a special agent in charge, very closely with regard to [FBI informant Bill] O’Neal. And they were complimenting him and rewarding him from the moment he gave the information and the floor plan [for Fred Hampton’s apartment] to special agent Mitchell. They were congratulating Mitchell on what a wonderful job he did with this informant. Of course, Mitchell got the floor plan, gave it to Hanrahan’s [Chicago] police, and that’s what led to the raid. The floor plan even showed the bed where Hampton and Johnson would be sleeping.
So, we knew much of this. We knew O’Neal had gotten a bonus. We never knew Mitchell got a bonus. And we never knew that Hoover and Sullivan and Moore were starting to watch this in November, 10 days before it happened. They were monitoring exactly what went on. And so it was approved at the highest level. And during the trial, we had sought to go up to Sullivan and Moore and Hoover, but the judge wouldn’t allow us. And we thought perhaps even John Mitchell and Richard Nixon were involved. We didn’t have these documents, so we couldn’t uncover that. This also shows that after the raid, the head of the FBI in Chicago met with and congratulated the informant, O’Neal, thanked him for his information, which led to the success of the raid.
Possible direct involvement by the White House certainly qualifies as the “highest level”. It is also interesting that an “Extremist Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division” existed in 1969 to keep close watch on the Panthers and other organizations that shared what present-day Fox prime time hosts might sneeringly refer to as “radical extremist socialist agendas” (BTW if such a special section still exists…where was their vigilance this past January 6th?).
That is a lot to unpack; much less in a 2-hour film. Perhaps wisely, writer-director King and co-writers Will Berson, Kenneth Lucas and Keith Lucas focus less on the complex political machinations and more on the personal aspects of the story.
More specifically, the filmmakers construct a dual narrative that shows how the life paths of charismatic Marxist revolutionary Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the man who would ultimately play “Judas” to his “black messiah”, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) converged.
There isn’t much backstory offered explaining Hampton’s rapid transformation from aspiring law student who joined the NAACP in the mid-60s to founder of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers in 1968; but then again, considering that he was dead and gone by age 21, his historical impact seems all the more remarkable.
On the other hand, O’Neal (who was one year younger than Hampton) is a man with less lofty ideals and negligible passion for politics. He is a career criminal whose luck runs out when he gets nailed for a felony beef after driving a stolen car across state lines. The arresting officer is FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who offers O’Neal a way out: infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, become an FBI informant, and win fabulous prizes (like having his felony charges disappear). O’Neal accepts the deal.
O’Neal ingratiates himself with Hampton, to the point where he becomes a member of the Chairman’s trusted inner circle. Along the way, the filmmakers offer a Cliff’s Notes summary of Hampton’s brief but productive tenure as head of the Chicago Panthers; his implementation of a program providing free breakfasts for schoolchildren, establishment of a free clinic, and (most impressively) mediating a peace treaty between long-time rival Chicago street gangs (ultimately leading to formation of the original multiracial “Rainbow Coalition”).
Ironically, it’s not so much what Hampton “does” that matters one way or the other to FBI director Hoover (Martin Sheen) and the rest of the posse out to “neutralize” the threat (perceived or otherwise) Hampton represents to the status quo, but rather what he says…which is at times incendiary and what some might even call seditious (Hoover is on record declaring the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”).
Just months before his death Hampton is arrested for (of all things) stealing $70 worth of candy. He is convicted, but the charges are overturned. There were several police raids on the Black Panthers’ HQ the same year, although the filmmakers distill them into one shootout incident. Clearly, the authorities were circling their prey, culminating in the fateful late-night raid in December of 1969 that left Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clarke dead and several people wounded. The reenactment of the incident is harrowing and affecting.
Ballistic evidence revealed one shot fired by the Panthers…and 100 (one hundred) shots fired by the police. Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds more like a police “assault” than a police “raid”. One of the people in the apartment that night was Hampton’s eight-month pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson (wonderfully played in the film by Dominique Fishback, who was a standout in the HBO series The Deuce). No matter how you may view Hampton’s place in history (hero or villain) the circumstances of his demise should dismay anyone familiar with the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which says (among other things)
No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Judas and the Black Messiah is not a definitive biopic but does convey that what happened to Fred Hampton was an American tragedy…sadly, one that continues to occur to this day.
