The first show I ever went to (I’m talking about shows in the sense of paying specifically to see bands, not go to a bar or something and there’s a band playing) was Seven Seconds. This would have been around 1988 or 1989, I believe, and the show was at The Silo in Reading, Pennsylvania (the venue was petitioned to be shut down as a “nuisance bar” in 2012; as far as I’m aware, it was not). I remember I wore my Gorilla Biscuits shirt (which was a medium or a large on a kid who by no means should have been wearing a medium or a large tee shirt at that time) and a pair of slacks (that’s right, slacks). Of the bands that played, the two that I remember were, of course, Seven Seconds (this would have been during Kevin Seconds long hair and bicycle shorts phase; I don’t know if he ever came out of it) and a band from the Philly/New Jersey area called 200 Stitches (who were pretty good; I still have the demo tape I bought at the show, and I saw them again some time later when I was in college; the lead singer was amazed that someone knew a lot of the words to their songs). During the course of getting my feet wet slamming, stomping, and basically getting sweated up, my pants tore down the back (did I mention I was a husky lad back then?), but I don’t think that stopped the fun. I went to dozens of shows following that, but that first one stuck with me (the first time always does), because of the feelings that it elicited, feelings of freedom and commonality and the catharsis of letting out every ounce of the aggression I’d been stewing in up until then. In its own way, and despite its flaws, Allan Arkush’s Get Crazy (aka Flip Out) does a marvelous job of evincing many of those same emotions in me.
Max Wolfe (Allen Garfield as Allen Goorwitz), owner of the Saturn Theater has a huge bash planned for the New Year’s celebration, which coincides with the fifteenth anniversary of his venue. Calling in all his favors, he throws together a card of acts with everything from the blues to punk rock. Stage Manager Neil (Daniel Stern) tries to keep everything together while dealing with slimy rival Colin Beverly (Ed Begley, Jr), a motley crew of backstage misfits, the various eccentricities of the performers, and the hots he develops on sight for Max’s former stage manager Willy Loman (Gail Edwards).
The first thing that will stand out to anyone from the initial minutes of Get Crazy is that it is completely and utterly not intended to be taken seriously. Sammy Fox (Miles Chapin), Max’s nephew and cutthroat capitalist, punts a small dog across the theater’s dance floor. Soon thereafter, he gets blown up in classic Looney Tunes style. The theater’s crew can’t muster up the energy to get the job done, but thanks to Electric Larry, the mystical drug dealer who looks like Tex Hex crossed with the Terminator endo-skeleton, they speed their way through their tasks (see what I did there?) in one of several undercranked sequences (I maintain that undercranking should really be limited to use in episodes of Gilligan’s Island). Virginal Joey (Dan Frischman) is a walking OSHA violation waiting to happen. He gets punched, run over, and falls off a balcony, but thankfully pops his cherry at some point. Every time Neil sees Willy, she becomes a sex kitten from his perspective (he looks like Tarzan in this scenario, complete with chimpanzee companion). The lighthearted goofiness is at odds with what plot there is because it’s so over the top, but it still works fairly well. I could see this aspect grating on some viewers’ nerves, but I also think that allowing it to ruin the experience deprives one of the full impact of the film’s core.
At its heart, this movie is a love letter to music and the collective energy of live music-going escapades. There are ostensibly five bands that Max gathers for the show. They are King Blues (king of the blues, played by Bill Henderson), massively-populated punk band Nada (fronted by Lori Eastside, a real-life casting director), who bring along the Animal-esque Piggy (Fear’s Lee Ving), Captain Cloud (Howard Kaylan) the totally fried hippie and his hippie entourage/cult/commune, “metaphysical” musician Auden (Lou Reed), and straight up Brit rocker Reggie Wanker (Malcolm McDowell), who, unironically, lives up to his namesake in more ways than one. King plays first, and two of the following acts cover songs of his. This is an act of reverence for the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, an understanding of where it came from and what modern acts owe to those who came before. It provides a unity among the artists, a shared world of musicianship, and this translates to the reception of the crowd (though the acts being this varied might not have been as well received by the throngs of weirdo punk rockers who populate the audience, but you never know).
Further to this, Arkush and company (through some extremely deft editing; after all the man did get his start in film editing trailers for Roger Corman, and he did work in clubs, so he draws extensively from both these backgrounds) do an outstanding job of capturing just what it is that made shows like this great. This was at a time when individuality was paramount, even within genre/style constraints. A Fear song doesn’t sound the same as a Ramones song doesn’t sound the same as a Bad Brains song. Personal expression, visually and aurally was very important, and this isn’t exclusive to punk (though I gravitate toward that as an example, because that’s my background). But the individual breaks down in the face of the love for the music. It’s the life’s blood that ties the disparate groups together (there are only so many musical notes on a scale, but everyone plays them differently), and Get Crazy really drives this point home in its pure “let’s put on a show” attitude. It helps a lot that the actors in the film actually perform the songs on the soundtrack. It may be nostalgia for me to say that the film took me back to the joy and excitement I used to get from going to shows, but, to be frank, I’m not against nostalgia in and of itself. Only when it inescapably binds people to the past is it a bad thing, I think. If more films made me feel as good and brought back as many great memories as this one did, hell, I wouldn’t be against nostalgia at all.
MVT: The editing in the film is truly impressive. It keeps the rip-roaring pace up all the way through.
Make or Break: The undercranking may be a bridge too far for some. Thankfully, these sequences are not extensive.