Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Ago Go 67 (Singapore, 1967)

Produced by Shaw Brothers’ Malay language division under the direction of Nordin Arshad, Ago Go 67 hews very closely to the template set by the “pop review” type of films -- think Pop Gear, or Live It Up -- that were issuing from Britain during the 1960s. We have two nice kids with dreams of stardom, disapproving parents, slick music biz types, rapturously frugging teens, and just enough of a plot to serve as the connective tissue between numerous musical vignettes showcasing the hitmakers of the day. Along the way, those of us at a historical remove from the proceedings are given an alluring snapshot of the Beatles-influenced “Pop Yeh Yeh” movement that was exploding throughout Malaysia at the time.

A pair of popular young actor/singers, Aziz Jaafar and Noor Azizah, respectively play Johari (“Joe”) and Fauziah. Fauziah works days as a shop girl while Joe labors at a stable with the film’s designated comic relief (S. Shamsuddin). Nights, however, are dedicated to practicing with their beat band, Dendang Perindu, which, as far as I can tell is played by the real beat band Dendang Perindu. This is an activity that Fauziah must keep secret from her father (Ahmad Nisfu), a blustering martinet who loudly objects to the youth music of today with all of its “yeah yeah yeah”-ing and such.

While visiting a recording studio at the behest of a slick music biz type played by Kuswadinata, the kids in Dendang Perindu see a poster for a record company sponsored talent showcase that just may provide them with their big break. It just may also provide Ago Go 67 with the opportunity to present us with a string of musical performance clips by groups with names like Wan Intan & The Mods, M. Ishak & The Young Lovers, The Terwellos, and Orchid Abdullah & Les Coasters.

One thing I learned from Ago Go 67 and my subsequent research into same is that the associations between Malay singers of the era and the bands who backed them up were somewhat transient, with the bands allying themselves with whichever performer opportunity -- or, perhaps, commerce -- smiled upon at that moment. For example, The Rythmn Boys (sic), who here perform behind singer S. Mariam, became one of the most in-demand backing bands on the scene after winning a Dave Clark 5-themed talent contest, and resultantly played with a number of different artists. On the other hand, singer Siti Zaitan, who here beams through an energetic, spy-themed number called “Alam Seni” to the accompaniment of The Hornets, was more often seen fronting a group called The Firebirds.

Despite defying the prevailing naming conventions, Denang Perindu ultimately win the big break we all knew they would. Unfortunately, as fate and the necessities of three act structure would have it, it is at this time that Fauziah’s father chooses to bring the hammer down on her musical activities. Providing further complications is Salvia, the singer for a rival band played by Malay sexpot Norma Zainal, who has unwelcome romantic designs on young Joe. It will take all of the moxie these teens can muster to make sure everything is set right before the producers of Ago Go 67 see fit to cram in another uninterrupted block of musical performances.

While Fausiah’s dad getting all het up about it provides the required note of generational tension, there really isn’t much on display in Ago Go 67 that one could imagine presenting much of a threat to the status quo. The music is undeniably fun, but lightweight, perfectly suited to the wholesome prancing of the clean cut -- shirts and ties for the boys, knee-length jumpers for the girls -- dancers who shimmy along to it.

This is not to say that there are not standouts among the performances, the aforementioned Siti Zaitan & The Hornets’ being one of them. On top of that, there is the striking androgyny and haunting vocal of D4-Ever singer, D. Hatta, who came into this world as one Mohamed Hatta Abdul Wahab (like some Jewish American singers, Malaysian singers of the era appear to have had a tendency to deracinate their stage names -- perhaps understandably, given the racial strife that was gripping the country at the time). Elsewhere, Blind singer S. Jibeng -- rather than presenting himself as an inspirational figure like so many other disabled artists before him -- seems to be milking his condition for pathos with the song “Nasib si Butah” (“Blind Luck”). He starts by dropping his cane onto the set from off-screen, as if by accident, and then scrambles for it pathetically on the ground before launching into his mournful tune.

Also bearing mention is the level of musicianship on display in Ago Go 67, which is exceptional. The guitar instrumentals of groups like The Ventures and, especially, The Shadows had an enormous influence on Southeast Asian beat groups at the time, which is given ample testament here. The resulting prominence of busy and interweaving, melodic guitar lines requires a lot of lightning-fingered picking on the part of the axemen in these groups. This, of course, does not cancel out the need for showmanship, as equal prominence is given to lots of choreographed guitar moves -- a tradition that I wish would return, along with the practice, abundantly in evidence here, of conveniently labeling the kick drum head with the band’s name.

A movie like Ago Go 67 was likely seen as a quick money maker for Shaw, unworthy of the vibrant color lavished on its Hong Kong productions. Still, one can’t help wishing it could have been otherwise, especially when considering the delightfully campy designs of the individualized sets on which each group performs. All of the staple elements of 1960s variety show mise-en-scène are on view: the giant musical notes, the ascending rampways to nowhere, the stylized street scenes populated by bizarre, human-like effigies. Singer S. Mariam is even provided with an on-stage vanity table and mirror, into which she stares with delicious melancholy, like a Malay Francoise Hardy, brushing her hair absently as the intro plays. What M. Ishak & The Young Lovers did to have their song, “Menari Go-Go”, simply performed in someone’s backyard, I’ll never know.

I think it goes without saying that Ago Go 67, which is currently available in its entirety on YouTube, is a real treat for fans of world pop, be it of the musical or cinematic variety. If, like me, you are a fan of both, it is a little slice of heaven. As an added bonus, the steadfastly formulaic nature of its plot renders subtitles completely unnecessary. For example, I don’t need to speak Malay to know what Fauziah’s father, predictably humbled and chagrined at the film’s end, is saying. Darn those crazy kids!


Radio Schmaydio said...

Wow, thanks for turning me on to this gem!

Todd said...

As you can probably tell, it's my pleasure!