It’s been a full seven years since the American Cinematheque first unveiled its annual cornucopia of shagedelic delights known as the Mods & Rockers festival. Originally conceived in the wake of the first two Austin Powers movies, the series trawled a mile-wide net through the same pop-cultural detritus of the ’60s that had inspired Mike Myers, yielding an astonishing variety of treasures.
With James Bond and the Beatles (or more precisely, Goldfinger and A Hard Day’s Night — the benchmark British film exports of 1964) serving as its twin deities, Mods & Rockers has always focused its attention on the strangely symbiotic relationship between the post-007 spy-fantasy genre and the musical promo film as revolutionized by Richard Lester. In the cinematic interzone bordered at one extreme by Lester’s Help! (the Beatles movie satirizing the Bond cult) and, at the other end, by Casino Royale (the Bond film maudit made by five directors all trying, and failing, to make a Lester comedy), there lies the throbbing heart of the Mods & Rockers sensibility.
And what’s not to love? Go-go dancers. Chelsea boots. Dolly birds in miniskirts. Outlandish outfits from Biba and Granny Takes a Trip. Vidal Sassoon ’dos. Promiscuous fashion photographers and superspies. Teenage pop sensations perpetually pursued by mobs of squealing schoolgirls. Svengali-style rock impresarios. Superskinny models. Psychedelic light shows. And the steady plink-plink of trebly guitars. These emblems and stereotypes of mod-ism and the hippie ascendancy, in movies made by people in their 30s (at least) for people in their teens and 20s, already looked dated by the time the movies were released, so fast did the decade advance, transform and reinvent itself. Suddenly, every door that had hitherto needed a battering ram swung wide open. Today’s bravely scaled wall was tomorrow’s old hat — and who needed yesterday’s papers anyway?
As I was growing up in Britain in the 1970s, many movies of this type felt unwatchable to me. Given a lot of time, forgiveness, nostalgia and camp appreciation, though, they’ve finally earned a kind of retroactive approval, serving as time capsules of a transient Zeitgeist and a faded sensibility — brightly hued mementos of a time and ethos we can hardly believe once seemed so vivid, colorful and full of optimism.
The continuing appeal of the Mods & Rockers films undoubtedly derives from the movie establishment’s disarray during the ’60s, and its cluelessness about the exploding youth demographic. The studios were belatedly facing the long-term effects of the Justice Department’s 1948 antitrust suit and, with the gerontocratic studio founders beginning to bow out of the business, the feral international conglomerates were circling Hollywood. In their confusion, the studio suits desperately sought the elusive key to the mod-hippie market, and all manner of strange hybrids emerged before Easy Rider finally (if ever so briefly) showed the way forward. In the meantime, the occasional accidental success was registered, like Barry Shear’s insanely exuberant 1968 political satire Wild in the Streets — a psychedelic Manchurian Candidate, with Shelley Winters out-momming Angela Lansbury — which ran on a platform of teenagers for president, acid for everybody and concentration camps for the over-30s. Not at all the kind of thing Louis B. Mayer would have greenlit, and a harbinger of great weirdness to come.
In Europe — meaning, for our purposes, mainly London — things were a little different. Postwar European governments, anxious to retain reserves of dollar currency, limited the backdated wartime profits that Hollywood studios could export home, encouraging them instead to reinvest their money in European coproductions. Thus every studio had a major London office, usually managed by someone hipper and more in tune with the local scene than the old geezers back in Beverly Hills. And with London as the hip capital of the known universe circa 1965-’67, they spent cash like drunken sailors, providing most of the seed money for what became known as the British New Wave and for the sparkly, neon-and-ice-cream-colored hipster movies that flickered so luridly in its comet tail.
Many of the Mods & Rockers films are characterized — and in retrospect, perhaps, energized — by a noticeable creative and generational dissonance. Youth-oriented themes and stars were usually handled in Hollywood by seasoned studio pros, which lent the movies an irresistible patina of coat-and-tie squareness atop the paisley-inflected coolness. (A more depressing example is Norman Taurog — a veteran of the silents — neutering Elvis Presley throughout the ’60s.) In London, there was a closer alignment: Directors like Lester, John Boorman (whose debut, Having a Wild Weekend, is included here) and Donald Cammell were ’60s visionaries avant la lettre, simply waiting for the new dispensation to liberate their creativity. When the decade finally did arrive, these artists were more than ready — young enough to understand their chart-topping stars, but old and canny enough to marshal this new energy onto celluloid.
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As was probably necessary, Mods & Rockers has reoriented itself somewhat this year, acknowledging that there is, sooner or later, a barrel bottom to be scraped. At least seven of the best movies in the huge selection were part of the inaugural series in 1999. Given the unavailability on DVD of certain benchmark works, this is no disgrace, and it obviates the need to pad the schedule with movies featuring, say, Herman’s Hermits (Igor, my garlic!). Indeed, many of the films showcased this year, like Ronald Neame’s sprightly Euro comedy-thriller A Man Could Get Killed (1966), Lester’s extraordinarily bleak The Bed Sitting Room (1969) or the Cammell-scripted Mediterranean caper Duffy (1968), are rarer than rocking-horse shit and well worth tracking down.
But the Cinematheque has wisely broadened the Rockers half of the series this year, adding several music-performance documentaries whose provenance isn’t limited to the 1960s: Stewart Copeland’s Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out is all new; and several others, like Urgh! A Music War (1981), have a postpunk pedigree. There’s even a tasteful sample platter of Elvis movies (you can tell it’s tasteful because Taurog only directed one of them), including Don Siegel’s Flaming Star (1960), the best of the lot. The expansion also legitimately permits the inclusion of recent movies that take a heaping coke-spoonful of inspiration from pioneering ’60s music flicks, like Alan Parker’s The Commitments (1991) and Brian Gibson’s note-perfect shagged-out band-reunion drama Still Crazy (1998), written by key British New Wave screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, both resident in Beverly Hills these three decades past and getting more British with every passing day. (Still Crazy made Bill Nighy a star, and he’ll be in attendance to honor that debt.)
Thus rejigged for extended play and expanded consciousness, Mods & Rockers looks set to thrive anew, and we owe the Cinematheque staff our undying gratitude for their tireless feats of groovelicious cultural archaeology. Long may they rock.
MODS & ROCKERS 2006 | At American Cinematheque and the Egyptian and Aero theaters | Through August 31 | www.americancinematheque.com