Text © Robert
Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2022
Film screenshots from the Internet
There are lots of stories surrounding the making of this important, yet Grade C level film. One of my favorites – and I am not positing it is true or not – that the director, Ulli Lommel (d. 2017), was so envious of the love scenes between stars Richard Hell and Carole Bouquet, that he wrote himself into the plot so he could possibly have his own chance with her. This jealousy also took a simple story and flushed it down the toilet as far as plotline quality goes. Well, to be honest, I have not seen the film since around the time it came out and saw it at some art house in New York City, so this will honestly be like watching it for the first time.
a brief prologue, we get smacked in the face with the title song, one of my all-time favorites (it’s the Voidoids version, not the original Ork release).
The sound is crisp and clear, but we only get to hear the first two stanzas,
and it fades out after Hell tells Bob Quine to “take it.”
Richard Hell plays up-and-coming punk singer Billy. Musically, it’s Hell pure and simple, no matter what name they give him. He’s vying for a record contract and while in the recording studio (singing “New Pleasure”). It is there he meets French video journalist Nada (Bouquet), and sparks fly while we get to hear the complete song. Yay. This leads of a volatile, almost schizophrenically up and down relationship between the two.
Billy is quite cynical about the music biz and is trying to figure out his role either in or out of it, while his long-suffering manager with a thick NYC accent, Jack (Howard Grant), is trying to guide his career, though the question is whether it is for Billy or his own financial stake that he is there.
At some point, German journalist Hoffritz (Lommel) enters the picture as Bouquet’s former lover who has shown up looking for Andy Warhol (d. 1987), who makes a cameo in the film. This sets up a dynamic of a “who will she choose?” scenario: the rock star who wants nothing more to do with music (with no reference on what he would do instead) or the cynical journalist who is obsessed with Warhol. While Nana is hooking up with Hoffritz, Billy is with Lizzy (Suzanna Love), another filmmaker. One minute it’s Billy and Nada, then it’s not, then it is, then it’s …
Whatever the weaknesses in the storyline and especially the dialogue, which often borders on the ridiculous (the “beach” conversation in the car is a perfect example), this film is a must-see just for the visuals of the gritty New York City of the late 1970s, including under the West Side Drive, on a rooftop with the iconic water towers, and especially the scenes in CBGB, which are both a joy and heartbreaking. [As they scanned the tables, I realized that I have sat at just about every table there; small digression that has nuthin’ to do with nuthin’: I was in the hospital having a procedure, and as the doc was getting ready to give me a huge needle, he said, “think of a happy place, like a beach or a mountain.” My mind went immediately to sitting at a table at CBGB waiting for the band to start…] It was also fun to see the backstage (a room I have been in numerous times) which highlights some graffiti of The Senders. Meanwhile, the Voidoids (Hell, bass/vox, Quine on guitar, Ivan Julian on guitar, and Mark Bell – the future Marky Ramone – on drums) get to show off live on CBGB’s stage. Warms the cockles of my heart. Amusingly, perhaps, there is a scene shot at CB’s of Nada interviewing a bunch of club denizens (I am assuming they are real rather than actors), reminiscent of the early Amos Poe film, The Blank Generation, reviewed below.
|Ulli Lommel, Andy Warhol
Bouquet is quite beautiful, and Hell is in his prime (1977 Big Star magazine interview with Hell from 1977 HERE), (with his original teeth and all). What he lacks in acting talent, he makes up for in enthusiasm and making some amazing music that helped spark the whole British punk movement when Malcolm McLaren (d. 2010) infamously ripped him off from sound to fashion.
Most clips I have seen of the film over the years have been taken from VHS copies, and were highly grainy (as VHS tends to be), but this Blu-ray is crisp, as it is a 2K scan taken from the only remaining 35mm print! That only one survives is something I am both grateful for, and indignant about its lack of care of the rest of the prints. That being said, for a Blu-ray release, there are zero extras on this, but I don’t care because the main meat of the matter, the film itself, is the rightful focus.
Speaking of technology, it is fun to see the state of art mechanics of the time, such as video recorder cameras that are separate from the tape deck, dial phones, old cars, and the such.
