Lee Gambin is a Melbourne-based writer and film journalist, whose words have appeared regularly within the pages of the long-running horror film magazine Fangoria (for whom he has interviewed a wide range of genre personalities). Gambin has alsowritten liner notes for such prestige blu-ray releases as Squirm (Arrow Films), presents film lectures, and curates screenings for the Cinemaniacs film society in Melbourne. Lee’s first full-length book, Massacred by Mother Nature, was published by Midnight Marquee Press in 2012. For his second book, Gambin has chosen another of his most beloved music genres to talk about: the movie musicals of the seventies.
Published by Bear Manor Media, and at a whopping 812 pages, We Can Be Who We Are is certainly a comprehensive examination of its subject. Broken down by year, some of the diversity of titles which Gambin covers within the text include Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), Frank Zappa’s bizarre 200 Motels (1971), Godspell (1973), Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Grease (1978), Rock & Roll High School (1979), Times Square (1980) and the infamous KISS telemovie from 1978, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (released theatrically in Australia as Attack of the Phantom). Gambin leaves no stone unturned – even the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special (which aired on television in 1978 and has never been repeated or officially released) is covered in detail.
Along with his own critiques and insights into the films covered, Gambin has also sourced new interviews with many of the people who were involved in the productions, including John Carpenter, Norman Jewison, Mick Garris (who operated R2-D2 in the Star Wars Holiday Special!), Lesley Ann Warren and Didi Conn (Frenchie in Grease), who offer some fascinating insights and anecdotes regarding the projects they worked on. Heavily illustrated (in black & white) with an abundance of rare photographs, We Can Be Who We Are also includes a number of contributions from outside writers, including Robin Bougie, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Richard W. Haines, Kier-La Janisse and myself, and is certainly recommended for anyone with a fondness for the cinematic musicals of that decade.
I had the chance to catch-up with the author to discuss his latest work.
John Harrison: What prompted you to decide to follow-up Massacred by Mother Nature with a book on movie musicals from the 1970’s?
Lee Gambin: I think the 70s are an interesting time in film history. And even though I’m most definitely a devotee to the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood, I find that once cinema entered the 70s there was a massive turning point in film culture and the way in which films were made, marketed and received.
The grit of 70s cinema is something that resonated with me, and as far as the two genres that you bring up in your question – that of the horror film and the musical – the decade proved to boast an incredible diversity in both arenas. And that is something that appeals to me. I’ve always loved the notion that horror is such a varied genre spawning so many sub-genres such as the eco-horror film, which is the point of discussion in my book Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, which was becoming a massively prominent branch of horror with newfound issues concerning environmentalism and the like during the period. Classic gothic horror films (such as the Hammer offerings during the 50s) were starting to fade as films such as Psycho, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby came into the foreground, and then by the time the 70s approached, horror started to drastically change – films like The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre set new standards, and of course a massive hit like Jaws (the quintessential eco-horror movie) made a huge impact on the culture.
So it was the same for the movie musical. I mean, here is a decade where you have quirky sophisticated outings such as On A Clear Day You Can See Forever and then the profoundly bleak Fiddler On the Roof, then the subversive psychedelic Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure and then porno musicals such as Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy. I also think the love for many of these films prompted me to write the book. I have always been obsessed with films such as Tommy, Phantom of the Paradise, The Muppet Movie, Jesus Christ Superstar, Cabaret, Nashville, The Rose and many more I discuss, so that was a very easy kick start.
JH: While the bulk of the writing is obviously yours, you also bring in a number of outsiders to We Can Be Who We Are, each contributing little pieces of critical analysis or personal recollections on some of their favourite films within the book’s genre. Is this something that you enjoy doing, to allow your book to have a few different voices, and some variety in the points-of-view on certain films?
LG: It’s the first time I’ve invited other people to contribute and I love it. I love everyone’s piece so much. It’s incredibly important to have varied opinions. What prompted me to do this was the fact that I was asked to contribute to other books and I thought that it would be a great idea to have film criticism writers also contribute. However, with this book on 70s movie musicals, I also got local musicians to contribute – so it was cool to have people like Adalita from seminal indie rock outfit Magic Dirt talk about her love and admiration (and also the influence of) Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, while Kat Spazzy of Melbourne punk band The Spazzys talks about the importance of The Ramones and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, all the while combined with interviews with people such as John LaZar and P.J. Soles, who were involved in the films. And then of course with my analysis and insight into the film and the production etc. It was interesting to hear from the excellent writer Staci Layne Wilson, who talks about Ken Russell’s Listzomania (a film I don’t love, which is an absolute rarity in the case of Russell’s work which I normally adore!). To have conflicting attitudes about this shambolic film which is most certainly not the brilliant Tommy, The Boy Friend or The Music Lovers is humorous I think.
But yes, it is great to have varied voices. Xanadu is the film that gets two external voices discussing it’s madness, brilliance and plain insanity – Adam Devlin, a local radio programmer and music historian and life long Olivia Newton-John disciple, and Robin Bougie, who writes those wonderful Cinema Sewer books. So hearing both those guys talk about that crazy movie is stunning.
JH: The book is very comprehensive. In trying to cover as many films as you can, which would you say was the most joy to re-watch, investigate and write about? And conversely, which was the toughest?
LG: It was a joy to revisit most of the films. And the TV specials. And the documentaries. What made it super interesting for me was the fact that for most of them I would be interviewing various people who worked on them and therefore that would influence the ‘way I saw them’. So, for example, having grown up watching Milos Forman’s Hair over and over again and also being a massive fan of the original musical, which the film completely alters, modifies and changes to a filmic language, I would always be bewildered by the fact that the songs don’t necessarily fit in the integrated musical format – they stuck out like sore thumbs for me as a younger person; peppered throughout a very steady and streamlined narrative (which the original musical didn’t adhere to).
So when it came time to interview someone like Ann Roth, the costume designer for the film, these kind of questions came up, and although she was in charge of dressing the characters and not at all integral in the structure of the musical and the methods in which to adapt the stage show to screen, she still shed some amazing insight in the artistic battles that went on for a long period of time during the shoot, between choreographer Twyla Tharp and the film’s formidable director, Milos Forman. So after speaking to people like Ann Roth, going back and watching the film makes me see it in a totally different light and makes me love the movie even more. I have gone from thinking Forman’s Hair is a flawed film to absolutely embracing it as an exercise in brutal artistic differences that somehow function.
As far as the ‘toughest’ films to revisit, well, that would be the films I don’t/didn’t enjoy which are a pain – such as 1776.
JH: The 1970s seemed to be such a fertile decade for musicals. Do you think we will ever see another period like that, with so many diverse styles of musicals hitting our screens?
LG: Possibly. However, movies these days are just a drag. In all genres. I honestly can’t watch modern movies simply because of the aesthetic (or lack there of). Nothing looks as good as it did in the 70s. What a superb decade.
However, in saying that, there have been some contemporary movie musicals that I didn’t mind, such as the adaptation of Les Miserables which I thought did it’s job and wasn’t afraid to be as ugly as that musical truly is – it’s about people dying in the middle of the French revolution, so paint it up in ugly colors. But I was completely disappointed by the film adaptation of the brilliant Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, which missed the point entirely – that is a bleak, angry, edgy, very dark musical and the film threw out all of the complexity and harrowing elements to make it ‘accessible’.
I think there is far too much ‘compromise’ in today’s film adaptations of musicals (when they get done). There are a lot of diverse musicals from Broadway and Off-Broadway and beyond that are without a film adaptation and some would easily make the transition (Ragtime, Sunset Boulevard) and ones that would be tricky such as the episodic Company, the revue-style Assassins and the ruthlessly anti-linear Sunday in the Park with George (all three Sondheim musicals – superb works may I add). But I don’t see studios running out to invest in a cluster of them in one go! Could you imagine a film of Chess? That would be fantastic if done right, but who would go and see a musical about the cold war? And could you imagine a film adaptation of The Me Nobody Knows or Runaways? But would there be an audience for child-centric therapy musicals dealing with grim issues like rape, heroin addiction and abortion? As far as original film musicals go (musical movies not based on stage musicals), I really, really doubt that these would be taken on. Which is really depressing. People are so scared of genre cinema, they really are.
LG: I love that you ask this!! One of the proudest achievements I have in writing this book is the fact that I get an opportunity to champion movies that I feel were unfairly maligned. I mean if you look at a film like Mame, there is a perfect example of a movie attacked by the critics, and honestly for no real reason at all. It is a charming film. One of the lesser depressing ‘whistling in the dark’ musicals, and one loaded with a sophisticated sensibility. It was panned primarily because it paid tribute to a bygone era (soft focus on Lucille Ball, Onna White’s stagy choreography that looked more like it belonged to Hello, Dolly! rather than a Depression-Era libertine musical and so forth) but that is fundamentally what makes it work. It’s a lovingly made movie. Gene Saks is a fantastic director, and the supporting cast that surround the brilliant Lucille Ball such as Bea Arthur, Bruce Davison, Joyce Van Patten and Robert Preston are terrific.
Also, if you look at a film like Lost Horizon (which yes, is a terrible film) you cannot deny the fact that the songs from bubble gum pop magician Burt Bacharach are wonderful! So I liked to have that platform to highlight this fact. Yes, yes, we all agree Lost Horizon is a mess, but the songs most certainly are not.
JH: What do you enjoy more, writing about films you love or introducing them at screenings?
LG: Writing about movies. Hands down.
JH: Tell us a little about your writing and research style. How do you plot and approach a big project like this, once you have decided on a theme?
LG: I make a list. A massive list. I try and include everything from memory and think in broad terms. For this project I began with writing down the core films – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The First Nudie Musical, etc – and then branch off to what I think deserves to be covered even though they might not completely easily fit in the traditional mould of ‘movie musical’ such as Myra Breckinridge, which does feature a number of diegetic numbers as sung by the imitable Mae West. Then I go through each film and watch them and while they’re playing I make notes.
What I did with this book is take each film from a specific angle – be it from a production stand point or an analysis view point. For example, when I write about Godspell there is a section in the criticism of this incredibly haunting film where I talk about it in relation to another movie about faith released the same year – The Exorcist. So hopefully, that makes the insight interesting and unique. And for say, my writing on The Wiz, I discuss the importance of that film in relation to the African-American experience. Then I add the interviews that I have collected – and I have many for this book. Then structure it and lay it all out so it reads smoothly – hopefully!
JH: Currently you are in the midst of writing a book on Joe Dante’s classic lycanthrope flick, The Howling (1981) for Centipede Press, as part of their ‘Studies in the Horror Film’ series. Tell us a little bit about this, and why you chose that particular film to cover.
LG: Because I love it. And I’ve been obsessed with it ever since I was a kid. One of the main reasons behind my obsession with it is the fact that I absolutely love that it is a movie with a multiple threat – that of a community of werewolves. We’ve always been so used to rogue, tragic loner werewolves such as the tortured Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man and follow up Universal offerings, but here in The Howling it’s a whole pack!
The Howling literally transformed the way in which werewolves were depicted on screen. Whilst being a frightening creature feature boasting some phenomenal special effects work by the legendary make-up wizard Rob Bottin, the film also delivers some biting social commentary and critiques the dangers of pop-psychology, the failure of communication and the repercussions of repression, all thanks to its wonderfully talented screenwriters John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless. It also acts as the celluloid home to some outstanding performances from the likes of Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Belinda Balaski, Dennis Dugan, Robert Picardo, Christopher Stone, Elisabeth Brooks and many others – both established troopers (John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Dick Miller et al) and relative newcomers (Margie Impert, Don MacLeod et al).
With its lush cinematography from John Hora, finely tuned editing by Mark Goldblatt and a rich, complex score from Italian composer Pino Donaggio, The Howling is puppeteered with magnetic control and authorship from it’s dedicated auteur director, Joe Dante. Gifted in storytelling, comprehensive aesthetic appreciation as well as being a devout cinephile, Dante has created something unique, intelligent, witty and highly sophisticated with his 1981 werewolf creature feature. This horror classic about TV news anchor Karen White who comes into contact with a cagey community of werewolves living in an Esalen-style health spa called The Colony, is a spectacle in design, special effects execution and narrative infrastructure, all the while being a slick and scary ride, with dark humor firmly stretched out as it’s backbone.
This book is yet another labor of love and I can’t wait to unleash it on the public! There is so much in there – and most of the people involved in the film are interviewed. It will be the tell all about the making of this horror classic!
JH: Any thoughts on what projects you plan to work on, writing-wise, after The Howling book is completed?
LG: Yes. But I can’t say until I’m given the word.
JH: Well, whatever your next project will be, we look forward to it.
LG: Thank you John, you’re amazing! And thank you for your super contribution to We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals from the 1970s regarding that cult favorite Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park! What a ride that is.