I understand that Steven Spielberg is currently in pre-production on a dramatized version of the story, written by Aaron Sorkin and tentatively titled The Trial of the Chicago 7. Rumor has it Sacha Baron Cohen will play Abbie Hoffman, which is a perfect match on many levels (if someone can prove to me that his alter-egos “Ali G” and “Borat” don’t have deep roots in the political guerilla theater of the 60s, I’ll eat my Che cap). With the obvious historical parallels abounding vis a vis the current government’s foreign policy and overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country, I say the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.
Flash-forward 12 years. I’d venture to say that the “historical parallels” between the Nixon and Trump administrations are even more pronounced in 2020 than between the Nixon and Bush Jr. administrations in 2008, not to mention the “overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country” (which is widely considered to be at an all-time low). And I still say “…the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.”
Spielberg saw something shinier, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 has emerged from the other side of Development Hell largely unscathed, with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin now in the director’s chair and Sacha Baron Cohen sporting Abbie Hoffman hair (funnily enough, Cohen has also unleashed his new Borat film-in time for the upcoming election).
For you young’uns, here is the back story: In September 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow political activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting mayhem that transpired during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in U.S. history.
No, your calculations are correct…there were originally “8” defendants, but Bobby Seale was (for all intents and purposes) “banished” from court early in the proceedings after heated verbal exchanges with presiding judge Julius Hoffman. After draconian physical restraint methods failed to silence him (Seale was literally bound, gagged and chained to his chair at one point), Judge Hoffman had him tossed out of the proceedings altogether.
His crime? Demanding his constitutional right to an attorney of his choice, for which he eventually served a 4 year sentence for contempt. The remaining seven defendants’ outspoken defense attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, also rubbed the judge the wrong way and were cited for contempt (although they never served any time).
The trial dragged on for months, resulting in each of the seven being acquitted of conspiracy. Two defendants were acquitted completely; and the remaining five were convicted of “crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot”. However, all the convictions were reversed by a U.S. appeals court in 1972 (the Justice Department wisely decided to let it go at that point). None of the seven served time for the contempt charges.
Contextually, there was a lot going on with that trial; from a dramatist’s point of view there are any number of angles to riff on. On the most superficial level, there is the political theater aspect of the proceeding…an opportunity that wasn’t lost on a couple of the more flamboyant defendants (i.e., self-proclaimed “Yippees” Hoffman and Rubin) who took the ball and ran with it (much to the chagrin of exasperated Judge Hoffman, who was dispensing “contempt of court” charges like Halloween candy by the trial’s end).
But there was also something broader in scope and more insidious at play here; namely, the “war” that President Richard M. Nixon had all but declared on America’s counterculture, which he perceived to be his greatest nemesis (his “enemies list” is legend). More specifically, Nixon was wielding the Justice Department as a truncheon to beat down and suppress the antiwar movement (or “radical Left protesters”…if you will).
If certain elements sound depressingly similar to 2020, that is an opportunity that wasn’t lost on Aaron Sorkin. I am aware of detractors who feel Sorkin wields his prose like a truncheon in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Negative reviews I’ve read tend to whinge on about how he belabors those historical parallels…but that is precisely what I like about it.
A great cast helps. As I noted earlier, Cohen is an inspired choice to play Abbie Hoffman. In the guise of his alter-egos Ali ‘G’ and Borat, Cohen has used elements of political guerilla theater rooted in the ethos of 1960s activist street performers like The Diggers and the San Francisco Mime troupe. Likewise, Hoffman himself frequently staged rallies using guerilla theater techniques, most notably in 1967 when he and fellow activist Allen Ginsberg joined thousands of anti-war protesters in an attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon.
