Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)

I first heard a cassette of Pink Floyd’s The Wall as a child in the 90s, long before I had developed any sense of personal taste in pop media.  In that pre-Wikipedia world, I’m not sure I knew the album was a soundtrack for a feature film, but I do remember picturing live-action movie scenes in my mind as it played, if not only because tracks like “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” included snippets of spoken dialogue in the music.  It wasn’t until I got to college in the aughts that the movie version of The Wall entered my life, but even at that time I imagined a wildly inaccurate version of it in my head instead of actually watching it.  By then, I was full-blown music snob, drawn almost exclusively to the sharp, concise pop perversions of punk instead of the loose, noodly prog of bands like Pink Floyd.  That’s likely why I didn’t participate in dorm room watch parties of The Wall, where dozens of my stoner classmates would cram into & cloud up a campus apartment to group-watch the film as if it were the psychedelic Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I had a very specific assumption of what The Wall was like based on that dorm room ritual, which turned out to be even less accurate than my childhood imagination of the film.  And since it’s one of many titles that have fallen through the distribution cracks in the modern streaming era, it wasn’t until I found a thrift-store DVD copy of my own that I finally cleared up my misconceptions. 

I have a couple questions about those freshman-year burnouts: What were they smoking, and where can I get some?  The Wall is visually playful & surreal enough to pass as stoner background fodder, but goddamn it’s grim.  It’s hard to imagine a dozen teenage dirtbags sincerely grappling with the film’s post-WWII grief & resentments while passing around a plastic bong.  They probably would’ve found a lot more “Whoa dude, far out!” entertainment value in the “Dark Side of the Rainbow” fan-edit of The Wizard of Oz . . . or just staring at an iTunes visualizer for a couple hours.  Technically, The Wall does deliver enough sex, drugs, and rock n roll imagery to fire up the imaginations of college-age thrill seekers, but it’s all conveyed through the perspective of an emotionally hollowed, terminally jaded rock star who’s lost the will to live.  This is less a psychedelic hedonist free-for-all then it is a cry for help, an outlet for Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters to lament his post-War childhood woes and his professional disappointments as an adult who barely survived the druggy haze of the 1970s.  If it has a guiding thesis, it’s that the Brits are not okay.  That S.O.S. message is only an extension of Waters’s own dwindling interest in life, love, and art, though, as pantomimed by fellow rock star Bob Geldof (of The Boomtown Rats) as his on-screen surrogate.  Fun!

In modern pop media terms, The Wall is Pink Floyd’s “visual album,” predating recent experiments in that medium like Lemonade, Dirty Computer, or When I Get Home.  It’s a feature-length music video, with little plot or spoken dialogue to distract from Waters’s lyrics.  Frankly, the songs themselves are not especially great, an assessment even most Pink Floyd fans would agree with.  They mostly just clear space for director Alan Parker (Angel Heart, Bugsy Malone, Evita) to play with the iconography of post-WWII Europe, as guided by Waters’s lyrics.  The composite character “Pink” (Geldof) is a lifeless, strung-out rock star with no remaining passion for his art and no remaining lust for his groupies.  He blankly stares at football & war movies on the TV, while reminiscing about a life where his father didn’t come home from the war, his mother was swallowed up by religion, the English school system wrung the life out of him, and everything else has been flavorless gruel in the decades since.  All the emotional walls, sexual hang-ups, and cultural rot of modern British masculinity are on full, grotesque display, while Nazi fascism slowly creeps back in to regain lost ground in the country’s schools, politics, hearts, and minds.  It’s all very loose & free-associative, but it paints a clear, deeply ugly picture of where Waters’s mind was at in the bitter afterglow of the 1970s.

If there’s any way in which The Wall delivers on the far-out, trippy, dorm room stoner experience that my knucklehead classmates were looking for, it’s in its tangents of psychedelic animation.  Gerald Scarfe’s animated sequences play like an alternate version of Wizards designed by Ralph Steadman instead of Ralph Bakshi.  Scarfe tinkers with the same post-War iconography as Parker, particularly in an early battlefield sequence when speeding war planes transform into flying crucifixes while decimating the land below.  A lot of his imagery is much freer to follow its own momentary whimsies, though.  A pair of flowers will have raunchy pistil-stamen sex, then transform into heroin needles & specters of death, then rearrange again to strings on a rubbery guitar neck.  If the entire film were just Scarfe illustrations of the images evoked by Waters’s lyrics, The Wall would still be oppressively grim, but I’d at least better understand its reputation as the thinking man’s Yellow Submarine.  As is, I mostly see an illustrated & pantomimed therapy session from a depressed loner who’s tired of the spotlight and bitter about his (admittedly shitty) childhood.  It’s a solid film on those terms, but I’m not in a rush to gawk at its bleak splendor again over pizza & bong rips with my closest, goofiest friends.

-Brandon Ledet

Studio 666 (2022)

I’m not much of a Foo Fighters fan, so I probably shouldn’t be reviewing something that could be described as Foo Fighters: The Movie.  And yet, the Foo Fighters vanity project that somehow got pushed into wide distribution this year was a tribute to something I am a huge fan of: 80s metalsploitation.  Studio 666 is a goofball throwback to metalsploitation classics like Trick or Treat, Shock Em Dead, and Rock n Roll Nightmare, complete with authentic plot tropes about backwards Satanic recordings & ancient incantations that open portals to Hell.  It’s telling that even the Foo Fighters know their usual Dad Rock riffage does not hit the genre metrics of that tradition, so they traded their signature stadium sound for a thrash metal soundtrack under the pseudonym Dream Widow.  They demonstrate a genuine, nerdy appreciation for vintage metalsploitation here, so even though I don’t care much about the band, I still think it’s cute they wasted everyone’s time & energy making a tribute to the genre, then distributing it as if it were a Real Movie. 

