The Annotated Charlie Brown Christmas

charlie xmas ad

Gentle snowflakes fall on an idyllic silver-blue landscape. A group of kids weave around each other on a skating pond, all in time to an angelic children’s chorus. “Christmas Time is here,” they sing, a season that speaks to “olden times and ancient rhymes/of love and dreams to share.” Heading down that way is the comic pages’ most famous underdog, already complaining to his forbearing best friend that despite the many pleasant trappings of the holiday season he can only feel depressed, unable to rise to the way he’s “supposed to feel.” Soon after Charlie Brown and Linus make it to the pond and strap on their skates, the former’s dog has them both has both tangled up in the latter’s security blanket, sending Charlie spinning off the ice and into a tree, where the snow that shakes off the branches reveals the name of one the earliest—and still one of the most popular—TV Christmas specials.

The short-lived skate pond Arcadia

Sure, there are many reasons that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” ranks so high in the now impossibly crowded parade of annual Yuletide specials. The already popular characters of the daily funnies were first brought to life for this project—by a spot-on cast of child voice actors—and were never as vibrant as here. The memorable smooth-jazz score of Bay Area piano great Vince Guaraldi is a legend in its own right. And the fact that the amenable inclusion of a Nativity reading from the Gospel of St. Luke (and the concluding “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” chorus) has kept it in the hearts of the more religious-minded. This is all to the good.

But let’s face it—it’s the script’s dogged search for the nature of “what Christmas is all about” inside the maelstrom of an uncaring, chaotic and profiteering universe that will always be the big takeaway here. Sure, the show’s repeated gripe that the season is getting “too commercial” sounds a bit quaint now—fifty years later the problem is so pervasive it would be like protesting that the ocean is too wet. When we’ve reached a point where it seems the entire American economy is underpinned by the retail activity of the last two months on the calendar, with people being known to do grave violence to each other at 4 AM on Black Friday just in order to get a “bargain”, no wonder the show’s free-floating anxiety resonates. We are all Peanuts.

Of Phobias and Five Cent Co-Pays

In this strangely de-populated town of mottled skies—not even one honking adult voice in its 25 minutes—the kids fend for themselves even when it comes to mental health services. Of course, this takes the form of the outdoor psychiatric stand run by the gang’s alpha female. Lucy may only charge five cents but seems well-versed in the jargon of her chosen field, picking up bits and pieces from TV and re-purposing them for a small fee. Charlie Brown miserably takes a seat but his plaintive admission (“I’m in sad shape”) is not met with a hug but with a request to pay in advance, and then waiting while the doctor savors the sound of the nickel rattling around in the can.

Just as modern-feeling as the casual indignities of the health care system, is the rush to label Charlie’s neuroses. Lucy famously runs through a bewildering series of possible phobias: hypengyophobia, “ailurophasia” (actually ailurophobia, the fear of cats), thalassophobia and others, before ending with the one she should have started with—pantophobia (aka panphobia), the fear of everything. Welcome to the 20th century. Lucy, who can transition from bully to confidant without batting an eyelash (OK, maybe with batting an eyelash for effect), admits she gets depressed as well, having to settle for getting “stupid toys” under the tree every year when all she wants is the gift of real estate.

Lucy shrink
Ailurophasia, screamed in vain.

Let’s Just Dance

Lucy’s suggestion that Charlie Brown direct the school Christmas play as a sort of involvement therapy can only go wrong (naturally). A production never to be sullied by adult interference, Charlie’s half-decent attempts to whip the group into shape are constantly interrupted by the Harpo Marx-like antics of Snoopy, casting disputes and general disorder. In a better world, his efforts may even have been appreciated. He deftly attempts to defuse Frieda’s objection that the cloud of dust emanating from her innkeeper-husband Pigpen “is taking the curl out of my naturally-curly hair” by suggesting that that it may have originated in ancient Babylon, thereby enhancing the play’s authenticity. But it’s all for naught. Lucy has merely drawn Charlie out the manageable discontents he finds outside (his “commercial dog” decorating its doghouse in hopes of a cash prize, dictating a letter-to-Santa from his sister, Sally “Tens and Twenties” Brown) and into a group setting where his status as a social outcast can be magnified. (His installation as director is met with cries of “We’re doomed!”). Every time Charlie calls for “Action!” the gang break out into the spontaneous free-form dancing that is a hallmark of this special, where the kids can be kids and forget their status as part-time adult stand-ins.

charlie brown dance

“Isn’t it a great play?” (Research by your diligent blogger has revealed that the three children in the middle (the purple-dress twins and the yellow-shirted boy doing the head-bobbing shuffle) are all siblings from the obscure “95472” family, the girls’ first names being 333 and 444 and their brother’s 555. Their parents apparently were preparing them for the impersonal, data-driven world ahead of them.)