Jeremy Strong (so good as the coke-addled heir in HBO’s Succession) is excellent as Hoffman’s main partner-in-disruption Jerry Rubin. Frank Langella makes a convincingly cantankerous Judge Julius Hoffman. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is on hand as Federal prosecutor Dick Schultz (who has taken issue with the film’s portrayal of himself and elements of the trial) and Michael Keaton plays it straight in his cameo as Ramsay Clark. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (featured in HBO’s Watchmen) is a standout as Bobby Seale.
In addition to Cohen, the impressive UK contingent of the cast includes Mark Rylance as defense attorney Kunstler and Eddie Redmayne as activist Tom Hayden. Interestingly, Sorkin focuses on a yin-yang clash of methodology between Hayden and Hoffman throughout the trial. In my 2009 review of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, I observed:
It is this part of the story that I found most fascinating. It demonstrates how (although doesn’t go to any length to explore why) such radical groups inevitably self-destruct by becoming a microcosm of the very thing they were railing against in the first place; in this case, disintegrating into a sort of self-imposed fascistic state that became more and more about internal power plays and individual egos instead of focusing on their original collective idealism.
This aspect of the story strongly recalls the late German filmmaker Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s 1979 political satire, cheekily entitled The Third Generation, in which he carries the idea of an ongoing disconnect between the R.A.F.’s core ideals and what he portrays as little more than a group of increasingly clueless, bumbling middle-class dilettantes who bear scant resemblance to the original group of hardcore revolutionaries, to ridiculous extremes.
While the trial has been covered in previous documentaries and feature films (like The Trial of the Chicago 8) writer-director Aaron Sorkin takes a unique angle – focusing on a clash of methodology between Hayden and Hoffman throughout the trial. He reminds us how messy “revolutions” can be; in this case as demonstrated by the disparity of approaches taken by the (originally) 8 defendants.
While all shared a common idealism and united cause, several of them had never even been in the same room before they were all indicted together and prosecuted en masse as “conspirators”. Dystopian nightmare fuel…but the good news is our justice system worked, and the convictions were reversed.
Then again, as many have said—American Democracy (borne of revolution, mind you) is “messy”. So far, our checks and balances have kept it from collapsing. But we have come “this close” many times. At least twice in my lifetime…during the aforementioned Nixon administration (which ended in his resignation as a result of the Watergate debacle) and right here and now. But there is a time-proven way to keep it shored up:
Get out the vote.
(“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is currently playing on Netflix)
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 11, 2020)
Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing?
Benjamin: Well, I would say that I’m just drifting. Here in the pool.
Mr. Braddock: Why?
Benjamin: Well, it’s very comfortable just to drift here.
Mr. Braddock: Have you thought about graduate school?
Mr. Braddock: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?
Benjamin: You got me.
– from The Graduate, screenplay by Buck Henry and Caldar Willingham
I was saddened to hear about the passing of Buck Henry a few days ago; screenwriter extraordinaire, droll character actor, occasional director and samurai deli enthusiast. He co-created the classic “Get Smart” TV series with Mel Brooks, and co-directed the well-received 1978 comedy-fantasy Heaven Can Wait (a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan) with the film’s producer/star/co-writer Warren Beatty (Henry also had an acting part).
Depending on your age, you may be thinking “Buck who?” or “Oh yeah…the bespectacled guy in all those SNL “Samurai Deli” sketches with Belushi back in the day.” Regardless of your Buck Henry touchstone, know that he brought a lot of laughter to a lot of people…and that’s a good thing.
For me, I’ll always remember him for his acting work in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Gloria,Eating Raoul, Taking Off, Short Cuts, the Real Blonde, Defending Your Life, and The Player…even if a lot of them were bit parts, he had a knack for understated hilarity. And of course, I’ll remember him for his writing. Here are the Henry-penned films you need to see (alphabetical order).
Candy – As far as barely decipherable yet weirdly entertaining films go, you could do worse than Christian Marquand’s 1968 curio. Henry adapted the script from the novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg.
What I can say with certainty is that there is a protagonist, and her name is Candy Christian. (Ewa Aulin). However, disseminating what this film is “about” remains in the eye of the beholder. Semi-catatonic Candy whoopsie-daisies her way through vaguely connected vignettes awash in patchouli, bongs, beads and Nehru jackets, as a number of men philosophize, pontificate, and (mostly) paw at her.
