Jody Whitesides | Just Looking for Some Touch

Jody Whitesides

If you haven’t heard of Jody Whitesides yet, well, you have now. And you’ll be hearing more.

At first glance he could be one of those Renaissance multi-hyphenates you love to hate — artist-producer-athlete-businessman-Josh Hartnett stand-in — and then you can’t, because he’s just so damned talented and funny. Politically savvy, too. Plus he bakes. Bakes! Scratch bread, scratch brownies, scratch pizza. I am not making this up.

Yeah, the guy totally cooks. Whitesides is a musician who plays, sings, writes, and produces. He’s got some cool videos on his website, and publishes his music on Spotify and iTunes. He’s so into process, he even makes instructional tech vids for musicians. And posts crazy gifs and vines on Twitter. That’s where I discovered him. And unlike a lot of popular Tweeps who can’t be bothered, he actually interacts with followers. Which is how I ended up at his website, being impressed enough to write all this.

Whitesides prolifically generates fun music that’s infectiously danceable. And he markets all his product himself, making him kind of a poster child for DIY music career success.

Before roaring off on said music career, Whitesides was a nationally ranked freestyle skier and BMX racer. Swapping his earmuffs for earworms, he went on to lend his voice for backing vocals to the Swedish hard rock band Talisman fronted by Jeff Scott Soto, and played some guitar for NKOTB’s Danny Woods. Whitesides has his own studio where he produced recordings for the comedy rock band Throwing Toasters and bass master Seth Horan, among others.

Until recently his bread and butter was scoring video games and film trailers, and creating anthems for various sports (notably “Do You Want to Play,” for the NFL and NHL) and TV shows (“Nightwatch New Orleans,” “Top Golf,” and Dwayne Johnson’s documentary series, “Hard Corps”).

Sounds like a sensory smorgasbord, right? It kind of is, but the main theme of his musical style is this: Nobody sits. His repertoire is a lush and expansive romp covering a wide swath: techno-dance and retro pop, acoustic and power ballads, and high-energy modern rock.

“I take influences from everything around me,” says Whitesides. He credits his artistic open-mindedness to a music teacher who once told him: “Mediocre artists steal from one source. Great artists steal from many.”

“I’ve held to that maxim,” he says. “No two of my songs are ever exactly alike. And no two people will generally compare me to the same artist. That becomes a Catch 22, but I’m okay with it.”

Whitesides, who claims he didn’t start talking until he was two, has plenty to say on his latest single, “Touch.” I listened to it and it’s tasty; you should too. Then I read his bio. That’s where I learned he’s a New Yorker who’s into bikes. Yo — what’s not to like? So I asked if I could interview him. He said yeah. Here we go!

Touch shoot, from Twitter

Q What’s the story behind Google refusing to advertise “Touch”? Is that specifically “Touch (Explicit)”? That was the best version! I love the Borg dancers.
A The official response was that the content of the video was “Too Adult.” It was for the clean version. I didn’t even bother to try advertising the explicit version. The weird thing is, no one is naked.

Q Your newest song, “Thump Thump Thump” — is it out yet?
A It is not out yet, but will be soon. It will be on Spotify!

Q How many/what kinds of instruments do you play?
A Technically I play about six. But I can pretty much play any stringed instrument in some fashion. Guitar, vocals, bass, mandolin, ukulele, percussion. I futz around on piano, drums, and kazoo.

Q What’s the most memorable gig you ever played?
A One time a group of drunk lesbians jumped up on stage and proceeded to grind all the members of the band. This was after they formally announced themselves while jumping on the bar in the back of the venue. It caused quite a ruckus and was entertaining for the audience. I did have to get them offstage once one of them nearly broke my teeth when she knocked the mic stand into my mouth while I was singing.

Q When you were younger, did your parents believe you’d make a living with music, or did they unsubtly push you in other directions? (Can you tell I hang out with musicians too much?)
A My parents never initially questioned my desire to learn to play. Actually, they supported it, probably because they were both artists of their own right. Commercial illustrator, and interior decorator. The one requirement was to attend college and get a degree. So I did. Then I went to music school. [Berklee College of Music and Musicians Institute] While they’ve never come out against it, there have been times when my mom has questioned if I should continue. The typical subtle hint type of stuff.

Q Major influences?
A Anything and everything I’ve ever heard influences me, for good or bad. While learning to play, I did focus on guitar god-type players — Hendrix, Satriani, Vai, Tabor, Wylde, Bettencourt. Once I graduated from music school, I started concentrating more on song writing. That’s a whole different ballgame from being an awesome guitar player.

Q What’s the best advice you ever got?
A “Never quit.” However, there was a teacher at music school who did say: “Never get a day job! You’ll get too comfortable and music will become secondary.” Sure enough, many friends from music school did end up getting day jobs, got comfortable and quit. I took that to heart. Never got a day job.