Even if it is cute on a big-picture conceptual level, in practice Studio 666 is a constant battle between predictably awful one-liners and shockingly decent gore gags.  There isn’t much plot to fill its expansive 106min runtime.  A demon possesses Dave Grohl while he’s pushing the band to record their 10th studio album on location at a haunted house, so he slaughters his seemingly infinite bandmates one by one in increasingly gruesome ways.  There’s a lot of dead air to fill between those kills, which is mostly gobbled up by Gen-X Dad Humor about how Dude Stuff like backyard grilling rocks and new age Chick Stuff like meditation sucks.  The band slacks, cusses, shrugs, and mugs away the runtime, coasting on assumptions that the audience finds them adorable.  Thankfully, their banter is occasionally interrupted by some spectacularly gnarly gore: hammers to the skull, decapitations via gardening shears, bifurcations of the chainsaw, etc.  There’s no real invention or momentum to the kills, which punctuate the band’s hangout slacker humor instead of overpowering it, but they’re at least grotesquely tactile in a way that feels true to the splastick & metalsploitation traditions of olde.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Foo Fighters as the last true Stadium Rock Gods (give or take the Red Hot Chili Peppers) would find a lot more to chew on here.  If nothing else, the recent passing of the band’s second-in-command musician Taylor Hawkins adds an extra layer of morbidity to the premise, especially considering the tabloid rumors concerning his exhausted relationship with the workaholic Grohl (shown here literally working his bandmates to death).  Coming to it as a horror fan, I can’t say there’s much to mine here beyond a few retro practical effects shots and an out-of-nowhere endorsement from genre legend John Carpenter.  Still, I’m amused that it exists – at least in the abstract.  It’s charming that the biggest Guitar Rock band in the world spent their cultural capital reviving a dead horror subgenre from the Satanic Panic era, especially considering how fiercely Evangelical our culture is becoming at large (again).  If it were 20min shorter & 200% funnier it might’ve even been Good.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #159 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Song Remains the Same (1976) & Concert Films

Welcome to Episode #159 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of classic concert films, starting with Led Zeppelin’s stoner odyssey The Song Remains the Same (1976).

00:00 Welcome

03:23 The Northman (2022)
06:01 The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)
08:34 Con Air (1997)
12:37 Bullshit
13:54 Smooth Talk (1985)

18:53 The Song Remains the Same (1976)
34:49 Sign O The Times (1987)
47:25 Depeche Mode 101 (1989)
1:06:17 T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

The Frank Tashlin School of Jayne Mansfield Studies

Until a couple weeks ago, there were exactly two things I “knew” about Jayne Mansfield: she was a cheap imitation of Marilyn Monroe, and she died in a horrific car accident.  It turns out both of those bullet points were hazier & more complicated than I understood them to be.  Yes, Mansfield died tragically young on a late-night drive to New Orleans but, no, she was not decapitated as the sensationalist urban-legend reports of her death would have you believe.  Yes, Mansfield was often cast and marketed as a Great Value™ Marilyn Monroe alternative, but she managed to push her screen persona beyond that rigid typecasting to become her own distinct, wonderful thing.  I always thought of Jayne Mansfield as someone who starred in a couple minor roles before her life & career were abruptly cut short, but she’s got a few dozen credits to her name on IMDb—ranging from dead-serious noirs to ribald slapstick comedies—most of which have nothing to do with her designated place in Marilyn’s shadow.  I have a daunting curriculum ahead of me in parsing out exactly who Jayne Mansfield was as an onscreen persona, a too-long-delayed education I hope will override my initial, ignorant assumptions about her.

Since I’m not going to watch all three dozen of her acting credits in a single go, the best crash-course education in Jayne Mansfield studies I could figure was checking out her two most iconic roles: her collaborations with Looney Tunes legend Frank Tashlin.  Their first film together, the 1956 rock-and-roll comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, was my most obvious entry point, since it’s something I’ve seen lovingly referenced in several John Waters pictures.  Not only do the rock-and-roll teens’ reaction shots in Hairspray pull direct influence from The Girl Can’t Help It‘s various concert performances, but Waters also lovingly parodied Mansfield’s title-song strut for one of the very best gags in Pink Flamingos.  In the Frank Tashlin version, Mansfield struts down a city block in a form-fitting dress, while every man she passes on the street instantly overheats at the sight of her – milk boiling out of bottles & popcorn popping out bags in their hands like premature ejaculate.  In the John Waters version, Divine recreates the exact same strut while bewildered Baltimoreans gawk at her in confusion & disgust, stunned in total awe of her filthy divinity.  In case the connection isn’t clear, both versions are set to the Little Richard tune “The Girl Can’t Help It,” which made the Tashlin movie a must-see movie on my watchlist for years.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that The Girl Can’t Help It is the ideal Mansfield talent showcase.  It’s fantastic as a rock-and-roll concert film, featuring a wealth of standalone performances from Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Platters, and the like.  It’s also the ultimate example of a movie studio pigeonholing Mansfield as a Marilyn stand-in instead of allowing her to be her own thing.  Monroe made her secretly-smart-ditz schtick look so easy that you can only tell how tricky it is when someone else bungles it.  Mansfield is adorable as the drag club caricature of that archetype, at least, and it’s amusing that her … questionable talents are essential to the plot of her starring-role debut.  She plays the reluctant girlfriend of a gangster who’s forcing her into a nightclub-singer career she does not want (or even have the talent) to pursue.  She looks fantastic in her snatched-waist wardrobe—an effect wonderfully compounded by the endless supply of horndog men who make cartoon wolf-eyes at her—and her breathy obliviousness is a delightfully absurd exaggeration of retro femininity.  It just sucks that the comparisons to Marilyn’s similar not-so-ditzy ditzes are so unavoidable, since her character and her performance are not allowed to have the same depth & nuance as Monroe’s most iconic roles.