Oddly compelling, largely thanks to the cast: Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn, John Huston, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, John Astin, Anita Pallenberg, Sugar Ray Robinson (don’t ask), and a host of others. Henry has a cameo as a mental patient.
Interesting sidebar: Director Marquand (also an actor) appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. His lengthy monologue in the “French plantation” scene originally ended up on the cutting room floor but was resurrected for the “Redux” and “Final Cut” versions that Coppola has assembled in recent years. He died in 2000.
Catch-22 – Yossarian: OK, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.
Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: You got it, that’s Catch-22.
Yossarian: Whoo… That’s some catch, that Catch-22.
Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: It’s the best there is.
Anyone who has read and appreciated the beautifully precise absurdity of Joseph Heller’s eponymous 1961 novel about the ugly and imprecise madness of war knows it is virtually “un-filmable”. And yet…Buck Henry did a pretty good job of condensing it into a two-hour screenplay (although arguably some of the best exchanges in the film are those left virtually unchanged from the book).
Of course, it didn’t hurt to have a great director (Mike Nichols) and such a fabulous cast: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsalm, Richard Benjamin, Art Gafunkel, Jack Gilford, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles, Charles Grodin, Bob Balaban, et. al., with Henry playing the part of “Colonel Korn”. I think this 50-year-old film has improved with age.
Day of the Dolphin – “Fa loves Pa!” This offbeat 1973 sci-fi film marked the third collaboration between Henry and director Mike Nichols. Henry adapted from Robert Merle’s novel. George C. Scott is excellent in the lead role as a marine biologist who has developed a method for training dolphins to communicate in human language. Naturally, there is a shadowy cabal of government spooks who take keen interest in this scientific breakthrough. Unique and involving. I like to call this one a conspira‘sea’ thriller (sorry).
The Graduate – “Aw gee, Mrs. Robinson.” It could be argued that those were the four words in this 1967 Mike Nichols film that made Dustin Hoffman a star. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of hapless college grad Benjamin Braddock…even if Hoffman (30 at the time) was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 21-year-old character.
Poor Benjamin just wants to take a nice summer breather before facing adult responsibilities, but his pushy parents would rather he focus on career advancement immediately, if not sooner. Little do his parents realize that in their enthusiasm, they’ve inadvertently pushed their son right into the sack with randy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of his Dad’s business partner (the original cougar?). Things get complicated after Benjamin meets his lover’s daughter (Katharine Ross).
This is one of those “perfect storm” creative collaborations: Nichols’ skilled direction, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s witty screenplay, fantastic performances from the cast, and one of the best soundtracks ever (by Simon and Garfunkel). Some of the 60s trappings haven’t dated well, but the incisive social satire has retained all its sharp teeth. Look for Henry in a cameo as a room clerk.
The Owl and the Pussycat – George Segal plays a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is a perfect foil in one of her best comedic turns as a profane, boisterous hooker in this classic “oil and water” farce, directed by Herbert Ross. Serendipity throws the two odd bedfellows together one fateful evening, and the resulting mayhem is crude, lewd, and funny as hell. Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from Bill Manhoff’s original stage version. Robert Klein is wonderfully droll in a small but memorable role. My favorite line: “Doris…you’re a sexual Disneyland!”
To Die For – Gus van Sant’s 1995 mockumentary centers on an ambitious young woman (Nicole Kidman, in one of her best performances) who aspires to elevate herself from “weather girl” at a small market TV station in New England to star news anchor, posthaste. A calculating sociopath from the word go, she marries into a wealthy family, but decides to discard her husband (Matt Dillon) the nanosecond he asks her to consider putting her career on hold so they can start a family (discard…with extreme prejudice).
Buck Henry based his script on Joyce Maynard’s true crime book about the Pamela Smart case (the most obvious difference being that Smart was a teacher and not an aspiring media star, although it could be argued that during the course of her highly publicized trial, she did become one). A barbed and darkly funny meditation on the cult of celebrity.
