Tuesday, January 18, 2022

An Alan Freed Trilogy

The early rock and roll era is more distant than ever. A teenager who grew up in the thrall of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and the rest is now an octogenarian. Nostalgia for the period peaked by the late 1970s and all the excitement it generated has mostly worn away, but still, the manic energy of the period with all its contradictions and flaws retains a bit of its spark. Maybe it's the insular nature of today, speaking of music as a revolutionary force in the culture sounds absurd and pathetically anachronistic. Yet to paraphrase John Lennon, the records are always there if you want to reminisce. In this case I'm looking back at three films about the era, all focused on the legend of Alan Freed, the Cleveland Disc Jockey who popularized the new music. Freed passed away at the age of 43 fifty-seven years ago this week. 

Mr. Rock n Roll: The Alan Freed Story (1999) The real Alan Freed starred in a 1957 film of the same title, which mostly featured him introducing a list of popular acts from the day, including a flashback to the day he supposedly coined the term "rock n roll." This made for television film starred Judd Nelson as Freed, alongside Madchen Amick (of Twin Peaks fame) as his fictional wife Jackie. Nelson's laconic performance focuses on Freed's rise in Cleveland, but also looks at the less savory side of persona, specifically his greed and ego, declaring a few times I INVENTED ROCK N ROLL. At the same time, he's portrayed as an ally to African American artists who drew the ire of J. Edgar Hoover. Paula Abdul appears in an unnecessary supporting role. At the very least there's a vague period flavor, but the structure's formulaic and uninspired.  **

Telling Lies in America (1997) A partly autobiographical film penned by the master of erotic potboilers Joe Eszterhas. Set in 1950s Cleveland, Brad Renfro stars as 17-year-old Hungarian immigrant "Chucky" at odds with is peers, school and demanding father. He gets a job as a gopher for local Disc Jockey Billy Magic, played by Kevin Bacon in a magnetic performance. A variation on the Freed persona, Billy is openly corrupt and seeks payola payments. Yet his charisma wins over everyone around him - he seems to honestly love the music. Unfortunately, the film spends too much time with Chucky, Renfro's melancholy performance is dull, not to mention an awkward subplot in which he pursues an older woman played by Calista Flockhart, although her age is indeterminate in the film. One of the least nostalgic takes on the 1950s, here Freed by way of Bacon is desperately flawed. **1/2

American Hot Wax (1978) Released during the height of '50s nostalgia, the year of Grease, Pauline Kael called American Hot Wax a "Super B-movie." All ramshackle in its performances and structure, Hot Wax took a cue from American Graffiti with its wall-to-wall diegetic music. The late character actor Tim Mclntire is excellent in an idealized interpretation of Freed, passion for the music came first, especially good in a scene when he rhapsodizes on the loss of Buddy Holly. Young people adored his championing the youth and their music, a John the Baptist for the jukebox decade. By far the best watch of the lot, many rock and rollers appear as themselves, while the supporting cast included Jay Leno, Fran Drescher, and Laraine Newman. Despite its punk energy in terms of style and performance, the film flopped at the Box Office. ***

Monday, January 17, 2022

Communion (1989)

Based on Whitney Strieber's non-fiction book Communion about his alleged experiences with, in his words, "visitors", the 1989 film starred Christopher Walken (Whitney) and Lindsay Crouse (Anne). As a movie Communion is a curio if there ever was one. Walken returns to role similar to what he played in The Dead Zone, a man who emerges changed after a traumatic experience. 

So if you combine Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a touch of the forgettable Fire in the Sky, Communion fits the bill. Whitney is a successful writer living in New York with his wife and son and appears to be content with his life. Walken played Strieber as a true eccentric, according to IMDB Strieber confronted Walken about making him look a little too nutty, Walken replied "if the shoe fits." During a weekend with friends at his country cabin Strieber experienced strange flashing lights at night. A few months later, he had an even more terrifying experience during the Christmas holiday.

Afterward his mood changes and he experiences mood swings that drive a wedge between him and Anne. Doctors find no evidence of physical problems; a brain scan comes up negative. But his disturbing nightmares and visions continues, leading Whitney to a psychiatrist. Through hypnosis he undergoes memories of an alien? abduction, with all too familiar stories of being probed, the visitors seem interested in human reproduction. Sent to a support group with people who had similar unexplained experiences, Whitney sympathizes with them, but decides to work things out himself. Eventually inner peace is recovered (Whitney even busts some moves with the greys) and his writer's block disappears. 

In the years since Communion came out, Strieber continued to write and attempt to make sense of his experiences. The confusing "happy" ending seems to suggest, "well, I guess I'm just going to get along with these beings." Unlike other alien visitation films, Communion appears to be okay with placing alien abduction on the shelf with typical yuppie problems, no different than getting good seats at the Knicks game or getting the stock portfolio in order. You may be an interdimensional being that's in touch with the multiverse, it happens. 

Walken achieves a memorable performance within some opaque material, and Crouse equals him in her patient attempt to understand his experiences. Sci-Fi and horror elements aside, Communion could be read as the story of a marriage holding together and overcoming mental health challenges. It works equally well as a testament to late '80s ennui among the creative class.