Saturday, October 1, 2011

Rita of the West (Italy, 1967)

I miss old school pop music movies.

That thought occurred to me while, of all things, attending a press screening of the Taylor Lautner movie Abduction that a friend of mine invited me to. Lautner's performance in that movie was so much of the classic non-actor variety that, for me, it would only have been forgivable if he had been some freshly minted pop sensation making his svengali-mandated screen debut. It would even have made the movie more enjoyable if this alternate universe Lautner of mine had periodically whipped out his guitar and serenaded his female co-star with one of his current hits, even if those hits were terrible (as I imagine they would be). Maybe then the action could have also been interrupted intermittently by scenes in which Taylor's overzealous fans tried to gain access to him by a variety of comically improbable means. Yes, there would be fake mustaches involved.

I'm not a graphic artist.

If Abduction had been a quickie pop star vehicle in the mode of, say, Fabian's Hound Dog Man -- or, hell, even Cool As Ice -- it would at least have been even less able, and hence less ill-advisably inclined, to try to disguise its true nature as a cynical cash-grab aimed at separating teenage girls from their allowances. It also would have benefited from some of such movies' innate, frothy charms, all of them being so ephemeral and chained to their specific cultural moment that, even viewed fresh, each successive frame might seem to recede into nostalgia in its passing.

Sadly, such films -- cheerfully slapdash genre pastiches existing for the sole purpose of allowing fans to gawp at their non-actor musician stars on the big screen -- seem to have ceased being the preferred mode of cinematic exploitation for today's music industry. Instead, a misguided, wholly boring, and completely ersatz notion of "realness" seems to be guiding things, with the result that what pop star film vehicles do get made are either concert films or lionizing documentaries. And I am not including here the pop music-heavy product turned out by Disney, since that is less about good old idol worship and more about the type of aspirational nonsense that encourages its young audience to identify with their rock star protagonists because they are every bit as special as they are!

In fact, the final gasps of the classic pop movie seem to have occurred during the 90s, back when Prince made the last of his awful but completely hysterical movies, and during which we saw the release of Spice World, a late-to-the-game classic of the genre. But, of course, to truly experience the genre at its peak, you'd have to go back to the 60s. It was then that the success of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and Help! inspired slapdash cinematic imitations on the part of practically every also-ran British Invasion group, from The Dave Clark 5 to Herman's Hermits -- a phenomenon which crossed hemispheres in the form of similar capers featuring Japanese "Group Sounds" bands like the Spiders and the Jaguars. Italy, a country robust in both its cinematic and pop music traditions, was also not immune to the trend, as demonstrated by Ferdinando Baldi's pop-heavy Spaghetti Western send-up Rita of the West.

Rita of the West features pint-sized belter Rita Pavone in the role of itinerant gunslinger Little Rita. Pavone at the time was not just a huge sensation in Italy, but throughout Europe as well. The combination of her diminutive size and brash, aggressive singing style -- coupled, no doubt, with her alarmingly hyperkinetic dancing -- gave her enough novelty appeal among American record consumers to drive her song "Remember Me" (sung in an endearing, heavily accented English) into the nether reaches of the U.S. Top Forty, and resulted in her becoming, if briefly,  a recurring presence on American television, with numerous appearances on both The Ed Sullivan Show and Shindig, among others.

Much is made of Pavone's slight stature in Rita of the West. And to be honest, with her short-cropped hair, freckles, and child-sized cowboy attire, she looks very much like a twelve year old boy.  At one point a bartender calls her "kiddy" and refuses to serve her. But, playing on this, Rita of the West also makes her invincible, a shootist so supernaturally skilled that she is capable of felling even the most iconic gunfighters in the Spaghetti Western universe. Here, working with the Indian tribe of Chief Silly Bull (Gordon Mitchell), her plan is to rid the world of all of its gold, and hence the source of all of its evil. This naturally involves her stealing the gold of literally everyone in her environs, after which the idea is to seal the entirety of it in a cave on the reservation, where it will be blown up with dynamite. Say what you will about this scheme, but in the world of Spaghetti Western plots -- which have the tendency to frequently crib from one another -- it at least has the virtue of being unique.

Yet, while Little Rita preaches peace and sings of the power of smiles, her methods lean more toward mayhem. Not realistic mayhem, mind you, though it is tempting to wonder what Fulci would have done with this material. During a gunfight with "Ringo" (played by Peplum star Kirk Morris, looking much more like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name), the antagonists' expertly aimed bullets continually stop each other mid-flight, until an even more expertly aimed bullet of Rita's blocks the barrel of Ringo's gun, after which the two engage in a parodic karate fight. Finally, frustrated with Ringo's implacability, Rita cheerfully blows him up with a giant golden hand grenade. Later, she uses a similar weapon to explode a band of fiesta-ing Mexican bandits, whose smoking limbs can be seen flying every which way. Rita's ultimate act of Spaghetti West domination, however, comes during the film's latter half, when she cooly guns down Django himself (played by Franco Nero ringer Lucio Rosato, who both drags a coffin and sports bandaged, bloodied hands).

In most cases, the aftermath of this carnage provides the opportunity for a song, usually an upbeat number that inspires the assembled townsfolk to engage in wild, choreographed dancing like some kind of frontier flash mob. All of these are sung by Pavone with various of her co-stars, who include a number of other figures from the Italian pop music scene. Lucio Dalla, then at the beginning of what would become a long and venerated career as a singer-songwriter (among his compositions are a couple that have become Italian pop standards), portrays Rita's German sidekick Fritz, while the town's ineffectual sheriff is played by 50s crooner Teddy Reno. Reno, who discovered Pavone, was the singer's manager at the time and, a year later, would become her husband -- an arrangement that provoked scandal due to the twenty year age difference between the two.

I should also mention that almost every song sung my Rita and her partners in the film is about how wonderful Rita is, with lines like "Little Rita, Sweet and clever" being fairly representative.

There are a lot of factors that make Rita of the West a compelling watch, not the least of them being the film's manic combination of goofy "up with people" exuberance and pitch black gallows humor. Genre workhorse Baldi accentuates this further by providing a credible Spaghetti Western framework -- complete with beautifully shot, scope-enhanced vistas and lots of claustrophobic, sweaty close-ups -- for all the irreverent pop art antics to play out within. Furthermore, Pavone, while perhaps no great thespian, is a charming presence with a truly infectious enthusiasm, as is Dalla. And there is no end of pleasure in seeing a cast of genre stalwarts -- which, in addition to the previously mentioned Mitchell and Morris, also includes Trinity himself, Terence Hill, as Little Rita's love interest Black Stand -- who themselves seem to be taking great pleasure in sending themselves up. Nor is their little delight in seeing so many of the classic Spaghetti Western sets and locations used here play host to such atypical goings on.

To return to my opening tirade, they don't make films like Rita of the West anymore. And, to a certain way of thinking, that is as it should be -- as Rita of the West could easily serve as a textbook example of disposable filmmaking. But, for a person like me, that disposability makes the act of plucking it from the trash that much more thrilling. It's the kind of movie whose true enjoyment, to my mind, requires an act of mental time travel back to that moment, both incredibly specific and flittingly brief, during which it was culturally relevant -- and even then, perhaps only marginally so. And when you're really able to tune in to that, it's like feeling the buzz of the fly trapped in amber. If the songs are rocking, the stars appealing, that makes it just that much better.


Memsaab said...

So many gems in here Todd, but "frontier flash mob" made me laugh out loud. And thanks for reminding me of Up With People ("up, up with people / you meet 'em wherever you go..."). It will be my cross to bear all day.

Todd said...

Thanks, Memsaab! As an earworm palliative, I will take your "Up With People" and raise you one "Free To Be You and Me".

Memsaab said...

NOOOOOOOOOOOO NO NO NO you are not helping

Todd said...

In a land where the river runs freeeeee!...