What’s Up, Doc? – Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is an entertaining love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence is Bringing Up Baby), with great use of San Francisco locations. Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy). Henry gets top billing on the script, co-written with David Newman and Robert Benton. The cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)
Stardust– Studio Canal (Region “B” Blu-ray)
Michael Apted directed this 1974 sequel to Claude Whatham’s 1973 film That’ll Be the Day. David Essex reprises his role as restless seeker Jim MacLaine, who has finally found his true passion: music.
The first third traces MacLaine’s Beatle-like rise to fame with his beat combo “The Stray Cats” (it’s a safe bet Brian Setzer and band mates saw this film back in the day and “re-appropriated” the name).
With massive success comes the inevitable backstage squabbles and jealousies; eventually MacLaine is surrounded by music company weasels and yes-men whispering in his ear to dump his “backup” band and pursue a solo career as a rock god (who can say “no” to that?). Then comes the inevitable decline: too much drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll excess.
One of the best (and most realistic) films ever made about the music business. Clever casting of a number of veteran UK rockers like Adam Faith, Dave Edmunds, Keith Moon, Marty Wylde and Paul Nicholas adds greatly to the authenticity.
It feels like a squandered opportunity that Studio Canal didn’t just go ahead and package the film with That’ll Be the Day as a “two-fer”, but that’s a personal quibble. I’ll get over it. I’m just happy to finally have copies of both films with high-quality image and audio.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 17, 2019)
Regarding Peter Fonda: Well, I didn’t see that coming. Not so much his death (he was 79 and he had been battling cancer for a while) but my unexpectedly emotional reaction to it.
At 63 I’m no spring chicken myself; by the time you reach your sixth decade, you begin to grow armor against losing your shit every time another pop culture icon of your youth buys the farm. It’s all part of life. Nobody lives forever, and your idols are no exception.
[**SPOILER ALERT**] So why the waterworks? I mean, I was 13 when Easy Rider came out in 1969; by the time I finally had a chance to see it (probably on late-night TV or maybe a VHS rental…can’t recall) I was in my mid 20s and Jerry Rubin was working on Wall Street; so obviously that abrupt shock ending where Captain America gets blown away by inbred rednecks did not have the contemporaneous sociopolitical impact on me that it might have for a 25 year-old dope smoking longhair watching it in a theater back in 1969.
Maybe it’s the timing of Fonda’s passing. Not that he planned it, but it came smack dab amid the 50th anniversary of Woodstock (August 15-17, 1969). Since it began on Thursday, I’ve been sporadically listening in to a 72-hour synchronized broadcast/web-streaming of the uncut audio recordings of every Woodstock performance via Philly station WXPN. It’s a very different experience from watching Michael Wadleigh’s famous documentary, which (for very practical reasons) only features bits and pieces of the event. WXPN’s presentation is more immersive, and somehow-it is more moving.
So perhaps I was feeling extra nostalgic about the era; which adds additional poignancy to Fonda’s passing, as he was very much a part of the Woodstock Generation iconography.
But Fonda was not just an icon, he was a human being. Here’s his sister Jane’s statement:
“He was my sweet-hearted baby brother. The talker of the family. I have had beautiful alone time with him these last days. He went out laughing.”
I did not know him personally, but if you can go out laughing…that is a pretty cool life.
As to that part of his life he shared with all of us-here are some film recommendations:
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry – John Hough’s 1974 road movie features Fonda as the leading man and co-stars Susan George (*sigh* my first teenage crush) and Adam Roarke. Fonda and Roarke are car racing partners who take an ill-advised detour into crime, robbing a grocery store in hopes of getting enough loot to buy a pro race car. They soon find themselves on the run from the law. A shameless rip-off of Vanishing Point; but delivers the thrills for action fans (muscle car enthusiasts will dig that cherry ’69 Dodge Charger).
Easy Rider – This was the film that not only awakened Hollywood to a previously untapped youth market but put Fonda on the map as a counterculture icon. He co-wrote the screenplay along with Terry Southern and Dennis Hopper (who also directed).
