(On TV, February 2019) If you’re looking for a documentary to play while you’re putting up Christmas decoration, you can do far worse than Jingle Bell Rocks!, which studies not only Christmas music but the obsessive collectors (all of them men) of said holiday albums. This is a film about the thrill of hunting through used record stores, the joy of discovering good material among the dreck, and the fun for these collectors of meeting the recording artists. The collectors interviewed for the documentary claim that they’re not obsessive, not crazy and not weird (well, I think some of them may agree that they’re a bit weird) but we don’t care: their enthusiasm and their passion is endearing. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Christmas-themed documentary without exploring our relationship with that holiday. Then there is the music itself, which is a lot like listening to a good mix tape. (And yes, they do talk about mix tapes.) It comes wrapped in a history of Christmas music through the rock generation and into rap—including an extended discussion of one of my own holiday classics, “Christmas in Hollis”, through “Back-Door Santa”. Despite the seemingly straightforward subject matter, there are a lot of surprises in Jingle Bell Rocks! : At any given moment, you’re liable to hear from director John Waters, to touch upon the racial aspect of Christmas iconography, or feature an appearance by Doctor Demento. The climax of the film happens as it works its way to re-create a pivotal song for the film’s lead collector. As I’ve mentioned, Jingle Bell Rocks! is an ideal film to leave on the TV as you’re putting up decorations: It’s great background music, and you can drop in and listen to the film’s highlights at any time.
(In French, On Cable TV, January 2019) I haven’t seen as many John Waters movies as I’d like yet, but I like what I’ve seen so far, and Hairspray seems to package his iconoclastic outlook in a very audience-friendly package. Set in early-1960s Baltimore, it focuses on a curvy teenager (play by the very cute Rikki Lake) who comes to compete against more conventionally beautiful girls in a dance pageant and break down the city’s racial segregation. The square targets are broad and easy, but the film does have an exaggerated fun factor clearly crossing over in camp aesthetics. Breaking from his most transgressive fare, Waters here offers a slightly subversive look at an earlier generation in the form of a musical comedy. The music is quite good, and the white perspective means that Hairspray is accessible to a very wide audience that can laugh at the heavy-handed racism. (It does remain aimed at a white audience, though—fine for the 1980s, maybe a bit limited in the 2010s.) It’s simply a lot of fun, and the good music means that it’s got replay value as well.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2017) Iconoclast writer/director John Waters takes on the 1950s teenage musical comedy with Cry-Baby, and the result is just as proudly weird as anything else from his filmography. The satirical intent is obvious, but so is the affectionate attempt at recreating a lineage that goes from Rebel Without a Cause to Grease, perhaps beginning with Romeo and Juliette. High on camp, Cry-Baby endures today partially because it’s a send-up that doesn’t betray its inspirations, and because it features Johnny Depp in intentional teenage-idol mode. It’s not always interesting: the opening half does push far too much in the freak-and-geeks-are-the-true-cool-people direction, and there’s strong feeling of déjà vu throughout it all. The affection for the grotesque can be off-putting even to the most iconoclast audiences—Kim McGuire’s bravura performance as “Hatchet-face” is the kind of thing liable to make everyone uncomfortable even as the discomfort is the joke. (On a related note: Do read up on Kim McGuire for an amazing life.) Still, the film does pick up a bit of steam toward the end, with a spirited “Please, Mr. Jailer” number leading to a good court scene and a classic teen-movie climax. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s not a bad time at all. Cry-Baby’s French dubbed version combines the best of both worlds by thankfully not translating the songs, and adding a delightful layer of French slang over fictional Fifties teen-speak—I recommend the result to everyone who understands even a bit of French.