It wasn’t until her next Tashlin collab, the 1957 ad industry satire Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, that Mansfield really came into her own as a screen persona.  Her drag-club Marilyn caricature is adorable enough in The Girl Can’t Help It, but she pushes the act to such a transcendent extreme in the next film that the comparison is obliterated entirely.  Mansfield is pure bimbo mayhem in Rock Hunter, turning every inhale of breath into an orgasmic squeal and every costume change into a mind-blowing reveal.  Instead of playing an exaggeration of Monroe, she’s playing an exaggeration of herself – complete with verbal, metatextual references to her Girl Can’t Help It stardom.  It’s like watching a pro wrestler get assigned a go-nowhere, mood-killing gimmick and then somehow win over the crowd by playing it as a cartoonish extreme.  Even the teen girls of Rock Hunter have a crush on Mansfield, not just the men passing by, and you feel that lasting Ultimate Bimbo impact influence future women who’ve played that same archetype (notably including Elvira, whose pet poodle in Mistress of the Dark was likely an homage to Mansfield’s here).  Tashlin matches Mansfield’s nuclear zaniness in his direction of Rock Hunter too, firing off rapid-fire sex jokes and TV commercial parodies as if he were consciously bridging the temporal gap between The Marx Brothers and ZAZ.  In retrospect, The Girl Can’t Help It feels like a trial run for the film where they really set out to let loose, which tracks with the knowledge that Rock Hunter started as a Broadway stage play (also starring Mansfield) before The Girl Can’t Help It was developed.

I understand, logically, why The Girl Can’t Help It is the Tashlin-Mansfield collaboration that’s getting a spiffy new Criterion restoration.  There’s a distinct pop-art iconography to it that is undeniably potent, as indicated by the homage of its titular strut in Pink Flamingos (which is also getting a Criterion polish this year).  The movie is very proud of its technical beauty, bragging about its indulgences in “the grandeur of Cinemascope” and “the gorgeous, lifelike color of DeLuxe” in its William Castle-style intro.  It’s clear to me, though, that Tashlin & Mansfield were at their absolute best in their latter collaboration, which exaggerates everything that’s great about The Girl Can’t Help It (except the music) to a beautifully ludicrous extreme.  Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? taught me how to appreciate Jayne Mansfield as her own unique persona, breaking her out of the Marilyn Monroe impersonator box I used to store her in (despite her Rock Hunter character being written as a spoof of Monroe’s performance in The Seven Year Itch).  Now all I have to do is catch up with the thirty other Mansfield movies I haven’t seen so I can fully understand her surprisingly extensive career as an actress.  So far, I’ve only read the syllabus and skimmed the highlights; it’s time to do the coursework.

-Brandon Ledet

Streets of Fire (1984)

I’m sure there are plenty of real-life biker gangs that have been a terrifying menace in whatever communities they rumble through, but I feel like most of my exposure to that culture has been sanitized & defanged to the point where I don’t see them as a threat.  From Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones to Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice, there’s a long history of retro biker gangs that look tough on the screen but never actually follow through on their threats.  Likewise, most bikers I see in the streets these days appear to be bored men in midlife crisis, trying to muster up some Leather Daddy fashionability instead of just plain Dad Vibes.  Apparently, that de-emphasized biker menace bothered notorious genre filmmaker Walter Hill as well, presumably after growing up in the Marlon Brando era of biker-with-a-heart-of-gold dramas as a teenager.  Hill seemingly made an entire feature film just to make bikers feel genuinely dangerous again, terrorizing a 1980s audience with revamped black-leather bullies from his 1950s youth.

Streets of Fire is a 50s teen-delinquent throwback sleazed up with 80s music video neons.  Self-described as “a rock & roll fable” set in “another time and another place,” it exists in a make-believe limbo that covers both decades at once – the same neon-noir aesthetic as Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind.  It’s basically The Wild Ones sped up for MTV sensibilities, with music-video crosscutting and a constant, aggressive drumbeat keeping the audience’s blood pumping like mad while its rabid biker gangs raise Hell up & down the streets of the fictional city of “Richmond” (read: Chicago).  Bikers get away with stripping innocent citizens nude in the street and dragging them across the asphalt trailing behind their roaring bikes as they smash every storefront window in their vicious path, but they cross a line when they kidnap a famous rock ‘n roll singer in the middle of her sold-out concert.  The heist mission to rescue that singer from biker-gang territory nearly burns the entire city to the ground, and it’s legitimately terrifying in a way few—if any—1950s biker films were allowed to be.

The only thing that really slows Streets of Fire down is its dead-eyed lead, Michael Paré, which is bizarre since the rest of the cast is packed with exciting, charismatic people you always love to see.  Willem Dafoe is a gorgeous sex goblin as the main biker villain, recalling his leather-clad brute performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless.  Likewise, Diane Lane’s performance as the kidnapped rock ‘n roll singer feels like an MTV-era update to her persona in The Fabulous Stains, right down to the red & black color story of her wardrobe.  Rick Moranis is maybe the only main player who’s cast against type as the tough-guy music manager who hires a vigilante to rescue his missing talent, playing the part of a macho bully that’s usually reserved for men three times his size.  Paré does not bring much to the table as the mercenary hero in contrast.  He’s generically handsome, but he’s got no personality to speak of.  Walter Hill directs every single character to deliver action hero one-liners in amphetamine-rattled noir speak, and Paré’s the only one who mumbles his way through them like a long-lost Stallone brother.

