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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: The 'first US rock band to play...

Screen Grabs: The ‘first US rock band to play behind the Iron Curtain’ disappeared. Why?

Plus: Wacko superheroics in French 'Smoking Causes Coughing,' understated reconciliation in 'Acidman'

The topmost-selling albums of 1969 remain a familiar lot: The Who’s Tommy, The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Led Zeppelin’s II, all bands whose popularity remained steady or increased over coming years (even if the Fab Four soon split up). But hot on their heels at #5 was an act whose first peak of success was also their last. Blood, Sweat & Tears had already released a debut disc the prior year, Child Is Father To the Man, which was well-reviewed but not a commercial success. The band members decided what they needed was a different lead singer—a sentiment ill-received by founding singer/primary songwriter Al Kooper, who left.

But the wisdom of hiring Canadian David Clayton-Thomas and his big, bluesy voice as replacement was immediately apparent: The now-nine-piece, jazz-influenced rock “horn band’s” eponymously titled second album, which had a stronger pop tilt than the first, was huge. On and off over the course of ’69, it spent seven weeks at #1, with three smash singles (“You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “And When I Die,” Clayton-Thomas’ own “Spinning Wheel”), the long-player eventually selling an estimated ten million copies. The group played Woodstock—though to their everlasting regret, they did not appear in the movie, refusing to be filmed because (as with several other major acts) they had issues with the festival’s financial management.

That posterity-hampering glitch aside, 1970 looked to be a year of continued triumph for BS&T. As recounted in the new documentary What the Hell Happened to Blood Sweat and Tears?, that kickoff to a new decade instead became the beginning of the end for an act that had looked like an absolute sure thing—their ascendancy crowned not just by whopping sales but an Album of the Year Grammy yoinked from the Beatles themselves.

While this act hardly represented the most rebellious sounds or sentiments heard on the radio then, their appeal nonetheless attracted notice from the government at a time when the Nixon White House was furiously (if fruitlessly) trying to squelch the youth-driven anti-war movement. Someone realized that BS&T were in a vulnerable position: Clayton-Thomas was not just a foreign national, but had a criminal record from his troubled teens some years earlier. An excuse could easily be found to deport him, for all practical purposes killing off a golden goose. Thus “blackmailed,” the somewhat bewildered ensemble found themselves packed on a State Department-sponsored tour as the purported “first American rock band to play behind the Iron Curtain.”

Their reception was mixed: In Yugoslavia, audiences were indifferent at best to sounds that struck them as too alien; Poles, on the other hand, were enthusiastic. But in Romania, then probably the most totalitarian state in the Eastern Bloc, they were received as a “revelation,” exciting concert-goers to a degree the authorities actually found threatening. When the band failed to fully honor a ridiculous list of “conditions” for their second Bucharest show (including “fewer gestures and body movements”), military police panicked, fearing a “riot”—beating attendees, even letting attack dogs loose on the crowd.

Since some of this was caught by the touring group’s own camera personnel, it became a sort of hushed-up international diplomatic incident that heightened tensions between the US and dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. An estimated 65 hours of footage did make it back to the US (some of it smuggled out of host nations), intended for a soft-pedaled government propaganda documentary on music bridging the Cold War divide. Yet half a century later, no one seems to know where that footage is.

Though only guitarist Steve Katz was “political” enough to object to the tour beforehand, all the BS&T members returned rather sobered by their glimpses of Communist bloc countries. That response wasn’t welcomed by anyone back home, and indeed they found themselves blasted from all sides. Some conservatives took great offense at taxpayer money being used to export supposed “acid rock” as America’s representative. 1970 was also probably the peak of US counterculture politicization, so everybody from Rolling Stone to the Yippies piled on the band for selling out to The Man. Their management made that perception worse by booking them at Ceasar’s Palace, another rock-band “first.” In ticket-selling terms, it was a hit. But back then, nothing could have seemed more traitorous to hippie music fans than playing Las Vegas, the vacation capital for moneyed squares.

