IFC's new midnight-movie series revisits Hollywood's groovy '60s scene.
Author: David Fear
Issue 670: July 31 - Aug 6, 3008
Counterculture histories usually begin with the 1950s Beat enclaves
centered in San Francisco's North Beach district. After dutifully
detailing the early-'60s Greenwich Village folkie scene that spawned
a messiah-brat named Bob Dylan, the story fast-forwards to the
Haight-Ashbury's Age of Aquarius. The Sunset Strip rarely gets
mentioned, yet from 1965 to early 1967, that roughly two-mile stretch
of Los Angeles was ground zero for the cultural cutting edge. This
was where Pop artists hung out with teen surfers. Nightclubs like the
Trip, Pandora's Box and Ciro's gave birth to a music scene that would
shape the rest of the decade (Ciro's was where the Byrds debuted
their electrified version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" in '65, with Dylan
in attendance). Psychedelics were coursing through SoCal skulls long
before the Summer of Love. Until the curfew riots on November 12,
1966, essentially sounded the death knell of the Strip's
youth-friendly vibe, it was the place to be if you wanted to get your freak on.
In a perfect world, IFC Center's "Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock,
Rebellion and Hollywood Hippies" would remind armchair scholars how
important that L.A. hot spot was to the era. At the very least, this
ten-week midnight-movie series will righteously blow your mind. (The
program began July 25 with 1968's Wild in the Streets and will
continue through September 27.) "We have an appreciation for…well,
some would call it kitsch," Harris Dew, the IFC's director of
programs and cocurator of the series, says. "Some of these films are
clearly an old fogy's idea of what the kids were into at the time.
But even those movies have the sense of capturing this incredible
moment as it was happening."
You're bound to find plenty of eccentric yet engaging regional
reportage in the lineup. Films like Maryjane (1968), in which
high-school teacher Fabian (!) gets busted for pot possession, and
Roger Corman's acid bath The Trip (1967) include hyped commentary on
drug usage, while reinforcing the same taboo status that would soon
make it chic to turn on. The Cool Ones and The Love-Ins (both 1967)
take on go-go dancers and spiritual gurus, respectively. Even Lord
Love a Duck (1966), George Axelrod's satire on youth culture run
amok, is closer in energy and spirit to the very thing the movie
mocks than the Madison Avenue–style comedy it resembles.
Surprisingly, the two most blatant examples of exploitation end up
being the anthropological linchpins of the series. Riot on Sunset
Stripthe '67 movie that lends both the IFC's program and cocurator
Domenic Priore's invaluable 2007 book on the scene their nameswas
producer Sam Katzman's attempt to cash in on the event that brought
the fertile club scene to a standstill. Released a mere four months
after the incident, this docudrama emphasizes sex, drugs and rock &
roll over the riots themselves, yet the turnaround time allowed the
film to catch a number of key musicians at a transitional moment.
"The real story of the riots is closer to Chinatown than Katzman's
movie," Priore says, calling from his home in Los Angeles. "But Riot
re-creates what was going on in the clubs with amazing fidelity, and
it's the best footage we have of bands like the Chocolate Watchband,
who turned garage rock into psychedelic music. I actually think that
exploitation movies were particularly well suited to documenting the
Sunset Strip's heyday; their primal intensity matches the rawness of
what was going on."
Primal and raw are two words that also describe the second must-see
entry: Mondo Hollywood. Released the same year as Riot, this knockoff
of the Euro-grindhouse vérité franchise offers hippies, hot-rodders,
future Manson Family members (and victims), Pop Art practitioners,
delusional D-list celebrities and Angelenos with chips on their
tanned shouldersall in their natural habitat. It's one of the best
films made about the Holly-weird mind-set, period. "Oh, it's
certainly more accurate than people think," Priore says, laughing.
"Plus, you've got all these heavy hitters in it: LSD guru Richard
Alpert, folksinger Bobby Jameson, body-painter Sheryl Carson. The
Zapruder footage of psychedelica is Vito Paulekas and the L.A. Freaks
dancing at Monterey Pop, and they're all over this! We wanted the
program to be an easy vectorscope to how that moment really looked
and felt. I mean, some of these movies were most definitely
exploitation. Now they're artifacts."