Q Share some things on your bucket list.
A Win the WSOP Main Event. Mountain bike the Rockies from Canada to Mexico. Start an annual New Year’s Eve event. Tour all 50 states with my music, then tour the world. Restore an old car. Learn to fly a plane.

Q What kinds of bicycles do you own? Specifics, please. Bike junkies here.
A I have a Specialized mountain bike and a Cannondale EVO road bike. I also have a JMC Black Shadow BMX bike that I used to race as a little kid. The big kid in me still likes to ride it around now and then.

Q The skiing — were you on the national team? Pro sponsored? Spend any time at the Olympic Training Center? (The caf slop! Cement beds! Prisonish WCs… Asking for a wistful ex-USAC official.)
A As a skier I was nationally ranked but never on the U.S. team. I had some sponsors over the course of my competitive skiing career. I’ve been to the OTC, but not to train. I wish I had made that level — I missed it by 1/10th of a point, one place out of making the team.

Q What kinds of goodies do you bake besides brownies and bread? Where did your love of kitchen arts originate?
A My most famous dish would be pizza from scratch. I make the dough, the sauce, and on occasion the cheese as well. I’m much more into cooking. My mom had my sister and I fend for ourselves by having us use recipes out of a children’s cookbook. Mom is an excellent cook too, but wanted us to be self-sufficient in the kitchen. A skill that has certainly impressed members of the opposite sex.

Q Got any pets?
A I do have a dog. His name is Dorian. Many people think he’s named after The Picture of Dorian Gray. He’s really named after a mode of the major scale — Dorian.

Q Desert island, five entertainment must-haves, any media.
A:
1. A guitar, to allow me to entertain myself with writing songs.
2. An internet connection.
3. From #2, I’ll be able to watch movies.
4. From #2, I’ll be able to read books.
5. From #2, I’ll be able to listen to other people’s music. 🙂

photog: Brian Gerber

Jody spots the drone bringing his Amazon delivery.

Jody Whitesides’ website: JodyWhitesides.com
Jody Whitesides is on IMDB
Jody Whitesides on Twitter: @JodyWhitesides
Studio photographs © 2016 Brian Gerber
Twitter photograph © 2016 Jody Whitesides
Everything else here Copyright © 2016 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

guitars

I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! Thanks.

DEAD SPOT on AmazonSydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

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Celebs Behaving Badly

Copyright © 2016 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

So you know how I always humblebrag about all the famous people I’ve met, and then instead of spilling I veer off into an Emily Litella-ish rant about Soviet jewelry? Thought you might enjoy some actual celebrity dirt, so here you go.

(This is part of a series. See Celebs Behaving Badly: CalArts Edition and Celebs Behaving Badly: Burbank Edition.)

Bridge Over Bongled Water

When I was 13 I was a rabid Simon and Garfunkel fan. They performed at my town’s convention center, back in ye olden days when concert security was one guy with a flashlight. If you knew where the stage door was, you could ambush the objects of your teenage lust. Which is exactly what I did after S&G’s concert.

At the time I had a business painting pictures of cute things on river rocks that I sold in boutiques. Most people used them for paperweights. So I painted Simon’s and Garfunkel’s portraits on two rocks, which I presented to them as they ran in terror to their waiting limo.

Simon was actually quite gracious about being handed a heavy blunt object. Of course he was confused and thought me insane, but he smiled a lot. Garfunkel was further away; I had to throw his rock to him. Apparently this sort of thing happens to him a lot. Perceiving that I was throwing a rock AT him, he picked it up from where he let it crash to the ground and nailed me with it. I’d never heard an adult curse like that before.

Bonus round: Years later, my mother-in-law reported seeing Garfunkel get into another limo with his wife. She was so clutzy (or hammered, your pick) that my MIL could see her tonsils from up her skirt. Along with everyone else on that well-lit, crowded Manhattan street. Stay classy, Art.

Art Garfunkel and Mrs. Garfunkel step out.

Art Garfunkel and Mrs. Garfunkel step out.

The Man Who Fell Into My Floorthru

Back when actor Candy Clark was still lukewarm from American Graffiti, I lived in Los Angeles. My boyfriend at the time was her brother. Her boyfriend at the time was Nick Roeg, the director. To give you an idea of how tight we were, she claims to not remember me even though I was her sister-in-law for, like, eight years.

Call that what you will. I call bullshit. In a 2015 interview about The Man Who Fell to Earth, Clark said this about one of her doubles: “They hired this older actress and I thought, wow, that David Bowie is pretty brave — he was making out with her and she was about 60 years old.” The older actress whose name Clark couldn’t remember was her mother.

So Candy invited herself and Roeg to my place one Thanksgiving. I was young and broke and lived in a modest apartment in West Hollywood, when WeHo was still a hellho. Lenny Bruce lived there too, but not at the same time. My landlord swore it wasn’t the apartment where Bruce died, but I think he just said that so tenants wouldn’t bug him about the angry ghost in the coat closet.

