Making the Scene

Call it laziness, call it spring fever, call it a bad dose of pop culture clouding my senses, but the stacks of new video releases were getting even higher than usual. Some were worth my attention; some were worse than you can imagine (Spring Break Uncensored, which advertises itself as "Better than Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and MTV combined," or "the sexiest action movie of the year," Major Rock, "fighting for truth, justice and the American babes!"), but I ignored the good and the bad alike. I had allowed myself to be distracted -- obsessed? -- by a tiny piece of pop history. More specifically, I was watching Bobby Sherman singing "Little Woman" to a foot-tall dancing woman. Those Seijun Suzuki reissues would have to wait; I was hypnotized by a short-lived, almost forgotten TV series, by the shotgun marriage of TV variety shows and Woodstock. For a few brief days, I was hooked on Music Scene.

Music Scene, which called itself "a super concert of the world's best music," premiered in September 1969 -- the same TV season that saw the first episodes of The Brady Bunch, Room 222, The Bill Cosby Show (the one where he played a gym teacher), The Bold Ones, Then Came Bronson, Bracken's World and (a glimmer of light in the vast wasteland) My World and Welcome to It -- and staked a claim at the bottom of the ratings for four months before finally being put out its misery. Though Harlan Ellison, whose L.A. Free Press column "The Glass Teat" is an indispensable guide to TV during the Nixon years, had kind words for Music Scene ("It's so good the scythewielder of TV attrition will certainly mow it down forthwith," he warned), a recent look at a few episodes released by MPI Home Video suggests that the show was doomed from the start, a schizophrenic shot at creating a self-consciously hip TV show at a time when the medium's definition of hipness was the bikini-clad dancers on Laugh-In (which, incidentally, ran opposite Music Scene).

It should have been easy: Take a popular standup comedian, David Steinberg; add a handful of young comic performers (including a pre-Laugh-In Lily Tomlin) to perform brief sketches; bring on a handful of musical acts ranging from Isaac Hayes to the Everly Brothers, from Janis Joplin to Eydie Gorme; and wrap the whole thing around the Billboard Top 10 list for the week. Watching the occasionally delightful, occasionally excruciating but almost always interesting episodes of Music Scene 30 years after they first aired, its rapid path to self-destruction is easy to chart. First came the obvious contradiction of trying to showcase new rock music while the charts were topped by the likes of "Sugar, Sugar" (one episode offers a quirky gospel arrangement of the Archies' bubble-gum hit, which held the No. 1 spot the entire month of the series' premiere) and aforementioned teen idol Sherman (who appears five times on the eight tapes, once to the obvious disgust of host Steinberg). It certainly couldn't have helped that ABC positioned the show against two ratings champs, Laugh-In and Gunsmoke, or that it was an irregular 45 minutes long, part of a network experiment. By late October, the show had recruited the then-controversial Tommy Smothers to offer his counterculture imprimatur while muttering a few staggeringly unfunny Nixon jokes in a stony haze. (This episode also features one of the strangest musical moments: Merle Haggard singing "Okie from Muskogee" on a dark front-porch set -- complete with hound dog -- that slowly turns out to be completely surrounded by a hundred or so small flags.) By the final episode -- which includes one of the brightest moments in the series, an obviously unrehearsed interview with Groucho Marx -- the comedy troupe has been disbanded and the Billboard chart ignored, and a resigned Steinberg, with just a hint of bitterness, signs off.

Each of the eight tapes released by MPI includes a complete episode, a half-dozen-or-so extra musical performances (the producers reportedly taped extra performances so that they could adapt each show to the changes in the Billboard chart) and one of a series of commercial spots featuring the Rolling Stones (though, curiously, neither the Stones nor Howard Hesseman, who appears in one of the ads with them, was ever on the series). The musical performances are uneven, of course, from the bland Gary Puckett to a sloppy but lively Sly and the Family Stone, from a lip-synched Three Dog Night turning "Eli's Coming" into an unintentionally hysterical comedy sketch to a typically laid-back Roger Miller obligingly walking through a goofy cartoon set singing "King of the Road," but as cultural relics of the tail end of the '60s, they're priceless.