The biggest problem with the film is that it is inconsistent to its own theme, jumping back and forth between stories with gaps in-between that make the viewer feel a bit shell shocked and while it’s not confusing, it really doesn’t make much sense. I was more interested in the Billy/Nada relationship, and the adding of Hoffritz just feels superlative. If the film could have focused on just the couple, with their ups and downs, it would have been much more interesting. Though the live music helps, even though there is excessive use of the title cut throughout, and there is obvious reuse of some shots such as Billy coming up from the CBGB bathrooms, and of the Voidoids on stage (shown at least three times). I understand why this film has a rep for being a muddled mess, because on one hand it is just that, but if you were there at the time, or if you wanted to know what it was like, this is more an important time binding document than story.
According to IMDB, Lommel still presently has projects in works, both as director and actor, 5 years after he has died; his other big success might arguably have been The Boogyman, a film he directed that came out the same year as this release. His later works seemed to rely on stories of real serial killers.
IMDB listing HERE
This film documents, what it calls, the birth of punk rock in New York during the early 1974-75 CBGB (mostly here; closed 2006 and is now a clothing store) and Max’s Kansas City (closed 1981 and is now a deli), with some shots from other venues such as the Bottom Line (closed in 2004, and is now a student’s residence for New York University). But in some ways, it overlaps with its own midwife, but more on that later.
The film is jumpily shot by Patti Smith Group guitarist Ivan Kral on silent 16mm, and is then audibly superimposed by the sounds of the band’s recordings, either legitimate releases, demos, or live cassettes.
The premiere of the film was held in CBGB, when the stage was still on the left side, so needless to say in all the CBGB footage in the documentary, that is where the infamously (and hotly debated) Television-built stage was located. It is nice to see the huge photos sans stickers and band graffiti that would eventually cover them up in the 1980s and ‘90s. The band that played the night of the opening was the Heartbreakers, with Richard Hell still a member. I saw the Heartbreakers so many times on stage, but that was the only time with the Hell line-up, before Billy Rath replaced Hell on bass), and Johnny Thunders and Walter Lure moved to the front permanently out of Meyer’s shadow.
|The Patti Smith Group
The film is broken up, essentially though not officially, into three chapters. The first one is the “birthers of punk,” for lack of a better term, starting with The Patti Smith Group performing in various venues (as is true with most of the bands) to the soundtrack of “Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)” off the Horses album, followed by a live version of “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together.” It would make sense to start off with her group since they were considered the first “punk” band to be recorded…though I do wonder who filmed the footage since not only was Kral in the band, but there are shots of him playing. Anyway…
Other major bands flow into each other visually, with the songs starting abruptly. That’s no issue at all, though I thought it would be good to have some kind of crawl that said which band was which, rather than just waiting until the end credits. But that’s punk, do what’s unexpected, right? Patti flows into Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel (Parts I and II)” (with a shot of Terry Ork for good measure, who released the single on his own Ork Records), and then to theRamones playing over only live recordings as their seminal eponymous album had not yet been released. It was interesting to hear them doing a song that would show up on their second album. Then there are the likes of Talking Heads.
The second section is the next level of bands, or first-level Max’s groups, such as the trendsetting Wayne County, The Miamis, Harry Toledo, the Marbles (one of my favorites back then, doing almost a music video), the Shirts, and Tuff Darts (with Robert Gordon).
The third is an odd mix of non-venue related footage (though the music concept stays the same) of bands such as backstage. There is also the post-Thunders/Jerry Nolan New York Dolls that focuses only on David Johansen while “Funky But Chic” plays, and there is the Hell version of the Heartbreakers to end it with the title song. The Dolls were kind of the midwife to the New York punk scene, and the Hell version of the Heartbreakers almost the transition into the now more infamous version of the band.
I’m proud to say I have seen all of these bands perform live save two (Miamis and Tuff Darts, though I did interview the founder and lead guitarist, Jeff Salen). When I first saw the film at its premiere, I was a bit flustered by the dissonance between the footage and the sound, but over the years, I have come to admire it. Many of the songs are not shown all the way through (cut short or edited), but it just means more songs. The film is a treasure.
IMDB listing HERE