Anyway, there wasn’t enough food to go around at this party, or even chairs. Clark arrived wearing a dress that took up my whole living room and Roeg, who clearly wished he was someplace else. (He was directing Clark and David Bowie at the time in The Man Who Fell to Earth — a time Bowie called “singularly the darkest days of my life”* and this was yet another kind of activity Roeg didn’t enjoy.)

Apparently they had no place else to go. They hijacked my intimate party, holding court in my parlor with most of my guests crowded around them like a trash fire. I spent the evening with my besties on a couch as far away as we could get without leaving.

Bonus round 1: Around this same time, Clark reportedly also swapped fluids with David Bowie , Ed Ruscha, and Mikhail Barishnikov.

Bonus round 2: Clark subsequently was incinerated by a hack-phobic demon in Amityville 3-D (1983) and ingested by The Blob (1988). Somehow she survived to sell autographs at hot rod rallies.

Bonus round 3: When Clark was shooting The Man Who Fell to Earth, I visited the set and met the incomparable Rip Torn. He’s very nice, and handsome.

Schadenfreude Bacon points: Roeg directed Art Garfunkel in the awful Bad Timing (1980).

*Bowie said this on VH1 Storytellers, S4 E7, aired 10-18-99.

Candy Clark takes a meeting.

Candy Clark takes a meeting.

I Am Tootie Hear Me Roar

When I lived in L.A. I worked at a store in Hollywood. One day showbiz poobah Jeff Wald swaggered in and screamed at everyone for no reason. (Wald managed Sylvester Stallone, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, George Carlin, Donna Summer, Flip Wilson, and a mountain of nose candy — $100,000 of it per year, in 1980s dollars.) He was dressed like a pimp. Everyone ignored him.

Eventually he left. Not for nothing, but we were relieved. In 1983 he tried to kill his ex-wife’s fiancé with his Maserati, with their 10-year-old inside. Helen Reddy (the ex) trashed Wald’s car with a mop while Wald’s bodyguard encouraged him to shoot her with his .45 stashed in the glove. I was never a Reddy fan before that. Wald also broke into Reddy’s house (kid in tow), breaking doors and windows and fleeing with $35,000 worth of stuff, including a Chagall print and a shotgun.

The well-traveled Wald was arrested for shoving the shotgun into the mouth of a Sahara Tahoe picketer, and he knocked out Rod Stewart for making him wait for a hotel room in Hawaii.

When Wald ODed in 1986, the only hospital that would admit him was Cedars-Sinai, and only because he’d built them a clinic.

Schadenfreude Bacon points: Wald married Candy Clark.

Jeff Wald and Helen Reddy

Jeff Wald and Helen Reddy making friends.

Royal Pain

You remember Jane Powell, the MGM contract starlet from so many forgettable films of the ’50s. No? Probably the most famous were Royal Wedding and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and that’s not saying much.

She was about 50 when we met, and very tiny (her Wikipedia stats say 5’1″, but that’s wildly optimistic). I was an indie fashion designer at the time. One of my customers, Wanda, owned a boutique on Sunset Strip, and one of Wanda’s friends was Jane. Actually, it was more like Jane waddled in one day and started ordering Wanda around.

Anyway, I had made an awesome custom dress for Wanda, who was a size 4. Jane saw it and wanted it. Not one like it. She wanted the exact same dress, cut down to fit her size 0 frame. Understand that this dress was engineered without any straight-line seams, like a baseball, in two difficult fabrics (silk and suede), to fit someone much bigger.

Wanda and I got into a big fight about it. She said she’d never hawk my stuff again if I didn’t do this thing. So I did it. Rebuilt the custom dress for Wanda into a custom dress for Jane. There was no CAD then, and a lot of the work involved hand stitching. It was the most elegant pain in the ass I ever attempted.

Fast forward to the fitting. Jane hated it. One of her hips was higher than the other, causing the hem to hang unevenly. It could’ve been fixed easily, but she decided to use it as an excuse to throw a temper tantrum and storm out. Hey, when Hollywood stops calling, how else ya gonna get any attention?

There was no way to resize it to fit a normal human, or even Wanda. And that’s how she got stuck with a size 0 custom dress that would fit no one ever. She hung it up in her store, but I have no idea if she ever sold it because I never spoke to her again.

The dress I made for Wanda and Jane.

The dress I made for Wanda and Jane.

How Wanda saw Jane (left); How Jane saw Jane (right).

How Wanda saw Jane (left); How Jane saw Jane (right).

The skirt I made for Jane (left); Jane's skirt from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (right).

The skirt I made for Jane (left); Jane’s skirt from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (right).

Fun Fact: In 1981 Jane Powell’s estranged husband, unemployed producer David Parlour, sued her for $3,915 monthly alimony, $1,200 monthly rent, $25,000 in attorneys’ fees, and $3,000 for an accountant to check Powell’s books. Powell claimed to be “dumbfounded.”

Greatest American Hero

I used to be a USOC-licensed bicycle racing official. I worked many races where Lance Armstrong competed as a junior drug monkey, before he won 47 Tours de France. The officials would arrive at the race venues all excited to be there, for they loved their sport. Then they’d obtain the start list and see his name on it, and go “Ohmygod Lance is here ugh.”

Lance Armstrong smells a fart.

Doug McClure or Troy Donahue (I can’t tell those guys apart)

Okay, this isn’t really my story, it’s my friends’ story which makes it hearsay, but it’s true and too funny to leave out.

Couple of my friends in high school, Laurie and Susan, they were like twins. Creepy alien twins, but cuter. Went everywhere together, had secret codes only they knew, laughed hysterically at stuff nobody else thought was funny. They were adorable.

I don’t remember how the following situation came about, but one night they were in a bar, in a state where the drinking age is 21. It was a bowling alley or something. They were maybe 17 at the time.

Also darkening this bar was red-nosed ’60s icon Doug McClure, or Troy Donahue. (Google them.) Although his showbiz shelf life was long expired, he alas had not and was still inadvisedly hitting on jailbait. He badgered Laurie and Susan relentlessly. They thought this hilarious and blew him off, repeatedly. He was obstinate, and kind of angry. He kept sniffing them and they kept ignoring him until eventually their ride came and they split, laughing hysterically.

Doug McClure and Troy Donahue. You figure it out.

Doug McClure and Troy Donahue. You figure it out.

Grouch-In-Chief

There was a restaurant I loved in New York that I visited a lot. Felidia, on 58th Street. They serve Italian food. Not the spaghetti and red sauce kind. The other stuff.

One night I was there with the better half, quietly enjoying a fabulous meal until the party at the next table got out of hand. Damn, they were loud. Look-At-Me loud. Someone at the table would say something, and then someone else would crush any spontaneous social interaction by demanding (loudly), “What do you think, Morley?” And then famed Canadian newsreader Morley Safer would hold forth interminably about something nobody cared about. Very loudly. Then they’d start all over again.

We would’ve scrammed early but the food was too good to wolf down.

Above: In his 2009 60 Minutes interview with Vogue boss Anna Wintour, Safer called her a bitch four times.

Princess Boogedyboo

One day I was standing on a long line at a big post office in Manhattan. The woman in front of me was squirming and twisting relentlessly, slinging her bags around, dropping stuff and picking it up, and generally having shpilkes over absolutely nothing. While everyone else waited quietly, she looked around nervously, like she expected them to assault her. Nobody did. Nobody cared. In fact, few people have ever been ignored so definitively. At length I realized she was Phoebe Cates.

Related posts:
No Degrees of Separation | My Date with Kevin Bacon
End of the Eighties | Walter Monheit
Joan Jett, the Queen of Rock’n’Roll, Finally Gets Crowned
Memo from the Dead Zone | 1986 World Cycling Championships
Doesn’t Harley-Davidson Make Training Wheels?

Photo Credits:
Art & Kim Garfunkel © 2004 Mitchell Levy/Globe-Photos
Candy Clark © 1976 British Lion Film Corporation
Jeff Wald & Helen Reddy © Hollywood Reporter
Jane Powell’s uglyass skirt & Christmas photos © 1954 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 
Lance Armstrong © 2015 EPA/European Pressphoto Agency
Doug McClure © 1962 National Broadcasting Company
Troy Donahue © 1960 Warner Brothers Pictures
Phoebe Cates © 1994 Ardican Films

Text and all other photos Copyright © 2016 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! Thanks.

DEAD SPOT on Amazon

Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Joan Jett, The Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll, Finally Gets Crowned

joan jettThe only person happier than me that Joan Jett was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame on April 19 — finally! — is Joan Jett. The multitasking sex goddess is WAY overdue for this accolade.

Not for nothing, but Joan is an icon. For real. I’ve been an unapologetic fan since she was a Runaway.

Like every good Joanaholic, I’d always wanted to meet her, despite that old adage about meeting your idols being a bad idea. I have to admit, having met many of mine, that it’s kind of true. Joan eluded me, but we almost met many times. Ergo, I’m at a loss for how to calculate our degrees of separation. You decide!

When I lived in the West Village, a scarily reliable source (my busybody neighbor) insisted Joan lived on the next block. Never saw her. Then for three years she and I lived in the same suburban town, a few blocks apart. We even went to the same chiropractor. Somehow we never collided. I heard the local post office had one of her gold records, which they’d taken down during a renovation and not replaced, but I did ask them about it, and it is a thing — a thing I stood a few feet from in the dusty box where it was cavalierly abandoned by unworthy civil servants. Then we both moved back to civilization, she to a building not far from mine that I passed six days a week — before she moved in and I moved away. I did have one fun Joanless close encounter, when I shared a pizza at the beach with a woman whose brother wrote “Too Bad on Your Birthday.”

Ever the good Jettster, I’ve been to a gazillion Joan shows. I used to try to find out where she was signing autographs, but I was always too late or at the wrong place. At one show I had an in with the backline company, but all’s I got was an autographed CD from Kenny Laguna. I mean, he’s adorable and I appreciated it, but he’s not Joan.

So what’s that? Like, three degrees? Two? Whatever. We ain’t dead yet, me and Joan, so I guess it could still happen.

I sent Joan an email once, asking her advice on band marketing websites because she was one of the first to have one. I received an autoreply saying something like “Joan gets an awful lot of mail, she’ll get back to you.” She never did. That was seventeen years ago, but it’s okay. Joan was likely too busy fighting the good fight to wade through terabytes of gushing emails.

If all you know about her is how she fought with the Runaways and their cretinous manager Kim Fowley and rude industry execs (she had to sell “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” out of her car trunk after 23 record companies rejected it, and then it became No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 for 7 weeks and the number 3 song of 1982, neener neener), you’d have a pretty good idea about her scheduling issues. But Joan does USO shows and benefits, like for PETA and Farm Sanctuary. Plus she saved a 3-year-old from drowning in the ocean. I mean, how many people do all that in their spare time?

Joan Jett is a force of nature. She works incessantly. She made three platinum and gold records. In response to the “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” brouhaha, she founded Blackheart Records in 1980, making her among the first women ever to start a record company. That very elite group includes Vivian Carter (Vee-Jay, 1953), Sylvia Robinson (Sugar Hill, 1979), Florence Greenberg (Tiara, 1958), and Estelle Axton (Stax, 1958).

Joan also produced three movies, and many albums by The Germs, Bikini Kill, Circus Lupus, The Vacancies, and L7. She toured with The Police, Queen, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, the Ramones, Motörhead, Def Leppard, Green Day, Alice Cooper, Van Halen, Heart, and The Who.

She does some other stuff, too. If you didn’t see her awesome 2014 Hall of Fame performance with the surviving members of Nirvana, you must be dead.

It would’ve been enough for me had she stuck to music. But I was just agog at her star turn in the 1987 film Light of Day. She was luminous. Geez. If you ignore the secondary plot about the annoying mother, it’s a wonderful, painfully truthful depiction of gritty bar band life in the pre-Internet Midwest, with actual musicians (Joan, Michael J. Fox, Michael McKean, Trent Reznor, Paul Harkins, Jimmie Vaughan) playing the fictional ones. The soundtrack is bangin’, natch. Paul Schrader directed it (as well as some of my other favorite edgy flicks — Cat People, Auto Focus). Schrader said of Jett: “She’s phenomenal.” If you haven’t seen Light of Day (or even if you have), do it today.

light of day cast photoMany film reviewers expressed shock that The Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll can also act, but it should come as no surprise. (Did you see her on Walker, Texas Ranger? Holy shit!) She played Columbia for over a year on Broadway in The Rocky Horror Show. For cryin’ out loud, she was a professional performer before she could legally drink. She founded The Runaways in 1975, when she was a mere 16.

Since then Joan has faithfully, unflinchingly championed the empowerment of women. The guitar, the leather, the snarl — it’s all showbiz, baby. Yeah, she’s the queen of that, too. I’ll never forget one of her concerts years ago, where a bunch of JJ wannabes were picking fistfights with each other, trying to out-Joan Joan. Their mall gear and decal tattoos were no match for Joan’s divine glam punkness and couture S&M outfits, designed by the likes of Norma Kamali in the old days and Saint Laurent today. Those stupid girls didn’t get Joan, and never would.

Joan is not mean. She’s a true pioneer. She made it possible for female rockers who followed her to actually have careers in an industry that had been a male preserve. While clueless suburban debs were kicking each other in their tragic Riot Grrrl misinterpretation, Joan was kicking down doors for real women who totally got what she was about. And it changed everything.

At the induction ceremony, Miley Cyrus said, “all of us are going to experience people who try to tell us who to be and what to be. Fuck those people! Instead of changing for all those people, if you don’t like how the world is, change it yourself. [Joan] made the world evolve, her life and her success is proof that we can’t stop evolving.”

English translation: You da bomb, Joan! Congrats on your Hall of Fame induction. You’re my queen!

Joan Jett - The Kamali Years

Joan Jett – The Kamali Years

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Text Copyright © 2015 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
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Photo 2 Copyright © TriStar Pictures
Photo 3 Copyright © Getty Images
Photo 4 Copyright © TAFT Entertainment Pictures/HBO

I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! Thanks.

Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party  advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Film Review | Road to Hell

road to hell title

The Long-Awaited Film by Albert Pyun

Movie Review Copyright ©2014 Sydney Schuster – All Rights Reserved

roadtohell_IMDB.43123343

I watch an awful lot of movies. I own very few. One of them is Streets of Fire, the 1984 cult rock drama by Walter Hill about a mercenary soldier, Tom Cody. Another is Cyborg, the 1989 martial arts horror extravaganza by Albert Pyun starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. So when I heard years ago that Pyun was making a sequel to Streets of Fire, it stayed on my radar like gum stuck to my shoe.

I finally got to see it this week. Let me just say this: It is stunning.

Road to Hell, as it’s called, certainly lives up to its name. A largely self-financed labor of love, it was in production for five years and survived many setbacks before finally making its maiden tour of film festivals in 2012. So far it’s won three Best Picture awards: Yellow Fever (Belfast), XIII Costa del Sol Fantasy Film Festival (Spain), and the PollyGrind UnderGround Film Festival (Las Vegas, where it also scored Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Song, and Best Visual Effects). It recently began general theatrical showings. At its first screening, Road to Hell grossed enough to make Indiewire’s box office chart, and was the only independently distributed film in the bunch.

If you get the chance to see it, do not hesitate. Go!

That said, Road to Hell is not what you’d expect. If you’re a Hill fan, keep in mind that it’s an homage, not an official sequel. If you’re a Pyun fan, you’ll love it no matter what. One viewing tip: If you never saw Streets of Fire, watch that first and you’ll appreciate Road to Hell even more. (Rent it. It’s $3 on Amazon.) For fans of both Streets of Fire and Pyun, Road to Hell is totally worth the interminable wait.

So what’s it about? Okay, first let’s review. When we last saw our hero Tom Cody (Michael Paré), it was 1984. He’d just rescued the toothsome Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) from rubber-clad kidnappers and was leaving to attend a war, apparently because he liked guns more than her. Go figure. And she was leaving their slummy ’hood, The Richmond, for rock superstardom. Fair enough.

MSDSTOF EC108

STREETS OF FIRE, Michael Pare, 1984, (c)Universal Pictures

Plotwise, Streets of Fire is your boilerplate morality play with the usual suspects. The only characters with any emotional depth are Cody and his sister Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). The rest are one-dimensional, almost cartoon-like. Or as Pyun explains it, “Cody was all about Ellen and Ellen was all about Ellen.” Which is perfect here, because anything more complex would just muddy an effort of this scale. Sort of the way Ben & Jerry’s flavors all have one too many ingredients so you buy Haagen-Dazs chocolate chip instead, just so your head won’t explode.

Why pay $3 to watch this? I hear you asking. Well, Streets of Fire has singing and dancing. It has brawls and car chases and motorcycles, and stuff exploding everywhere, and the obligatory mash scene is extra steamy. It has a huge cast of talent who became famous for doing something else. The action’s artily set against other-dimensional backdrops of garish 1950-ish tableaux mixed with 1980s hair and semiautomatic weapons.

You might guess a formula like that would never work. You’d be wrong. Not to mention the soundtrack is so bitchin, it had a life all its own. There are songs by Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Ry Cooder, Leiber and Stoller, Link Wray, Bob Seger, and Meat Loaf’s wife, Jim Steinman, produced by Jimmy Iovine. The Dan Hartman hit “I Can Dream About You” made Billboard‘s Top 10 chart. In 2007 Vanity Fair rated the film’s score Number 6 on its Best Soundtracks Ever list. Simply put, Streets of Fire is a pre-CG sensory feast.

A rock & roll fable, Hill called it. Others called Streets of Fire the first music video. MTV didn’t exist yet, and Hill famously said in interviews that he filmed all the concert scenes by the seat of his pants, having no precedent to follow.

“It’s cut in time with the music!” oozed viewers who’d never seen A Hard Day’s Night. “You can’t use my song!” snorted Bruce Springsteen when told Hill didn’t want him to sing it. “It wanted to be a comedy and it turned out to be a drama,” costar Rick Moranis groused to Empire magazine. “What is this crap?” said just about everyone at industry screenings.

Nobody got it. One reviewer picked on the stars’ noses. (“…the smallest noses in show business history; perhaps this is why, when their faces meet, so little happens.” — Susan Dworkin, Ms. Magazine, August 1984)

It opened the same week as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Doom being the operative term here, box office was half what the film cost to make. ($14.5 M cost, $8 M gross.) And so Streets of Fire bombed resoundingly, thus claiming its rightful place in the pantheon of Eye Candy Rock Movies We Love, Now.

According to Hill, Streets of Fire was to be the first film in a Tom Cody trilogy. When it tanked at the box office, The Bombers Strike Back and Return of the Sorels sank with it. (Paré claimed the sequels were abandoned because everyone involved left Universal, who owned the rights to the franchise and wouldn’t play nice.)

For three decades, Streets of Fire fans waited patiently for someone to salvage the wreckage. Albert Pyun is their Argo.

Pyun, for those who don’t know, apprenticed to Akira Kurosawa in the 1970s and debuted as a feature film director in 1982, with The Sword and the Sorcerer, one of the top-grossing indie films of all time. His 50-some movies include the horrorfests Nemesis (1992) and Infection (2005), which won best picture and best director awards at VI Semana Internacional de Cine Fantástico y de Terror de Estepona. In 2013 he received the Indie Genre Spirit Award at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival.

Pyun first met Paré in the 1990s. Both were making movies for Cannon Pictures then, albeit not together, and racking up industry cred — Paré was upcycling his image to action hero after a decade of mostly forgettable TV roles and romance films, while Pyun was establishing himself as a director who could quickly make profitable movies, often two at a time.

houston knights & women's club 3

Michael Pare in “Houston Knights” (left) and “The Women’s Club” (right)

“We discussed the Road to Hell movie with Paré in 2007, in Spain” at a film festival, says Pyun’s longtime collaborator, Cynthia Curnan. “Albert and Michael had wanted to work together for a long time.”

With Pyun directing, Curnan writing and producing, and the preternaturally handsome Paré in nearly every scene, they started shooting Road to Hell in 2008. The result is more a tribute to Streets of Fire than a followup: not so much singing and dancing, way more violence and blood, all of it set against staggeringly beautiful scenery.

But that’s Pyun’s forté. Shocking visual effects, coupled with edgy dialogue by Curnan that makes you believe ordinary people can triumph in extraordinary circumstances. Like Streets of Fire, Road to Hell is way, way ahead of its time.

Much of the film’s carnage is suggested rather than shown (probably as a result of budget constraints and lost footage — I’ll get to that). There’s a lot of outside-the-letterbox mayhem and sex. Personally, I like this approach. It leaves more room for the characters to develop and the plot to run on its own wheels. A great director is one who presents stories as well as he does entrails.

I don’t want to give away too much plot here. Me, I thought I knew what to expect and still had a visceral reaction at key moments, so I’ll let some other reviewer mess up that pleasure for you.

Suffice it to say that Road to Hell didn’t win PollyGrind’s best effects award for nothing. Much like Streets of Fire, many scenes have mesmerizing other-worldly backdrops. Every color-saturated shot is carefully framed, almost like a postcard — a picture postcard from Hell.

Hell Valley, that is. That’s where we hook up with Cody again, returning from his precious war with a bad case of post traumatic stress disorder. He still has too many weapons. Hell, he is a weapon.

Having had 29 years to reconsider his earlier poor decision, he’s now on his way back to The Richmond to reconnect with the hot girlfriend who got away. Along the way he meets two new characters: Caitlin (Clare Kramer) and Ash (Courtney Peldon), a pair of fetchingly underdressed misanthropes having car trouble on Route 666.

The women are luminous and electric, even while changing a tire that’s bigger than they are, and so reprehensible it’s hard to feel sorry for them. They’re loud and pottymouthed. They kill people for fun. Caitlin thinks she’s found her soul mate in Cody.

Kramer simmers in her role. She was my favorite villain — the mean, funny, fashion-victim god Glory — in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and she makes a good baddie here. Peldon cooks, too. Her best moments come when she realizes her use-by date has expired, and she utters barely a word. It’s all on her beautiful, horrified face.

Speaking of meaningful looks, one part I was compelled to rewatch several times is the scene where Cody meets Caitlin and Ash. Look carefully. You’ll see the face of a softer, younger Cody, the one who wants to believe in love, in a pitched battle with harder, older, no-bullshit Cody who’d rather just kill. Paré’s face actually changes, then changes back. It’s more than acting (bygones, Michael) and it’s not a digital manipulation.

The technical explanation? “A camera malfunction damaged all the shots,” says Curnan. “We had to wait for technology to advance to fix them. We couldn’t afford to rotoscope each frame.” Five years after they started, they were reshooting and repairing scenes. This sequence was among them. What you see is an epic Jekyll/Hyde duel between a 40-something Paré and a 50-something Paré, duking it out for realsies.

And it’s freakin’ awesome. There isn’t a makeup artist alive who could believably achieve what Pyun accomplished here. That he arrived at it while making lemonade out of lemons is the stuff of legends.

If you don’t understand what I mean, or think I’m full of crap, or both, I refer you to 1989’s Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!, in which a then-30ish Paré alternated between a 20ish Eddie and a 40ish one wholly via makeup, and succeeded at neither. Clare Kramer had an alter ego in Buffy who was more believable, and he was a guy. Not for nothing, but in 1977 Luis Buñuel ingeniously used two actors (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) to play one character, Conchita, in That Obscure Object of Desire. No makeup magic there and no one laughed, either, at least not when they weren’t supposed to.

My point is, there are ways to do this sort of thing believably and too often it isn’t, due more to lack of imagination than budget. Film history is littered with detritus from failed id-versus-ego slapdowns. (The Curse of the Werewolf? The ShiningMary Reilly? Sybil? Anyone?) I say do it right or go home, and Pyun nails it.

Among Road to Hell’s other visual treats are the spectacular Nevada desert, subbing for purgatory here with enhancements recalling a bad acid trip (and cleverly referencing Streets of Fire‘s original artwork).

Road to Hell

Streets of Fire posterAnother thing I liked immensely is the juxtaposition of multiple timelines in the present (Cody’s, Ellen Dream’s, and Reva’s) with the Ellen Aim flashbacks. The present-time scenes are all different styles: a graphic novel look for Tom Cody, a cinema verité one for Ellen Dream, and a documentary feel for Reva Cody. They’re knitted artfully with the happy-fuzzy uber-romanticized memories of Ellen Aim. When they all collide at the end, you know exactly where you are.

Anyway, Van Valkenburgh reliably reprises the role of Reva. She does a fine job of tethering the day-glo present to a noir past necessarily relegated to viewer memory. It’s good to see her again. Ellen Aim is played by the sexy Anita Leeman. Other characters from Streets of Fire are mentioned but never shown at all (except for Cody’s sidekick McCoy and arch enemy Raven, briefly and gorily). As always, Brick Bardo (Scott Paulin) is in the mix, too.

Michael Paré of course plays Tom Cody. Michael Paré rocks Tom Cody. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in that role, ever. If there’s ever a sequel to the sequel, they’ll just have to wheel Paré out and let him gum the scenery. That’s how much he owns the part.

The Cody in Road to Hell is disillusioned and surly, seeking some type of redemption while questioning whether he even deserves it. He’s so discombobulated, he even toys with the idea of badgirl Caitlin as a viable alternative to Ellen, I guess in case his childhood sweetheart who’s probably an altacocker now doesn’t work out. Caitlin’s hot. She’s there. She gives MRE new meaning. So what if she’s depraved?

Granted, it’s a lot of story packed into a compact space and I’ve only told you half of it, like I promised I wouldn’t. Pyun and Curnan cleverly manage to convey all this in terms of biblical allegory. Don’t worry. It’s fun, not preachy.

The unique concept gives an interesting spin to a plot that, in the hands of lesser storytellers, could easily be not so special. I dare you not to love the backstory exposition humorously offered by Gabriel, of all people — yes, the archangel given the unenviable job of telling the Virgin Mary that the rabbit died. Joei Fulco plays the part — yes, she’s a woman. Instead of a horn, this Gabriel wields a mean guitar and modern slang. Her mission: Snatch Cody from the jaws of hell. Woot!

One of many other scripty things Curnan does especially well is sandwich very funny quips in between body blows. Consider this one, delivered ominously by a grinning, up-to-no-good Cody: “I’ve hunted up here. I hunt wabbit. The two-legged breed.” And this, blurted by Ellen Aim’s eternally disappointed daughter (Roxy Gunn) during a confrontation about to turn postal: “I needed you my whole life, asshole!”

Streets of Fire fans will delight in the strategic reuse of signature lines throughout Road to Hell. There are slick cross references, too: a flat tire that changes everything; OTT bondage; Ellen suffers idiotic fan questions about her creative process. Her band sports the same name as Torchie’s band, the Blasters. Cody coldcocks chicks. He even mentions his “dark side,” a sly wink at another Paré cult musical, Eddie and the Cruisers.

Much to the relief of everyone except Springsteen, there’s finally an actual song called “Streets of Fire,” written for the movie by musical director Tony Riparetti and sung the hell out of by Fulco. The whole score is quite good. Two Jim Steinman songs from Streets of Fire were dusted off and performed again, this time by Gunn, and arguably better: “Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young.” Gunn is a guitarist and vocalist who wrote and performed many of the film’s excellent tunes. Vegas Rocks! Magazine called Road to Hell “one of the best music-driven films of the year.”

I love Pyun’s willingness to take big chances on relative unknowns, a kind of artistic bravura that really pays off here. Newcomers Fulco and Gunn pull double duty supplying both pipes and pivotal character portrayals, and never miss a beat. Fulco, amazingly, is only about 15 here and has since moved on to leading roles in feature films. She’s going to be a huge star. Quadruple-threat Gunn also has a big career ahead. Her band The Roxy Gunn Project is a favorite on Vegas stages, with a rapidly growing fan base. Both Fulco’s and Gunn’s lungs should be gilded and enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Best of all, Road to Hell has a twist ending you’ll never expect. I foresee it winning a lot more awards. And fans. Go see it. You’re welcome.




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Content of this blog Copyright ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved.
Road to Hell material Copyright ©2014 Albert Pyun Movies and Curnan Pictures ★ Images used with permission
Streets of Fire photo of Michael Paré and film poster art © RKO Universal Pictures

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