Movie of the Month: Sneakers (1992)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made HannaBrandon, and Britnee watch Sneakers (1992).

Boomer: love the movie Sneakers. This movie has everything: government conspiracies, a villain with a praiseworthy goal, hacking, phreaking, a blind man driving a van, the creation of a voiceprint password by cobbling together pieces of recordings, two scenes with River Phoenix in a scrub top, significant anagrams, post-Cold War espionage, ancient car phones, crawlspaces, codenames, rooftop confrontations, extremely futuristic but uncomfortable looking furniture made out of wire mesh, call tracing, electronic toy dogs, complex mathematics, briefcases full of cash, intrigue, prestidigitation, and two-time Emmy, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominee Mary McDonnell. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times and I never, ever get tired of it. 

Martin Bishop (Robert Redford), some twenty years after his friend and fellow idealist Cosmo was arrested while Martin was out getting pizza to celebrate some illegal but morally admirable money transfers, now works with a tiger team of “sneakers.” There’s Crease (Sidney Poitier), ex-C.I.A. and the group’s watchtower man; conspiracy theorist and electronics whiz “Mother” (real-life conspiracy theorist Dan Aykroyd); Irwin “Whistler” Emery (David Strathairn), a blind man whose hearing is so precise that it allows him to participate in the now largely defunct form of hacking known as phreaking; and young, pretty Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix), a hacking prodigy. Only two people know that Martin is actually the still-wanted fugitive once known as Martin Brice: Cosmo, who died in prison, and his ex-girlfriend, Liz (Mary McDonnell), with whom he is still relatively friendly. His secret, and his freedom, are threatened one day when Martin is approached by two men from the NSA (Timothy Busfield and Eddie Jones) who task him with stealing a “black box” piece of decryption hardware from a mathematician named Janek (Donal Logue, in his first film role). Although they succeed in obtaining the device, their payday is complicated by the revelation that they’ve actually been duped by former NSA operatives, now working for a person or persons unknown. Now, the team, including Liz, will have to use all of their wits to avoid not just jail time, but death. 

Sneakers was a box office success. This is owed in no small part, I’m sure, to its all-star cast, which also includes James Earl Jones and Ben Kingsley in roles that are too spoilery to note in a synopsis. It’s got a great soundtrack from the late James Horner, who perfectly balances the film’s intermittent intrigue and danger with its larger comedic tone, creating something that is at turns triumphant, cautious, and playful. Director Phil Alden Robinson, who also wrote the screenplay alongside Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker (the duo who previously penned the somewhat thematically similar WarGames), seems to be seeking to correct the mistakes of 1985’s Fletch. The earlier film, on which Robinson was an uncredited screenwriter, is also one of intrigue with touches of comedy, but despite Fletch‘s modicum of success at both the box office and with audiences, I agree with Roger Ebert’s contemporary assessment of the movie’s star: “[Chevy] Chase’s performance tends to reduce all the scenes to the same level. […] Fletch needed an actor more interested in playing the character than in playing himself.” Here, Robinson banks on Robert Redford’s longtime association with the conspiracy genre (Three Days of the CondorAll The President’s Men) as well as his natural charisma as an actor to do some of the shorthand of making Sneakers work without having to do too much legwork itself. Of course, every actor is great here; Poitier could have been used more, but he’s the absolute center of every scene that he’s in, and my love of Mary McDonnell is long documented so I won’t repeat myself here. Aykroyd, bless him, makes a meal out of his proto-Mulder role as he effortlessly tosses off lines about increases in cattle mutilations and ties the (unsuccessful, he claims) assassination of JFK to the men behind the Pete Rose scandal

Since I’ve mentioned Ebert, however, it bears noting that he was lukewarm on the film, calling it “sometimes entertaining […] but thin” and claims that it “recycles” older film cliches: “Redford’s team […] is yet another version of the World War II platoon that always had one of everything. […] the black guy, the fat guy, the blind guy, the woman[,] and the Kid.” Although he found parts of Sneakers cliche at points, he also praised Robinson for directing “with skill and imagination.” Brandon, I know that I’ve forced you to watch quite a few conspiracy films over the years; you were moderately positive in our discussion of Winter Soldier but struggled to find something nice to say about Undiscovered CountryGiven that Sneakers is at its core a cyberpunk story like previous Movie of the Month Strange Days, albeit one with a cassette futurism aesthetic, and that I know how much you love The Net, I’m hoping you enjoyed this one. Did it work for you? If so (or if not), why (or what would you have preferred)? 

Brandon: Like the last Mary McDonnell film we discussed as a Movie of the Month selection, Passion Fish, Sneakers mostly landed with me as an Afternoon Movie: low-key mainstream filmmaking best enjoyed while the sun is still out on a profoundly lazy day.  It’s the kind of movie I used to catch on broadcast television as a kid, when commercial breaks would stretch the runtime out to actually take up an entire afternoon, pleasantly so.  At the risk of participating in gender binary rhetoric, I’d say the main difference is that Passion Fish is a Mom Movie, while Sneakers is solidly a Dad Movie — the perfect basic cable background fodder to passively enjoy while your grandpa snores over the soundtrack.  As a “cyberpunk” thriller about elite early-internet hackers, it is absurdly un-hip; it’s all cyber and no punk.  I’ve come to expect my movie hackers to be young, androgynous perverts dressed in glossy patent leather, not middle-aged movie stars who tuck in their shirt-tails.  However, as a big-budget Dad Movie that plays with the same 1990s cyberterror anxieties exploited in the much goofier The Net, I found it highly entertaining.  It feels like a dispatch from a bygone studio filmmaking era when movie stars actually drove ticket sales, so that their importance on the screen is stressed way more than directorial style or production design — which are slick enough here but deliberately avoid calling attention to themselves.

As a result, I was more invested in the charm of the casting and the performances than I was in the actual espionage plot, which boils down to a global-scale hacking MacGuffin that has since become standard to most modern blockbusters in the MCU and Fast & Furious vein.  We’re introduced to Redford’s motley crew of square-looking cybercriminals in two separate rollcalls: one in which NSA agents read out their respective arrest records to quickly sketch out their past, and one in which they individually dance to Motown records with Mary McDonnell to show off their personal quirks.  I found the movie to be most vibrantly alive in those two scenes because of its general commitment to highlighting the eccentricities of its cast.  Redford & Poitier squeeze in an obligatory “We’re getting too old for this shit” quip in the first ten minutes of the film, but outside of those two rollcalls it’s rare for the movie to acknowledge just how out-of-place and Ordinary its elite hackers look (at least when compared to other 90s gems like Hackers and The Matrix), when that’s the only thing I really wanted to dwell on.  I could’ve watched an entire movie about Dan Akroyd’s awkwardly past-his-prime Mall Goth conspiracy theorist, for instance, since that role could’ve been much more comfortably filled by a Janeane Garofalo or a Fairuza Balk type without any change in demeanor or costuming.  What is Mother’s deal?  I’d love to know.

Britnee, were you similarly distracted by the movie’s casting & costuming of its “cyberpunk” hackers?  Who were the highlights (or lowlights) of the film’s cast of characters for you?

Britnee: I have to admit that Sneakers took me by surprise when I realized it was a hacker movie. I’ve known about its existence for years. It was always hanging out in my local library’s VHS collection. Its cover is a sneaky look at Robert Redford with a group of middle aged pals, so I just always assumed it was about him owning a shoe store in New England or something along those lines. It turns out that I was way off.

Like Brandon, I always expect hacker films to have a cast of sexy 90s cyperpunks. Leather pants, spiky hair, and those tiny cyber sunglasses that make no sense but all the sense at the same time. The only other way I’ve seen a hacker represented in a movie is a gamer guy with a messy t-shirt or a girl with a tight black tank top and cargo pants. The group in Sneakers is far from what I’m used to seeing as hackers in film. They look like my great-uncle and his group of wacky friends. Maybe Hollywood is working with the dark web overlords to paint a false picture of what real life computer hackers look like (sexy 90s cyperpunks) so we don’t think to consider middle aged sports bar crews as real hackers. Phil Robinson and friends were probably risking everything  to go against “them” to show us a glimpse of what real hackers are. That’s my Sneakers conspiracy theory, anyway.

All that being said, Robert Redford knocked it out of the park as Marty. He always beams so much charisma on screen, and in Sneakers, he does so while balancing being a hacking genius and a hero to dads everywhere.  I actually thought the casting all around was amazing, but I would have loved to see a nerdy middle aged woman in the same garb as Mother as a member of the crew. That would be the only suggestion I would make regarding casting, and that’s just me being selfish.

Something that really fascinated me about Sneakers was the beginning and ending wraparound about taking money from Republicans to give to liberal causes. I was surprised to see that in the movie considering it being in 1992 (post-Regan and in the midst of Bush). And it did tremendously well at the box office! Hanna, was this something that surprised you as well, considering the political climate at the time in the US? 

Hanna: Actually, I think this movie was a pretty safe political bet for Hollywood at the time. Sneakers was released just two months before Clinton’s election in 1992, and Marty—played by white, charismatic, red-blooded American Redford—is, in some ways, a perfect embodiment of the Third Way, a left-center political position that Clinton championed. Marty and his adversary both agree “money’s most powerful ability is to allow bad people to continue doing bad things at the expense of those who don’t have it”; the antagonist wants (or proclaims to want) to completely destroy the binary of wealth by toppling the inherently corrupt economics systems across the globe; in his new world, billionaires will cease to exist. This is obviously an untenable solution, but at least it’s radical. Marty’s idea of economic justice, on the other hand, is moving millions of dollars from the Republican National Convention to non-profits and NGOs, which is a fun joke that doesn’t fundamentally change anything about who is able to wield power and wealth. I would love the RNC to be suddenly and inexplicably bankrupt, but I doubt that the Koch brothers would give up on their political machinations after the RNC’s funding wound up at Greenpeace in the Sneakers universe. The film seemed squarely settled in the camp of without actually challenging the circumstances fueling wealth inequality; the film’s solution isn’t to radically re-think a system that allows a few wealthy people to disproportionately control our political, social, and economic realities, but to periodically move million dollar donations from one (pretty unpopular) organization to philanthropic ones, like Robin Hood for CEOs. At the very least, I wish they had been funneling money from Unilever.

Did any of that have any impact on my opinion or enjoyment of this movie whatsoever? Absolutely not. I loved Sneakers, and crime comedies from the late 90s do not have any kind of responsibility to be politically radical. Like Boomer mentioned, Ebert was soured by Sneakers’s use of material recycled from other movies, and it does play like a movie designed identify every possible permutation of the crime comedy cliché; fortunately for Phil Alden Robinson, I was more than happy to lap it up. I love any and all heist/spy movies, but I especially appreciated the earnest absurdity of Sneakers, from the standard CSI mumbo jumbo (enhancing on the tiniest details of already blurry photos) to goofy spy nonsense involving a room fortified with temperature and motion alarms. These cliches are definitely animated by a stellar cast, and I don’t think this film would have worked quite so well for me if it weren’t for the performances, especially from Redford and Poitier. I was so tickled by Crease’s impassioned probe into the details of Janek’s secret funding at 52:42 that I had to rewind and rewatch it multiple times (“Don’t tell me you can’t do it, because I know you can! And don’t tell me you won’t do it, because I’ve got to have it! Dammit, I need to know, and I need to know now!”), and it couldn’t have worked without Poitier hamming it up. As others have mentioned, Redford perfectly captures a version of the Strong, Good-Hearted, Down-To-Earth Man with smoother edges (like Harrison Ford mixed with Alan Alda, kind of), a character that is equally irresistible to Dads and Moms alike. This is the kind of movie that should have been on annual rotation in my household, and I can’t wait to make up for lost time. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I’ve been singing this film’s praises ever since it was first brought to my attention some 5-6 years after release, when it turned up at a sleepover. It’s the rare (perhaps the only) film with expressly leftist views that my father tolerated watching more than once, and that should tell you something about its quality, if nothing else. 

