Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Catch Us If You Can: An Appraisal of Having a Wild Weekend (1965)

Although The Beatles got all the credit for spearheading the British Invasion into America in 1964, the first rock band to literally tour the United States was The Dave Clark Five. Driven by a heavy sound that Time Magazine compared to an air hammer, The Dave Clark Five sold in excess of 50 million records and appeared a record 12 times on The Ed Sullivan Show. So, given these accomplishments, why didn't they reign supreme? First of all, musically the band was nowhere near as talented as the Fab Four. Their songs ("Glad All Over," "Bits and Pieces") were driven by a pounding Big Beat, but their timbre ultimately grew deeply monotonous. They were also a colourless group, indistinct in comparison to the madcap Beatles. "Sure they were crude and of course they weren't even a bit hip, but in their churning crassness there was a shout of joy and a sense of fun," wrote critic Lester Bangs in appreciation. Given that their greatest appeal was in that spirit of simple fun, it was a huge shock to discover that in their first movie, Having a Wild Weekend (1965), they would end up providing such depth. To borrow film critic Andrew Sarris's comparison: Having a Wild Weekend is to A Hard Day's Night (1964) what Sarris says Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) is to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), an uneven, but emotionally richer experience than the former.

Having a Wild Weekend, which was more aptly titled Catch Us If You Can in the United Kingdom, is a story about the cost of being a tool of mindless commercialism. It's about how one defines success, and whether or not it does bring complete happiness, or even satisfaction. Having a Wild Weekend is not about the alienation of youth (always a popular theme), it's about disenfranchisement. The movie examines the price of utopian dreams, how they are defined, or if they can be sustained if they are ever found. A Hard Day's Night celebrated The Beatles' fame, and it did so with great affection. Having a Wild Weekend asks more unfriendly questions about what fame really has to offer. Directed by John Boorman, his first dramatic feature, and written by playwright Peter Nicols (A Day in the Life of Joe Egg), Having a Wild Weekend took a number of risks that A Hard Day's Night chose to avoid.

The Dave Clark Five
A Hard Day's Night has The Beatles playing themselves in a film that both mythologizes and celebrates their music. In Having a Wild Weekend, The Dave Clark Five don't play themselves. The movie isn't even about how a rock band achieves fortune. The Dave Clark Five are playing stuntmen working on a TV commercial being produced for an advertising company selling meat. Steve (Dave Clark) is a model who is unhappy with his life. He works with Dinah (Barbara Ferris), the "Butcher Girl" in the company billboard ads. One day, they've had enough of the vapid commercialism, of being turned into products of the advertising firm. In an act of desperate rebellion, they impulsively leave London to explore the English countryside. Their valiant hope is to find a better and more meaningful life, while the advertising company spends the movie trying to hunt them down. What they discover on their journey is more people desperately trying to survive their shattered dreams. They first encounter some squatting hippies on Salisbury Plain in a gutted house smoking grass, but the squatters are seeking something harder - heroin. Although it's 1965, the commune members suggest the dissipated and drugged wanderers of the late sixties, those who would become fodder for the crazed visions of Charles Manson.

Yootha Joyce in Having a Wild Weekend
They later meet an unhappily married couple (played with bitter perfection by Yootha Joyce and Robin Bailey) who are collectors of arcane objects that help them cling to the past in their extravagant estate. But their antique goods can't heal the angry emotions that continually tear the couple apart. The thrust of Steve and Dinah's journey, throughout the movie, is to get to an island off the mainland in Devon where they can find sanctuary from the corrupted world around them. But the island is as much a phantom refuge as Moscow was for Chekhov's Three Sisters.

It's not hard to understand why Having a Wild Weekend failed to score with the fans of The Dave Clark Five. (The picture bombed.) Instead of playing off of the band's pop appeal, or celebrate the spirit of liberation in the air, John Boorman speculates about what freedom Steve and Dinah could possibly find outside of their own milieu. In many ways, Having a Wild Weekend was a sober meditation on a period that people wished to define as idyllic. Ironically, while the Dave Clark Five would soon drift into relative obscurity next to The Beatles; by 1966, The Beatles themselves would begin to live out aspects of what was so presciently unveiled in Having a Wild Weekend.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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