I Suggest We Try Those Searchlights

Nagging dissatisfaction with the play leads Lucy to admit that the whole season is little better than a Mob racket (“It’s run by a big Eastern syndicate, you know,” she whispers conspiratorially) and although Charlie suggests getting a Christmas tree as a countermeasure, that idea instantly evolves to mean an aluminum tree, preferably “painted pink.” Uh-oh. With Lucy’s mean-girl lieutenants (Violet, Patti, Frieda) already primed for the kill, Charlie walks off and, despite Linus’ mild objections, picks the comically scrawny natural tree in a forest of exaggerated metal replicas.

charlie-brown-wooden xmas tree
“Fan-tastic!” Inside the aluminum forest

(Interestingly, the faddish popularity of aluminum trees—esp. those silver ones that came with a rotating color wheel—had already peaked by 1965 and this show proved to be the nail in the coffin. They went out of general production two years later, relegated to novelties).
“This little one seems to need a home,” Charlie suggests, and marches it back to the auditorium where his charitable instinct is lost on everyone in a hailstorm of derision (“Can’t you even tell a good tree from a poor tree?”) save for Linus who seizes the day with his impromptu Gospel reading. He quietly reprimands the kids without once speaking to them and in doing so forever shields the show from the “War on Christmas” numbskulls at Fox News. Well played, my thumb sucking friend.
As in life, however, our protagonist’s redemption is still tempered by life’s tiny indignities. Even after Linus suggests the application of a little TLC that turns this plus-sized twig into a regal fir Lucy is still hedging her bets. “Charlie Brown may be a blockhead, but he did get a nice tree.”

It is strange to think now that so many folks behind the scenes thought that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was going to go down in flames faster than Snoopy’s doghouse after a fight with the Red Baron. CBS execs, and some people who were working on the project (which had a mere six-month production window), thought the combination of the adultish kids, jazz music, modest animation style and the religious element that Charles Schultz insisted on keeping, was a mish-mash that would never work. Instead, it played to half the TV sets in America on its first airing and was heaped with praise by critics the next day. It seemed like only animation team member Ed Levitt could see his clear before the broadcast, insisting to producer Bill Melendez that “This show is going to run for a hundred years.” It’s halfway there now.

Books That Rock, Part One

No one is quite sure who originated the saying “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” though it has been repeated by Martin Mull, Frank Zappa, Steve Martin, Elvis Costello and many others. This has got to be the dumbest epigram ever. First off, it necessarily assumes that music writers are somehow trying to duplicate the ineffable ability of music to enrich our lives. Moreover, it is a prime example of someone willing to miss the point in the quest to make themselves look smarter than others. Considering that the saying is often used by musicians, it may just be they don’t like getting reviewed.

“Critics hate Van Halen and love Elvis Costello because most critics look like Elvis Costello”
-David Lee Roth, circa 1981

But with its limitless supply of colorful characters and tortured geniuses, artistic triumphs and cringe-worthy flops, jet-setting successes and undeserved obscurities, the music world is an endless repository of subject matter that also reflects on history, sociology, race, class, fashion and many other topics. Many authors have written very well about music, thank you very much.
Here is the first half-dozen, mostly taken from my trusty film-and-music bookcase at arm’s length to my desk. Part two will have six more and should arrive in time for any last-minute gift ideas for the music nut in your life. Of course, you can do that by asking at your local independent bookstore or by ordering from that great online retail place that begins with A. That of course would be, where all these titles are available.