Fonda and Hopper star as two biker buddies (flush from a recent lucrative drug deal) who decide to get on their bad motor scooters (choppers, actually) and ride from L.A. to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Along the way, they encounter a cross-section of American society; from a commune of idealistic hippies, a free-spirited alcoholic Southern lawyer (memorably played by Jack Nicholson) to a pair of prostitutes they end up tripping with in a cemetery.
The dialogue (along with the mutton chops, fringe vests and love beads) may not have dated so well, but the outstanding rock music soundtrack has held up just fine. And thanks to Laszlo Kovacs’ exemplary DP work, those now iconic images of expansive American landscapes and endless gray ribbons that traverse them remain the quintessential touchstone for all American “road” movies that have followed in its wake.
The Hired Hand – Fonda’s 1971 directorial debut is a lean, poetic neorealist Western in the vein of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Jan Troell’s Zandy’s Bride. Gorgeously photographed by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, it stars Fonda as a taciturn drifter who returns to his wife (Verna Bloom) after a prolonged absence.
Embittered by his desertion, she refuses to take him back, advising him to not even tell their young daughter that he is her father. In an act of contrition, he offers to work on her rundown farm purely as a “hired hand”, no strings attached. Reluctantly, she agrees; the couple slowly warm up to each other once again…until an incident from his recent past catches up with him and threatens the safety of his longtime friend and traveling companion (Warren Oates). Well-written (by Alan Sharp), directed, and acted; it’s a genuine sleeper.
The Limey – One of my favorite Steven Soderberg films (from 1999) also features one of Fonda’s best latter-career performances. He’s not the main character, but it’s a perfect character role for him, and he runs with it.
Scripted by Lem Dobbs, Soderberg’s taut neo-noir centers on a British career criminal (Terrance Stamp, in full East End gangster mode) who gets out of prison and makes a beeline for America to investigate the death of his estranged daughter. He learns she had a relationship with an L.A.-based record producer (Fonda), who may be able to shed light on her untimely demise. Once he locates him, the plot begins to thicken.
Fast-moving and rich in characterization, with a great supporting cast that includes Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzman, Nicky Katt, and Barry Newman (look for a winking homage to Newman’s iconic character in Vanishing Point).
92 in the Shade – This quirky, picaresque 1975 black comedy is acclaimed writer Thomas McGuane’s sole directorial effort. (I consider it a companion piece to Frank Perry’s equally oddball Rancho Deluxe, which was also written by McGuane, features several of the same actors, and was released the same year).
Fonda stars as a trustafarian slacker who comes home to Key West and decides to start a fishing charter business. This doesn’t set well with a gruff competitor (Warren Oates) who decides to play dirty with his rival.
As in most McGuane stories, narrative takes a backseat to the characters. In fact, the film essentially abandons its setup halfway through-until a curiously rushed finale. Still, there’s a bevy of wonderful character actors to savor, including Harry Dean Stanton, Burgess Meredith, William Hickey, Sylvia Miles and Louise Latham.
Also in the cast: Margot Kidder (McGuane’s wife at the time) and Elizabeth Ashley (his girlfriend at the time)-which begs speculation as to what was going through his mind as he directed a scene where Kidder and Ashley exchange insults and then get into a physical altercation!
Race With the Devil –In this 1975 thriller, Fonda and Warren Oates star as buds who hit the road in an RV with wives (Lara Parker, Loretta Swit) and dirt bikes in tow. The first night’s bivouac doesn’t go so well; the two men witness what appears to be a human sacrifice by a devil worship cult, and it’s downhill from there (literally a “vacation from hell”). A genuinely creepy chiller that keeps you guessing until the end, with taut direction from Jack Starrett.
The Trip – This 1967 drug culture exploitation fest from famed B-movie director Roger Corman may be awash in beads, Nehru jackets, patchouli and sitars…but it’s a much better film than you’d expect.
Fonda plays a TV commercial director who seeks solace from his turned-on and tuned-in drug buddy (Bruce Dern) after his wife leaves him. Dern decides the best cure for Fonda’s depression is a nice getaway to the center of his mind, courtesy of a carefully administered and closely supervised LSD trip. Susan Strasberg and Dennis Hopper co-star. Trippy, with a psychedelic soundtrack by The Electric Flag.