Hanna: This movie made me remember how much I enjoy anagrams. I know it’s not a practical encoding technique, but those anagrams in the opening credits really roped me in, and I was on the edge of my seat when Robert Redford started shuffling those Scrabble tiles around. Spy films need more anagrams!

Brandon: As much as I enjoyed this movie as a time capsule of mainstream 90s filmmaking, I’m convinced I would’ve fully loved it as a post-“retirement” Soderbergh heist flick.  Pairing this caliber of movie star casting with the more playful, eccentric visual style of an Ocean’s 12, Logan Lucky, or No Sudden Move would’ve pushed it much closer to the style-over-substance ethos that usually wins my heart.  As is, it’s handsomely staged, but maybe a little too well behaved.  Maybe what I’m saying is that I should finally check out Michael Mann’s Blackhat.

Britnee:  In 2016, NBC planned on making a TV series reboot of Sneakers, but to my knowledge, it looks like nothing came of it. I actually think a Sneakers TV series would be pretty great, so I hope something is still brewing.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September:
 Britnee presents Hello Again (1987)
October: 
Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)
November:
Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Starstruck (1982)

Our current Movie of the Month, the new-wave musical Starstruck, plays both like a rough prototype for 90s Australian gems like Strictly Ballroom & Muriel’s Wedding and a jukebox musical adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Usual.  Produced in the early days of MTV broadcasts, the film deviates from the break-from-reality song performances of the traditional movie musical by presenting them in the visual language of early 1980s music videos.  It’s particularly reminiscent of the shared-storyline music videos from Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album cycle, despite being released an entire year before that landmark pop debut.  There are some indulgences in record industry satire, let’s-save-the-pub community rallying, and television broadcast heists along the way, but largely the film is a fantasy-fulfillment for the same sheltered, artsy kids who saw their ideal selves blooming in Lauper’s bubbly, working-class avatar a year later.  And it’s just as satisfying in the movie as it is in those more widely-seen, celebrated videos.

I’d most recommend Starstruck to people who are skeptical of movie musicals as a medium but also find themselves watching marathons of 1980s music videos on YouTube in their idle time.  Its MTV-specific version of fantasy-fulfillment cinema might speak to you in a way most musical theatre can’t.  The new wave music & fashion of Starstruck is pitched exactly to my tastes, anyway, and the movie only strays from those modernized music video pleasures to (lovingly) mock the traditional movie musical as outdated kitsch (most notably in a Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming sequence featuring a pool packed with oiled-up muscle boys).  It’s my ideal version of its genre, and I can’t believe it’s not more routinely cited as an all-time classic.  To that end, here are a few more recommended titles if you are generally skeptical of musical theatre but found yourself enchanted by our Movie of the Month’s new wave, proto-Cyndi Lauper patina.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

It’s shocking in a lot of ways that I did not wind up a genuine musical theatre nerd, considering that one of my favorite films growing up was The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  While the greater cultural understanding of Rocky Horror is as a communal ritual among theatre kids, I never really experienced it that way. Watching my VHS copy on loop as a kid was a solitary hobby, but it taught me everything I love about art, from B-movies to glam rock to drag. It remains an all-time fav, which I can’t say for many full-blown musicals of its ilk.

Besides a shared glam-rock sensibility in their musical numbers and costuming, Rocky Horror and Starstruck also directly share a production designer in Brian Thompson (who also worked on the Rocky Horror stage show).  You can especially feel that shared DNA in Starstruck‘s opening musical number “Temper, Temper”, which is set in a music video nightclub made entirely of neon lights & 1950s kitsch furniture, resembling a new-wave update to the Rocky Horror aesthetic even more so than its spin-off sequel Shock Treatment (also designed by Thompson).  The dance choreography in that scene also directly references the “pelvic thrusts” of Rocky Horror‘s “Time Warp” routine, as if to underline the connection.

Maybe recommending The Rocky Horror Picture Show at all is as obvious & redundant as recommending Citizen Kane (good movie!), but I still think it’s worth highlighting here anyway.  It’s especially worth revisiting if you’re only familiar with the movie as a raucous theatrical ritual among the most annoying kids at your high school.  The songs, the costumes, and the absurdist humor work much better at home than they do in that environment, and they feel like a direct influence on the punk-musical theatricality of our Movie of the Month.

Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)

My biggest personal revelation watching Starstruck for the first time was that my ideal version of a movie musical is just a feature-length string of music videos held together by as little narrative tissue as possible.  There have been plenty of great examples of that format in recent years in the form of “visual albums”: Dirty Computer, When I Get Home, Lemonade, etc.  None of those modern examples overlap with the explicitly 80s-retro pleasures of Starstruck, though.  For more of that vintage music video musical appeal, you have to time travel back to Voyage of the Rock Aliens.  That mostly forgotten curio presents 1950s atomic sci-fi kitsch in the format of a post-MTV music video musical.  It plays like a crass attempt to reverse-engineer “the next Rocky Horror” (updated with some DEVO flair among the space aliens), but it instead crash lands as its own uniquely adorable oddity.

The titular Rock Aliens are a gaggle of new-wave weirdos from outer space who comb the galaxy for rock music in a guitar-shaped spaceship.  That search quickly leads them to Earth, where they engage in an intergalactic battle of the bands with some local rockabilly types.  Pia Zadora stars as a young Earthling rock singer whose boyfriend won’t let her join his band.  Ruth Gordon is hilariously miscast as a small-town sheriff.  Jermaine Jackson, a giant octopus, and a chainsaw-wielding Michael Berryman all pop in for chaotic bit parts with barely any connection to the plot.  Voyage of the Rock Aliens should be a total embarrassment along the lines of The Apple or Xanadu, but it somehow walks away with the D.I.Y.-glamour charm of a Vegas in Space.  It traffics in the same early-MTV music video escapism of Starstruck, but with almost no dialogue scenes between the musical numbers and with the production budget of a small-town high school play.  It’s super silly, super cute, and worthwhile for Pia Zadora’s 10,000 costume changes alone.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

Since this is ostensibly a list of recommendations for people who don’t generally care for musicals, I figured I should include a movie that isn’t a musical at all.  Like our Movie of the Month, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is about a young woman’s frustrating struggle to break out of her the confines of small working-class town and break into the urban punk scene, despite the macho gatekeepers determined to lock her out.  Both Starstruck and The Fabulous Stains operate as cynical satires of the record industry’s embarrassing mishandling of punk counterculture as a pop media commodity, and both are extremely critical of how minimized women creatives are on both sides of that corporate/artistic divide.  The only real difference is that Starstruck is a bubbly new wave musical fantasy, while The Fabulous Stains is a grittier, proto-riot-grrrl road movie with all of its musical performances grounded as realistic, on-stage concerts.

The one exception to The Fabulous Stains‘s reality-grounded stage performances is its insane filmed-after-the-fact coda that does break from reality in musical theatre tradition.  Thanks to an extended period of post-production studio-notes tinkering wherein Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understand, the version of late-70s punk The Fabulous Stains thumbed its nose at had become outdated before the movie was theatrically released.  That stasis inspired the producers to tack on a wildly out-of-place music video epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music TeleVision.  That temporal & tonal jump both enhances the film’s satirical themes and rapidly ages the baby-faced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye.  It also helps define the exact early music video language that Starstruck indulges in throughout, highlighting how that version of break-from-reality theatrical fantasy diverges from traditional movie musicals of the past.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Starstruck (1982)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch Starstruck (1982).

Brandon: I’ve been thinking a lot about movie musicals lately.  Not only are the releases of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake threatening to dominate online film discourse all the way through next Oscars season, but we also recently discussed the grim, reality-grounded stage musical London Road as a Movie of the Month selection.  In his intro to London Road, Boomer mentioned a few reasons why the movie musical is a medium he struggles to connect with as an audience—its awkward rhyme schemes, its Declared Feelings, its emotional artificiality, etc.—a few of which I bristle at myself.  The real reason I struggle with most musical theatre, though, is that I often just don’t care for its music.  The singing-for-the-back-row emotional projection of most traditional, stagey musicals strikes me as a kind of false, strained earnestness that takes me out of the promised fantasy of the artform.  When I think of movie musicals I do love—Rocky Horror, Velvet Goldmine, Hedwig, The Lure, etc.—they’re often the ones that indulge in the punk, glam, synthpop, and new wave musical tones I already listen to in my idle time.

In that respect, the 1980s new wave extravaganza Starstruck is perfectly suited for my movie musical tastes.  Not only does it operate like a rough prototype for 90s Australian gems like Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desertall huge tastemaking discoveries for me as a young film nerd—but it also plays like a jukebox musical adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s landmark debut She’s So Unusual, one of the greatest pop albums of all time.  If you’ve ever found yourself watching a marathon of Cyndi Lauper music videos on YouTube (if you haven’t, who are you?) you’ll notice that there’s a vaguely defined storyline from that She’s So Unusual album cycle wherein Lauper is a bubbly, working class teen desperate to escape her restrictive household to find other artsy weirdos like her in the big city outside her reach.  Starstruck was released at least a full year before that album but follows a remarkably similar storyline: a bubbly teen who’s tired of working the counter at her family’s local pub maneuvers her way into fronting a new wave punk band, then a Top 40s pop career (thanks largely to collaborating with her younger, manically ambitious cousin) where she excels as her So Unusual self.  There’s some indulgences in record industry satire, let’s-save-the-pub community rallying, and television broadcast heists along the way, but largely the film is a fantasy-fulfillment for the same sheltered, artsy kids who saw their ideal selves blooming in Lauper’s avatar a year later.  And it’s just as satisfying here as it is in those videos.

Speaking of music videos, I think the main reason Starstruck works so well for me as a movie musical is that its break-from-reality performances are presented in the visual language of early MTV broadcasts.  Given how much of my idle time is still spent YouTubing videos from 80s icons like Lauper, Kate Bush, and Madonna, that MTV-specific version of fantasy-fulfillment cinema speaks to me in a way most musical theatre can’t.  The new wave music & fashion of Starstruck is pitched exactly to my tastes, and the movie only strays from those modernized music video pleasures to (lovingly) mock the traditional movie musical as outdated kitsch (most notably in a Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming sequence featuring a pool packed with oiled-up muscle boys).  It’s my ideal version of its genre, and I can’t believe it’s not more routinely cited as an all-time classic.

Boomer, was Starstruck able to sneak past your own genre biases, or did its new wave-ification of the artfrom still fall flat in the face of your general movie musical skepticism?

Boomer: I was initially resistant to giving in to Starstruck‘s allure in much the same way that the first time I saw God Help the Girl; despite my absolute and utter adoration for all things Belle & Sebastian (a close friend gave me a copy of The Life Pursuit for my recent birthday and it hasn’t left the turntable yet), I had a hard time surrendering to Stuart Murdoch’s twee vision until the first non-title musical number well and truly won me over. With regards to Starstruck, I had the same hesitancy, and was also immediately set a bit off-kilter by its odd opening that dispensed with the normal film structure–there’s no studio or distributor logo, we’re simply thrust straight into the opening credits. From there, we meet our two leads in a brief intro scene that’s mostly taken up by a phone call that obscures both of their faces. Before the film even hits the three minute mark, Phil Judd from The Swingers is staring straight into the camera and singing “Gimme Love,” and by the seven minute mark, Jackie Mullens (Jo Kennedy) is doing her own musical number, singing “Temper Temper.” And I … wasn’t really having a great time, if we’re being honest. As I’ve noted before, the two things that I dislike most about typical Western musicals are the artificially earnest “musical voice” that’s a hallmark of “classically” trained singers and the belabored nature of musical lyrics, as plot points and exposition are beaten into submission in order to match a rhyme scheme and rhythm. As to the former, I much prefer the raw earnestness of your average local garage band to the operatic diaphragming of the university, and although Kennedy’s untrained and—frankly—confrontational vocals certainly aligns with my preferences, the strong-armed rhyming lyrics are very much in the style of those of traditional musicals: So trigger happy you get vicious / Also getting malicious / And you throw the dishes. I know that those are real lyrics because The Swingers were a real band, but they’re painful.