While Paré is a major liability as the narrative center of attention, Hill’s high-style visual theatrics more than compensate for his lack of screen presence.  Flaming motorcycles, S&M butcher outfits, neon crosslighting, and a music video performance of the soft-rock hit “I Can Dream About You” all violently combine to make a singular genre picture – one that revitalizes a long-subdued subculture that’s rarely as tough as it looks.  For the record, Cool as Ice is also a high-style delight; I just wouldn’t say that Vanilla Ice was exactly “scary” in it.  Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe is a goddamn nightmare.

-Brandon Ledet

Leto (2019)

Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov is known for criticizing Russian government with his work on stage and screen, putting him high on Putin’s radar. During the final week of wrapping up and editing his most recent film, Leto, Serebrennikov was arrested for “fraud” charges, forcing him to complete his work on the film under house arrest. Many (including myself) believe this arrest was politically motivated, so the fact that Serebrennikov pushed through and completed Leto regardless of his circumstances is so badass. He even did it without being connected to the internet (Russian government took it away as part of his sentence). Leto, a musical film about Russia’s revolutionary rock movement in the early 1980s, has rebellion running through its veins. That alone is enough reason to watch this movie.

Leto (loosely translated from the Russian word for “Summer”) takes place in repressive Leningrad in the early 1980s. Rock music is loved by the Soviet Union’s youth, but older folk view it as music of the enemy because of its Western roots (influenced by Bowie, T. Rex, Lou Reed). The Leningrad Rock Club has recently opened and serves as the heart of the Soviet Union’s rock scene. The problem is that it’s overseen by the KGB and all musicians’ lyrics must be approved prior to performances. During the film’s beginning, the band Zoopark is performing at the Leningrad Rock Club to a seated audience being monitored by police. If anyone does anything beyond light claps for applause, head bobbing, and toe tapping, the police are on their ass. Watching a venue full of people quietly sitting while high-energy music is blaring through the speakers was beyond strange. Zoopark’s front man, Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk), is a prominent figure in this new scene. He’s a cool guy who wears sunglasses indoors and keeps things as funky as possible while following the rules of the KGB. He eventually meets Viktor Tsoi (Te Yoo), the singer and songwriter from the band Kino. Viktor is a little more rebellious with his music than Mike, but not enough to get him in jail or kicked out of the rock club. The relationship between Mike and Viktor is an interesting one. It’s hard to tell if Mike views Viktor as competition or if he wants to take Viktor under his wing and guide him through this new, growing music scene. Their relationship becomes even more confusing when Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum), Mike’s wife and mother to his child, gets permission from Mike to hook up with Viktor.

Zoopark and Kino are actual bands and Mike and Viktor are real-life members of those bands. However, this film is not considered to be a biopic. It’s more like historical fiction loosely based on two bands considered to be founding fathers of Russian rock music. There are times throughout the film where characters break the fourth wall to say, “This really didn’t happen.” prior to a scene. It’s a quirky way to remind us all that we are not watching a biopic, even though it really feels like we are. I went into this film knowing nothing about Russian rock music, much less Russian rock music from the early 80s, and I didn’t feel like I was ever not in the know. The film sort of jumps into the plot without any background or history, but its in-the-moment style is done so well that there is no need for a newcomer like me to be brought up to speed.

What really made Leto memorable for me was the film’s unique style. The entire film is in black and white (with a few flashbacks in grainy color), and there are musical moments with hand-drawn scribbles floating all over the screen. My favorite musical number was a rendition of the Talking Heads hit “Psycho Killer” during a violent train altercation. I’ve watched it multiple times. Let it be known that there aren’t that many musical numbers, so don’t avoid seeing this movie if you’re not a fan of musicals.

-Britnee Lombas

Her Smell (2019)

There are few narrative templates as a familiar to American audiences as the rockstar addiction story, in which booze & illicit chemicals tear down celebrity gods from powerful highs to pitiful rock-bottoms. Hell, in the last year alone we’ve already seen this exact story play out in Vox Lux, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Dirt, and yet another A Star is Born remake in a longstanding, haggard tradition. On a plot outline level, Her Smell makes no attempt to jazz up the melody of this narrative template. It’s well aware that this is a story we’ve seen too many times before, both in the tabloids and on the big screen. If anything, everyone in the film seems well past exasperated & fed up with watching the tired rock star addiction cliché play out spectacularly around them; they’re just helpless to stop it. As faithful to & disdainful of that cliché as the film appears to be, though, it still manages to feel like a fresh, unholy terror through the virtues of its execution, which does its best to rattle the audience to the point where we’re numb, drained, and begging for release.

A large part of what distinguishes Her Smell in this crowded field is the specificity of its setting. These tortured artist addiction narratives are typically reserved for machismo-driven cock rockers like Jim Morrison, Led Zeppelin, and whatever Americana archetype Bradley Coopers was aiming for in last year’s Oscar run. By contrast, this film is a pastiche of the rock ’n roll excess stories that seeped out of the femme 90s punk bands of the riot grrrl & grunge era. The most obvious 1:1 comparison for its fictional rock ‘n roller Becky Something would be Courtney Love on her worst behavior, but the film pulls from plenty other bands’ onstage personae & backstage drama for inspiration: The Breeders, Throwing Muses, L7 , Babes in Toyland, etc., etc., etc. We see the fictional band Something She at the height of their 90s heyday only in brief interstitials of backstage videocorder footage between much lengthier, more contemporary scenes of their post-fame bickering. It’s a hyper-specific yet undeniably iconic music scene that we rarely get to see depicted in feature films, which usually do little to challenge rock ‘n roll’s outdated reputation as a boys’ club. If we’re going to watch a familiar story of drugs wrecking a rock star’s life & career play out yet again, we might as well use it as an opportunity to see something that’s a much rarer treat in filmmaking of any era: women behaving badly.

