Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Having a Wild Weekend (England, 1965)

With their prim matching suits and young Republican haircuts, the Dave Clark Five visually slotted right in with Mersey Beat also-rans like Gerry and the Pacemakers and Freddy and the Dreamers. However, listening to hits such as “Glad All Over”, “Bits and Pieces”, and “Any Way You Want it” reveals that they were much closer musical kin to American garage rockers like the Sonics and Paul Revere & The Raiders. These tracks barrel through the room like a freight train; guitars, drums, saxophone, and organ all blaring in unison as if trying to drown one another out, without a moment’s pause or concession to dynamics. Suffice it to say that they were offering something very different from the Beatles, which is perhaps why, for one heartbreakingly brief moment in the mid-sixties, they were the most credible challengers to the four lads from Liverpool’s chart topping hegemony.

Such was the status of the DC5 circa 1965 that it was all but inevitable that they would star in a feature film, as did seemingly every other British pop band of the period. This might not have been the case if not for the release the previous year of A Hard Day’s Night (which you have perhaps heard of). Of course, with the Beatles, it was pretty much guaranteed that any film starring them at that time would be successful—so much so that the film could have been just 90 minutes of them peeling potatoes and would still at least break even. Director Richard Lester used the leeway this afforded him to experiment, creating something that combined documentary-style shooting, Goon Show inspired absurdist humor, and performance footage into something unlike anything audiences had seen before. Producer David Deutsch likewise insured that Having a Wild Weekend (released in the U.S. as Catch Us if You Can) would be far from a run-of-the-mill rock and roll film by assigning it to a young TV documentarian named John Boorman, for whom the film would be his first theatrical feature.

Having taken the first step of including the members of the Dave Clark Five in the film, Boorman and screenwriter Peter Nichols took their first departure from the expected by casting them, not as themselves, but as fictional non-musicians. Here they are a troupe of movie stuntmen—albeit a troupe of stuntmen who, in a tradition honored all the way from Help to Spice World--all live together in a house set up with all manner of odd contraptions and eccentric contrivances. This means that Having a Wild Weekend is a pop music movie in which the featured pop artists do not actually perform their songs onscreen (although various DC5 songs do appear on the soundtrack.) This is a pretty bold move, though, when you consider the film as a whole, it’s not surprising that its makers would buck at making it the feature-length commercial that so many of these pop films were.

As the film begins, we are introduced to Dave Clark in the role of Steve, as well as his four stunt man compatriots, who are played by band members Mike Smith, Lenny Davidson, Rick Huxley, and Dennis Payton. Somehow the group has gotten themselves embroiled in an ad campaign for the “Meat Promotion Council” that prominently features a fresh faced young model named Dinah (Barbara Ferris of Children of the Damned). An opening montage shows us that Dinah’s gigantic, smiling visage, plastered on billboards alongside the slogan “MEAT FOR GO!”, has become an inescapable part of London’s urban landscape.

A note on nomenclature: Dave Clark was the band’s drummer, as well as its producer and manager. He was also, to some extent, its visual focus—which given his matinee idol looks, is not surprising. Those looks also well suit him to be the film’s lead, as does his apparent grasp of the craft of acting. That said, whether it was direction or temperament that lead him to be so broody and intense throughout the film is anybody’s guess, although it is definitely out of character with the good time vibe of his band’s music. Perhaps it was just that all of Ferris’s toothy beaming was enough for both of them.

In any case, when we join Steve on the set of the latest “Meat for Go” TV commercial, it is clear that he is already fed up with the whole business. Dinah, weary of being seen as “that butcher girl”, reveals that she, also, longs for escape. The only thing for it is for the two to “borrow” a Jaguar E-Type from the studio lot and head out on a freewheeling journey. When Dinah tells Steve of a deserted island just off the cost she dreams of buying (“An island all to yourself”, Steve muses with a distant look in his eye), he vows to take her there. Thus begins a journey that Boorman—having fulfilled his commercial obligation by insuring that the producers could list the Dave Clark Five on the film’s poster—feels free to depict in a loose, episodic and occasionally digressive style, at times making room for things that he probably just thought would look cool, like a scuba diving sequence that showcases some nice underwater camera work.

Once on their journey, Steve and Dinah pass through three “stations” that seem to be of particular significance, seeing as each represents a potential escape route that turns out to be a dead end. In the first instance, fate—or Boorman’s eye for expressionistic desolation—leads the two to a bombed-out village inhabited by a tribe of hippy squatters who ask them if they have any “spliffs” or “horse” (they don’t). The catastrophically burnt-out leader of the group then regales them with a grizzly retelling of the legend of King Solomon before they are all chased off by mortar fire from an army unit that is using the ruin for maneuvers.

The two then hitch up with a middle aged couple of wealthy idlers, Nan (Yootha Joyce) and Guy (Robin Bailey). These two represent themselves at first as open minded free spirits, but turn out to be trapped in a loveless marriage—him lost in a nostalgia expressed through a collection of classic film ephemera and old victrolas—that leads each in turn to make unwanted advances upon their young guests. This is followed by a brief idyll at a horse ranch owned by an acquaintance of Steve’s, which provides the opportunity for lots of blatantly symbolic shots of horses running free before the youngsters are run off by encroaching forces that I will discourse upon below.

You see, all the while that Steve and Dinah are pursuing their escape from the everyday, the executives at the ad agency behind the meat campaign, led by Zissell (David de Keyser), meet in shadowy rooms to decide on how to deal with this defection by one of their key assets. Commendably, these characters are not presented as the satirical caricatures that one might expect from a movie of this type (think the flouncy marketer in A Hard Day’s Night who imperiously grills “average teenager” George Harrison for his opinions on a pair of “dead grotty” shirts), but as just the kind of ruthless, soul-dead bastards that we are now happy to assume that all ad people are. As a demonstration of this, the group connives to weave Dinah and Steve’s flight into the narrative of the meat campaign. “That’s her image,” says one. “Rootless, classless, kooky, product of affluence… typical of modern youth.”

Having a Wild Weekend’s title raises expectations of a carefree romp, which the film itself then confounds in two key ways. One is the placement of all of its action in the dead of the English winter, which renders its monochrome portrait of grey urban and barren rural locations all the more bleak. More importantly is its focus on the sullen-faced Clark at the expense of the other DC5 members, who provide sporadic one-liners and sight gags on those rare occasions that they appear on screen. I think the idea was to position Clark as an angry young man--a Mod-era Holden Caulfield, even--railing against the phoniness of modern life while being lost as to what should take its place.

It should also be said that Having a Wild Weekend’s—if you’ll pardon the pun—“beef” with modern consumer capitalism is a sincere one. Interestingly, Steve and Dinah’s first act upon making their escape is to vandalize Dinah’s billboards with graffiti and cans of black paint. From that point, we see the city through their eyes: as something alien—to the point that the omnipresence of Dinah’s giant, grinning face, alongside that grotesque slogan, becomes downright dystopian, the smile seeming more and more like an agonized rictus. When, later, Dinah takes up a bullhorn and starts haranguing passers-by (from the back of a Jaguar E-Type, mind you), it’s easy to imagine her shouting Situationist slogans. After all, what is these two malcontents’ journey if not a dérive, a re-contextualizing of experience with the distorting lens of consumer culture removed?

Perhaps that last statement is a little hard to swallow. Nonetheless, evidence of Having a Wild Weekend’s desire to be a French film ranges from the philosophical to the stereotypical, with an example of the latter being the striped shirt and beret ensembles that both Clark and Ferris wear for a good chunk of the picture. Influence of the New Wave abounds, with Breathless in particular being a frequent visual referent. Even its depiction of “no business as usual” defiance seems to presage the spirit of the 1968 Paris Revolt.

Having a Wild Weekend should also be credited for seeing its grim outlook through to its logical conclusion. At the end there is no escape for Steve and Dinah, with even their island sanctuary proving within reach of Zissell and his corporate cronies. At its conclusion, Steve walks away as Dinah is swallowed by a crowd of clamoring paparazzi and sycophants. Fidgeting nervously with her hair, she turns to Zissell and asks timidly, “Do I look alright?”

A shrewd businessman, Dave Clark sat on his band’s catalog for a number of years until he could command top dollar for it. It is a good thing that it is now available for all of us to enjoy, because his band’s upbeat music is the perfect antidote to this very downbeat film—which I wholeheartedly recommend nonetheless.

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