Fire and Rain

“Fire and Rain” by David Browne (2011)

Author and Rolling Stone contributing editor David Browne finds the “Lost Story of 1970” by formulating a narrative that explains the end of the momentous Sixties through four iconic rock artists, the albums they released to usher in the Seventies and their personal stories at that time, extending it into the society at large. The end of the Beatles is explored through the bittersweet ”Let it Be” and the fitful start of four solo careers amid lawsuits and a retreat from the crushing weight of superstardom. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” is seen as hymn-like response to social upheaval, “a much-needed respite from one piece of bad news after another.” Similarly, the mellow introspection of James Taylor and the popularity of his breakthrough “Sweet Baby James” is viewed as a reflexive response to revolutionary rancor. The chaotic interpersonal dynamics of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young provides Browne with plenty of choice material for a dissection of the drug-clouded judgments and hedonism of the day. Their “Déjà vu” album released in March featured themes of domesticity that quickly gave way to embittered protest of the “Ohio” single in the wake of that May’s Kent State killings (in one of the book’s many intriguing anecdotes, we find that two future members of Devo were attending school there at the time). This kind of musicology mixed with social history can be a tricky tightrope but Browne stays on the wire with a relevant voice that never gets ponderous.

rocks off

“Rock Off: 50 Tracks that Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones” by Bill Janovitz (2013)

Writer and Buffalo Tom frontman Bill Janovitz, who also penned a book on “Exile on Main St.” for the “33 1/3” series, gets to expand on his appreciation and encyclopedic knowledge of the Stones with this intriguing concept. He explores the half-century career of rock’s defining bad-boy band by devoting one succinct chapter each to 50 different songs and how it relates to both their musical evolution and their life and times. This gives the oft-told tale of Jagger, Richards and Co. a fresh spin. The chronological spin is impressive, taking in both the Mt. Olympus material like “Gimme Shelter” and “Jumping Jack Flash” and some lesser-known gems like Aftermath’s “I am Waiting” and Bridges to Babylon “Saint of Me.”


CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine
Edited by Robert Matheu and Brian J. Bowe (2007)

It was a classic “Merry-Xmas-To-Me” moment when this Creem anthology/coffee-table book turned up at my local late-lamented Borders store several Decembers ago. Ex-Creem photographer Robert Matheu and Brian Bowe, who helped develop the now-moribund Creem online site, compiled articles, interviews, photos, cover art and other quirky features of one of the most celebrated and irreverent music magazines ever published. From its gritty beginnings as a local counterculture rag in Detroit, through its 1970s heyday and on to its demise in 1988, Creem was a genre unto itself: “stripped down, no pretension but plenty of attitude, an urban lyricism and a wicked sense of humor” as says Paul Trynka in the foreword. Much emphasis is placed on the influential groups that Creem championed in the early days—there are multiple entries on the Stooges and MC5 and a prescient Ben Edmonds piece on the New York Dolls from summer ’73: “the main reason the Dolls have been so misunderstood is that they don’t play to any existing audience; it’s an audience that has yet to reveal itself.” Creem was long known as the magazine that gave its writers so much creative latitude that they often became stars in their own right and you’ll find them all here: Lester Bangs of course, as well as Dave DiMartino, Richard Riegel, Billy Altman, Lisa Robinson and the late Rick Johnson, who is represented in a couple of brief pieces, including a recap of his notorious feud with the Runaways. It would have been nice to see more than just a few entries from the famously feisty record-reviews section, where you were implored to buy albums from the Ramones and Sex Pistols while the complacent superstars of the day were pilloried on a set schedule (their take on Queen’s Live Killers? “Makes you feel someone is peeing on your grave.”) Considering that the Creem brand name, which various parties have been trying to revive for years, has been tied up in legal disputes, it’s amazing that a book like this ever got out, so if interested scoop one up while you can.

in the city

“In the City: A Celebration of London Music” by Paul Du Noyer (2010)

Paul Du Noyer is founding editor of the excellent rock-legacy magazine Mojo and although a native of Liverpool, proves himself as good or better than a native Londoner with this exemplary book about the music from and about the U.K.’s capital city. Comprehensive in content but sprightly in tone, Du Noyer’s 280-page history ranges from the broadside balladeers and singing street merchants of Medieval times all the way through to Lilly Allen. Befitting his background, the author does concentrate on the rock icons associated with the city such as the Kinks, the Who, Small Faces, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Blur, the Clash, Paul Weller (and other usual suspects) who are profiled as to how the city influenced their music and vice versa. But popular culture was not invented in 1964 and Du Noyer deftly ties it all in with antecedents like Noel Coward, Gilbert and Sullivan and music-hall star Marie Lloyd. “Popular songs have been the perfect expression of London’s character,” he writes on the very first page and finishes the thought a well-chosen appendix list of 140 London-related songs.