What the Hell doesn’t go into the group’s later history—which encompassed numerous decreasingly successful albums, with and without Clayton-Thomas—nor does it really do much to contextualize them in the larger music scene. (Producer-label executive Clive Davis is pretty much the only interviewee here outside the band’s immediate circle.) John Scheinfeld’s new documentary rests on a thesis it never really questions: That Blood, Sweat & Tears “really got screwed” by political mechanizations beyond their control, which torpedoed their career. It’s a dramatic but simplistic narrative to impress upon an artistic and industry course that surely was impacted by other factors as well. Growing up in the 1970s, I never even heard about Blood, Sweat & Tear’s supposed “sellout,” and their hits remained airplay staples—even if subsequent chart-toppers of a similar stripe were by a different large rock “horn band,” Chicago.

Still, if this isn’t necessarily the last word on BS&T’s legacy, it’s a fascinating pop-culture (and political) footnote. What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears is playing scattered dates at theaters around the Bay Area, including the Elmwood (Fri/7), Smith Rafael Film Center (Fri/7), and SF’s Balboa (Sat/8 & Fri/14). A list of currently scheduled venues is here.

If audiences of 1970 or ’71 had been able to see the “lost Blood Sweat & Tears documentary” the State Department wound up nixxing (so to speak), they might also have toked up to enjoy a newly arrived feature with a degree of retro “midnight movie” appeal. Probably no current filmmaker has so successfully turned surreal humor into a career bedrock like Paris-born Quentin Dupieux, otherwise known (in his parallel musical career) as Mr. Oizo. His screen output has accelerated as its cult following has grown, though the depressing state of Bay Area arthouse venues means his latest is not actually playing anywhere here. It has, however, just released to On Demand platforms by Magnet Releasing. For both fans and newbies, Smoking Causes Coughing provides good fun.

It’s even more overtly nonsensical in concept than some of his prior efforts, as here our main protagonists are five members of the “Tobacco Force,” brightly lycra-clad “coolest avengers in the world.” These willfully goofy Mighty Morphin Power Ranger types (plus one inevitable cute robot sidekick) are introduced fighting some kind of evil ninja turtle. Dupieux makes it very clear just how silly he finds all “superheroics,” underlining that by using the visual and musical aesthetics of disposable 1960s European espionage and sci-fi cheapies.

This bickering crew is granted some time off from their long-distance boss (who looks like TV’s star puppet Alf), so they repair to a sleek underground lair and entertain one another with scary stories. So much of Smoking consists of smaller absurdist skits within the larger one. The inspirational derpiness only flagged for me in a final segment, one overlong bad-taste gore joke that seems rather ordinary by Dupieux’s usual imaginative standards. Still, the whole is always diverting, and frequently hilarious.

A trailblazer for the original midnight-movie vogue was Alejandro Jodorowky’s 1970 El Topo. Fans of its blood-drenched lysergic hallucination might well have queued up for anything called Acidman, expecting more of the same (which they sort of got with the next year’s Blindman, another hippiefied take on the spaghetti western). But Alex Lehmann’s film is something quite different, a low-key reconciliation drama with streaks of offbeat humor.

The title is actually sprayed by vandals on the side of Lloyd’s (Thomas Haden Church) double-wide home in rural Oregon—local louts, at least, assume he’s some kind of drug-damaged casualty. And as daughter Maggie (Dianna Agron) discovers after traveling two thousand miles to reunite with the father who abandoned her family long ago, he is pretty out-there: A muttering loner prone to aphasia-like moments of mental absence. He’s also convinced that he (and he alone) is communicating via Morse code with the blinking lights of UFOs each night in the Oregon sky. He doesn’t turn away his visiting only daughter. But she gets a very distracted welcome, to say the least, and Lloyd is definitely not the dad most likely to give the sound life advice she’s apparently in need of.

Acidman’s sci-fi angle is just one of several ideas it refuses to capitalize on, instead hewing to a tenor of quiet character-focused seriocomedy that arrives at no melodramatic or even emotional “big finish.” In truth, the gracefully crafted, nicely acted film is almost too restrained—it’s nice but underwhelming, in a way that feels similar to last year’s two-hander Causeway. But its modest rewards are still a lot more than you’ll get from such higher-profile duds as Spinning Gold and Assassin, which also opened last Friday. Like Smoking Causes CoughingAcidman is not playing local theaters, but it is available On Demand (including on AppleTV and Amazon Prime) from Brainstorm Media.

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