Sitting in the sun room of his Beverly Hills home, Floyd Mutrux starts by saying, “I just kind of . . . I don’t . . . I‘m not of . . . ” then stops for a second, waiting for the words to come. Dressed in shorts and a sweatshirt, his thick bolt of gray, white and peach colored–hair swept straight back, the 59-year-old Mutrux looks like he might be a legendary wave-torn surfer, the kind of guy who’s seen his share of Big Wednesdays. Actually, he is that other sort of legendary Southern California archetype: a filmmaker. And what he finally chooses to say is this: “I‘m not in Hollywood.” If you’re like a large proportion of the movie-going public, most of whom have never heard of Mutrux, that statement probably makes sense. The truth, as usual, is more complex. “When Variety,” Mutrux continues, “wrote [in the mid-‘70s] that the five great directors of the period would be Spielberg, Lucas, Mutrux, Scorsese and Terry Malick, well . . . Terry went to live in Texas. But I found a way to hide right here.”
A white-light guy in the white-heat moment of New Hollywood, Mutrux seemed for a blink like the rightful heir to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising: His films were funny, freaky, dangerous as rock & roll, and portended a potential combination of Mean Streets edginess and Badlands beauty. But after a couple of misfires, the white light faded. Today, Mutrux remains one of Hollywood‘s great unknowns, despite the evidence of success that covers his walls: Artwork for the films he’s written and directed — Dusty and Sweets McGee; Aloha, Bobby and Rose; American Hot Wax — hangs alongside memorabilia from the many films he thought up, waited to make, or sold and walked away from. Dick Tracy, Urban Cowboy, The Untouchables, American Me and Cheech and Chong‘s Up in Smoke — those were all Mutrux inventions, and he’s cashed the checks to prove it. “I‘m just one of the oddball guys who fell through the cracks,” he likes to kid.
Probably the best known of the films that Mutrux can claim as his and his alone is American Hot Wax, a roiling portrait of legendary 1950s record producer Alan Freed that Greil Marcus once called “the most emotionally honest film about rock & roll ever made.” But it’s his first film, Dusty and Sweets McGee, made in 1970, the year after Sha Na Na played Woodstock, that may well be remembered as his greatest, though few have ever seen it. Shot on locations along Sunset and in the Valley, Dusty is a loving study of hungry souls in grimy hip-huggers going through the everyday paces of scoring dope and hunting for veins. Warner Bros. withdrew the film a week after its initial release, largely on the basis of a Time magazine review that worried the film was “too much absorbed by the mechanics of addiction.” It‘s been buried ever since.
Warners was wrong, even if Time was right: Dusty and Sweets McGee is excruciating in the authenticity of its detail. Based on interviews with real-life junkies in Hollywood, and shot on short ends by cinematographer William Fraker, it was made for 56,000 bucks and moves like a photograph from Larry Clark’s Tulsa come to life. Its music cues, too, are as authentic as the abscesses on the arms of its real-life junkie stars: a mix of greaser anthems and drug-pop, all knit together by the brayings of notorious L.A. disc jockey, the Weird Beard. Mutrux and close friend Ricky Nelson designed the soundtrack as an homage to the then-popular Cruisin‘ compilation albums, then learned about “homage,” Hollywood-style, when George Lucas lifted the film’s sonic template for American Graffiti.
“There has always been a large appetite for the pilferage of ideas in Hollywood,” Mutrux sighs, “but the ethics and degree of integrity in this town have never been at a lower point than they are today. I don‘t even want to write any more hit movies, because the girl and boy geniuses at the studios will take a look at them and think one thing: How can we ’improve‘ the material? Give them a carefully crafted screenplay, and they’ll ‘improve’ it right up onto the shelf.”
“The second act of my career,” as Mutrux calls the ‘90s, didn’t go as well as planned. There Goes My Baby, a film Variety, without irony, called “the best coming of age movie since American Graffiti,” vanished into the black hole of the Orion bankruptcy. Two potential projects with John Travolta attached, one about dancing, one about renegade cops at LAX, remain in perpetual pre-production. “But I don‘t give a fuck,” says Mutrux with a grin. “I’ve sold a lot of scripts, and it‘s not like I’ve gotten fucked over or anything. And now, Act 3 is here.” On Broadway, he hopes, with a musical he‘s co-written and plans to direct. “It’s based on the life of a legendary rock & roll star,” Mutrux says cryptically, knowing how good ideas in this town tend to go astray. “I‘ve scored all my films to the car radio, because I believe rock & roll is a fervent, infinitely powerful force. It brought down the Berlin Wall. Why shouldn’t I put it on the stage?”
Mutrux and Fraker will appear at a screening of Dusty and Sweets McGee at the Los Angeles Film School on Friday, August 25. See Film & Video Events for further information.