Besides the specificity of the setting, Her Smell is also elevated above its potential genre tedium by the provocateur sensibilities of its director, Alex Ross Perry. Perry brings his usual thirst for pitch-black despair & total sensory overload to this Queen of Earth follow-up, content to violently shake his audience by the shoulders for as long as anyone could possible stand it. The major evolution to his usual mode here is a newfound sense of patience. Her Smell is well over two hours long. It’s structured like a stage play, with act-length scenes stretching on for torturous eternities as its addict antagonist torments everyone unfortunate enough to be lured into her orbit. Perry at least has the decency to release some steam from the pressure cooker for a rare moment of calm halfway through the runtime that effectively serves as an intermission, but for the most part he offers very little relief from the anxiety & hurt addiction wreaks on this once vibrant, now decaying music scene. His camera offers a dizzying, unflinching tour through the backstage labyrinth hellscapes behind the concerts that justify this vile behavior, with muffled far-off crowds screaming for more like the demons of Hell. That thunderous applause mixes with subtly unnerving synth flourishes to continually disorient viewers as we’re forced to endure nightmare drug parties long after the good vibes have soured. It’s exhausting, but impressively effective.

All this preamble is really just burying the lede of what truly makes Her Smell a must-see spectacle: Elizabeth Moss. Recalling the maddening whirlwind performances of legendary actors before her like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence or Faye Dunaway in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Moss plays the tragic rock ‘n roller Betty Something more as a rabid animal or a natural disaster than a human woman. Usually these madwoman breakdown dramas are sympathetic portraits of someone who’s cracked under the pressures of mental illness & impossible Patriarchal ideals. Here, Moss is simply allowed to be total, unforgivable nightmare – bursting into rooms backstage like a flood that wipes out all her friends, family, and colleagues along with her. She curses professional rivals with mysterious black-magic hexes, plays with her small child like a dog temporarily excited by a new chew toy, and feeds off the adoration of her audience as an enabling signifier that she can do no wrong. We never see Moss ingest drugs onscreen, but you can read each speck of the junk on her dazed, ghoulish face. It’s an intensely physical performance that expresses all the subtlety & nuance necessary to make this somewhat generic story specific to her character, so that all Perry has to do (besides write the damn thing) is stay out of her of way and allow it to play out in its full, rabid spectacle. It’s a mesmerizing feat of a performance from one of our greatest living actors.

The final achievement that makes Her Smell an exceptional specimen of its ilk is in the quiet release of its final moments, something I wouldn’t dare spell out here even if I thought it was possible. After two full hours of being terrorized by Elizabeth Moss’s feral showboating, everyone involved is exhausted on a molecular level, allowing for a rare moment of quiet grace I can’t recall ever seeing before in this Tragic Rock ‘n Roll Addict genre. I was genuinely, emotionally moved by the final lines of Her Smell, which was something I hadn’t expected given the familiarity of this thematic material. It shames me to admit that I had much stronger feelings overall for the superficially similar swing-for-the-fences mess of Vox Lux last year. Still, it’s undeniable that Moss & Perry broke through to something truly resonant & powerful by the time this film reaches it’s closing moments of denouement – whether through the specificity of character & setting, the willingness to dwell in intense discomfort, or the perversely cathartic pleasure of watching Women Behaving Badly.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Hearts of Fire (1987)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon & Boomer watch Hearts of Fire (1987).

Britnee: Known as the film that killed critically acclaimed director Richard Marquand (Return of the JediEye of the Needle, etc.), the 1987 musical drama Hearts of Fire has somehow managed to disappear from the cinematic landscape. It’s so strange for a film with such a well-known director and big name actors (Bob Dylan & Rupert Everett) to not achieve even cult status. I’m not going to beat around the bush here. Hearts of Fire is terrible. It’s so terrible that it went straight to video after spending a very short time in theaters. Until this day, it’s difficult to get a hold of a physical copy because it was never released on DVD, and it doesn’t look like it ever will be.  All of this negativity aside, I wholeheartedly love this movie. It’s a lot of stupid fun without trying to be funny, and that’s why I just had to make the Swampflix crew watch it for Movie of the Month. The film stars music legend Bob Dylan as a washed up rock star turned chicken farmer named Billy Parker. Billy develops an uncomfortable romantic friendship with a young musician, Molly McGuire (Fiona). Molly plays small gigs with her band at her hometown bar (somewhere in Pennsylvania) that’s filled with some very interesting characters, including a barmaid who looks like a combination of Large Marge and Dolly Parton. Billy stumbles into the bar and quickly develops an interest in Molly.  He sort of becomes her mentor, but it’s also obvious that he wants to get in her pants super bad. It’s so hard to watch middle-aged Bob Dylan flirt with a teenager, and it gets even worse when she flirtatiously calls him names like “Dirty Old Man.” Billy is performing in London, and he takes Molly along for the ride. Almost immediately after landing in London, Molly runs into her all-time-favorite singer, James Colt (Rupert Everett), the hottest name in modern music. It doesn’t take long for Molly to be caught in a love triangle between these two men while also striving to achieve her dream of being a superstar. The chemistry between the three main characters is perfect. Dylan moves like a zombie and mumbles truckloads of nonsense, Fiona is a bubbly teen with a great raspy singing voice (Bonnie Tyler meets Laura Branigan), and Everett is the stereotypical 80s pop star. When the three interact with each other, it’s pure entertainment.

