Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Neglected Gem: American Hot Wax (1978)

Tim McIntire (seated) in American Hot Wax (1978).

Aloha Bobby and Rose, about the doomed romance of a pair of Angelenos, a car mechanic and a young single mom – an earthbound beauty who might have stepped right out of a Bruce Springsteen ballad – slipped in and out of theatres in 1975 without attracting much notice.  But the writer-director, Floyd Mutrux, turning out only his second picture, is immensely talented. He shows an unerring instinct for the 1970s working-class milieu; the two lovers, on the run as a result of a convenience-store prank that goes disastrously wrong, are dreamers whose pragmatism, the bitter consequence of living in a world where the odds are always against you, keeps souring their reverie. The two actors – Paul Le Mat, riding a brief period of stardom after he walked away with George Lucas’s American Graffiti, and Dianne Hull, who went on to become a highly respected Hollywood acting coach – give offbeat, subtle, mood-inflected performances that should have become classics. And Mutrux stays on their wavelength, framing scene after scene to showcase the way their faces and bodies convey the quicksilver shift in their emotions. The soundtrack is heavy on early Elton John, and songs like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Tiny Dancer,” with their starstruck visions of rock ‘n’ roll glory, seem mysteriously, unexpectedly appropriate for Rose and Bobby’s road trip, which breaks our hearts because we want so badly for it to take them out of their lives and we know those lives are going to catch up to them by the final reel. And Mutrux and DP William A. Fraker’s soft-focus SoCal images of service stations and bus stops, bars and motels and endless freeways, are strangely magical. There’s a car-crash sequence that doesn’t look like any car crash you’ve ever seen in a movie; watching the picture again recently, I thought of the auto accident that opens Carroll Ballard’s 1996 Fly Away Home, which shares that distinction.

Halfway through the movie, Bobby and Rose run into a generous, garrulous Texas football player and his wife, played by Tim McIntire and Leigh French, who take them out for a meal. Tall, broad McIntire eats up the screen and brings a jolt of comic energy to their scenes that’s like a bonus prize;  when he and French opt to drive home and his outsize presence fades out of the movie, we know the end of the road trip is in sight. Mutrux had the good sense to cast McIntire as the lead in his next movie, American Hot Wax, which is the story of legendary DJ Alan Freed, who brought rock ‘n’ roll into the mainstream, of his attempt to stage a big rock show in New York City in 1959 and the D.A.’s office’s efforts – with the help of the cops and the IRS – to shut it down. American Hot Wax isn’t a conventional music bio, like The Buddy Holly Story with Gary Busey, which came out the same year, satisfying in its way as that movie is. Working from a goofy, raucous screenplay by the gifted John Kaye, who had written the movie Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins three years earlier and went on to turn out a pair of overlapping Hollywood novels, Stars Screaming and The Dead Circus, Mutrux made a screwball musical comedy that’s as unhinged and hilarious as a Paramount musical revue from the thirties with Bing Crosby and Burns and Allen and W.C. Fields. Wildly overpopulated with kids who are dying to make their mark in rock ‘n’ roll or just want to continue being turned on by it – Freed’s improvised entourage, whom he invites along to recording studios and even to a meeting with a realtor from whom he wants to buy a big house he can throw parties in – the movie is deliriously enjoyable and sometimes surprisingly touching. It’s a fruitcake with a rock ‘n roll soul.

A few minutes in Mutrux sets the tone with a montage that tracks a cross-section of the people Freed’s radio show reaches out to. The station receptionist, Sheryl (Fran Drescher in her glory, in the days before The Nanny froze her Brooklynese into shtick), alternately keeps fans and hopefuls away from the control room while Alan’s on the air and trades banter with his driver, Mookie (Jay Leno). (He tells her dirty jokes and she screeches at him for dressing like a schlump and concludes, “You know, people would like you a lot better if you didn’t talk.” It’s their version of flirting.) A talented black doo-wop quartet harmonizes outside on the street corner. One of Alan’s most avid listeners, Louise, a teenage songwriter (standing in for Carole King and played by a sensational Laraine Newman), makes a connection with the quartet; she teaches them her latest song. She’s at odds with her parents, who want her to go to college (and who get nervous when she brings her new African American friends home to rehearse); so is Artie (the irresistible Moosie Drier), who, at maybe fifteen, is the president of the Buddy Holly fan club. (He cuts school to celebrate his idol’s birthday.) Artie lies on his bed smoking and reading Mad while he listens to Freed’s show; when his dad pops his head in, Artie hides the ashtray and thrusts a schoolbook in front of the magazine.

Fraker shot this film, too, and even in the print on YouTube the neon-lit warmth of its crowded group scenes comes through; they suggest the Grimm Brothers’ “The Golden Goose” as a non-stop party, with Alan’s hangers-on clinging to him out of love of music rather than greed. (You won’t find the movie on DVD, because Paramount found the cost of buying the rights for all those hit songs prohibitive.) Kaye has written some of the funniest overlapping dialogue since His Girl Friday; in his evocative chapter on these two Mutrux movies in his marvelous book Opening Wednesday at a Theater of Drive-In Near You, Charles Taylor suggests that “this is what Robert Altman might have done if he’d made drive-in movies.” Despite the tireless attempts to close down Freed’s show (the movie’s targets, naturally, are those old enemies of rock ‘n’ roll, racism and Eisenhower-era Puritanism) the mood is upbeat, even though those of us who know what happened to Freed – his career wrecked by the payola scandal, he died a drunk at forty-three – can see the writing on the wall. McIntire, giving a very different performance here than in Aloha, Bobby and Rose, never loses his undercurrent of mournfulness, as generous as Alan is with his fans and performers (He buys coffee and doughnuts for the kids standing at the box office all night for tickets; he lets Louise persuade him to put the quartet, The Chesterfields, into the show – and of course, as Thelma Ritter puts it in All About Eve, they kill the people.) McIntire plays Freed as a kind, people-loving man who knows he was born into the right era and has found his role in life and enjoys it to the hilt. He doesn’t just introduce the artists at the show; he joins one at the piano, he dance-escorts another off stage, he joins in the choruses. But he’s wise enough to know that, for him at least, it can’t last forever. (The music will, he’s certain, and that’s what the songs keep telling us: “I don’t care what people say / Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay.”)

The music pours insistently out of the soundtrack, and it’s fabulous: “Little Darlin’,” “It’s All in the Game,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Stay.” Though they’re not given the names of the real recording artists – except for Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Frankie Ford, who show up, triumphantly, as themselves – aficionados of the period (or those of us who remember it) recognize The Dell-Vikings, Patience & Prudence, The Fleetwoods. (The casting of the male vocalist in The Fleetwoods, who practice their ineffable hit “Mr. Blue” in the wings, doesn’t hit it, but is there anyone out there who could supply the melancholy-angel quality of Gary Troxel?)

The D.A. subplot is hokey, but it also happens to be accurate. And since the movie is a musical comedy, its narrative right in the line of the Depression-era Busby Berkeley backstage musicals and the slightly later Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney let’s-put-on-a-show vaudevillian musicals, Mutrux and Kaye can get away with moments of melodrama. And then they transcend them: the scene where Louise weeps backstage after the show because she just can’t believe the audience cheered when The Chesterfields sang her song and especially the one where Artie, whom Alan invites on the air to pay tribute to Buddy Holly, talks about how he felt when he read the news that his hero had died in a plane crash affect us in ways we wouldn’t have guessed at. Mutrux is working in the margins here, just as he did in Aloha, Bobby and Rose, and both times out the margins turn out to be bursting with life.             

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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