But then … as soon as “Temper Temper” ends at about 8.5 minutes in, the “musical” part of this musical dries up for nearly 30 minutes, and we just get to enjoy the antics of Angus (Ross O’Donovan) and Jackie as they try to make Jackie famous. When Jackie first starts to tightrope walk in the family pub, the film was giving such strong The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking vibes that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself, because I realized that what I had initially interpreted as just another “teenager wants to be a star” narrative, with all of its well-worn waypoints that we know from previous films in the genre, was actually a fantasy for children (the nudity, swearing, and smoking notwithstanding). The elaborate set piece that follows, in which Jackie dangles precariously from a wire between two buildings, was a genuine thrill in which there’s no real danger, unless you put yourself into the accepting mindset of a child who thinks Jackie may actually plummet to her death. That this is prelude to “Body and Soul,” which was the best and most energizing musical number to that point, only makes it that much more fun. The song itself wasn’t necessarily better than the dead-in-the-water tracks that frontloaded the picture, but that it’s not framed as an on-stage performance lends itself to a feeling of genuine spontaneity, and the frenetic energy of the family and the ever-present barflies as they dance around and sing is infectious, and the backing band gives it an effervescent quality that was lacking in the first two numbers. It’s genuinely catchy! 

And then we have our first (and only) song that’s a showpiece for Angus, and even though Angus is by far the most fascinating and magnetic character in this movie, it’s also … not very good. However, as musical producer/host Terry (John O’May) says to Jackie at one point after she botches a show, “There’s only boring and interesting, and you certainly weren’t boring;” and Angus is never boring. This is about the point where the movie really started to lose my interest: Angus’s number, “I Want To Live In a House,” fun as it was, ends at 55:05, and it’s less than two minutes before Jackie does her disastrous rendition of “My Belief in You,” which lasts over three minutes of screen time (56:45-59:48), and then it’s less than ninety seconds before Terry and Jackie perform “Tough,” which itself clocks in at five long minutes (60:07-65:07). Five minutes later, we’re in another musical number (“It’s Not Enough”), this time a sappy ballad, but it’s mercifully short. When looping back to take notes about those time codes, I think that “I Want to Live in a House” works fairly well in isolation and suffers primarily from its proximity to several consecutive stinkers, and although it’s not a good track, I was thoroughly charmed by the performances and dancing of Donovan and the backing band (mostly comprised of members of The Swingers minus Phil Judd, but also our love interest Robbie, as played by Ned Lander). It’s interesting, not boring, like the tracks that follow it. After this overstuffed middle section, we head into our final act, in which we spend a goodly amount of time with the Mullens family, as they have what may be their last Christmas together in their apartments above the pub and commiserate about the possibility of losing their business and home. After that, the last performances at the opera house are pretty fun, counterposed with the Mullens et al watching the performance and doing their little old people dances, and I was pleased in spite of myself. 

So I would have to say that, yeah, the New Wave nature of the music did do some of the legwork of making the musical part of this musical more palatable. The lyrics of the songs were still very much in line with what annoys me about the traditional musical—It’s the monkey in me that makes me want to do it / It’s the monkey in me that makes me want to chew it is a lyric written by an alien trying to imitate human music after only having heard “Rock Lobster”—but the energy and unadulterated, unpolished performances really made up for it. The musical sequences would perhaps be better served from being more spaced out, rather than happening in multiple clumps, but there’s an argument to be made that putting all of the worst ones in the middle and lumping them together helps you get through them more efficiently. 

Britnee, a few weeks back my best friend and I were sitting around and watching Cyndi Lauper videos (as one does), and she asked me if I thought a woman with Lauper’s lack of “traditional” talent would be able to make it in the current musical market. I’m of the mind that it’s possible, since it’s more difficult for most people to sing along with a classically trained vocalist as opposed to someone whose range is “whatever range the listener is in” (Lindsay Ellis once made this comparison between Christina Aguilera, who is inarguably a better vocalist, and Britney Spears, who is the better performer; Aguilera has something in the range of four octaves that she can dance between, while Spears has a broader appeal because it’s a lot easier to keep step with “Toxic” than, say, “Beautiful”). I have no interest in shaming Jo Kennedy, but she’s in the latter camp, with a sound that’s very similar to Lauper’s high, nasally own. Do you think that if Jackie were a real person, she would have had a real chance to make it big in 1982? Do you think she would have a chance now?

Britnee: I honestly never made the Cyndi Lauper connection with Jackie, but that definitely makes sense. I don’t think that Jackie would have made it big in the world of mainstream pop in 80s though. She’s too cool for any of that nonsense. She reminded me a lot of Kate Fagan (especially with Kate’s hit “I Don’t Wanna Be Too Cool”), but with a little more quirkiness. At most, she would have been more on the popular side of underground 80s pop/punk. I actually think she would find more mainstream success today. With social media being a huge component to the success of musicians, especially in the world of Pop, she would be a hit! If nothing else, her tightrope stunt would be all over TikTok and the Gram, reaching millions around the globe. 

I do agree that Jackie’s strength lies more in her performance than her voice, but my god, this soundtrack is so damn good. I love pretty much every song, especially “I Want to Live In A House” and “Body and Soul”.  And all of the outrageous performances that go along with the songs are chef’s-kiss spectacular. That’s something that musicals don’t always do as well as Starstruck. The wacky hijinks and action constantly happening around the musical numbers add to the entire feel of the movie. It’s so high energy and fun without falling into any boring slumps. 

Other than the fabulous tunes, I think the other component of this movie that blows it out of the water is the eccentric pub crowd. The lady covered in leopard print, her Lifetime movie mom, Nana, the bird, and the rest of the gang could have had their own TV show that I would have watched without a doubt. Not to mention the gorgeous pub décor and tiling. While that part of the film was a huge win for me, I did have some difficulty following along with some part of the plot. Especially the drama in her family. I knew that Angus was Jackie’s cousin, but I was so confused by the dynamics between her mother, father, and uncle. I honestly thought that her uncle was her widowed/divorced mother’s boyfriend for a bit. It was just hard for me to keep track of that story while focusing on Jackie’s journey to stardom. 

Hanna, what do you think about Jackie’s family drama happening in the background? Was it necessary or added anything extra to the movie? 

Hanna: I also had a hard time understanding the family dynamics; I consistently mixed up brothers, cousins, uncles, and romantic partners up until the very end of the film. I definitely thought Pearl was having a fling with her brother for a minute. I have pretty terrible hearing, so I would blame 80% of my confusion on the thick, wondrous Aussie accents. I wasn’t that invested in the particular relationships as a result, but I think the haze of confusion actually complemented everything I liked about the film; it added another little another little layer of chaos over the dance numbers and bare-breasted publicity stunts. On top of that, I enjoyed each family member so much (Nanna is a sweetie, Pearl’s outfits are A+, and I’m a sucker for Uncle Reg’s cockatoo) that I was happy to watch them saunter around Sydney and Pearl’s beautiful pub without quite knowing what was going on.

Besides, the film with or without the drama is absolutely delightful. I was totally charmed by Jackie, Robbie, and the weird little pub community. There are so many delicious visuals that have stuck in my mind: the seafoam barmaid dress! The pool boys with their big inflatable sharks! The big red kangaroo outfit! Jo Kennedy’s performance alone makes Starstruck worth the watch; she carries her plucky new-wave energy with an effortless joy, and her rabid determination to stardom give the film a fantastic backbone. Basically, Starstruck is a whole lot of fun, and you should watch it; I love watching musicals when I’m in the mood for a visual feast with a bare minimum of conflict, but I never dreamed that the pop-punk version of musical escapism was out there waiting for me.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I am completely in love with the sweeping curved bar and the splashes of tile Pearl’s pub, which was filmed in the Harbour View Hotel in Sydney. It’s one of the most unique locations I’ve seen in a long time (Hilly Blue’s mansion in Trouble in Mind gets second place; I would love to go on a Swampflix MOTM location tour). It looks like the bar was renovated with wood paneling, and all of the beautiful colorful tile is gone. It’s still gorgeous, but I’m crushed that I’ll never be able to see the pub in its kitschy prime. 

Britnee: Jackie’s cousin Angus had a look that reminded me a lot of AC/DC’s guitarist Angus Young. They both wore blazers with shorts, both were named Angus, and they both were Australian. I don’t think this means anything, but I thought it was interesting and worth mentioning!

Boomer: It’s worth noting that the lead singer of The Swingers, Phil Judd, was much more handsome than Ned Lander, who plays the love interest, Robbie (for what it’s worth, I think Lander looks much cuter now in his older age). I can only imagine two reasons why they didn’t use him in the film outside of his appearances at the beginning and end during the “Gimme Love” and “Starstruck” musical numbers, respectively: (a) at nearly 30, it was too creepy to have him act as love interest to the supposedly teenaged Jackie, or (b), he refused to stoop to doing the “litter box” choreography for the “I Want to Live in a House” segment.

Also, if you’re a sci-fi fan and saw the name “Melissa Jaffer” in the credits and recognized Mrs. Booth and weren’t sure from where, it’s because she’s Noranti! From Farscape!  

Brandon: While Jackie’s fashion sense and persona both strongly resemble Cyndi Lauper’s, I think her vocal style lands much closer to Lene Lovich’s, especially in the song “Temper, Temper”.  If Jackie were a real-life performer in the 1980s, I think she could have easily “made it” on the level of Lovich’s minor-league version of success: a few decent new wave albums on a mid-card record label like Stiff, followed by decades of obscurity in the shadow of more memorable performers of the same ilk like Kate Bush, Nina Hagen, and Siouxsie Sioux.  As an eternal sucker for new wave kitsch who owns most of Lene Lovich’s output on vinyl, I can almost guarantee I’d have Jackie Mullins records on my shelf right now if they existed.  I’m actually frustrated that I don’t own the Starstruck soundtrack, as it’s wonderful from start to end (contrary to some outrageous claims made elsewhere in this conversation).

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992)
September: Britnee presents Hello Again (1987)
October: Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Chicken People (2016)

Our current Movie of the Month, 2016’s Chicken People, is a fluff piece documentary about eccentrics who breed chickens for Best in Show competitions, produced by Country Music Television’s filmmaking wing CMT Docs.  It’s closer in quality to reality TV than it is to more hoity-toity docs like Gates of Heaven, but the volume and variety of chickens on display is borderline surreal at feature length.  This is especially striking in the film’s fine-art photography shoots set against a black void, where various chickens are examined uncomfortably close-up in high definition.  Chicken People does its best to highlight the personalities of the people who breed & manicure these exquisite show-chicken specimens, but those imperfect human masters cannot compete with their pampered little dinosaurs for pure entertainment value.  Chickens are such an omnipresent American staple that we rarely take the time to consider how absolutely bizarre they are as a species, and it was satisfying to see a documentary take the time to examine their physical features and wider cultural footprint in intense detail.