MPI Home Video has released eight volumes of Music Scene, each priced at $19.98. It's unclear whether these represent the entire series, and, curiously, the episodes are out of sequence. The first episode, for example, appears as Vol. 5. For more information, or to order, contact MPI at 800-323-0442 or www.mpimedia.com.

RED DAWN: From Dusk Till Dawn was a silly, gruesome bit of juvenilia produced in the rush of Tarantino-mania that followed Pulp Fiction; From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money, directed by Scott Spiegel (who co-wrote Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2) and just released by Dimension Home Video, is more of the same, though its connection to the 1996 film is hard to determine. (It was shot back-to-back with a "prequel" set in the 19th century and due to be released on video later this year.) Set in Texas (though filmed in South Africa), it's about a group of violent, ill-tempered bank robbers who turn into violent, ill-tempered vampires and is typically loaded with over-the-top special effects, self-conscious Raimi-style camera tricks and a great deal of gore. Robert Patrick and Bo Hopkins do their best to make it enjoyable, but the combination of secondhand movie cliches and relentless violence grows tiresome quickly. For those keeping track, Quentin Tarantino reportedly wrote one scene, a pointless and brutal flashback involving multiple homicide on a porno-movie set.

BLUE SCREEN: Even in the highest reaches of art-house product, sex sells, and Kino Video, one of the best sources for new world cinema and distinguished revivals alike, has inaugurated a new series of films that rest on the border between art and eroticism, "Kino After Dark." The first three, released a few weeks ago, include an interesting failure, long out of print, and the video premiere of a courageous film from a great actress. The former, Bette Gordon's 1983 Variety, from the only original script by postmodern-porno-plagiarist Kathy Acker, is the story of a young woman who takes a job in the box office of a Times Square grindhouse and gradually becomes obsessed with the adult-cinema milieu. Despite a good performance from Sandy McLeod as the heroine and a few scenes that recall the intensity of Acker's prose, the film is a muddle.

For a more challenging look at a woman confronting her sexual identity, try A Winter Tan, a 1988 film based on the letters of Maryse Holder, a New York writer who took "a vacation from feminism," a long sojourn of sex and drinking in Mexico, and never came back. It sounds like -- and is -- a cross between Under the Volcano and Looking for Mr. Goodbar, but it's redeemed by the honest, uninhibited voice of Holder and, even more significantly, by the excellent performance of Jackie Burroughs, who wrote the script, co-directed the film in collective fashion with four others and dominates every scene with her jarring, almost frighteningly raw performance of a woman courting self-destruction.

The third release, Nick Broomfield's Dark Obsession, is an "erotic thriller" that, despite the presence of Gabriel Byrne and Amanda Donohoe, is every bit as banal as its title.

SHELF LIFE: Recent releases include, from the Artists Formerly Known as Soviet Cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror, Andrei Konchalovsky's Siberiade, Nikita Mikhalkov's Oblomov and Sergei Paradjanov's not-to-be-missed Color of Pomegranates, a brilliant, once-suppressed re-creation of the life and words of 17th-century Armenian poet Arutuiun Sayadian (all from Kino).

Also just out are Ken Loach's Carla's Song and newly restored editions of Bo Widerberg's romantic classic Elvira Madigan and Daniel Vigne's The Return of Martin Guerre (all from Fox Lorber); the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Farm: Life Inside Angola Prison (from A&E Home Video); and, for those who get nosebleeds watching Omnimax films in their natural environments, Everest (from Miramax Home Video).

Jonathan Demme's Beloved, James Ivory's A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, a "collector's edition" of Luis Valdez's La Bamba and, from Kino, two rediscovered relics for the '60s Anglophile, The Girl Getters and The Leather Boys, were released April 6. Also coming in April are a flood of New Wave classics, including six newly struck Francois Truffaut classics (with six more to follow in the summer) and the long-awaited video premiere of Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore. Watch for these in a future column.

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