Ulee’s Gold – Writer-director Victor Nunez’s 1997 family drama ushered in a career revival for Fonda, who received critical accolades (as well as an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win) for his measured and nuanced performance. Fonda plays a widower and Vietnam vet who prefers to keep himself to himself, living a quiet life as a beekeeper-until the day his estranged son (Tom Wood) calls him from prison, asking for a favor. Unexpected twists ensue, with Fonda slowly peeling away hidden depths of his character’s complexity. Beautifully acted and directed, with career-best work by Fonda.
The Wild Angels – Another youth exploitation extravaganza from Roger Corman, this 1966 drama kick-started a spate of low-budget biker movies in its wake. Fonda is a member of San Pedro M.C., The Angels. The club decides to party in Palm Springs…and all hell breaks loose. It’s fairly cliché genre fare, but a critical building block for Fonda’s 60s iconography; especially when he delivers his immortal line: “We wanna be free to ride our machines…without being hassled by The Man!” The cast includes Nancy Sinatra, Michael J. Pollard and erm-Laura Dern’s mom and dad (Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd!).
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 3, 2019)
Helter skelter in a summer swelter The birds flew off with a fallout shelter Eight miles high and falling fast
– “American Pie”, by Don McLean
CHAPTER ONE: Well it’s 1969, OK
Once upon a time (well…a month ago) I wrote a piece about two related films; Andrew Slater’s documentary Echo in the Canyon, and Jacques Demy’s 1969 drama Model Shop, which Slater name-checks as an inspiration for his look back at the influential music scene that thrived in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon neighborhood from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.
I’d never seen (or heard of) Model Shop until its recent TCM premiere. From my review:
Like many films of its era, “Model Shop” is a leisurely, episodic character study. […] Interestingly, it is both very much of its time, and ahead of its time; a precursor to films exploring modern love in the City of Angels like Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo” and (especially) Alan Rudolph’s “Welcome to L.A”. Like those films, this is a gauzy, sun-bleached vision of a city that attracts those yearning to connect with someone, something, or anything that assures a non-corporeal form of immortality; a city that teases endless possibilities, yet so often pays out with little more than broken dreams.
It appears Model Shop is a gift that keeps on giving-it is also cited by Quentin Tarantino as an inspiration driving his latest postmodernist opus, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Then again, there are any number of “inspirations” fueling any Tarantino film you’d care to name. He is contemporary cinema’s doyen of pop-cultural re-appropriation (some cry “plagiarism”, but rare is the filmmaker who doesn’t wear their influences on their sleeve).
As a film geek who never meta-reference I didn’t like, I enjoy the parlor game aspect of his films. The title: “once upon a time in Hollywood” pulls double duty. It is a nod to a 1969 Leone western (Tarantino’s film is set in 1969). “Once upon a time” suggests a fairy tale; you can expect a subversion of reality, despite the fact it is set “in Hollywood”, a real place you can visit. A real place, of course, where they crank out fantasies-on reels.
CHAPTER TWO: The Actual Fucking Review
It’s too late To fall in love with Sharon Tate But it’s too soon To ask me for the words I want carved on my tomb
– “It’s Too Late”, by The Jim Carroll Band
Marilyn Monroe once famously said “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the fifty cents.” Of course, she was specifically referring to the craft of acting, and the difficulty of maintaining integrity while toiling in the skin-deep recesses of the Dream Factory. Indeed, there are myriad stories of those who got off the bus in Tinseltown with stars in their eyes, determined to “make it” at any cost-only to get chewed up and spit out; dreams shattered, souls crushed.
Hollywood is also a “place” where you can divide your show biz types into two categories: Those who are on their way up, and those who are on their way down. Then, there’s the ephemeral confluence where (to quote my favorite line from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous) “You’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.”
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a screen capture of one such confluence. On her way up: Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)…a young, beautiful star fresh off positive reviews for her role in the latest “Matt Helm” spy caper, The Wrecking Crew. On his way down: her neighbor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio)…a middle-aged, alcoholic ex-TV actor with a middling film career.