While chickens frequently play small roles in movies like Moana, Return to Oz, Disney’s Robin Hood, and Herzog’s Stroszek, it’s rare to find a film that’s entirely about chickens, allowing the strange little beasts to take center stage.  They’re largely overlooked as a worthwhile cinematic subject.  However, Chicken People isn’t entirely alone in giving chickens their full due on the silver screen.  Here are a few more recommended titles if you were hypnotized by the immaculately groomed birds in our Movie of the Month and want to see more movies where chickens are the star of the show.

The Natural History of the Chicken (2000)

The most obvious pairing for a chicken-themed double feature would be the made-for-TV documentary The Natural History of the Chicken, which could just as easily been titled Chicken People without any major changes to its content.  Like Chicken People, The Natural History of the Chicken is a wonderfully quirky documentary about the nature and culture of chickens in America; it just happened to be produced for PBS instead of CMT.  Instead of solely covering the Best-in-Show beauty pageants documented in our Movie of the Month, Natural History focuses on a wider range of domestic chicken phenomena: chickens being frozen in winter and thawed back to life, chickens with the self-sacrificing bravery of Christ on the cross, neighbors being sued for their obnoxious collection of screeching roosters, chickens intently watching opera on television, etc.  The film shares the same fascination with the tiny-dino birds that makes Chicken People so hypnotic (including photographing the beasts in pitch-black voids to emphasize their strange physiques), as well as its reality-television patina as a work of art.

Because The Natural History of the Chicken was produced over two decades ago, its version of reality-TV filmmaking is more of the Rescue 911 variety, where lightly fictionalized “real” incidents are conveyed in dramatic re-enactments instead of heavy post-production editing.  That quality only adds to the film’s delicate surrealism, though, which is also emphasized in its cut-and-paste green screen effects.  There’s something about its low-key absurdism that reminded me heavily of David Byrne’s Americana portrait True Stories, which I mean as the highest compliment.  And it even comes with its own animal-documentary pedigree behind the camera that makes that kind of lofty comparison somewhat reasonable.  Director Mark Lewis is best known for his 1980s documentary about the disastrous introduction of Cane Toads to Australia (Cane Toads: An Unnatural History), but he’s also got aesthetically similar pieces on dogs, cats, cows, and rats.  I’m all in on watching his entire catalog after falling in love with this chicken doc. It’s incredibly endearing, and maybe even bests Chicken People as the pinnacle of the chicken documentary genre.

Chicken Park (1994)

Speaking of repurposing the title Chicken People, I think it’d also be a great name for a horror film, like a poultry version of Alligator People.  We’ve seen a horror take on humanoid chicken people before in films like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Troma’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, so it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility.  Even in their pampered beauty-contest version, the edible little dinosaurs are just as creepy as they are oddly beautiful, and I think that imagery could easily be mined for more creature feature monstrosities – especially since the ones we’ve already got are such a weak crop.  The chicken-person gag in Freaks is great, but it’s only a brief coda at the end of the film instead of the main thrust of its plot.  The bad-taste musical Poultrygeist does feature some great chicken-person gore at feature length, but is outright unwatchable thanks to Lloyd Kaufman’s borderline reactionary-Conservatism as a supposed equal-opportunity-offender.  So, the only genuine option for feature-length chicken horror is not a Cronenbergian creature feature about humanoid chicken hybrids but rather a straight-to-Italian-TV horror comedy that was hated even in its time by critics & audiences alike.

As you might have guessed from its title and year of release, Chicken Park is a feature-length parody of Jurassic Park, featuring chickens instead of dinosaurs.  It strives to be a vulgar ZAZ knockoff but lacks the necessary energy or specificity of humor to really excel as such. Still, it’s mostly cute-bad (especially in its Night of the Lepus dino-chicken effects) as opposed to the offensive-on-purpose bad vibes of Poultrygeist (give or take a few unnecessary, unforgivable indulgences in homophobic slurs).  It also earns minor bonus points for heavily featuring Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma in a bit part as a Vampira/Morticia Addams spoof (among other one-off parodies of non-dino movies of the 90s like Home Alone, Pretty Woman, and Rambo), which is some A+ casting, but not nearly enough to carry the entire film.  Chicken Park is only recommendable for being the one halfway-watchable, feature-length chicken horror of note.  We deserve better chicken-themed schlock. They’re terrifying! Close-up at least.

Chicken Run (2000)

It’s a little misleading to claim that there is too little chicken content across the broad cinematic landscape.  There is one specific area where chickens have been allowed to run wild: children’s films. Besides being featured as comical side characters in films like Moana and Return to Oz, there are also a few high-profile kids’ movies with a main cast of animated chickens: 1991’s Rock-a-Doodle, 2005’s Chicken Little, 2015’s Huevos: Little Rooster’s Egg-cellent Adventure, etc.  I’m too allergic to modern computer animation to suggest most of those titles as a Chicken People pairing, but since the majority of movies about chickens appear to be made for children, I also can’t ignore that end of the spectrum entirely.  My way of meeting the criterion halfway is in finally checking out Chicken Run, a traditional stop-motion animated feature from Aardman Studios, home of Wallace & Gromit.  Raking in $200mil at the box office, it’s to date the most commercially successful stop-motion film of all time.  Those aren’t Minions numbers, exactly, but it’s still encouraging that a traditionally animated feature was able to succeed at all in a post-Pixar world.  The popularity of chickens in children’s media is apparently just that strong.

Chicken Run is an animated homage to classic prison escape dramas like Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke and, most significantly, The Great Escape.  It details a coop full of cowardly British hens being hyped up by a brash American rooster (unfortunately voiced by Mel Gibson) into escaping from their death-trap farm before they’re dismembered and packaged into meals.  A children’s film about solidarity and collective action in the face of seemingly insurmountable oppression, it’s a hilariously dark and daringly political work – especially in an era when most kids’ media settles for celebrities making empty pop culture references in unenthused voiceover.  Chicken Run is maybe a little too dialogue-heavy to stand out as the very best Aardman has to offer, as the studio most excels at translating Silent Era physical comedy to the stop-motion medium.  Still, it’s tactile and emotionally complex in a way most post-Pixar CG animation isn’t allowed to be.  Besides, it likely is the best narrative feature film entirely about chickens, regardless of medium or studio.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Chicken People (2016)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made BrandonBoomer, and Britnee watch Chicken People (2016).

Hanna: The United States loves to kill chickens. It’s the most popular meat in a country of meat-lovers, and we produce more than any other country in the world; in 2019, the US slaughtered and sold about 9 billion chickens. Between 50–90% of them were raised on large industrial farms called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which are famous for imposing physical and genetic misery on their animals for the sake of efficiency. It’s hard to get a clear picture of the standard conditions in the poultry industry, but at worst, broiler chickens (raised only for meat) are packed into dark, cramped pens for the entirety of their lives, crippled by their own weight, and repeatedly exposed to infection. In short, the key stakeholders in the industrial agricultural complex do not care about the lives and fates of their number one meat product.

Chicken People, a documentary directed by Nicole Lucas Haimes and distributed by CMT, follows the small and intense community of competitive poultry shows – a community that cares very much for the lives of their chickens. The documentary focuses on the lives of three competitors in particular—Brian Caraker, Brian Knox, and Shari McCollough—in the months leading up to the Ohio National Poultry Show, which is the largest of approximately 300 poultry shows in the United States. Chicken People makes it clear that competitors take the circuit seriously: they rigorously study The American Standard of Perfection (the chicken equivalent of the American Kennel Club’s standard dog breed guide) and meticulously breed their chickens for just the right waddle hue and feather clarity. Brian Knox is the Gregor Mendel of the group; he’s raised thousands of chickens, and his systematic breeding program tracks each individual lineage so he can pair chickens with complimentary traits. Brian Caraker, a musical theatre performer, treats The Standard like a Bible and sprays his chickens’ feathers with a glossy polishing spray, which “changes a farm chicken into a show chicken.” Shari McCollough spends multiple hours a day grooming her little Silkies into puffy white clouds.

Obviously, the chickens are the stars of Chicken People; these birds are masterpieces. All kinds of chicken breeds and varieties—Silkies, Wyandottes, Brahmas, Sultans, etc.—are represented in the chicken exhibitions, and some of them are shockingly strange and beautiful. I could stare at those vivid, high-contrast chicken shots with the black background for hours. I’m also totally fascinated by this subsection of American pageantry that honors, glamorizes, and obsesses over the cheapest, blandest staple of the industrial agricultural complex. The documentary is interspersed with mini interviews à la When Harry Met Sally, which mostly involve other contestants gushing about their beautiful chickens, and their unassailable love for these dumb birds that we eat every day fills my heart with joy.

The part of this documentary that I struggle with the most is the treatment of the subjects. I thought Haimes focused a little too much on the personal problems of the three main competitors to emphasize that “Chicken People” are a fringe group, especially when they went into detail on Shari’s history of addiction. It didn’t feel exploitative, exactly, maybe a little condescending. I also just wish it had focused a little more on the history of poultry and agricultural shows in the United States, and I wanted 1000% more chicken content. Britnee, how do you think the documentary treated the “Chicken People” as subjects? Do you think she was fair to the competitors? Is there anything you would have changed about her focus?

Britnee: Chicken People does a great job of highlighting the uniqueness and quirkiness of its three human subjects without feeling exploitive. Documentaries that are similar in subject are typically gross for how they make fun of how “weird” the stars of the show are, and I was concerned this one would go that route. I love that it remains focused on the chicken people’s passion and dedication to their feathery friends. It’s so endearing. Haimes also manages to do a fantastic job of balancing the focus on each of them without making one seem more important or entertaining than the other. They each had their own individual journeys, but all somehow felt equal. 

However, I do agree with you, Hanna. I wish there was more chicken content. I love the parts of the film where pages from The American Standard of Perfection took over the screen, explaining what made certain breeds of chicken perfect, and I especially enjoyed learning about how they are dolled up for competitions. I never really saw chickens as being beautiful before. I thought they were cute, but never really truly beautiful. After watching them so closely, I was truly stunned by so many of them. I’m definitely not going to be a chicken person or chicken owner anytime soon, but I have a newfound appreciation for their beauty and grace.

Boomer, I’m not sure what your experience is with chickens, but do you feel different towards chickens after watching Chicken People? Did the documentary spark an interest in the chicken universe?

Boomer: There’s a moment in Chicken People in which Brian Caraker says of his parents, “[They’re] not chicken people. I’m chicken people.” Well, dear readers, I’m not chicken people. But my mother is. 

Growing up, we had chickens for almost as long as I can remember. Every couple of years, once the last generation stopped laying, Mom would put in an order for a new dozen at the co-op for the coming spring, and when April came, the new chicks would come home. For the first few weeks of life, they resided under a heat lamp in a box that had a dedicated spot on top of the dryer in the trailer, and then atop the freezer chest once we built and moved into the house. At that stage of life, their downy chickfeathers were so soft that they seemed more mammalian than avian. The first group were Rhode Island Reds; the following generation was a mix of Plymouth Rocks and Orpingtons. Later still we even had an Ameraucana or two (the most common chicken that lays green-tinted eggs). As soon as they were able, they were moved to the coop; it was my job to let them out of it every day after school so that they could roam and eat the various insects of the field, collect their eggs, feed them their pellets, and clean and refill their water fountains. When recalling my childhood (to call it a “reminisce” would be remiss), it’s impossible to extricate those memories from their accompanying odors and the tactile sensation of the squish of chicken shit between my toes. And that’s not even getting into the eggs. I was 16 when I went off to boarding school, and it was a solid decade before I would again consume an egg with anything other than revulsion. As a result, the people with whom I felt the most sympathy or identification in Chicken People were not any of the competitors; while watching the elder Carakers miserably wash a chicken fountain, I had a full on Proust Remembrance. I tell you the truth: Orpington roosters are such fucking assholes

Well, that’s not entirely true. We lived—and my parents still live—in a place that was, paradoxically, deep country but not so rural that it was too far for city folk (for a given definition of both “city” and “folk”) to drop their old, unloved, or merely mutty hounds on our road. Near the end of Chicken People, recovering alcoholic Shari talks with a fellow competitor about the latter’s loving, gentle turkey that was killed by the neighbor’s dogs. Most of the time, when people came to abandon their animals, it was usually about a half mile away, at the bridge across the nameless finger of Redwood Creek that intersected our road. As such, there was never a lack of new, hungry, lost dogs in search of a meal. There was no love lost between me and those chickens, but it sure did break my mother’s heart to lose one, and no matter how much we fortified that coop and the pen, every few years, there was a massacre, throwing Mom into a depression for weeks, or even months. She grew up on a dairy farm and although our long, skinny 5 acres didn’t allow for even one cow, those chickens meant a lot to her, just like their fellow foul did to the Brians and Shari. 