The character Billy Parker was initially written for Mick Jagger, but he turned down the role because, well, the script was crap. I’m so thankful he did because Dylan is hilarious in this movie without even trying. He literally mumbles all of his lines and pretty much sleepwalks throughout the entire movie. Dylan was obviously not very excited about starring in Hearts of Fire, and it shows through his acting. He must’ve been very desperate for cash at that point in his life.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Dylan’s acting in Hearts of Fire? Was he attempting to portray a tired, old rock star or was he actually a tired, old rock star?  How different would this movie be if Mick Jagger had taken the role of Billy?

Brandon: The originally intended, Mick Jagger version of Hearts of Fire at least makes more sense. Billy Parker is a hard-drinking, fast-loving rock n’ roller, a lifestyle Jagger had genuinely been living for decades by the time this film was released. I don’t necessarily believe that Jagger’s rock n’ roller energy could have saved the film’s embarrassingly lifeless script (which was co-written by Showgirls/Basic Instinct coke monster Joe Eszterhas, of all people), but he could at least have afforded it some authenticity. As Britnee suggests, part of what makes Hearts of Fire so memorably bizarre is that Bob Dylan is absurdly miscast in the role. First of all, unlike Jagger, Bob Dylan does not fuck. Not that he’s a 76 year old virgin or anything, but he’s more of a music industry legend for his rambling, radical politics poetry than he is for pure sexual charisma. Second of all, 1980s Bob Dylan especially does not fuck. Fresh off a creative slump where the singer-songwriter churned out several little-loved gospel records as a Born Again Christian, Dylan was as soft & as unsexy as ever. That’s why it’s so weird to see him don the leather-clad costuming of a rock n’ roll toughie; nothing in his past as an indignant hippie folk singer or a mediocre gospel enthusiast suggests he had earned the right (give of take a recording or two with The Band). The conceit of the film requires Dylan to be playing himself, but not quite, so that he credibly turns heads when he saunters into rock clubs unannounced. Instead, he’s playing a version of himself that never actually existed. This is made doubly strange by the fact that Dylan has the energy level of a man twice his age. He’s less than 50 years old in Hearts of Fire, but he has the charisma of an ancient geezer, to the point where when he smashes a hotel room in a moment of supposed rock n’ roll excess, all the audience can do is laugh at the labored, slow-motion movements in his old man body. Dylan was tasked with making Hearts of Fire cool. Rather than achieve that impossible task, he turned it into a joke.

As fun as it is to gawk at a past-his-prime Dylan slowly seeping out of his range as a dangerous rock n’ roller romantic lead, I do feel really bad for Fiona here. I have to assume Hearts of Fire was even more damaging for her career as a VH1, Pat Benatar-era rock n’ roll singer than it was for the director’s, if not only because I’ve never heard of her before. She’s actually super charming as the film’s lead, Molly McGuire (except maybe when she’s performing the lifeless radio rock that poisons the soundtrack), which makes it a total shame that she’s asked to act circles around a cardboard cutout of Bob Dylan, a man 20 years her senior. With Mick Jagger in the opposite role, there might have been more of a chance for an erotic spark between Molly & Parker to earn film’s baffling R rating, despite Jagger being roughly the same age as Dylan. Instead, we watch an old man leer at Fiona through drooped eyelids between nonsensical, patronizing mumblings about the dangers of the music biz. Her younger, more viable option for a romantic partner is a synthpop twit played by Rupert Everett, who’s essentially laying out a roadmap for Russell Brand’s career as a public nuisance two decades later. He’s no better than Dylan’s old fart, has-been rocker, really, and the men in Molly’s gradually appear to be two versions of the same asshole on different ends of a shared career trajectory. Their patronizing treatment of Molly as a muse & a protégé instead of a professional equal is exemplified even by their respective choices for a “first date” location: an ice cream parlor and a carnival. They treat her like a little kid (just one they happen to want to sleep with). What’s extra gross about this dynamic is that the movie leers right along with them. Rock n’ Roll was very much still a Boy’s Club at the time of Hearts of Fire‘s production (maybe even more than ever, thanks to the groupie-exploiting hijinks associated with hair metal) and the film obliges the male gaze’s interest in Fiona’s body just as often as it allows her to play music. The camera drools over her as she skinnydips, sleeps pantsless, and forgoes a bra in her sound booth recording sessions. Fiona not only deserved a better pair of rock scene buffoons to lust after her; she deserved a better movie overall.

Boomer, what did you make of Fiona’s performance and her positioning at the center of this bizarre rock star love triangle? Was the Boy’s Club perspective of the film’s version of rock n’ roll at all offset by details like her ultimate decision to choose neither man as a lover & the one lovemaking scene that focused on Everett’s naked flesh for a change? Or was the movie just as limiting of her potential as the leading man-children who populate it?

Boomer: I thought Fiona was quite charming, actually. For the first 45 minutes of the film I found the scenes that focused solely on her to be the best part: her deprecating interactions with her shitty boss, her short but sweet scene with her roommate, even her objections to joining her bandmates in their new gig (despite her objections that she doesn’t play lounge music being bratty in a Reality Bites way). But every time Dylan was on screen, all of my good will just got sucked right out of me. It wasn’t just his performance (which was, make no mistake, terrible), but also his overall look and demeanor. Young Dylan was a cutie pie, and the elder Dylan now is like a noble statesman in his appearance, but a shudder ran down my spine when Molly asked him to go skinny dipping with her; she’s young and effusive and adorable and he looks like someone took 60s Dylan’s face and turned it into a tanned and cracked handbag. All I could think about was this exchange between Bart and Marge in “A Fish Called Selma”: “Why did they make that one Muppet out of leather?” “That’s not a leather Muppet, that’s [Bob Dylan]!”