“Sonic Cool: The Life and Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (2002)

Iconoclastic rock scribe Joe S. Harrington wrote for a wide variety of publications (ranging from New York Press to Wired to High Times) before putting down his impassioned and schismatic views in this weighty tome that delineates the “massive cultural movement” called rock ‘n’ roll that is seen to be collapsing under its own weight at the turn of the century. But what a ride it was and Harrington includes most every significant event and sub-genre as well, with trenchant but entertaining analysis coloring chapters like “Elvis Gotta Gun”, “Kill the Business”, “The Revolution” and “Days of Malaise.” This is compulsive page-turning stuff for zealous rock fans already used to the literary stylings of Lester Bangs and Nick Tosches. The fact that the last chapter is called “Post-Everything” will let you know where this is going and though rock ‘n’ roll is not now what it was once, Harrington leaves us pondering the worth of “88 billion pieces of mass-produced plastic” still out in the world even after the controlling forces of big business has seemingly squashed the medium’s original (and occasionally re-occurring) rebellious instincts.

Jeff Airplane

“Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane” by Jeff Tamarkin (2003)

When a famous band has a long history together, it can be ripe material for both a look into the evolving life and times of their days together as well as pump-priming for what are likely to be gossipy interpersonal issues. Well, the Jefferson Airplane story has plenty to offer on both angles and Tamarkin’s enlightening band biography is wonderfully adept at both. It traces the story of San Francisco’s signature acid-rock group through its small-venue early days before the Summer of Love, to its heady heyday as romantic and revolutionary figureheads of the late 60s and its eventual metamorphosis into the more consumer-friendly Jefferson Starship in the 70s and beyond. Suffice to say there are lots of literal highs and lows along the way and Tamarkin also traces some interesting storylines through the book’s arc, like how the band’s lawsuit against its original manager (with whom they signed a contract when they were young and idealistic) carried on into the 1990s as a famous test case. As far as the dirt-dishing, the author can leave a lot of that up to the participants as Grace Slick, Paul Kanter, Marty Balin and most of the rest were interviewed and their colorful comments are sprinkled oral-history style throughout.

Hopefully by summer 2015 I’ll be “dancing about architecture” myself, when my next book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is due to be released.

Dubious Documentaries #8

Devil and DJ

The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig—2006—110 minutes

Early on in this film, when Daniel Johnston is introduced at a 2001 gig as “the best singer-songwriter alive today”, those for whom this praiseful documentary was made will nod their heads while neutral observers may well start scratching theirs. His braying voice and incongruous philosophizing is guaranteed not to be to everyone’s fancy, but still director Jeff Feuerzeig lets stand numerous favorable comparisons that have Johnston right up there with Bob Dylan, the Beatles and even the greatest classical composers.

Johnston is a compulsive and reasonably talented musician, illustrator and audio diarist who is also a deeply troubled man with significant mental health issues that went largely unaddressed while growing up in a religiously conservative household in West Virginia. Soon after he moved to Texas, Johnston was adopted by Austin scenesters and his homemade cassettes became all the rage. Before long he shouldered his way into an MTV special and was befriended and/or championed by members of Sonic Youth, Nirvana and the Butthole Surfers among others. “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” may prove an uncomfortable experience for those not already converted. Johnston’s schizophrenia has led to violent and extremely reckless behavior that have endangered himself as well as friends and families. While his guileless music and lyrics sometimes hit peaks of uncommon grace, there is a nagging notion that people wouldn’t be half so enamored if it weren’t for his mental illness, which for years was dealt with willy-nilly. Feuerzeig doesn’t go anywhere near that issue, leaving his film looking like a vanity tribute to counter-intuitive hipsterdom.

Dubious Documentaries #7


Channel surfing one night, I chanced upon “Beyonce: Life is But a Dream”. My first inclination was to row row row my boat right past it, but since my latest project is a book on music documentaries I figured I must keep up on the very latest even if this is not my cup of tea. It’s not Beyonce’s brand of modern soul-pop that’s a problem for me—it’s entertaining enough even if the big-budget production and iron-grip image control makes me nostalgic for the comparable but more magnanimous talents of Evelyn Champagne King or Jody Watley in her Shalamar days. It’s not even that Ms. Knowles, as the producer, co-writer and co-director, is calling the shots here: the subject as vested partner in rock docs is nothing new and was the same for such films as “Don’t Look Back” and “The Song Remains the Same.”

But I couldn’t help but think that this movie was some sort of defining triumph for the entertainment-industrial complex. Yes, I understand how Beyonce had to overcome her childhood spent in a well-to-do neighborhood to claim her rightful place as a multi-million gazillion ultra-watt superstar. That takes a lot of hard work as well as natural talent. But she should learn to let her success take a day off once in a while. “Life is But a Dream” is stuffed to the gills with redundant and defensive declarations of self-esteem and empowerment, while the in-concert production numbers are choreographed to within an inch of their lives. The surrogate interviewer serves up cupcake questions like “When did you first realize that all you needed was yourself?” Some of her comments are more revealing than they at first appear. My antenna was full up on such observations as “I felt like I had been so commercially successful… it wasn’t enough” and “there’s something really stressful about having to keep up with it.” I guess that means if the public suddenly tired of the high-tech burlesque act she would have to return to the upper middle classes. The horror!

bey concert
After Beyonce pointed out a couple of people who only “kinda” liked her show, security escorted them from the arena to protect them from fans who don’t like “haters”.

It all makes me feel a little like the guy in the SNL sketch who was roundly chastised by his friends because he only moderately liked Beyonce’s latest single. Although I don’t think it would jibe with her actual politics, her success is the show-biz equivalent of Republican Party worship of the 1% “job creators” with any opposition cheaply written off as “jealously” or the work of “haters.” The pop music business has been gutted of its middle class or at least it feels that way. All that’s left is the semi-required worship of designated A-listers like Beyonce because that’s the American way. Aspiring singers who want a piece of the action can enjoy toiling in obscurity or maybe getting an assumed big break on something like “American Idol” or “The Voice” and be handpicked by other celebrities sitting in judgment. Otherwise, there’s no more room at the top.

(Interestingly, the unquestioning veneration of musical artists can be just as rigid on the opposite end of the pop’s socio-economic ladder. More on that in the next installment of Dubious Docs).

My next book, “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” will be published in 2015

Dubious Documentaries #6

visitors 2

Directed by Godfrey Reggio—2013—87 minutes

Any of you who have read my book “Documentary 101” (don’t all speak up at once!) will know the conflicted feelings I have for director Godfrey Reggio and his “guided meditation” films. He first made his name back in 1982 with cult favorite “Koyaanisqatsi.” Right from the start, all the genre elements were in place: awe-inspiring large format cinematography, trippy special FX and hypnotic Philip Glass music. All were in the service of an un-narrated parade if images keyed into themes of nature, travelogue, ecology and implicit criticism of our rampant technological age.

It was a stunningly beautiful and dynamic film, but clearly wanted to be more than just eye candy for the stoned midnite-movie mavens. Reggio, whose background is in philosophy and social activism, was clearly in thrall of pre-Colombian landscapes and the wisdom of indigenous populations (Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance”). Everyday people, on the other hand, are depicted as either rats in a maze or sardines in can, in repeated sped-up scenes of rush-hour train stations or clogged-up freeways. A non-verbal experience like the one Reggio was offering lets viewers provide their own context and what I saw as a blame-the-people tendency got acutely annoying for me when it was repeated in the sequels, “Powaqqatsi” (1998) and “Naqoyqatsi” (2002). The powers-that-be that play a major role in the environmental havoc that the director clearly abhors remain behind the closed doors of boardrooms and presidential palaces.

visitors 3
Who are you calling “dubious”??

To his credit, Reggio has switched gears for 2013’s “Visitors”, now available on DVD. Known in his earlier works for triple-time shots, here the pace has been slowed down to a crawl. The entire film, shot in B&W using pristine 4K ultra hi-def format, consists of only 74 shots lasting an average of 70 seconds each. It opens with an enigmatic stare down with a lowland gorilla (a highlight) before the staring contests continue with a diverse succession of humans. These are thankfully interspersed with richly pictorial (but static) scenes of mysterious abandoned buildings, a primordial bayou, a closed post-Katrina amusement park in Louisiana, etc.

vistors 4

Reggio has said that to be forced to gaze upon the supposedly familiar form of the human face until it becomes unfamiliar is a path to really seeing it for the first time. Maybe, but the best way to get to know people via cinematic means will always be through a strong narrative. “Visitors” was a film I found alternately enthralling and enervating, a bit of a seat-squirmer in theaters but one that may be helped on DVD by judicious use of the “next chapter” button on your remote. Honestly, this would have worked better as a multi-screen video installation in a contemporary art museum, or even as a coffee table book of stills.

My book “Documentary 101″ is now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

Dubious Documentaries #5


For better and worse, there is little that you can’t see nowadays online or on the hundreds of cable outlets that provide us with a ceaseless tsunami of content. But back in the pre-Interweb days of 1962, when content on the handful of TV stations available was tightly controlled, a spicy but nominally respectable documentary like “Mondo Cane” (A Dog’s World”) could become a big hit. Which it did. Using a deft combination of National Geographic nudity, remedial anthropology and bargain-basement shock tactics, this Italian production did boffo box office in many countries, including the U.S. and Canada, and spawned not only a sequel but a whole genre of sensationalist pseudo-docs called “mondo films.”

Pellicole simili che sconvolsero il mondo!

Sex and mortality are two recurring themes and the fact that many scenes seem staged or too subjectively edited to pass as real reportage didn’t seem to matter much back then, and probably wouldn’t scare away many pop culture connoisseurs today. Without much rhyme or reason, but with a certain devilish flair, “Mondo Cane” flits from topless manhunting in New Guinea, to dogmeat restaurants in Taipei, to drunken follies in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, to naval port temptresses, to cargo cults and various victimized animals without pausing to catch its breath or consult its ethical bearings.

Each segment is approached with a consistent combination of index-card research and casual titillation (with special emphasis on the first syllable of that last word). Even when the subject matter is less than enthralling, the producers work up a little a little purple prose for good measure as with this quip to go along with some footage of a Pasadena pet cemetery—“This place is so pathetic even we could shed a tear for these little tombs of illustrious creatures.” Ouch!
For me, “Mondo Cane’s” undeniable value as a cult classic curiosity was undercut by the constant snarky narration and Lawrence Welk-style soundtrack. But even if this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, at least get the two and a half minute re-cap as seen below in the film’s inimitable trailer.

My book “Documentary 101″ is now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

Coney Island: Dreams for Sale


The smiles inspired by simple pleasures are under threat in “Coney Island: Dreams for Sale” seen this last weekend at the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival. Director Alessandra Giordano has made an appealing and incisive film about the more recent struggles concerning the ultimate fate of America’s archetypal oceanside amusement district. The area has had more downs than ups over the last 50 years or so and now faces the final knockout punch from rampant real estate speculation and bureaucratic bait-and-switch from the New York City government. Giordano focuses on the colorful entrepreneurs that make up a lot of the small boardwalk businesses that have kept Coney Island going through its various rough patches, whether they are old school (like Anthony the Cigar Man) or artsy newcomers like Dianna Carlin (aka Lola Star).

Photo by Jason Sferlazza

They do battle against various powerful forces reared up against them: a greedy capitalist on a charm offensive, tactical demolition, rent spikes, superstorm Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg in a bad mood, etc. Helped along by neighborhood protests and new interest in the area by the emerging twee subculture, some significant slice of this “working man’s paradise” may yet be saved and “Dreams for Sale” does a great job at framing this David vs. Goliath showdown.

In Celebration of Non-Fiction Filmmakers
Speaking of underdog comparisons, an intimate event like the Newburyport Film Fest, really lets attendees get to know the community of documentary filmmakers through receptions, Q&A and panel discussions. Most are working in semi-anonymity, on long-evolving and labor-intensive projects that usually cannot be financed on any pretense of returning a profit—even if it eventually does. They do it all to expose an injustice, reveal lesser-known but important topical issues, or to reveal ennobling personal stories that make us all want to be better people. These qualities, which seem to swim against the tide of so much of modern society, are ones that I tried to champion in my book “Documentary 101″ and is a feeling re-enforced each time I attend an event like this.

Review and B&W photo of Coney Island’s Astroland by Rick Ouellette

The Newburyport Documentary Film Fest is this weekend

Newb doc

Those of you from Massachusetts (or the lower reaches of New Hampshire and Maine) who share my love of non-fiction film should definitely try and make it to the annual Newburyport Documentary Film Festival being held in downtown Newburyport, Mass. from Sept. 19-21. See below for the link to their official website and schedule:

This is a modest (two-venue) happening but intimacy is a big part of the festival’s appeal. There are free panel discussions and coffee times with many of the filmmakers and it’s a great place for those producing documentary shorts: this year there are three different one-hour blocks of short subjects.

Moreover, Newburyport, if you’ve never been, is a great place to spend a day, a city that blends hipness and old New England charm. Check it out if you get a chance.

And if you can’t make because of time or geography, please have a look at their schedule to maybe find out about some great docs to see later at your convenience.

Pearls of Irregular Shape


Review by Rick Ouellette

Daniel Jamous’ first film, “Pearls of Irregular Shape,” should be an inspiration and a model for local cultural councils everywhere for the way it gracefully shows the enriching effect of the arts in community life. This 55-minute documentary follows seven projects funded in 2011 by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in the town of Brookline where Jamous resides. He alternates between the seven during the hour, often showing the progress of the project throughout the year.

Collaboration and inclusiveness are the key elements. A new mural and garden for the Lawrence School involves the participation of all the students. The Coolidge Corner Community Chorus has a welcoming “no audition” policy. Dance Caliente brings social dancing (and a bit of its history) to a senior center while the Roland Hayes Project takes a similar tack, taking its young adult singers beyond music education by involving them in the story of Hayes, the barrier-breaking African-American lyric tenor who came to live and perform in the Boston area. Other projects include oil painting, electronic music and outdoor environmental sculpture. At a time when operating budgets are stressed at every level of government, a work like “Pearls of Irregular Shape” stands as a great example of how diverse arts funding can have a positive and lasting role in civic life.

See more at:

Rick Ouellette is the author of Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film
More info and excerpt at

Transistor Heaven: The Secret History of a Top 30 Countdown, 1971


At 13 years old, you’re old enough to leave the house and mess about on your own, but not quite old enough for a real summer job once school vacation rolled around. Back in 1971, a paper route or mowing the odd lawn would be enough to keep you in cream sodas and 45s for the time being. It was the type of singles below that would infatuate us later baby boomers either on our record players or over the humid airwaves on stations like the old WMEX 1510 AM, whose playlists I once collected and managed never to lose. With the transistor radio pressed to the left ear with one hand, while the other flung copies of the old Boston Evening Globe at suburban ranch houses, here is how it went down 43 years ago today—a typically great countdown of the post-Woodstock, pre-disco age.

“Maggie May” Rod Stewart. Rod the Mod’s breakout solo hit dominated the local charts that whole summer, as did the album as a whole. Maybe us young’uns were in awe of a singer who would happen to know a seducing older woman who would actually “wreck the bed.” But by late August, the inevitable backlash set in, with some WMEX DJs grousing about its overexposure. But it was nothing like the backlash from his old rock fans when he dropped “Do You Think I’m Sexy” some seven years later. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” The Who. Another classic that hasn’t left the radio since its ’71 debut. But here you’d be listening to the lean-and-mean single version, which clocked in at 3:37, a full five minutes shorter than what was on Who’s Next. This edit, which blows by like a bullet train, pre-figures punk rock and was matched with a great B-side as well (“I Don’t Even Know Myself”). “Color My World” Chicago. With its drowsy six-note piano motif and Hallmark lyrics, this song was the inevitable slow dance choice at school cafeteria mixers. Awkward! It was also an early indicator that Chicago as a band would soon go from cool to clueless. “Signs” Five Man Electrical Band. The Sixties may have ended but that didn’t mean we had to stop getting up in the grill of The Man, as this Ottawa quintet so righteously proved. C’mon, all together, “If God were here he’d tell it to your face/Man, you’re some kind of sinner!” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” Joan Baez. Like a surprise cavalry attack, Joan’s dilettante version of the Band’s masterful Civil War drama charged into the Top 5 before anyone could react in time. As Janet Maslin (then a Rolling Stone record reviewer) pointed out, the original Robbie Robertson lyrics were printed right inside her own album jacket, making inexcusable such gaffes as singing “so much cavalry” instead of “Stoneman’s cavalry” and declaring “there goes the Robert E. Lee” as if the narrator were watching a riverboat and not the legendary Confederate general in the flesh. “Smiling Faces Sometimes” Undisputed Truth. Blue-chip advice on dealing with frenemies from this R&B vocal trio from the Motor City. Hear them out; they’re “only trying to school ya.”

“Reason to Believe” Rod Stewart. Back to the Summer of Rod. His pensive take on the great Tim Hardin ballad was originally the A side but Maggie was not to “B” denied. “So Far Away” Carole King. It was also the Summer of Carole, who assured us that the age of the woman singer-songwriter had well and truly arrived with the blockbuster Tapestry album. “So Far Away” and “I Feel the Earth Move” (at #8 and #11) followed up “It’s Too Late” which had been #1 nationally for five weeks that spring. “Ain’t Got Time Anymore” Glass Bottle. One-hit wonders who harkened back to the AM pop style of the later 60s. “Ain’t No Sunshine” Bill Withers. Two “ain’t” songs in a row? What would your 7th grade English teacher think? Withers’ brooding acoustic-soul classic made the biggest leap up the chart this week. “Deep Blue” George Harrison. The flip side to the “Bangla Desh” single made it much higher in the survey, helped no doubt by WMEX’s quirky methodology.

“If Not for You” Olivia Newton-John. If not for this limp Dylan cover, the Top 30 would be a much better place. “Beginnings” Chicago. A damn sight better than “Color My World” though it was a bit odd that Columbia Records was going back to the first album for hits even though Chicago III was already in the stores. “I’d Love to Change the World” Ten Years After. The only hit single by Britain’s blues-rock titans, who had wowed the hippie hordes at Wodstock exactly two years earlier. “Rain Dance” Guess Who. Eccentric later hit by Burton Cummings and Co. and much appreciated by future hipster kids in our subdivision. “Story in Your Eyes” the Moody Blues. Gateway prog for the same group as above. “Stop, Look, Listen” Stylistics. The first of many elegant U.S. Top 40 hits for one of the premier Philly Soul groups. “One Fine Morning” Lighthouse. Kick-ass Canadian brass rock which also featured some blazing lead guitar, which you could hear in full if you caught it on an FM station, something we were catching wind of by then.

“I Just Wanna Celebrate” Rare Earth. The first successful white band to record for Motown (who named a label imprint after them) and this song, famous for its count-off and thunderous beat, had a refrain that made it popular in commercials and soundtracks ever since. “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” the Bee Gees. After three months on the survey, plenty of us were tired of hearing Robin Gibb’s tremulous rhetorical question, but it wasn’t going without a fight, barely getting pushed out of the top 20 this week. “Sweet City Woman” the Stampeders. Those Canadians keep right on coming. It’s Instant Summer once you hear that triple-time banjo strum, cowbell and lyrics filled with romantic anticipation—the biggest hit for the Calgary-based trio. “Baba O’Riley” the Who. If the ‘MEX staff wanted a great album track on the countdown then on it went, though I wondered how a song that was debuting at #23 could have been on the charts for five weeks. “All Day Music” War. The first post-Eric Burdon hit for the multi-ethnic Long Beach band, and one of several associated with the warmest of seasons.

“Friends of Mine” McGuiness Flint. These appealing and unassuming folk-rockers probably couldn’t get played nowadays unless they owned a radio station. For shame. “Ride a White Swan” T. Rex. If you listened to the New Music Authority on 1510AM you wouldn’t have to wait around for “Bang a Gong” to get hip to Marc Bolan and his elfin ways. Of course, the first of many HUGE hits for him in the U.K. “Sooner or Later” the Grass Roots. One of the latter-day smashes for these AM pop princes. I’m pretty sure Creedy had left the band by then. “Go Away Little Girl” Donny Osmond. You know, I always thought that this ditty should have had an answer song from the fairer sex. There would be a mid-song spoken word part where the girl would say “Why don’t you go away first, Donny, and we’ll call it even.” “Wedding Song” Paul Stookey. Wow, two clunkers in a row. I said it was a great Top 30, not a perfect one. “Imagine” John Lennon. This actually didn’t become a hit until the fall and an international anthem after that. But that didn’t stop the new Music guys, though the progressive AM business model would not hold and as we young teens grew up and it was quickly onto WBCN and other FM rock outlets, including college radio in the 80s and beyond.


Well, I’m not sure what, if anything, happened to Lodi—though album-oriented groups like Yes were quickly migrated to the FM band. Speaking of albums, this top 15 list (with a few exceptions) is like a veritable Mt. Rushmore of classic rock LPs. But those aged 11 or under at the time get a pass if the first of these you owned was Sound Magazine.