Monday, March 8, 2010


Frederic Goode's Pop Gear (1965), or Go Go Mania! as the film masqueraded stateside, is one of those now-obscure music revues which were relatively common for their time. The picture was briefly available through Optimum Home Entertainment in the U.K. as a Region 2 DVD, which, I fear, does me absolutely no good because I lack the appropriate player. Fortunately, American Movie Classics--before that channel went totally into the toilet with commercial interruptions and censorship--aired, ad-free, the complete picture in 2000 during their Independence Day Rockstock festival, and I thank the gods I recorded it. Some of the acts remain more esoteric and less gripping than others, but the elegant simplicity of the lip-synched performances, as photographed in lustrous widescreen by Geoffrey Unsworth (who also lensed Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]) never fails to delight me. This forty-five-year-old time capsule deserves a U.S. release ASAP.

Pop Gear's big draw in its day was, of course, the Beatles, whose live renditions in Manchester of "She Loves You" and "Twist and Shout" bookend, along with their hysterical female followers, the film; indeed, this was the first movie in which the Fab Four appeared in color. The performers are, alas, introduced by Jimmy (now Sir James) Savile, the annoying deejay and host of Jim'll Fix It fame whose cretinous coiffure--a wig, one hopes--and goofball theatrics make for stressful viewing, indeed. Mercifully, his appearances are relatively brief, allowing us to enjoy the tunes without too much trauma.

Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas are first out of the gate, performing their chart-topping "Little Children" against giant alphabet blocks. Susan Maughan follows with "Make Him Mine," then the Four Pennies with "Juliette" (they later return with the grim folk piece, "Black Girl"), but things really hum with the Animals' masterful "House of the Rising Sun." (This segment occasionally appears as a stand-alone video on VH1 Classic, so watch for it.) Eric Burdon's magnetism is tremendous both here and in their other number, "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," and one wonders where filmwork with Richard Lester or John Boorman might have led these gritty Newcastle lads. (They also memorably covered the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" in D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop [1968]).

The Fourmost are next with "A Little Loving," which they render against a striped water-wheel. The Rockin' Berries' (named in hommage to American wildman Chuck) "He's in Town" features gorgeous falsetto vocals and particularly good drumming, as does their subsequent "What in the World's Come Over You." The Honeycombs--with a woman, Honey Lantree, banging the traps--vigorously run through "Have I the Right" and "Eyes." The instrumental Sounds Incorporated make some noise with "Rinky Dink" and a revved-up "William Tell." Peter and Gordon lament "A World Without Love," while Matt Munro--the British Sinatra, for all intents and purposes--delivers the haunting "Walk Away." Munro, best known for crooning "From Russia With Love," is certainly the odd man out here, but his suave, seductive baritone is welcome nonetheless. He returns with "For Mama," and closes out the studio portion of Pop Gear with the picture's perky theme.

Herman's Hermits hamper the proceedings with the woefully-mistitled "I'm Into Something Good," but make no mistake: Tommy Quickly and the Remo Four's grating "Humpty Dumpty" is by far the worst of these songs, and may have you reaching, a la the Hillbilly Cat, for your revolver; really, it's nothing more than nursery rhymes indifferently strung together. Billie Davis' "Whatcha Gonna Do"--mimed in what appears to be an art gallery--is much better, and the Spencer Davis Group's "My Babe" is mesmerizing rhythm and blues, with guitarist Stevie Winwood's soulful shouting and tasty riffing--he was such an amazing musician that it's tragic his solo work would become bland as beans. The Nashville Teens contribute not-unlistenable ersatz country with "Tobacco Road' and "Google Eye," and the picture is padded with two John and Joan Shakespeare-composed dance pieces reminiscent of NBC's Hullabaloo.

The studio sets for these bands contain an almost Japanese minimalism, and Unsworth's palette--sometimes muted, sometimes lush--comes oddly close to the so-called "color expressionism" of Douglas Sirk's most celebrated soaps for Universal. Pop Gear lasts a too-brief seventy minutes, and AMC's print is letterboxed at 2.35:1. The film received U.S. distribution through American International, which makes me wonder if MGM has the current rights, though, sadly, that studio is now up for sale. At any rate, the picture has made sporadic appearances through the years on Showtime's Flix, and would be a perfect selection for Turner Classic Movies, which programs a wide variety of rock-themed wonders.