Which is not to say that Everett serves as a better love interest. His sex scene with Fiona may have focused more on his flesh than hers, but it is to the film’s detriment, as the scene itself is the least erotic love scene that I’ve born witness to since Argento’s Phantom of the Opera. Everett is not an ugly man (I’d argue that his shower scene in Cemetary Man could make any receptive audience member, wombed or not, pregnant), but he’s never been more unappealing than in this greasy mullet and untweezed unibrow. He only barely manages to be more attractive than Dylan by virtue of the fact that he’s not sporting Dylan’s embarrassing earring, which was as distracting as it was pathetic.

Despite being surrounded by so much poor decision-making in the way of casting, costuming, and everything else, Fiona manages to be likable and ebullient. I did spend a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop with regards to her fame, however. In a film like this, when a semi-naive country girl is dropped into the lap of a more experienced performer and explores his world of fame from the inside, you expect there to be a certain kind of turning point. Although Colt is subtly inferred to drink too much, Molly never falls into chemical dependence or is forced to confront the fact that her lover is a rock star with a libido to match and he “needs” more than one woman, nor does she have any real failings. The suicide of one of Colt’s fans is the only real obstacle in her life or career after she leaves Pennsylvania, and she’s really only involved tangentially as a witness. Her decision to take neither of her proposed love interests as her endgame partner suggests a kind of feminism, but ultimately feels more like the screenwriter didn’t expect women to experience fame and all of its accompanying temptations and pitfalls the same way that men do, or even at all.

Britnee, do you think that there was a faded rock star in 1987 who could have played the Billy Parker role without it coming off as creepy and weird? Would it have been a better choice to hire an actor who could sing instead of a singer who could(n’t) act? Who would you have cast instead in the roles of Parker and Colt, and why?

Britnee: The thing about washed up rock stars is that they are usually highly unattractive and just hard to look at in general (Bret Michaels immediately comes to mind), so the idea of any real-life, washed up rock star successfully playing the role of Billy Parker seems close to impossible. Most of the musicians that I immediately thought of were still big names in 1987, but their careers are over and done in this day and age. Honestly, I think that 1987 Iggy Pop would have been the best choice. Bob Seger would come in as a second choice, but he’s got a dad vibe to him that isn’t sexy at all. He’s got a very interesting personality and he definitely knows how to work his sexuality, unlike Dylan. Iggy Pop would probably make the unavoidable creepiness of Parker’s character much easier to stomach, but the idea of casting an actor that can sing in the Billy Parker role makes a lot more sense to me. It’s a film after all, not an album. Take a look at James Colt. Everett’s singing wasn’t amazing, but his acting was pretty good. Come to think of it, having a real-life musician in the role of James Colt would have been a better choice, if a musician had to be in the film. Even if the younger musician sucked at acting, more people would have seen this movie and it wouldn’t have flopped so hard at the box office.

In my fantasy recasting of Hearts of Fire, I’m imagining Chris Sarandon as Billy Parker. I recently watched Fright Night and was reminded of how he really does own the screen. As for James Colt, I would cast my favorite 80s music bad-boy, Billy Idol. He’s just so much fun! He’s got some decent acting skills as far as music videos go, and his charisma is out of control. His personality is so vibrant compared to the blandness that is Everett, and it’s what the role of James Colt desperately needs. This is a guy who is the biggest name on the music scene, so lets give him some flare.

Sometimes when musicians take on acting, it does work in their favor. For instance, David Bowie, Cher, and Barbra Streisand had many successful roles in major films. However, most of the time, it just doesn’t work out.

Brandon, after all of the flops that feature musicians attempting to be actors, why do you think this is still such a prominent occurrence in film? Why don’t they just give it a rest? Is there some sort of method to the madness?

Brandon: I have to assume that most acting turns from musicians are  marketing decisions, not artistic ones. When David Byrne directs a weirdo art film like True Stories, it’s obviously coming from a place of artistic passion, but it’s a different story altogether when, say, Vanilla Ice stars in a rap-oriented remake of a Marlon Brando motorcycle picture. Vanilla Ice likely didn’t get into the rap game thinking the best way to purely express himself would be as a leading man in a high-fructose romantic comedy. That decision had to have been made for him through a series of boardroom meetings over marketing data that suggested Cool as Ice would boost his album sales & cultural cachet. I can’t speak for Bowie, Cher, or Streisand’s respective movie industry success stories as either passionate work that happened to pay off or marketing decisions that stuck because of natural talent, but Hearts of Fire is most definitely seeped in the desperate cash grab end of that dichotomy. Fiona’s marketing team was likely invested in catapulting a rising star with a hit motion picture, while Dylan’s own publicity team was attempting to borrow some Mick Jagger edge to forgive the sins of his thoroughly un-cool gospel period that immediately preceded the film. I’m pretty sure that Hearts of Fire proved to be an embarrassment & a failure for both musicians, but it’s especially cringe-worthy for Dylan, whose prematurely senile mumblings in the film did absolutely no favors for his dangerous rock star street cred.

Most marketing decisions are a strike-while-the-iron’s-hot proposition made while a pop star is Having a Moment. To hammer the comparison home, I have to assume that Cool as Ice was greenlit when “Ice Ice Baby” was endlessly looping on the radio. By the time the movie hit theaters, however, Ice’s moment had more or less passed and audiences’ thirst for him had, um, cooled. Hearts of Fire feels similarly late to the table. The late 80s was admittedly a strange, stagnant time for radio rock. Nirvana wouldn’t break through until a few years later (as immortalized in the documentary title 1991: The Year Punk Broke), so most genuinely subversive rock n’ roll movements at the time (punk, sludge, thrash, etc.) were largely invisible to mainstream audiences. Still, even a cheesy hair metal soundtrack would have been more cutting edge than the stubbornly old-fashioned 70s arena rock and post-Benatar VH1 rock Fiona & Dylan were tasked with selling as cool here. Even the Soft Cell & Human League style of new wave pop Everrett’s character is supposedly a sell-out for playing would have been years & years stale by the time Hearts of Fire was released. They might as well have made fun of him for singing disco. Casting Bob Dylan as a dangerous, sexy rock star isn’t the only way Hearts of Fire fails to keep its finger on the pulse of modern rock either. When Fiona & company play “aggressive” rock meant to rile up the British punks pogoing in the London audience, it plays like an unintentional joke. In a real life 1987, those kids would have laughed them off the stage for performing the music their parents listen to.

Boomer, I get the general sense that punk & metal aren’t entirely Your Thing as much as other music genres. From that outside perspective, was Hearts of Fire‘s version of dangerous 80s rock n’ roll as noticably, laughably out of date for you or could you more easily excuse the inauthenticity of the youth culture it was selling?

Boomer: Untrue on the count of the first, but correct with regards to metal. I think you’re probably thinking back to this passage from my Shock ‘Em Dead review, and you’re remembering it correctly: “I’m not here to pass judgement on Metal as a genre—after all, as far as devotees to a particular musical style are concerned, metalheads are some of the most aggressive, fanatical, defensive, and insular, and I’m not looking to get my head bashed in by a guy […] who has willingly and purposefully refused to listen to anything that came out after the demise of Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Metal fandom is a mostly misogynistic miasma of guttural throats, thrashing, and toxic masculinity, devoted to a musical subculture that was most successful during a decade where everyone was coked out of their fucking minds, but it’s also the genre that features some of the most amazing and mindboggling musical feats ever performed on guitar, and that fact is not lost on me.” So, yeah, as with some things that I like, there’s a bit of personal backlash against the devotees rather than the thing itself; I think that this feeling is evident in the way that I’ve written about Christianity in my The Late Great Planet Mirth articles as well. It reminds me of a conversation I had a few months ago with my roommate, who pointed out that he’s always associated Star Trek and the Grateful Dead with each other in his mind, because they’re both works of art that are as famous for their fandoms as they are for the text itself; as much as I would like to enjoy metal, the fandom is simply too toxic for me to enjoy.

My obvious punk days are behind me (it’s hard to show your commitment when you no longer have enough hair to die or ‘hawk), but that doesn’t mean I’m not still a fan of the music or the ethos, although I would be lying if I said that I didn’t find the slow infiltration of nationalism into the punk scene (admittedly not as deep in the bone as it is in some pockets of the metal scene, where it seems to breed like a weed) disturbing and disconcerting. Like, seriously, Nazi punks fuck off.

Overall, I found the film to be laughable in its attempt to be “hard” or “edgy,” although I credit that feeling more to simply being a person and not a punk fan. I mentioned it before, but I found Molly’s insistence that she doesn’t play lounge music to be the complaint of a contemptuous brat. I’m reminded of a story I read about a flautist who had been coddled and fawned over from an early age and reached high school as a prodigious talent but also a confrontational and sententious jerk. His high school band raised money by performing an annual community concert wherein they played various compositions with which the general public was familiar, like the Star Wars hero theme and the score to Harry Potter; he refused to participate because doing so was “beneath” him. He was accepted to Julliard but flunked out within a year because he felt that he knew more than his professors. At the time of the last update that the author of the story (a former high school bandmate) had heard, the flautist was now having to live on Earth with the rest of us, with no prospects in his desired field but still clinging to his delusions of musical godhood and not having learned the humility that usually accompanies such a fall from grace. I look at Molly and consider her age and have to ask, just how many dues could she have possibly paid? How could she possibly be so naive? But then the film sees fit to have a haggard musical genie come along and sweep her away from her podunk town, which makes the film a fantasy of wish fulfillment for every backwater kid who knows three chords and thinks they have a story to tell. With that in mind, I’m not surprised that the narrative is so acutely lacking in self-awareness of how these stories play out in real life that we’re supposed to agree with her and be swept along in her wake, but you hit the nail on the head with the words “laughable” and “inauthentic.”

Boomer: I’ve never seen a film so hell bent on not pulling the trigger on Chekhov’s Gun. When Billy first rolls into town, the handle of a revolver is hanging out of the front of his jacket. I’m pretty certain that we also see the same gun sitting on the counter in his kitchen near the end of the film, but we never see him using it at all. There’s not even a scene where he takes Molly out to the back forty to shoot tin cans off of a fence while he pontificates about some metaphor comparing the cans to men who will try to steal or subvert her talent. Sure, we get to see one of Colt’s (har har the irony) fans use a gun, but it’s not the same one. I kept wondering when Billy’s gun was going to come into play, but it never does. That’s a first draft problem, but this is also a first draft movie, so I don’t know why I’m surprised.

Brandon: For a much more authentic look at a singer-songwriter struggling to establish her own voice in the oppressive Boys’ Club of 1980s rock n’ roll, I highly recommend 1982’s Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. The feminist messaging is more pointed, the songs are more believably punk, and you get to have a glimpse at a before-she-was-famous Laura Dern. As much as I allowed myself to be charmed by Fiona as a personality, I think Hearts of Fire is really only worth digging up to laugh in Bob Dylan’s face as he bizarrely attempts to pass himself off as a sexy, dangerous rock god & fails miserably. The Fabulous Stains, by contrast, is a genuinely great movie set in a notably similar atmosphere.

Britnee: I’ve recently watched a couple of interviews with Bob Dylan around the time Hearts of Fire was filmed, and he is just as tired in real life as he is in this movie. He should’ve gone on a two-week cruise instead of making a movie to get some of his energy restored. But as sad as it sounds, I love how horrible he was, and I love how horrible this movie is. I wish it had achieved cult status so there could be midnight showings with fans dressed up as James Colt (in oversized suits and greasy mullets).

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew