Couch Trip

Oct 15, 2008 at 12:00 am

"We want the world and we want it now," Jim Morrison cried at the climax of "When the Music's Over." He wasn't kidding around. The '60s were winding down and they were strange days indeed. The youth were revolting (in every sense of the word) and their struggle made for fine film fodder.

Rock 'n' roll provided the soundtrack and the stars of three tales of revolution. The leads of Peter Watkins' Privilege (1967), Barry Shear's Wild in the Streets (1968) and the Who's Tommy (1969) are messianic rock stars — their characters, the actors or both.

Watkins' most lavish project, Privilege tells the story of Steven Shorter (Manfred Mann frontman Paul Jones) whose stage act enjoys national prominence in Britain as a cathartic experience, placating the youth (and keeping them out of politics). Set in "the near future," the film's narrator (Watkins) describes Shorter as the "most popular entertainer in the world." Along with his music career, he's the front for a chain of "dream stores" where consumers always leave happy. He's also a figurehead whose career has been carefully crafted by Britain's coalition government and the church. The film documents the culmination of Shorter's career and the scheme that would have him repent for being a "bad boy" during a government-sponsored Christian crusade.

With the power of Hitler and the popularity of Paul Anka, Steven Shorter's origins stem from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Wills (1934) and Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor's Lonely Boy (1962). These elements were skillfully blended by Watkins, who employs his signature documentary style with a primarily nonprofessional cast. Privilege was one of five "risky" films Universal Pictures bankrolled in the late '60s out of their London branch. Hot off the Academy Award and controversy of his The War Game, Privilege spoke to the political climate of the day, the elevated position of pop singers in culture, and to the critics of Watkins' previous film.

Though not the strongest of Watkins' works (the director admits that the ending fails), it's a compelling treatise on fame, media manipulation, and the fickle nature of public taste. Initially dismissed as absurd, it's of great interest to see how much of the paparazzi and trivia-fueled entertainment industry Privilege predicted.

With the rights held tightly by Universal Pictures for more than four decades, Privilege made its DVD debut on July 29, 2008, courtesy of Oliver Groom's Project X distribution and New Yorker films. The DVD includes Koenig and Kroitor's Lonely Boy for comparison. This fascinating short documentary must be viewed with the hindsight that its star would be usurped two years hence by a little group known as the Beatles.

Like the Beatles, Max Frost (Christopher Jones) of Wild in the Streets knows he's "more famous than Jesus." The charismatic lead singer of the Troopers, Frost (born Max Jacob Flatow Jr.) fulminates, "We got the old tigers scared, baby!" Surrounded by his sycophantic backup band, firebrand Frost becomes the center of a political maelstrom when he begins using concerts as a pulpit to expound his views on the youth majority in the United States of the late '60s. He even sings an uneven song about it, "52 Percent."

Frost aligns himself with politician Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook) who's campaigning to lower the voting age to 18 (a real concern in a pre-26th Amendment America). Frost doesn't just toe the party line. He starts campaigning that suffrage should be granted to 14-year-olds. Of course, Frost is armed with a song just for the occasion, "14 or Fight." Eventually he relents and agrees that 15 is fine; so long as his genius lead guitarist, Billy Cage (Kevin Coughlin), gets to cast a ballot.

"Youth is not only wasted on the young, it's a disease!" rants old-boy politician Senator Albright (Ed Begley) when confronted by Max's radical views. He can't fathom how well Frost will play the political game, jockeying his keyboardist into Congress and eventually installing himself in the White House as president. From there, Frost begins a series of pogroms against the "elderly." Taking the adage "never trust anyone over 30" to heart, everyone more than three decades old is confined to "Paradise Camps" where they're "psyched out" on LSD, keeping them from harming themselves or anyone else.

Based on the short story "The Day It All Happened, Baby" by screenwriter Robert Thom, this Swiftian satire was a product of the zeitgeist, sharing a mandatory "retirement age" with William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson's Logan's Run (21 in the book, 30 in the film adaptation). A far less complex film, Barry Shear's Wild in the Streets comes off as a wild farce when compared to the faux realism and voyeur perspective of Peter Watkins' Privilege. Nevertheless, the dialogue is snappy and the songs are truly memorable, though one wonders what Max Frost would think about his song, "Shape of Things to Come," being used by the Man in an ad for Target (the modern-day equivalent to a "Steven Shorter Dream Store")

Wild in the Streets is available as a double feature DVD with George Armitage's counterculture comedy Gas-s-s-s. Shear's film has to be seen in wide screen to appreciate the multiple split screen effects used.

Wild in the Streets and Privilege mine the same vein as the Who's rock cantata Tommy, with a messianic star rising to untenable political heights. Ironically, it's not via music that the titular character conquers the hearts and minds of the public but through pinball. Set against a thunderous score, the emotionally scarred and self-secluded Tommy (Roger Daltrey) stands far closer to Steven Shorter in his soundless compliance; allowing others to project their desires and hopes upon him, raising him up only to enjoy smashing him down. The attitudes of Tommy and Privilege are unmistakably British, evidenced more so when contrasted with the highly American Wild in the Streets.

Tommy was brought to the silver screen in a crazed adaptation by Ken Russell in 1975. A filmed 1989 stage presentation was released in 2006.