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Don Stroud

Review: Scalawag

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

Kirk Douglas becomes yet another star to learn he ought to stay in front of the camera. His directorial debut lacks style, wit, pace, visual distinction, common sense—lacks even naïveté, which might have proved at least modestly winning. Indeed, the picture serves up some very ugly doses of casual death-dealing by a motley crew of constantly guffawing pirates who, with peglegged Douglas in the lead, scramble around Alta California in pursuit of treasure and G-rated good times. The suburban audience I saw Scalawag with had come mostly for the second-run cofeature, Charlotte’s Web, to judge by remarks overheard, but they responded to Douglas’s shambling efforts with that programmed laughter they learn from canned tracks on TV. As a performer, Douglas has usually fared best as some kind of scoundrel (his best performance, Lonely Are the Brave, is a conspicuous exception), especially such early triumphs as the malevolent, latently homosexual gangster in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) and the Machiavellian producer in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), as Howard Hawks observed in connection with The Big Sky (also ’52), when he tries to sell himself as a nice guy he is less than convincing. Scalawag asks us to delight in a nice scoundrel, but director Douglas leaves actor Douglas stranded.
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Videophiled Classic: ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ on Blu-ray

BuddyHollyBuddy Holly died young, long before he was finished making his creative contribution to the fledgling rock genre and before the movies had a chance to try him out as a screen performer. So instead of Buddy on the big screen, we have Gary Busey playing the musical hipster from the Bible-belt culture of Lubbock, Texas in The Buddy Holly Story (Twilight Time, Blu-ray). This 1978 biopic is almost square in its straightforward storytelling yet utterly engaging and oddly expressive of the creative spirit from an unlikely rebel. This is one of my favorite rock biopics of all time and decades later I still prefer it to the more flamboyant and self-conscious portraits of musical legends that have become the fashion. This is so square that it’s hip!

Busey’s gangly physicality, crooked, toothy smiles, and stage intensity brings Holly to life as both an unlikely rock ‘n’ roll rebel (he was first rock star to wear glasses onstage and in publicity shots) and an original voice in pop music. Off stage he’s the sweet, goofy, slightly odd boy next door with a gift for music, and onstage he turns every performance into an act of creation, as if each song is reborn when played for each new audience. Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith provide solid back-up as bass man Jesse and drummer Ray Bob, fictionalized versions of the original Crickets (the origin of their name may be apocryphal but it is nonetheless a delightful scene) and Conrad Janis (of Mork and Mindy) is another fictional creation loosely inspired by Norman Petty, a record executive who chooses to back the instincts of this young man from Lubbock.

Director Steve Rash stumbled with his next film, the tone-deaf comedy Under the Rainbow, and never really recovered (lately he’s been relegated to direct-to-disc sequels) but on The Buddy Holly Story, which was his debut feature, his instincts and his execution are dead on. He eschews both reverence and show-biz melodrama for a low-key evocation of late-1950s culture and a no-nonsense peek into the workings of the music business and the practical approach that Holly took to creating the distinctive sound of his records. This isn’t genius springing fully formed from the artist like a wellspring but ideas developed and worked over by a professional devoted to his art. It may be the most unaffected biography of a musical great ever made, certainly one of the few that acknowledges the hard work and commitment necessary to creating music. It earned Busey his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Actor and reminds us that before he became a celebrity train wreck and reality TV joke, Busey was a fine actor who had at least one brilliant performance in his long career.

The musical recreation of Holly’s hits and sound is superb, from Busey’s Texas twang to the band thumping away behind a driving guitar creating both more sound and more melody than you thought possible from a single electric instrument. The musical adaptation earned the film its only Academy Award and is isolated on separate audio track on the Blu-ray debut, which is a trademark feature of Twilight Time releases put to a slightly different emphasis this time around. It also features commentary by director Steve Rash and star Gary Busey carried over from the old DVD release, the trailer, and an eight-page booklet with a new essay by Julie Kirgo. It is limited to 3000 copies and available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More rock and roll movies on Blu-ray at Cinephiled

Review: The Choirboys

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

If I didn’t already know Robert Aldrich was an intelligent filmmaker, I’d have a hard time guessing it from The Choirboys. From the leering flatulation of the opening titles–a stained-glass window announcing “The Choirboys” with a gloved fist smashing through in freeze frame, while a chanting chorus segues into a beer hall song–grossness of comic and satiric idea is the unpromising watchword of his new movie. The title is the chosen name of the scuzziest precinct’s worth of beat cops in class-A filmmaking, who–for the first half-hour or so of the movie, at least–seem content solely to carry on like a bunch of Special Ed. alumni, whether on duty or off. They deliver themselves of an unrelenting stream of bathroom jokes, sadistic intramural pranks, and gratuitous subversions of the department and force in which, theoretically, they serve, taking an occasional after-hours for “choir practice,” which mostly means boozing and brawling in MacArthur Park. Now, I wouldn’t normally take umbrage at any of this, and I was anticipatorily delighted to read, well in advance of the film’s release, that policeman-novelist Joseph Wambaugh was less than enchanted with the changes Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic liberal had made in his boys-in-blue tale; moreover, Aldrich’s crudity has often been inseparable from his vigor, and I’ve rarely minded that. But this movie came on so dumb, and pitched, apparently, at the tastes of the lowest uncommon denominator in the audience. Particularly noxious was an early bit of fag-baiting involving the reddest-necked of the Choirboys (Tim McIntire), handcuffed bareass to a park tree, and the flittiest night-prowler outside Castro Street, complete with pink-dyed poodle on a leash. Even allowing for the director’s disingenuous admission that “Mr. Aldrich, even in a moment of anger, has never been accused of understating anything,” what was this in aid of?

Well, as it turned out in the light of the finished film, it may have been in aid of a good deal. For subsequent sequences at least semi-systematically went on to turn many of the Choirboys’ more ignoble pastimes back upon them, so that, even as Aldrich was celebrating a band of nonconformists shoving it to the system with his customary sardonic amusement, he also seemed to be trying to get at how the desperate coarseness of their reactions against a killing establishment was taking its toll in dehumanization. Although the script leaves much to be desired and the continuity is rather ragged (there is copious evidence of both excessive uninspired improvisation and heavy last-minute cutting), scenes begin to echo one another and suggest a tentative dialectic. Early in the film two of the Choirboys use a friendly hooker to entrap a hard-ass lieutenant who wants to do them dirt; later, a junior member of the team, on loan to the vice squad, must put the hookers on the other end of the entrapment procedure, and ends up looking pretty ridiculous in the process; later still, he and his partner bust yet another working girl, whose specialty is highly paid bondage sessions, and discover that her present client is one of the original jolly pranksters who put the lieutenant on the spot–and his reaction to being caught in harness by his professional soulmates is to blow his brains out. The convolutions and crossreferences really proliferate in the second half of the film, and though the movie remains an irreparable shambles, at least we can discern the complex ironic structure through which Aldrich intended to express his anarchist’s rage.

RTJ

© 1978 Richard T. Jameson

THE CHOIRBOYS
Direction: Robert Aldrich. Screenplay: Joseph Wambaugh (refused credit) and Christopher Knopf, after the novel by Wambaugh. Cinematography: Joseph Biroc. Music: Frank DeVol.
The players: Charles Durning, Louis Gossett Jr., Perry King, Clyde Kusatsu, Stephen Macht, Tim McIntire, Randy Quaid, Chuck Sacci, Don Stroud, James Woods, Burt Young, Robert Webber, Vic Tayback, Barbara Rhoades, Michele Carey, David Spielberg.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.

Review: The Buddy Holly Story

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]

If anyone had told me I was going to enjoy a movie called The Buddy Holly Story, I’d have nominated him as a prime candidate for the funny farm. But I went to see the thing at a trade screening on a slow summer afternoon, and I enjoyed it very much indeed. The pleasures were various. In a season dominated by movies hung on one musical hook or other and conceived as bubble gum for the eyes, ears, and mind, I took no small satisfaction in a film that not only served up distinctive music with gusto but did so without welshing on its obligation to move professionally and purposefully as film narrative. Also, with filmmakers at both the A and B levels shamelessly falling back on broad nostalgia as raison détre, structural strategy, and prime sales point, the makers of The Buddy Holly Story—the very title says it—had enough love and respect for the bygone sub-genre of the musical biopic to reach back and not merely recreate one as a sort of cinematic fossil exhibit in motion, but make a legitimate movie.

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