I guess that’s where I have to part ways with the consensus so far; although both Britnee and Hanna wanted more chicken info, I was much more interested in the people who were drawn to chickens and driven by their love of them. I was particularly interested in Shari’s family, especially since we clearly saw them over a period of time, given that one of her daughters leaves home for college and is seen visiting later in the film, although I guess that’s just my personal biases at play. We learned a lot about the families of both of the Brians, but solely through the eyes of their parents and grandparents, as neither has children or a wife/husband (Brian Knox at least had a lady friend at one point, and they’re still friendly, which is nice), who are surprisingly supportive and kind, perhaps because of their own hobbies, like drag racing and miniature trains. If this were fiction, I’d expect to see more ambivalence or mixed feelings on the part of Shari’s kids, given that becoming a chicken lady helped their mother with her drinking problem, but her sober crutch also meant less room for them in her daily life, one would think. 

Personally, I’m generally distrustful of any media that ascribes human emotions, morality, and ideologies to animals. There’s a lot of anthropomorphization happening here on the part of the participants, who characterize their birds as “preparing to fight for [their] mate[s]” or  taking pride in their appearance, etc. On a recent episode of the Lagniappe podcast, I expressed my annoyance at the filmmaker behind My Octopus Teacher for his similar narrative actions; the interesting thing that’s happening there isn’t that the octopus has become his friend, but that he sees the action of the octopus and perceives it as being of a kind with his own complex emotions. For its part, Chicken People doesn’t have that same kind of anthrocentric understanding of animal intelligence, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of it, as that’s where one gets the insight into the people, who are more interesting to me than the chickens. Brandon, what are your thoughts? Did you think there was sufficient time spent with the competitors? Were there any of the competitors who participated in the shorter “talking head” sections that you would have liked to see more of in the body of the film proper?

Brandon: Like Hanna and Britnee, I also found the exquisitely bred & manicured show-chickens to be more fascinating than their imperfect human masters.  The most outright cinematic touches to the film are in the fine-art photography shoots set against a black void, where various chickens are examined uncomfortably close-up in high definition.  If there was any further narration or talking-head interview footage missing for me, it’s in the film’s potentially amazing Werner Herzog commentary track.  Herzog has a great talent for un-anthropomorphizing nature’s most peculiar beasts, and I’d love to hear him expand on his already stellar 2012 monologue about the disturbing nature of chickens into a feature-length philosophical rant.  I was particularly thinking about his horrified, abstracted reaction to chickens in the final sequence at the Ohio National Poultry Show, wherein a massive convention space echoes the continuous screams of hundreds of chickens for hours of unrelenting cacophony.  It’s a bizarrely hideous sound that no one in the room thinks to acknowledge, because they’re just used to being submerged in it.  Herzog’s always great for pointing out the strangeness of those kinds of horrifying experiences that have become normalized & familiar only through repetition.

Otherwise, I’m mostly satisfied with the balance of talking-heads-to-chicken-heads screentime ratio here.  As a Country Music Television production, Chicken People is closer to reality TV than it is to more hoity-toity docs like Gates of Heaven, and it does a decent job of constructing a narrative for each of its three main subjects within that template.  If it had been stretched out into multiple seasons of television, there would’ve been plenty enough room for more insight into the lives of its color-commentary interviewees, but at just 83min I think it was smart to limit its scope to just a few competitors.  My only real complaint with that balance is the way it’s squeamish about elaborating on Brian Caraker’s romantic life, a critique I also saw echoed in Julius Kassendorf’s review of the film for The Solute.  While the other two contestants talk about their heterosexual romantic partners at length, Caraker is only allowed to make vague hints that he is gay without every actually speaking the word out loud or making direct references to his past relationships.  I don’t know if that was Caraker’s personal decision or a mandate from the Conservative-leaning higher-ups at CMT Docs, but it’s a glaring omission all the same.  I wish we could’ve gotten to know Caraker better without having to tiptoe around the concrete details of his personal life, especially in contrast to how his competitors are treated.

Then again, Caraker was also the most compelling of the three contestants to me in almost every way.  He’s the only one of the titular chicken people who could rival the actual chickens for pure entertainment value – especially in those cutaways to his otherworldly stage performances in Branson, MO.  I could have watched an entire movie about him without the other two contestants ever butting in and left just as satisfied.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I’m SO glad that Brandon brought up Herzog’s wonderful monologue on the barbaric stupidity of chickens. My second favorite chicken quote is from Joshue Oppenheimer, who directed The Act of Killing: “Chickens are living manifestations of death, bred only to be domesticated and killed. When we look into their eyes, we see the part of ourselves of which we are most afraid – our ultimate destination. Death.” Such sweet little feathery canvases to project our mortal fears upon!

Britnee: The Modern Game Bantams may be my favorite breed of chicken featured here. They have long supermodel legs and it looks like they’re wearing little bike shorts. They make me so uncomfortable, but I can’t stop looking at them! I want a farm full of these little creeps.

Boomer: Orpington roosters are such assholes. I’d also like to note that Shari is missing a word in one of her interviews; she says (roughly) that “People think of chickens as dirty, smelly creatures, but that’s not true,” followed by a statement that “[she] spends 4 or 5 hours a day grooming her chickens.” There’s a big because missing right there in the middle. Chickens are dirty, at least from a certain perspective, as they do clean themselves in dirt, like a lot of birds. They absolutely do shit positively everywhere as well; look no further than the fact that so many talking head interviewees have extensive diapering systems for their chickens as proof.

Finally, it seems like Brian may have gotten his wish to open a farm, if this Facebook page for Caraker Farms is any indication (according to the info panel, they are “very responsive” to messages). He also has a Twitter account, although it appears to be largely inactive, given that his last tweet was from 2014, in which he expressed interest in a Mitt Romney candidacy in 2016.   

Brandon: As sweetly quaint as this documentary is, I do think Chicken People would also make a great title for a horror film, like the poultry version of Alligator People.  We’ve seen a horror take on humanoid chicken people before in films like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Troma’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, so it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility.  Even in their pampered beauty-contest version here, the little edible dinosaurs are just as creepy as they are oddly beautiful, and I think that imagery could easily be mined for more creature-feature monstrosities.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)
August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992)
September: Britnee presents Hello Again (1987)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Trouble in Mind (1985)

Our current Movie of the Month, Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind, is a stylish but lowkey neo-noir set in a fictional version of Seattle called Rain City, featuring an incredibly cool soundtrack from Marianne Faithful. Its oddball clash of 1940s noir nostalgia & intensely 1980s fashion trends is a one-of-a-kind novelty in many ways, not least of all in the unconventional casting of its mafioso villain.

For degenerates like us, the main draw of Trouble in Mind is going to be the novelty of seeing Divine, the greatest drag queen of all time, play a male villain outside the context of one-off gags in John Waters comedies.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you loved Divine’s performance in our Movie of the Month and want to see more footage of him performing a male persona.

Out of the Dark (1988)

The closest role Divine played to his mobster villain in Trouble in Mind was an extended “special appearance” cameo as a police detective in 1988’s Out of the Dark.  His final acting credit before his death, Out of the Dark is a kind of unofficial class reunion for the major players from the Divine-starring comedy-Western Lust in the Dust: Tab Hunter, Paul Bartel, and Lainie Kazan (among other cult movie superstars like Bud Cort & Karen Black).  While the film itself is shameless 80s sleaze about a serial killer in a clown mask who targets phone sex operators in downtown Los Angeles, Divine plays his role as an old-fashioned police detective with the broad, vaudevillian humor of an SNL sketch, complete with a laughably fake mustache.

Out of the Dark is basically a disposable Skinemax slasher, but it’s got charm to spare if you’re already under the spell of its eclectic cast of B-movie all-stars.  If you’re looking for a thoughtful examination of the everyday labor exploitations of sex work as an industry, you’re better off looking to Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls.  The “fantasy phone line” girls at Suite Nothings offer much schlockier delights, and Divine’s minor presence is only there to sweeten the deal.

I Am Divine (2013)

Besides Trouble in Mind & Out of the Dark, there aren’t many places to see Divine performing a male persona for the camera.  He was poised to become a much bigger star out of drag in a recurring role on the hit sitcom Married with Children but died the night before his first scheduled day on-set, tragically cutting short his ascent as a household name.  That’s the exact kind of factoid you can pick up from the recent documentary I Am Divine, though, an intimate look at the drag superstar’s life & career.  It’s nothing flashy in terms of its filmmaking aesthetics, but I Am Divine is still very much a worthwhile primer for Divine & John Waters devotees who don’t know much about the dastardly duo’s off-screen antics (re: anyone who hasn’t already read Waters’s memoirs like Shock Value & Crackpot).  It’s also a great opportunity to see Divine out of drag, just being a normal-ass person, which is fascinating in its own way.

I Am Divine also offers insight into his post-Dreamlanders career, including the era when he filmed Trouble in Mind.  I even picked up this factoid about our Movie of the Month long before we watched it: the gigantic diamond earring Divine rocks in the film was not provided by wardrobe but by the actor himself.  He was super proud of saving up for that hunk of jewelry (after a fabulously delinquent life funded mostly by shoplifting) and paraded it around in public as much as possible in later years as a status symbol. It totally fits the mafioso character he’s playing, to the point where you might not even notice it, but I still love that Divine got to immortalize that obnoxious gem he was so proud of onscreen (and I never would have caught that detail without the documentary).

Hairspray (1988)

Of course, the very best source for Divine Content is always going to be his collaborations with John Waters.  The only reason seeing Divine out of drag outside of a John Waters film is a novelty at all is because their collaborations inarguably defined his career (unless you were around to watch Divine perform live with The Cockettes or as a disco act, you lucky fuck).  Divine did appear out of drag in a couple Waters films, even if only briefly.  The foremost example of this might be the stunt in 1974’s Female Trouble in which Divine effectively rapes himself on a dirty mattress while playing two separate characters (teenage runaway Dawn Davenport and local pervert Earl Peterson).  It’s a horrific gag, but it’s one played so broadly & grotesquely that you cannot take serious offense to the provocation – the John Waters specialty.

I firmly believe his best work out of drag is in the film Hairspray, though, another Waters picture where Divine plays dual roles.  His housewife caricature Edna Turnblad rightly gets the most attention in the film (if not only for the uncanny horror of John Travolta’s reprisal of the role), but he also makes for a great male villain in the proudly racist TV station manager Arvin Hodgepile.  The seething, grotesque bigotry that oozes out of Divine in that role is incredibly upsetting, and the character feels way more specific & nuanced than the broad caricatures he played in Trouble in Mind & Out of the Dark. It feels as if he were channeling some monstrous authority figure from his own youth that he despised, and you can feel that dark energy flowing through the disgusting pig.  Of all of Divine’s performances in man-drag, the one in Hairspray is the one that lands as the most memorable & authentic to me.  It’s the one that best hints that he might have pulled off a successful career beyond his John Waters collaborations had he not died so suddenly in his early 40s.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Trouble in Mind (1985)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made BrandonBoomer, and Hanna watch Trouble in Mind (1985).