Right out of the gate, Tarantino is signaling his intent to mix fact with fantasy by placing fictional characters (like Rick Dalton) alongside real-life characters (like the late Sharon Tate) in his tale; so, abandon hope now of standard biopic clichés…all ye who enter here.
Dalton’s partner-in-crime is veteran stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Booth was Dalton’s long-standing stunt double in a hit TV western series that made Dalton a multi-platform star du jour in the mid-60s (suggested by a cleverly simulated “archival” clip of Dalton lip-syncing a song on the music variety show Hullabaloo-which triggered my PTSD regarding Bill Shatner’s nightmare-fueling but mercifully brief stint as a pop idol).
Due to Dalton’s driver’s license suspension (a result of one-too-many DUIs) Booth has also become the fading actor’s de facto chauffeur; in fact, he has ostensibly become his live-in P.A., groundskeeper and handyman – for which he receives a stipend. Despite that, their friendship is not necessarily transactional, like Elvis and his “Memphis Mafia”.
The two buds share a world view; demonstrated by a reactionary mindset regarding members of the counterculture (whom they refer to as “dirty fuckin’ hippies”) and a casual racism.
In a telling flashback, we learn how Booth got himself fired from a stuntman gig on The Green Hornet TV series-he goads Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) into a back lot scrap by mocking his fight philosophy and derisively addressing him as “Kato” (this has in turn goaded relatives and fans of the late martial arts superstar into hurling accusations at Tarantino of Asian stereotyping and defamation of Lee’s character and legacy; I would argue 1.) the writer’s intention was merely to add exposition to Booth’s back story, and 2.) “once upon a time” offers up a major clue: THIS IS A FAIRY TALE).
About those dirty fuckin’ hippies. If you know Sharon Tate’s heartbreaking life story, then you’re aware her journey is inexorably enmeshed with a particularly odious group of dirty fuckin’ hippies. Namely, Charles Manson and his followers, aka The Family. Yes, they all have a part to play in this postmodern Grimm’s fairy tale; more on that shortly.
But first, back to Rick Dalton’s flagging career. Pushed by a fast talking Hollywood agent (played by a scenery-chewing Al Pacino) to overcome his “one-note action star” stigma by tackling an out-of-character guest appearance as the heavy in an episode of a TV western (directed with amusing high art flair by Sam Wanamaker, played by Nicholas Hammond) Dalton reluctantly signs on. It’s worth noting that the real Sam Wanamaker did direct a 1971 movie western called Catlow, which had Leonard Nimoy playing a heavy.
I should warn Tarantino fans anticipating non-stop action with shit blowing up and/or a freakishly high body count: Dalton’s struggle to recover his acting mojo takes up a sizeable chunk of the film’s 159-minute run time. This is not Kill Bill Tarantino; this is Jackie Brown Tarantino. In other words, the Model Shop influence is strong in this one, as in (to reiterate from my review) a “leisurely, episodic character study” (well…mostly).
I know, what about that whole Manson Family thing? Brad Pitt gets his star turn when his character gives one of Charlie’s girls a ride back to the ranch (as in Spahn). Short of the climax, it’s the most “Tarantino-esque” set piece in the film. The sequence is drenched in dread and foreboding, yet perfectly tempered by darkly comic underpinnings and the idiosyncratic pentameter of Tarantino dialog. Bruce Dern has a great cameo as George Spahn, and Dakota Fanning is almost too convincing as psycho daisy Squeaky Fromme.
Which brings us to the climax. You knew where this was headed, didn’t you? You know this takes place in the Summer of 1969. You know what happened on that awful night in August. And, you know that this wouldn’t be a “Tarantino film” without a shot of adrenaline jabbed straight into the heart of the narrative; provoking sudden, shocking and surreal Grand Guignol. “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino simply must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?”
Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam.
What I am prepared to share (as I suspect anyone who’s read this far would really, really appreciate it if I could just wrap up this goddam tome sometime this Century) is this: DiCaprio and Pitt have rarely been better, Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9 year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown).