The death of Charlie Watts at age 80 last week reminded everyone how fond they were of the most incongruously quiet, gentlemanly member of the band that pretty much wrote the introductory chapter to The Giant Golden Book Of Rock ’n’ Roll Decadence. Though a great drummer, he hardly fit that role’s stereotype of offstage wildman—his marriage to first-last wife Shirley Ann was almost as long-lasting as his membership in the Rolling Stones, and she met him before they were famous.
The act’s first flush of fame is captured in Charlie Is My Darling, a long-elusive documentary by Swinging London documenter Peter Whitehead that follows the quintet on their second mini-tour of Ireland in fall 1965. It was shot as a sort of “screen test” to gauge whether the group had movie-star potential (The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night had been an unexpected worldwide smash the year before), without expectation of commercial release. The original 35-minute version premiered at a festival in 1966, then was forgotten; already tangled in legal disputes, it became a “lost film” after the only known prints were stolen from manager Andrew Loog Oldham’s offices. Nonetheless, raw materials still existed, and about a decade ago a new, nearly twice-as-long version called Charlie Is My Darling: Ireland 1965 was assembled, incorporating footage both used in and excluded from the prior cut.
That’s the version playing the Roxie this weekend, in a co-presentation with Amoeba Music. Named after a traditional Scottish folk song, purportedly because Whitehead thought “the camera liked” Watts best among the Stones, it doesn’t cast any special spotlight on the drummer, who as usual keeps his mouth pretty well shut. (Keith Richards is even more mute.) But the B&W documentary provides a fascinating glimpse at the act at a point when they were hardly wide-eyed innocents, but not jaded yet, either.
Dressed mostly in suits and sportscoats, their “long” hair still well above-collar, they hardly seem like “bad boys”—though a few worried words from a priest, and some rough crowd treatment by police, reveal how threatened society was by this new youth culture nonetheless. Onstage in packed, screaming halls, they’re magnetic but not yet conscious of it. Offstage, they goof (including impromptu imitations of Elvis and Fab Four), but don’t seem to be posturing for the camera. The sole exception is Brian Jones, who already appears a bit pretentious and affected, straining to present himself as above the vulgar fray. This rough-hewn snapshot wouldn’t be particularly interesting if it featured any lesser group, but being about the Stones, it’s like archaeological gold.
Two other B&W 1960s flashbacks provide different sorts of revelations. The Pacific Film Archive is recommencing a limited schedule of screenings in its indoor auditorium this week with the Wed/1 screening of Howard Alk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton (more info here). That 1971 documentary was begun as an overview of the Black Panther Party, with particular focus on its young Illinois chapter chairman. But when 21-year-old Hampton was killed in a wee-hours raid on a Chicago apartment in December 1969, the in-progress film became largely an indictment of an apparent “execution squad” bloodbath carefully planned by Chicago police in tandem with the FBI and informants. Though, needless to say, the court system failed to confirm that view—at least not until a nearly $2 million wrongful death settlement in 1982.
Earlier this year, the excellent Judas and the Black Messiah dramatized events leading to that one-sided “shootout,” winning an Oscar for Daniel Kaluuya’s portrayal of Hampton. Murder remains true to its radical political era in being more angrily agitative than something with a pretense of journalistic “neutrality.” But it’s a powerful historical artifact, and one that (having barely been released in the US originally) is worth seeing in this rare big-screen revival, shown in a restored 35mm print. The film kicks off BAMPFA’s new Documentary Voices series, which runs through mid-November, alongside the experimental cinema showcase Alternative Visions.
On an entirely frivolous note—from the least joyful place imaginable—there’s also the streaming release (on arthouse platform Film Movement Plus) of a wacky curio you’ve almost certainly never heard of. 1962’s They Stole the Bomb was the live-action feature debut for Ion Popescu-Gopo, who’d already made a name for himself as the leading animator in Romania, even winning a Palme d’Or at Cannes for his short A Brief History five years earlier.
Taking his cartoons’ slightly caustic whimsy in a more farcical direction, Bomb reflects the Sixties nostalgia for silent comedy, while also anticipating an imminent vogue for fanciful espionage a la 007. It sets gangsters, government operatives, shadowy masterminds and one hapless hero all chasing after a stolen atomic bomb—the action encompassing a pie fight (natch), but no dialogue whatsoever.
It’s a bit like Fritz Lang’s Doctor Mabuse films plus a bit of Jacques Tati, inventively surreal and silly. “Gopo” would continue to make adventuresome shorts and features, alternating between live-action and animation (or mixing both, as in the charming 1981 children’s film Maria, Mirabella) until his death in 1989—which came, sadly, just before the end of the repressive Ceaucescu regime he’d somehow managed to escape the ire of for a quarter-century. For info go to www.filmmovementplus.com.
Likewise reaching for whatever artistic freedom they could manage within a hostile political climate are the protagonists in Nicholas Brennan’s Los Ultimos Frikis. This documentary, available on VOD as of Thurs/2 (and on streaming platform Topic Sept. 16), focuses on Zeus—not the Olympian god, but the Cuban heavy metal act that’s existed since the late 1980s. Longevity hasn’t come easily for them: Rock in general, and metal in particular, was considered capitalist “music of the enemy” by the Castro government, which could (and did) prevent such perceived ideological threats from getting gigs. Eventually those policies softened somewhat, even allowing the band to finally play a national tour that is chronicled here. Nonetheless, theirs remains an uphill battle—these days, young Cubans prefer reggaeton to headbanging.
We do not glean the Zeus members’ preferences in movies. But as in every other matter of style and taste they seem like metalheads anywhere else, it’s safe to guess they wouldn’t look askance at the prospect of a new horror flick. Of which there are plenty at present, from last weekend’s major theatrical release Candyman—a reboot from Nia DaCosta (Little Woods) that’s gotten some good reviews, but which I found a heavy-handed misfire—to under-radar Death Rider in the House of Vampires. That latter spaghetti western/T&A/fanged-menace goulash is the second directorial feature for none other than punk- turned-metal rocker Glenn Danzig, whose first Verotika was considered by some the Plan 9 From Outer Space of softcore gorehound trash. This one is apparently better… somewhat. Proceed at your own risk.
Other new arrivals in the genre include two on streaming platform Shudder. Filip Jan Rymsza’s Mosquito State is a stylish but pretentious attempt at body-horror as political allegory, too self-important to be fun, its social commentary (a la Candyman) too caricatured to be incisive. Brandon Christensen’s Superhost, which premieres this Thurs/2, could have used a few such aspirations—it’s all too straightforward a slow-boil thriller as one very annoying travel-blogger couple gradually realize their host at a weekend vacation rental is a
homicidal nutcase. Last but not least, Christopher Alender’s Veracruz-set The Old Ways on Netflix is a well- made spin on the demonic-possession/exorcism tropes, if not a particularly original or scary one.