Britnee: Director Alan Rudolph’s 1985 film Trouble in Mind is truly a one-of-a-kind classic. It’s a neo-noir that blends in 80s new wave kitsch, creating its own genre that I like to call New Wave Noir. I’m not sure there are any other movies that would fall into that genre. Maybe Cool World or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? could qualify, but they’re way more on the fantasy side. I didn’t get around to watching Trouble in Mind until a few years ago when I was obsessing over Marianne Faithfull. After reading Faithfull: An Autobiography, I was constantly listening to her music, and that’s when I came across her rendition of the blues classic “Trouble in Mind”. I discovered that it was used in a film with the same title starring Kris Kristofferson, Lori Singer, and an out-of-drag Divine. That was more than enough to draw me to the movie, and it turned out to be such a hidden gem.

In the fictional Rain City (it’s basically Seattle), an ex-cop/ex-con with the most neo-noir name ever, Hawk (Kris Kristofferson), becomes entangled in the lives of a young couple from out in the country. Coop (Keith Carradine) and Georgia (Lori Singer) drive into Rain City in their beat-up camper to build a better life for themselves and their baby named Spike. Hawk, Coop, and Georgia are all brought together by a diner owned by Hawk’s ex-lover Wanda (Geneviève Bujold). Coop gets involved in selling knockoff watches and quickly gets pulled into Rain City’s criminal underworld, run by Hilly Blue (Divine). Coop’s fashion choices become progressively more cartoonish as he sinks deeper and deeper into the world of crime. His hair becomes a growing new wave pompadour, his face becomes paler, his outfits get wilder, and his makeup becomes increasingly intense. It’s my favorite thing about this movie. He literally becomes a new wave monster. While Coop is out and about being a criminal, Hawk sets his eyes on Georgia. He gets the hots for her and becomes her “protector”, even though I find him to be pretty creepy when it comes to how he forces himself into her life.

One major aspect of Trouble in Mind that really didn’t make much sense and was completely unnecessary is that Rain City is under militia patrol and some of the characters randomly go from speaking Korean to English. The state of the city is never really explained and doesn’t add much to the story. Brandon, what did you think about Rain City’s militia and random Korean lingo? Would the film be any different if that component just didn’t exist?

Brandon: If I had to guess what they were going for with the militia patrols and American/Korean cross-culture, I’d say they were borrowing a little New Wave Noir finesse from Ridley Scott’s 1982 game-changer Blade Runner.  Trouble in Mind may take production notes from Seoul instead of Hong Kong, but its retro-futurization of Seattle feels like a direct echo of Blade Runner‘s retro-future Los Angeles.  The difference is that Blade Runner is explicitly set in the future (2019, to be exact), updating the familiar tropes & fashions of noir with a sci-fi bent.  Trouble in Mind, by contrast, doesn’t really subvert the noir genre template in any overt ways.  It’s not a parody or an homage.  It’s the real deal: a noir that just happens to be made in the 1980s (which makes the influence of Blade Runner near-impossible to avoid).

Personally, I was really into the characterization of Rain City as a setting.  It’s an intricately detailed, lived-in alternate reality that makes the movie feel as if it were adapted from a long-running comic book series.  I loved the “fictional” city’s clash of 1940s nostalgia with intensely 1980s fashion trends, and I was tickled by the scene set in the Space Needle restaurant, acknowledging that we’re basically just running around present-day Seattle.  I was much less in love with the characterization of Kris Kristofferson’s gruffly macho ex-cop.  Hawk is not so much of an enigmatic anti-hero as he is a boring loser, which is maybe the film’s one miscalculation in its low-key version of 1980s noir revival.  When Divine’s degenerate mobster villain looks Kristofferson dead in the eyes to snarl, “You have nothing but bad qualities,” I couldn’t help but agree.  What a pathetic asshole.

Hanna, did Hawk’s anti-hero status lean a little too hard into “anti” territory for you as well?  If so, were the other citizens of Rain City charismatic enough to save the movie from that misstep?

Hanna: I love a good anti-hero, and I’m a cursed sucker for a gruff neo-noir cop/PI character, even when their behavior is problematic or despicable. Unfortunately, Hawk embodies all of the worst aspects of macho authority—including possessiveness and that special type of sexual aggression that somehow eludes the label of assault—and none of the appealing qualities (e.g., smoldering charisma). On top of everything, his relationship with Georgia was totally baffling and uncomfortable. I kept holding out for Hawk to develop some humility and self-reflection, but I was foiled at every turn. Will Hawk stop stalking Georgia outside of her trailer (a moment that reminded me of that scene in Smooth Talk where Arnold Friend tries to coax teenage Connie out of her house)? No? Okay, well maybe he’ll realize that he can care about a beautiful woman without having a sexual relationship with them? No again! Well, maybe he’ll care for her in a loving, non-controlling – oh, he’s demanding total ownership of her in exchange for saving her New-Wave pompadour’ed ex-thing. I guess he’s a changed man because he asks her out for dinner?

Fortunately, the world of Trouble in Mind has more than enough splendors to enjoy apart from Hawk and Georgia, especially in the vibrant criminal underground. Coop was actually one of my favorite characters; he’s a huge creep for the majority of the film, but he shows at least a semblance of self-reflection towards the end, and his transformation into an 80s glamour criminal is indeed a glorious surprise. Just when I thought his pompadour couldn’t get more delicious, a little curl would spring up at the top, or the tips would be touched with a kiss of red. Divine was totally captivating as Hilly Blue, and I even liked Nate (John Considine), the crazed criminal that Coop accidentally robs. I found myself wishing I could spend just more time amongst the various fiends of Rain City; I sighed every time the film cut from Coop slinking around in oversaturated suits to Hawk eating his dumb eggs. If nothing else, I would have loved to see a version of Trouble in Mind without Hawk where Wanda helps Georgia leave Coop while he goes off to crime it up with Solo and Hilly.

Boomer, what did you think of the balance between the two worlds of Rain City (the Diner and Hilly’s criminal cabal)? Do you think there were more interesting depths to plumb in the criminal underworld? Are there aspects of Rain City do you wish had been more developed, or developed differently?

Boomer: I’m torn on this question. On the one hand, this movie felt very loooong to me, to the point where I had to research whether a runtime of this magnitude was normal for film noir. I was convinced that they must normally be shorter than Trouble in Mind‘s 111 minutes, but reviewing the classics, it looks like this is pretty standard, with The Maltese Falcon clocking in at 101 minutes, Double Indemnity at 107, and Touch of Evil matching Trouble exactly at 111. Those movies don’t feel their length to me the way that this one does, and although Geneviève Bujold is giving the performance here that I like the most and she only occupies the diner and its adjacent rooms, I would have liked to see more of the criminal underworld. By having the audience experience the seedy underbelly of not-Seattle mostly through the eyes of Coop, who is the least interesting character, it hinders our ability to fully realize both this city and its criminal element. On the other hand, part of the appeal is that Hilly Blue is a figure that exists outside of the characters’ day-to-day lives for a long time, building him up as a figure of great influence and prominence among the denizens of Rain City’s underclass, before we finally meet him. So while I want to see that world fully, I also think that seeing more would mean cherishing less, and any increase to the film’s runtime would be to its detriment as a piece of media overall. 

What I think we could have benefitted from seeing more of without the risk of diminishing returns was exactly what was going on with all of the fascist goose-steppers constantly breaking up rallies. Every time Georgia gets more than two blocks from the diner, she doesn’t actually seem to be all that imperiled, but she’s certainly overstimulated to the point of losing her mind (and her baby!) histrionically. What I liked about the film’s aspirations to be more noirpunk than it succeeds in achieving is the unspoken acceptance of all of the odd little futurisms that pop up throughout and how they go uncommented upon, but that doesn’t mean I’m not curious and wouldn’t have liked to understand more. Their iconography is clearly aping that of the fascism of the day—red and black, harsh angles—and they appear throughout and people are tolerant of (if not necessarily deferential to) them, and I think that drawing a comparison between a fascist force and Hawk’s need to be the ultimate authority in the lives of the women he seeks to dominate and control was an opportunity that was missed. I don’t need to know the whole genealogy of their rise to prominence (if not power), but a few hints would have been nice. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I want to make sure that it isn’t overlooked that this is our second Movie of the Month featuring Geneviève Bujold, after Last NightAlso, as always, it’s worth mentioning that although Hawk is awful, Kris Kristofferson is a real goddamn hero

Brandon: Of course, for degenerates like us the main draw of this film is going to be the novelty of seeing Divine play a male villain outside the context of one-off gags in John Waters classics like Hairspray & Female Trouble. To that end, I’ll just share a quick piece of trivia I picked up from a recent rewatch of the documentary I Am Divine . . . The gigantic diamond earring Hilly Blue rocks in this film was not provided by wardrobe but by Divine himself. He was super proud of saving up for that piece of jewelry (after a fabulously delinquent life funded mostly by shoplifting) and paraded it around in public as much as possible in his later years as a status symbol. It totally fits the mafioso character he’s playing, to the point where you might not even notice it, but I still love that Divine got to immortalize that obnoxious gem he was so proud of onscreen.

Britnee: The big shootout scene at Hilly Blue’s mansion is amazing. The Seattle Asian Art Museum was transformed into the unforgettable residence of Rain City’s big mob boss, and I find so much comfort in knowing that this wasn’t just a set build. The fact that I can someday visit Hilly Blue’s mansion (minus Divine and all the guns and stuff) lifts my spirits. I guess I have to pay a visit to the real-life Rain City soon!

Hanna: Whoever scouted locations for Trouble in Mind did a fantastic job. Every setting—Wanda’s lonely-heart diner, the Chinatown restaurant, the villainous mansion, etc. etc.—was the perfect version of itself in the cyber-noir/dystopian film landscape. Also, I was shocked to find out that this movie somehow only made $19,632 at the box office on a budget of $3 million! Thank you to Britnee for unearthing this gem of a financial flop.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)
July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)
August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: London Road (2015)

Our current Movie of the Month, the 2015 true-crime musical London Road, is a grim, misanthropic work adapted word-for-word from transcripts of suburban English locals reacting to the 2006 serial murders of prostitutes in their neighborhood. It’s an impressively odd, daring film considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactments portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off.  London Road really digs into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic by just letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves – a feel-bad emotional & political palette that’s unusual for a movie musical.

London Road is a little too unconventional to recommend other movies exactly like it.  However, there are plenty of other musicals that touch on its grim urbanity & conversational song structure, even if only in flashes.  Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more dour, urban-set musicals on its miserable wavelength.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Jacques Demy’s gorgeous melodrama might be the pinnacle of the recitative movie musical as an artform.  London Road‘s central gimmick is in adapting the natural rhythms of human speech into song, turning a real-life tragedy into a modern-day opera.  Demy does the same in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, except with the gorgeous colors & soaring emotions of a Sirkian melodrama – tracking the tragic missed-connection romance of working-class sweethearts whose lives are disrupted by unwanted pregnancy & war.  It’s a musical heartbreaker about the conflict between practicality & romance, and it’s sung in the same recitative style as London Road‘s real-life tale of serial murder.

Of his two Technicolor musicals, I still strongly prefer Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, simply because the more traditional musical numbers of that one are more fun to listen to than the conversational opera of this one.  London Road faces similar roadblocks in its entertainment value; the songs themselves are too restricted by its recitative conceit to be especially memorable when considered in isolation.  Like Umbrellas of Cherbourg, however, it’s a fascinating clash between artificiality and realism, and the two films glumly sing in tune when considered as a pair.

Les Misérables (2012)

2012’s movie adaptation of the stage musical Les Misérables is much, much more traditional than London Road.  The longest-running musical in the West End and the second-longest running musical in the world, Les Mis might be the very definition of tradition, which makes it an unlikely pairing.  What the two movies have in common—besides their blatant Britishness—has more to do with theme instead of form.  Like London Road, Les Mis is a grim-as-fuck reality check about harsh cultural attitudes towards sex workers and other societal cast-offs.

Making a Les Misérables movie turned out to be a logistical nightmare, getting stuck in production limbo for decades as the rights drifted from movie studio to movie studio.  The 2012 version that eventually hit the screen earned great box office and Awards Season accolades upon initial release, but it’s mostly remembered now as a kind of pop culture punchline – mainly because of Russell Crowe’s awkward singing voice and director Tom Hooper’s follow-up musical disaster Cats.  Personally, I enjoyed the film both times I watched it: in the theater in 2012 and on my couch almost a decade later. Anne Hathaway’s performance as a single mother who is punished for selling her body—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively—for temporary survival is especially heartbreaking and feels totally at home with the pitch-black misery of London Road.

Leto (2018)

Chances are that if you’re looking for more musicals along the lines of London Road, Les Mis might be a little too traditional for a proper pairing.  A major part of London Road‘s charm is its unconventional musicality and modern, urban setting.  For another modern history lesson that sidesteps the movie musical’s conventional modes of song and dance, I’d look to 2018’s Leto, which chronicles the Soviet punk scene in 1980s Leningrad.  Most of the actual music in Leto is diegetic, featuring bands from the time like Kino & Zoopark performing in heavily censored & regulated Soviet rock clubs.  When it does break reality for traditional song & dance, the characters perform toned-down, conversational versions of classic glam & punk tunes from acts like The Talking Heads, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.  Then, a Greek-chorus type character called The Skeptic enters the frame to inform the audience that “This did not happen” just to keep the film as grounded to its real-life history as possible.

While not as much of an overt subversion of the movie musical as London Road, Leto upends expectation in its own small, laid-back ways.  It’s more of a historically set hangout film than the all-out glam phantasmagoria of similar works like Velvet Goldmine or Lisztomania. It’s always a little alienating to watch a hagiography of musicians you’ve never heard of before, but I find the film solidly charming, if not only by the graces of its killer soundtrack.  More importantly, it shares a downtrodden urbanity & casual demeanor with London Road that you don’t get to see in a lot of movie musicals – even stripping away the theatricality of over-the-top performers like Iggy Pop & David Byrne to make their work as matter-of-fact and casual as possible.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: London Road (2015)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BrandonBritnee, and Hanna watch London Road (2015).

Boomer: London Road is a 2015 film about a serial killer. Technically. It’s also a musical about NIMBYism. And a story about community organization and the horizons of understanding, featuring Olivia Colman playing the most hateable character on her CV. 

In late 2006, a series of killings rocked the community of Ipswich, England. Five women, all sex workers, were murdered by a man nicknamed the Ipswich Ripper, later found to be 48-year-old Steve Wright, who had moved into a row house on London Road roughly half a year earlier. All of the women he murdered were known in the area for their line of work, and the area had experienced a huge boom in sex work in recent years due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, including the construction of a new stadium. London Road is not actually about Steve Wright; in fact, he never appears in the film, nor do his victims. Instead, the film focuses on Wright’s neighbors and the way that they dealt with the fallout of the murders and the public scrutiny that it caused to fall upon their small community. Through a series of musical arrangements of actual, verbatim quotes taken from Ipswich locals, journalists, police interviews, and other documentational evidence, Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe crafted a stage musical for London’s Royal National Theatre, where it was staged under the direction of newly hired Artistic Director Rufus Norris. Norris also directed the film version of the musical, released in 2015. 

I’m one of those people who hates musicals. In any other form of writing, having characters walk around and declare their feelings is Bad Writing, but if you take those declarations and set them to music, suddenly it’s the highest form of theater? Please. The linguistic contortions that the author of the musical has to go through in order to turn dialogue (or more often, monologue) into a piece of music are painful to me. The only musicals that I do like are those such as 1984’s Top SecretGod Help the Girl, or True Stories, in which the music is either farcical (the former) or composed solely by a single band (the latter two). And now London Road. When I first wrote about it back in 2016, I noted even then that what I hated about the platonic Western ideal of The Musical was the “taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative.” By stripping away that level of perfidy to reality but maintaining the inherent artificiality of the musical as a form of media, London Road becomes something greater than its genre peers. 

The performative enormity of the platonic Western stage-to-screen musical is mostly absent here. When making that migration from live performance to film, the change in medium is rarely used to enhance the narrative; sure, you might see a dance sequence shot from above in a way that would be impossible to replicate on stage, but in general the staging of the live performance is all-too-often translated directly to screen with as little change as possible. Consider the film version of The Producers, which changed even the dialogue as little as possible, changing Ulla’s line “Why Bloom go so far stage right?” to “Why Bloom go so far camera right?” The line works in the stage version because the narrative is about staging a musical, so in-jokes for the theatrically-attuned crowd work in context, but in the film, which by definition is designed to reach a larger, broader audience, the (barely) re-worked joke falls completely flat. London Road doesn’t have this problem, either, as it uses the medium of film effectively in telling its story, especially in the smaller moments. One of the most striking moments is so small: after the first community meeting post-verdict has concluded, everyone leaves the hall and the organizer of the meeting starts to slowly stack the chairs from the meeting to be stored away. Even though the film isn’t really about Steve Wright, the viewer still feels some elation and vindication when he’s convicted, but that joy is short-lived, and it doesn’t do the work of healing the community. Things won’t simply fall into place and be fine again; the work is real, and it’s long, and it’s often tedious and unrewarding, and stacking chairs is all of those things in a nutshell. It’s a lovely bit of visual storytelling. 

There’s also something genuinely striking about the juxtaposition of the rebuilding of the community and the (often frankly horrible) things said by the people within it. With the final garden competition, things take a turn for the saccharine, like a song from a completely different, less dark musical, but it comes almost immediately on the heels of a quotation from Julie, a London Road resident portrayed by Olivia Colman, in which she empathizes with her neighbors, but not Wright’s victims, who are “better off ten foot under.” While the officially recognized community of London Road gathers to socialize in the hall at St. Jude’s, their cheerful voices carry to the industrial structures that loom large and unmistakably over the neighborhood, literally and metaphorically, where the surviving sex workers talk about their lived experience. “It took all of that for anyone to start helping us,” one woman says, referring to the killings, to which another responds “That’s what’s upsetting,” and then they all join in. “Let’s get those girls off the street,” one of them says, quoting a fairweather crusader, but none of them are. They’re still out there, trying to stay alive and get clean. At the end, the residents of London Road have literally covered the past with a fresh coat of paint, but their NIMBYism remains. Most of the neighborhood starts out with nothing but derision for the prostitutes, but it’s unfocused and unspecified; by the end, one of them looks at a makeshift memorial for the victims and remarks that they’re in Heaven now. In death, some of the same people who condemned them in life have made them saints, although many also still share Julie’s sentiments. 

I’m going to be honest, I was surprised on the rewatch how much of the film there still is to go after the verdict has been delivered. That first section is much more interesting to me, in which “everyone is very very nervous,” and then they go through a range of other emotions leading up to and following the trial. That ending is the least interesting part to me, until we see the festivities through the eyes of Vicky (Kate Fleetwood), the sex worker whom we’ve seen the most often, as she makes her way through the crowd. We see two reactions to her passing through: a smiling, friendly little girl who gives her a balloon, and a frowning man who glares at her as she departs. These two interactions give the lie to what Julie and her like-minded neighbors keep using as the go-to blanket excuse for their callousness, that they are concerned for the children; the children aren’t the problem here, the adults are. Just as the film seems to be fading out and away from a triumphant moment for London Road, the last face that we actually see is Vicky’s, as she looks down at a world that’s not her own and releases the balloon, while the audio shifts to the real recordings of the sex workers of Ipswich. 

I love this movie, and I think that it would be easy to read it as too forgiving of the residents of London Road with regard to their apathy to the fate of the sex workers in their area. I seem to recall that, when I was first reading reviews of it 5 years ago, a few critics mentioned the excision of at least one additional song from their point of view, and that the stage musical had a more sympathetic approach to them, but I can’t find anything that corroborates that. What do you think, Brandon? Would the inclusion of more from their point of view help the film feel more balanced? Does it seem sufficiently critical of London Road’s NIMBYism, or does it send mixed messages about the hard work of rebuilding a community? 

Brandon: The overriding thought that lingered with me after this film concluded was “I hate people.”  The residents of London Road are exceedingly Normal in their appearance and their interpersonal politics, and I hated those cruel, hideous beasts with all of my heart.  I was initially skeptical of a movie about the lethal dangers of unregulated on-the-street sex work that included so little of the actual workers’ input, but as the film unfolds the intent of its POV choice gradually makes sense.  Given that these women’s friends & coworkers were recently murdered for participating in their same trade, it makes sense that they’d be reluctant to speak with the interviewers whose transcripts were adapted to the stage & screen in the first place.  Beyond that, this movie is specifically about the standard suburban opinion of that profession & those workers, and the longer the neighborhood busybodies muse on the murders & victims the more vile that opinion sounds.  London Road digs deep into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic just by letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves; a movie from the workers’ perspective could totally be worthwhile, but it’d be a different film altogether.

This is an impressively odd, daring movie considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactment portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off.  I was enraged by the plain-text transcripts of the neighborhood interviewees from start to end.  Listening to them deride the Ipswitch Ripper’s victims as “curb crawlers” as if they were some kind of pest infestation quickly chilled my blood in the early scenes.  It didn’t get any better when they expressed admiration for the killers’ extermination of those women as if it were a morally righteous act of vigilante justice instead of a deranged actualization of their own culture-wide misogyny.  Several residents complain that the police weren’t “doing anything” about the neighborhood’s sex work problem before the murders, then Coleman admits in her final speech that she’d like to shake the killer’s hand in thanks, making it crystal clear exactly what they would’ve liked the police to do.  It’s a nauseating sentiment to stew in for a feature-length film, much less one that’s performed in sickly sweet song & dance.

The only residents of London Road I wasn’t furious with were the teenage girls, whose collective nervousness over the mysoginistic murder spree is highlighted in a song where they run through town whispering “It could be anyone; it could be him!” over a soft techno beat.  There are very few moments where the actual music in this musical stands out to me, as the film’s exact-transcripts conceit homogenizes all of its sung dialogue to fit the meter of natural speech.  The teen girls’ song stands out, though, both because it’s easier to sympathize with their paranoia than it is with their parents’ morally righteous fascism and because the soundtrack shifts to a mall-pop texture to match their POV.  What did you think of the music of London Road, Britnee?  Were there any songs or musical flourishes that stood out to you despite the soundtrack’s general monotony?

Britnee: The majority of the music in London Road wasn’t very catchy. I adore musicals, and I look forward to getting hooked on their soundtracks. Most of my playlists and mix tapes have a musical number thrown in. I’m that person. When I read the description of London Road, which I didn’t know existed until watching if for Movie of the Month, I was thrilled to find out it was a musical. And not only was it a musical, it was based on an actual crime that occurred in recent years. I was basically putting more excitement on my expectations of the songs and performances than the actual plot. This is not something I’m proud of, but I’m being honest. It turns out that majority of the musical numbers involved the cast singing verbatim lines from actual interviews and reports from the Ipswich murders. I found it fascinating, but was slightly disappointed that only one song stuck with me. That song would be “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”. I sing along to the cast recording while driving to the office some mornings. It’s made it onto one of my musical playlists because it’s brilliant. The fear of the townsfolk really comes through in the way the lyrics are sung. The tone is so dark and depressing, and I love it so much.

London Road didn’t really hold my attention from beginning to end. At times, sitting through some of the duller scenes felt like a chore. I have the same problem with a few other plays that got turned into films. The simplicity of a single stage production being performed live just hits me in a different way than watching it as a film. One of the last plays that I saw live was Come From Away, which is also based on true events. It follows the true story of a plane that had an emergency landing in a small Canadian town during the September 11th attacks. I thought about it multiple times while watching London Road, and I can’t help but think that the stage play version of London Road would be just as fabulous. It’s unique and gives a different perspective on what we expect from true-crime dramas, but I would just prefer to see it on stage than on screen.

Hanna, did you think that London Road worked as a film or do you think it’s better suited as a stage production?

Hanna: I think London Road definitely worked as a film, but (and I’m just guessing) the stage production might be better equipped to exaggerate the seclusion/exclusion of the little row house community, and would have forced a little bit of focus that the film lacked. Musicals and stage productions usually have static prop placement for each location, so every setting in the story (“The Market”, “The Apartments”, “The Town Hall”) looks exactly the same every time it’s used. You get the sense that the residents of London Road inhabit a small community in the movie, but I would love to see all of the residents stuffed into the same claustrophobic sets, pacing around and wringing their hands together. You could also use that limited space to emphasize the exile of the sex workers, by keeping them squeezed around the periphery of the staged Community settings (although I think the film does this pretty well, especially in the final scene).

This is a small detail in favor of the film, but I liked that the actual road could be fully represented in the film in a way that wouldn’t really be possible on a stage. The long shots of nothing but the cold road, or of people wandering up and down the road, made me think about those intrinsically neutral public spaces that become battlegrounds for a community’s identity, especially in terms of who should/should not be allowed to exist there. London Road is first shared derisively between the row home residents and the workers; then shrouded by police tape and Steven Wright’s murders; and, finally, fully reclaimed by the residents (including men who paid the workers for sex) and their overwhelming flower arrangements. The battle for London Road reminded me of the deterrents cities install in public spaces, like bars on park benches or fences installed around old encampments sites; the focus is on restricting access to that public space, physically and socially, as opposed to expanding the definition of the community. I’m not sure if that aspect of the story would have been as salient to me in the stage production.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I went into London Road absolutely stone cold, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach in retrospect. I was VERY confused when the singing began, and I was convinced that the shifty axe-wielding neighbor was the real murderer for the majority of the film (even after Steven Wright is convicted), not realizing that London Road is less a whodunit and more of a community reckoning. I think I might get more out of it on a second watch. I also want to thank Boomer for introducing me to the term NIMBY, which is a term I feel like I’ve been looking for my whole life.

Britnee: I was concerned about London Road being a distasteful film, considering how recent it came out after the actual Ipswich murders and the fact that it’s a musical. It didn’t really go that route as it was more focused on the members of the community than the sensationalism of the murders, but I wondered what the family members of the victims thought of the play and the film. Especially since the play came out less than five years after the murders. It turns out the mother of Tania Nicol (one of the victims) did speak out against the tragedy being made into a production while she was still grieving the death of her daughter. I wasn’t able to find out much about the thoughts of the other victims’ family members, but I think this is definitely something important to consider.

Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without acknowledging how absurd it is that Tom Hardy is featured so prominently this movie’s marketing.  He’s only in the film for a brief cameo (as a scruffy, super-sus cab driver who’s a little too into true-crime), but you’d think based on the posters and publicity stills that he was competing with Colman for the lead.  I guess that sly act of false-advertising does add a little intrigue as to whether he’s a suspect (especially as an addition to the “It could be anyone!” pool of possibilities), but mostly it’s just amusingly pragmatic.  A genuine, certified movie star wanted to lend his star-power to a stage drama he admired, and the producers milked that for all that it was worth.  Smart.

Boomer: I’m realizing that, for someone who frontloaded their part of the conversation with discussion of how he felt about musicals, I didn’t note which songs on here I really liked. The number one has to be “It Could Be Him,” as I love its frenetic pacing and undercurrent of discomfort in spite of its catchy nature. “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous” is also a lot of fun, as it starts small and builds to a neat crescendo (it’s also the song that was most heavily featured in the trailer, which makes it the default London Road main theme in my mind). But for my money, the song that you’d never hear in a standard musical (give or take the occasional iconoclastic production) is “Cellular Material.”  

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)
July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Home of the Brave (1986)

Our current Movie of the Month, the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, is only a small glimpse into the profoundly peculiar mind of performance artist & avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson. Home of the Brave is a streamlined, 90min distillation of Anderson’s United States I-IV stage show: a four-part, two-night concert series in the early 1980s that combined lectures, digital projections, absurdist dance, and bizarre new wave compositions to abstract & deconstruct the nature of modern living in the Western world (and America in particular, as the title suggests). It’s a sprawling “Who are we?” existential crisis for The Reagan Era, abstracting basic modern concepts as varied as America’s national identity, the nature of rock music, the absurdism of gender performance & 80s workout routines, basic human interactions, technology, language, etc. Even as only a small portion of that magnum opus, Home of the Brave clearly registers to my eyes & ears as one of the greatest concert films of all time, a wonderful introduction to Anderson’s consistently exciting & confounding genius.

While there is only one wonderful mind like Laurie Anderson’s, she’s not the only philosophically minded musician who’s used filmmaking to document & bolster her art. Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more pop music cinema on its profoundly peculiar wavelength.

American Utopia (2020)

Full disclosure: the only reason I recently sought out Home of the Brave in the first place is because last year’s David Byrne concert film American Utopia reminded me so much of Anderson’s work in United States I-IV. In American Utopia, Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from an abstracted outsider perspective – a kind of spiritual sequel to his Small-Town America portrait True Stories. American Utopia is an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art. Like Home of the Brave, it’s the kind of existential national identity crisis that you can dance to.

To be honest, I do have a small chip on my shoulder about how much praise is heaped on Byrne’s American Utopia & Stop Making Sense films while Home of the Brave never even made the jump from VHS & Laserdisc to DVD, much less Blu-ray. Although she’s less of a household name elsewhere, Laurie Anderson was very much an equal & contemporary alongside David Byrne in NYC art snob circles in the early 1980s. Stop Making Sense might have preceded the concert film version of her United States act by a few years, but she was already pushing its more out-there ideas to their furthest extreme in her own stage work at that same time. If anything, American Utopia finds Byrne leaning further into the Laurie Andrersonisms of his own work, to the point where it feels like it’s turning Home of the Brave‘s idiosyncrasies into a concert film subgenre all of its own. Both films are great, but only one is being left to rot in the wasteland of fuzzy YouTube uploads.

Björk: Biophilia Live (2014)

While David Byrne collaborated with the distinctly American auteur Spike Lee on his own pop-lecture concert film, Björk outsourced the filmmaking duties on her 2014 concert piece Biophilia Live to two eccentric Brits. Unrepentant fetishist (and one of my favorite living filmmakers) Peter Strickland handled the direction of the film, while famed naturalist David Attenborough contributed the lecture portions of the performance (and expanded on its ideas in a bonus feature titled When Björk Met Attenborough). Biophilia Live beings with Attenborough making wild, unrealistic declarations over breathtaking nature footage, urging the audience to “Forget the size of the human body. Remember that you are a gateway between the universal and the microscopic, the unseen forces that stir the depths of your innermost being and Nature, who embraces you and all there is.” He goes on to claim that “We are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovation.” That abstract, philosophical subject is a Laurie Anderson-scale ambition for a mere concert film. Björk nearly delivers on that majestic promise too, finding a unique visual language that combines “nature, music, and technology” into one cohesive whole.

This union of “nature, music and technology” is accomplished through a layered visual collage that matches the on-stage aspects of the concert being filmed to the beautiful nature footage & pixelated CGI that swirls around and above it. During the opening song “Thunderbolt” Björk appears in the Earth’s stormy atmosphere, her backing band’s synths (and a specially rigged Tesla coil) seemingly controlling the lightning that illuminates the air around her. The imagery then shifts from the earthly to the celestial, the rhythm of the music correlating to the phases of the moon and the glacially shifting lights of stars and galaxies. The focus then shrinks from the heavenly to the microscopic; Fantastic Voyage-style close-ups of blood moving through veins fade to pixelated bacteria attaching to strands of DNA before the images finally devolve into distorted television color bars & computer monitor static. These phases of the imagery are cleverly allowed to bleed into one another instead of remaining isolated, which leads to some transcendent juxtaposition: a lightning storm in outer space, the moon perched on a spinal column, crystal formations melting into prism light. Even Björk herself looks like a combination of two ostensibly separate natural phenomena: her gigantic wig like a colorful galaxy & her asymmetrical dress like an underwater growth.

Attenborough’s opening monologue defines “biophilia” as “the love for Nature in all her manifestations” and Biophilia Live tries desperately to capture all those manifestations in one definitive catalog. Conceived as a single facet of a multi-media project alongside a studio album, music-composition computer apps, and the aforementioned conversation between Björk & Attenborough, the film itself is more than just a document of a single concert. It’s also an attempt to tie years of far-reaching ideas spread across various art forms into a single product, the same way it tries to tie all of Nature into a single entity. It’s the only concert project I can think of that matches the hyperbolic ambition of United States I-IV, and it’s not at all surprising that effort came from an artist as daring & eccentric as Björk.

Heart of a Dog (2015)

While I greatly respect both the American Utopia & Biophilia concert films on their own terms, neither can truly scratch the itch of wanting more art on Home of the Brave‘s peculiar wavelength. Laurie Anderson is just too distinctive of a philosophical mind to find that need satisfied in another artist’s hands. That’s why I’d also recommend pairing Home of the Brave with her essay film Heart of a Dog (her only subsequent feature-length work as a director) even though it’s not a concert film. While Home of the Brave is a snapshot of Anderson going as broadly, abstractly philosophical as possible, Heart of a Dog finds her at her most intimate. Presented as a meditation on the nature of Death following the loss of Anderson’s beloved rat terrier Lola, the film mostly functions as an act of self-therapy after the also-recent death of her husband, Lou Reed. In the film, Anderson mixes stock footage, digital photography, home movies, and animation to bring her trademark spoken-word work to vivid, visual life. Anderson’s intense soundscapes & language play hadn’t changed much in the decades since Home of the Brave, but they’re presented here with the immediacy & intimacy of listening to her narrate a private family photo album instead of a sprawling stage show.

Of course, Anderson can’t help but process her familial grief through prodding at larger, more abstract concepts; that’s just who she is. The losses of Lola & Lou inform every frame of Heart of a Dog, but they’re part of a larger tapestry of ideas that cover everything from the modern surveillance state to living in New York during 9/11 to the tenants of Buddhism to the existence of ghosts. Lou Reed’s absence weighs heavily on the proceedings, cropping up in an occasional image or song or dedication, but speaks volumes as Laurie Anderson instead discusses the process of accepting loss in terms of her dog, her dog’s sight, the twin towers, a world before the omnipresence of modern technology, and a mother she feels she never genuinely loved. As with all of Laurie Anderson’s work, Heart of a Dog is a writer’s delight, an intense meditation on the bizarre nature of language, but it stands as her most fiercely personal work to date. It not only covers the whirlwind of painful change & transition she’s survived in recent years; it also lays out in simple, clear terms how she sees the known world & the unknown one that follows. Nearly every word, sound, and image in the film was created by Anderson herself and by the end credits the film feels like a snapshot of her very soul, as opposed to the snapshot of America’s soul presented in Home of the Brave.

-Brandon Ledet