Monday, March 31, 2008

Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up"

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Curtis Mayfield’s healing epic "Move On Up". It was just before Christmas of 2000 and I was coming out of what had been easily the hardest and worst period of my life. It was the period when I really needed an artist like Curtis Mayfield to come into my life and it almost didn’t happen.
I was doing some last minute Christmas shopping and came across a copy of Mayfield’s first solo album in a sale bin. I still remember nearly passing it up, as I know it’s bad to buy yourself something before Christmas, but thankfully the price allowed my indulgence and I have been thankful ever since.
Mayfield’s first album, Curtis, is a wondrous affair and for those who haven’t heard it or don’t have it on CD, Rhino’s 2000 reissue of it is a must buy. I am always amazed to see any best of lists without it on there, but considering those lists often ignore soul and funks finest albums I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise.
I was immediately captured by the album and recall listening to it that first time as I was driving over to my mom’s for the holidays. It had snowed maybe an inch but the sun had come out and it was disappearing as my commute from Lexington to Louisville went by as the album progressed. I still remember feeling profoundly sad and defeated as I was driving over due to the events that had struck me in the couple of years leading up to that day, events I won’t go into here, but it was a sober kind of depression that had been threatening to lift. I needed something to help it pass though.


The moment "Move On Up" first began for me was an incredible experience. I literally got goose bumps as Mayfield’s near ten-minute ode a brighter day began to take effect. I believe that the old adage that some music can have a deep healing power is true and that was (and is) the case with much of Mayfield’s music, with Move On Up being near the most curative.
I really needed something that morning to make me believe that everything was going to be okay and Curtis Mayfield’s marvelous track gave me that, and it still does to this day no matter how many thousands of times I have heard it. If I am feeling down, or if everything is just feeling hopeless, I play "Move On Up" to remind myself that not all is lost…the song is the sun suddenly breaking through a string of cloudy days.
I’m really grateful to Curtis for a lot of his music, especially "Move On Up". Apparently I am not the only one as I hear it all the time now, check the endings to both Bend It Like Beckham and the more recent Semi-Pro. The Jam of course did a pretty swell version of it as well and I always appreciated how fond Paul Weller was of the great Mayfield.


I was disturbed and disheartened recently to see ‘artist’ Kanya West pillaging Mayfield’s classic for his "Touch The Sky". It breaks my heart that many young people’s introduction to Mayfield’s rousing track is through this raping of it. Also add on that most of them probably don’t even know its Curtis Mayfield makes it even worst. I only hope Mayfield’s surviving family is seeing some major royalties as I am sure West has made more from his track than Curtis made in his entire career.
The original is still the best and if you have only heard the song courtesy of some soundtracks, pick up Curtis. The album, which was recorded in Chicago in 1970, remains one of the great works of the seventies and it can be found fairly cheaply in stores and online.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders at Nashville's Belcourt


Wow, how’s this for a pleasure. Kelley and I got to attend an ultra rare big screen showing today of Jaromil Jires’ amazing 1970 masterpiece Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders at Nashville’s Belcout Theater. The screening of the 16-millimeter print wraps up an exciting run for us that started with Diva a few weeks ago and continued with Diary Of The Dead before concluding with Valerie this afternoon. I’m not much on road trips anymore but these jaunts were all well worth it.
I had seen Jires miraculously strange film on DVD before but I must say being in the presence of one of the only remaining theatrical prints of it in the world was something special.
Following an introduction of it by the Belcourt employee who had selected it where he detailed just difficult it is to get a theatrical print of this. This particular one came from a private Nashville collector and is among the best of the handful of 16-millimeter prints, (only one 35 millimeter print is said to still be in circulation) and the presenter’s excitement at introducing the film was infectious. After promising a gloriously faded and scratched but complete subtitled print, the about half to capacity audience was treated to something really special.
The very odd and moving Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders is a film pretty much impossible to describe so I won’t attempt to here. So, if you haven’t experienced the film, please put it in your Netflix queue immediately…and go ahead and order the soundtrack from Dusty Groove as I promise you will want a copy after watching the film.
I was mostly struck this time by just how incredibly beautiful the film is to watch. Even in this faded and deteriorated state, Jires film is a majestic creation that is among the most visually entrancing works of art I have ever seen.
I was also really taken this time with actress Helena Anyzova, who plays three separate roles with the kind of beautiful erotic intensity that Joelle Couer would lend to some later Jean Rollin works. Amazingly enough this was one of just a couple of screen appearance from the striking Anyzova which makes her work in it all the more enigmatic and iconic.
I would love to see Criterion tackle this very important Czech film sometime in the future but for now it remains a faded and scratched treasure just asking for more people to discover it. Thanks to the folks at Belcourt for screening this…it was bliss.

Juliana Hatfield: Choose Drugs


Allow me a bit of melancholic nostalgia...I have been thinking a lot about Juliana Hatfield lately (people in their mid thirties apparently become prone to thinking about artists they loved in their early twenties) and finding this clip on YouTube of her doing one of her most devestating songs reminded me of how inspiring she was each time I saw her back in the early nineties.
I met her a few times and still admire everything she brings out...anyway, it's late and I am feeling very overly sentimental...this song is incredible with the line "I say it's me or drugs and you choose drugs" really hitting a nerve.

Elvis On Screen: Loving You (1957)


Directed with real panache by the very able Hal Kanter and featuring one of the best soundtracks of the fifties, the first proper Elvis Presley Vehicle Loving You would set the stage for not only the rest of his cinematic career but also the rock n’ roll film genre itself.
Kanter got his start in the late forties as a writer for a number of television variety shows and series including Ed Wynn’s show as well as Amos n’ Andy. Loving You marked the first time Kanter had stepped up to the plate as director though and he redeems himself quite nicely, delivering a colorful and exciting film that knew exactly what it was and it played up to it brilliantly.

The writer turned director had initially been a little hesitant to work with the controversial rocker but early on in their collaboration he felt himself won over by Presley’s charm, wit and most importantly seriousness. Hal Kanter saw what few others saw early on in Elvis’ career, namely that he had the talent to become a serious actor.

Loving You wouldn’t be the film to take Elvis to the places he needed to go as a top of the line actor and Kanter knew it, but it was a major step towards placing Elvis among the top and most charismatic screen stars of his or any other time.
Loving You centers on a very Presley like character named Deke Rivers who quickly finds fame as a traveling rock and roller after being discovered by a shrewd promoter and manager (played intriguingly by Lizabeth Scott). If the plot seems contrived and predictable today, that is just because it has been copied so many times. Loving You practically invents a genre in its 100 minute running time and if the imitators have taken some of its boldness away that is perhaps the inevitable drawback to being so influential.

Surrounding Elvis in this eye popping color production, shot by legendary Oscar winner Charles Lang, is a really special cast filled out by a number of veteran actors and a couple of really fresh faces who would soon become stars in their own right.
Lizabeth Scott is best remembered today for her appearances in a number of top film noir productions of the forties, including the great 1947 Humphrey Bogart vehicle Dead Reckoning. Not a traditional beauty, Scott managed to carve quite a place for herself for a while in film with her rather hypnotic intensity and mystery. She is really splendid in Loving You in a part that would have typically been played by a man and her scenes with Elvis are very nicely done.

Other well known cast members include prolific character actor Wendell Corey, talented James Gleason (who tragically passed away just a couple of years after production on Loving You wrapped) and scene stealer Jana Lund who claims her place in history here as one of the first rock and roll groupies ever presented on film.

Lots of other familiar faces pop up as well including future television actress Yvonne Lime and many folks Elvis fans will recognize including his parents in a crowd scene. The real story of the film though is young Dolores Hart, who makes her feature debut as Elvis’ sweet love interest, Susan Jessup.

Chicago born Hart was nearing her twentieth birthday when she shot Loving You for Kanter and it would marked one of two very memorable roles opposite Elvis (the other being 1958’s King Creole) and she is simply smashing in the both parts, projecting the kind of warmth and goodness most actors wouldn’t even be able to come close to. Hart would become quite close to Elvis during the production and some endearing home movies exist of the two of them palling together after it wrapped. She would shock everyone less than ten years after Loving You when she abandoned an incredibly promising screen career to be a nun. Her role as Susan here is one of her finest and her scenes with Elvis mark some of the best in his entire canon.
Loving You is at its best during the many song sequences and the legendary soundtrack is astonishing. Songs like the title track, "Mean Woman Blues" and "Teddy Bear" seem a part of our national collective conscience but even better are the lesser-known tracks like the exciting "Got A Lot Of Livin To Do", "Party" (a favorite of the young John Lennon and Paul McCartney) and the eerie "Lonesome Cowboy"(one of the film’s original titles) mark some of the finest studio work Elvis did in the fifties. Anyone who has ever stated that all of Elvis soundtracks songs are bad have either never heard the Loving You soundtrack or are completely deaf when it comes to great music as every cut on here is a killer.

Kanter directs the film and its musical sequences with a lot of style and inventive drive and it’s a shame his directorial career wasn’t more prolific. Loving You is almost a complete success for the first time director and with perhaps a little tightening (especially in the latter half) it could have been one of the truly great musicals of the fifties.
The future great actor in Elvis that Kanter predicted doesn’t appear here but what is in its place is no less incredible. Gone are the jitters of Love Me Tender as Elvis appears totally at ease and he has already nearly mastered the relaxed on screen charm and charisma that has gone on to influence everyone from Kurt Russell to Vince Vaughn. Loving You is one of the great early chapters in Elvis’ career and one that has never fully gotten its due.
The film is available on a decent widescreen DVD with virtually no extras, although thankfully a wonderful book called Inside Loving You is out that details the film's production.. Adding insult to injury, it is surprisingly one of the hardest to find with online vendors being the only real prerogative as very few stores seem to stock it. Pity, as Loving You is one of the best films in Elvis ‘ catalogue and one of the most delightful and underrated Rock films of the fifties.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered Volume 1


I was thrilled the other day to receive my copy of the just released DVD Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered Volume 1. This limited to 2500 copies release from director Mike Baronas is a really wonderful tribute to the maestro as well as being an absolutely no-brainer buy for anyone who loves Italian film.
Containing nearly ninety interviews (typically ranging from one to seven minutes) with Fulci's actors, peers and collaborators, Paura works as a splendid and honest tribute to someone who was obviously a very complicated but fascinating man.

The main thing that impressed me in the majority of the interviews is how obviously happy many of the participants are to talk on Fulci, as it is pointed out over and over again how overlooked he is in Italy. One of the best interviews on the set is with Gino De Rossi who appears absolutely grateful and moved to be given the opportunity to discuss a collaborator he obviously very much admired. Other highlights from the disc include Riz Ortolani recalling Fulci as a songwriter and mentioning how they shared a major love of music together, and George Hilton who honestly admits that he had more respect for Lucio as an artist rather than a human being. Hilton is an exception though as most of the folks on here have only positive things to say about Fulci.

My favorite section of Paura are the interviews with Fulci's peers, featuring moments with many famed Italian directors (some who were friends with Fulci and some who barely knew him). These are particularly interesting pieces and help us get a glance at Fulci's many varied roles in Italian cinema and its history. Some highlights inn this section include Luigi Cozzi recalling a moving and funny moment with Fulci and Argento on the eve of the Wax Mask project and Ruggero Deodato speaking of the last time he saw an obviously ill Fulci and giving him a hug. The disc is filled with many moving and intimate moments and as such it stands as a nice personal and visual companion to Stephen Thrower's massive and important look at Fulci's career in printed form, Beyond Terror.

Probably the most entertaining interview on the disc comes with the always engaging and delightfully confident Umberto Lenzi, who has some great stories to tell and who signs off his interview by calling Fulci and himself a genius!
Anyone who has any number of Shriek Show DVDS will recognize where many of these interviews originated from (although don't be concerned that you are buying something you already have as this disc features unseen moments that weren't on those older DVD supplements) and it is still a pleasure to visit with so many legendary figures.

The screen shots I am including are of the lovely Cinzia Monreale, who I have written on here before. I was really excited to see more from the interview she gave from the Buio Omega disc and her thoughts continue to show her as a warmly engaging and charismatic woman who deserves more attention than she gets.
Follow this link to order Paura. It is an absolutely essential purchase to anyone with even a passing interest in Italian Horror and one of the best DVD's of 2008.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Claudia Jennings Double Feature: Unholy Rollers (1972) and Gator Bait (1974)



If I ever had the chance to go back in time and work as a director in 1970’s American cinema there would be a certain number of specific actresses I would relish working with. They wouldn’t be the ‘great actors’ of the day like Fonda, Redgrave, Dunaway etc (although I love all of them) but instead would be any number of the remarkable women who were best known for their work in the A.I.P. type exploitation flicks I have come to love so much. You can bet that the likes of Roberta Collins, Rainbeaux Smith, and Candice Rialson would have been badgered constantly to appear in every film I would have made. I would perhaps not badger any as much as I would have the late Claudia Jennings though, a force on the seventies independent scene whose personality, beauty and spark still resonate to this day almost thirty years after her tragic death.



Mary Eileen Chesterson was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1949 but was raised mostly around Milwaukee. Just before her twentieth birthday she moved to Chicago and got a job at the Playboy Offices as a receptionist. It wasn’t long after that the extraordinarily beautiful red-head was noticed, and her first appearance in the magazine came in November of 1969 under the name of Claudia Jennings.



There is something touching and sweet about the photos of Claudia in this period and it’s not surprising she quickly became one of the most popular playmates in history, earning the title Playmate of the Year in 1970. She would appear in the magazine throughout the seventies but it was her role as an actress in Hollywood that really set her apart from most of the models that had appeared in Hefner’s publication.
From her earliest work in Jud (1971) to her memorable Brady Bunch appearance up until her final role in David Cronenberg’s Fast Company (1979) there was something special about Jennings. Exuding charm, charisma and most importantly intelligence, Jennings came across incredibly natural on the screen in whatever role she was playing. This was never more true than it was in a series of popular drive in pictures she made from 1972 to 1978, often under the banner of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.



I recently re-watched two of Claudia’s key films, 1972’s Unholy Rollers and 1974’s Gator Bait and was struck by just how enduring a screen presence she remains and just how good an actress she was. Of the two, I definitely prefer the delicious and delirious Unholy Rollers (surely one of the most entertaining movies of its kind from the seventies) although the very odd and rather dark Gator Bait certainly has its charms as well.



Unholy Rollers, directed with zing by Vernon Zimmerman with editing by Martin Scorsese, premiered in November 0f 1972 about three months after Raquel Welch’s smashing Kansas City Bomber had wowed audiences. Think of Unholy Rollers as a down and dirty version of Kansas City Bomber and you kind of have the picture in a nutshell.



Claudia stars as a feisty and angry former factory worker named Karen who gets to realize her violent roller-derby dreams when she joins a local team. She quickly becomes the star of the league while managing to alienate and anger everyone around her with her piss and vinegar attitude. Defiant, independent and in total control, Jenning’s Karen is a notable addition to the great ‘new woman’ roles that were coming out in the early seventies…she is a major badass and she relishes in it.
Zimmerman didn’t have that prolific of a career as he has just a handful of titles to his name with the most famous being 1980’s terrific Fade To Black. I love his work on Unholy Rollers though and the film zips along at lightning speed thanks to his no budget no problem style and Scorsese’s clever cutting which is especially potent during the exciting Roller Derby scenes.



Working from a script by New World writer Howard R. Cohen with a solid and at times surprisingly subtle score by Kendall Schmidt, Zimmerman’s Unholy Rollers is an absolute blast that perhaps sacrifice’s the heart of Kansas City Bomber for an infectious jolt of 90 minutes worth of pure adrenaline.



While the film belongs to Claudia, who appears in almost every scene and is at her absolute physical peak, some of the supporting cast is also very notable. First and foremost is the inclusion of the great Roberta Collins and her scenes with Claudia are absolutely electric.



The always undervalued and always excellent Collins provides a perfect chilly blond counterpoint to Jenning’s sizzling red-headed persona. Seeing the two together on screen all these years later is still incredible and might even bring a tear to the eyes of people like myself obsessed with these films from a period very much gone.



Lots of other familiar faces pop up from Sugar Hill’s Betty Anne Rees to a young Victor Argo as the team’s irritable trainer. Unholy Rollers is a potpourri of remembered faces but often forgotten names from this great period in American filmmaking and it’s a fun experience just going through and attempting to pick them out.



Claudia is just amazing in this film and it might very well be her greatest role. It is at the very least one of her strongest and its hard to imagine any man or woman controller her as her Karen is absolutely and unapologetically ferocious. She has a chip on both shoulders and her final moment in the film where she defiantly flashes her team tattoo to a street filled with astonished onlookers and cops is one of the most iconic moments from American exploitation cinema in the seventies. She’s a knockout in every possible meaning of the word…



Unholy Rollers is strangely enough not available on DVD which is a real and unfortunate oversight. Copies of the old VHS, from which these screenshots were taken, can be found but they are not cheap. A full blown special edition of the film would be most welcome and would be a great tribute to Jennings who really worked her ass off in this role. As someone stated in a review on Amazon, Unholy Rollers is “a cult movie in need of a cult” and I wholeheartedly agree.



Even more popular, although nowhere near as strong, than Unholy Rollers is a film that Claudia shot two years later set in the sticky swamps of Thibodaux, Louisiana by husband and wife directing team Beverly and Ferd Sebastian.
Gator Bait is a surprisingly unpleasant and mean little film that has all of the necessary ingredients for this type of redneck exploitation that was so popular for a short while in the mid seventies…namely incest, backwoods humor, murder, rape and revenge.



Inspired by Burt Reynold’s name in 1973’s fantastic White Lightning, Gator Bait is a simple revenge story set around a mysterious red head Gator hunter named Desiree who haunts the swamps setting traps and breaking hearts.
The film, directed rather flatly by the Sebastians, is probably mostly remembered for its very striking one sheet and VHS artwork and for the images of a wild looking Claudia in cut off shorts running around in the woods. I am always taken aback when I revisit it by just how nasty a little number it is and how it lacks the energy and fun that so many of these types of films possessed in this period.



Gator Bait, despite all its flaws, is an interesting film though that is worth another look. While the Sebastians aren’t great filmmakers one has to respect how much they did (direction, script, editing and music) on what must have been a difficult production to mount, stage and complete. Anyone who has ever felt the sticky humidity of the south will know how oppressive and exhausting it could be and the fact that Gator Bait exists as a completed film at all is probably worth celebrating.



The small cast surrounding Claudia is fine, especially Janit Baldwin who really has to endure some rough and violent scenes. Claudia herself is great in what is almost a silent role but truth be told she is almost a supporting player who just pops up occasionally almost like a ghost creeping through the swamps.



The ending still surprises me as it trades in the trademark coda of the revenge genre for a more existential final that is actually one of the more effective parts of the film. Gator Bait is a sweaty little stinger of a film that I suspect would lose a lot of its menace on a polished widescreen DVD as its ugly quality seems almost tailor maid for an ancient full frame VHS…which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t welcome a disc of it…



Some of Claudia’s best work would follow in the five years after Gator Bait before her tragic death in a Malibu car accident. Watching her small body of work today is still exhilarating and I plan on posting a few more of these double feature looks at some more of her key works. There’s no telling what the eighties and beyond might have held for Claudia Jennings, but as it is she is frozen in time as one of the loveliest and most powerful actresses of the seventies even though she rarely gets her due for it.

Overlooked Gems: "So Glad Your Mine"

Our man recorded this gloriously down and dirty Arthur Crudup track in the late January session of 1956. Bristling with a delightfully decadent burlesque feel, this ode to a girl shaped like a ‘cannonball’ is one of the best Elvis tracks of the fifties, and is highlighted by a menacingly smooth vocal by EP as well as some unforgettable piano work by Shorty Long. A real masterpiece and one of the best tracks off the fabulous second LP.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Asia Argento In Olivier Assayas' Boarding Gate

I haven't seen the new film from Olivier Assayas, Boarding Gate, starring Asia Argento yet but I am greatly anticipating it. I like Assayas' films quite a bit for the most part and this one sounds pretty incredible. It gone some notoriously bad notices at Cannes last year so I was glad to stumble across this recent great review in the New York Times by Manohla Dargis. I especially like the sections in the review where Dargis correctly notes that "Argento" is "one of contemporary cinema's most fascinating creatures" and the final paragraph where Assayas' films are compared to the music of Brian Eno is particularly inspired.
Boarding Gate is apparently in limited release right now. I am really looking forward to seeing it although I suspect I will have to wait for the DVD.

A Slight Rant On One Of The Biggest Snubs In Academy Award History


I've been thinking a lot about Michael Mann's The Insider lately. Part of it has to do with this excellent new blog I have discovered called Radiator Heaven, which is run by a really intelligent writer that everyone should check out. Another reason it keeps crossing my mind is that I have been thinking a lot about the state of modern American films and why my tastes seem to be falling further and further away from what other people value.
Truth be told, I don't think there are too many American films from the past decade that can hold a candle to The Insider. Whereas any number of directors (and I won't name any names here but you know who they are) might set out to make an 'important' film, I feel Mann actually achieved that with this film. I also don't think there has been a better acted film in the past ten years with Russell Crowe's performance as Jeffrey Wigand being among the best I have ever seen.

This all got me to thinking about the film's performance at the 1999 Academy Awards when it was shut out after being nominated for seven awards. I couldn't remember what was big that year so I looked it up and discovered with distaste that it was none other than American Beauty, a popular film I don't like that kind of sums up the division I feel with a lot of other modern film fans.
I didn't think American Beauty was a terrible film but I didn't think it was a good one either and even mentioning it in the same breath with something like The Insider baffles me. Nearly ten years later I don't understand why the public or critics responded to Mendes' film so strongly.
The best actor award that year went to Kevin Spacey, an actor I typically like but not in American Beauty and frankly comparing Spacey's rather limp turn to Crowe's monumental performance is unbelievably jarring to me. I think it was to a lot of folks as well as it was just a year later that Crowe did indeed win the award he should have taken home in 99 for Gladiator, a great film and performance but to my eyes not at the level of The Insider.
Michael Mann lost the directing prize to Sam Mendes, again for American Beauty and he also lost the best adapted screenplay award to John Irving for The Cider House Rules (you couldn't make this stuff up if you tried, it's like the academy voters all smoked cracked before submitting their ballots). Also on the losing end that night was the film's cinematographer Dante Spinotti and the editing and sound teams.
Pacino, who gives one of the best performances of his life here, wasn't even granted a nomination nor was Lisa Gerrard, whose breathtaking score is one of the most effective I have ever heard.
Add on insult to injury, the film's current DVD is one of the most botched I have ever seen with an non-existent audio commentary by Crowe and Pacino listed on the back and only a short featurette granted as an extra. In a world where we have special editions of Police Academy and Mallrats, can't we get a decent dvd release of The Insider?
There have been lots of other wince inducing years at the Oscars (don't even get me started on 1952, 1968, or pretty much the entire decade of the eighties) but the 1999 awards really bug me. Which all goes towards saying if you have never seen The Insider, or if it has been awhile, give it a look. I hope that a decent DVD hits stores eventually, as it is the current one can be found typically for under ten dollars at stores and online.

Lou Reed's Berlin: French Poster Design

Just came across this awesome French Poster for Schnabel's Berlin and had to post it here. I love how they are using the Ecstasy era photo with it as I have always found those some of the most striking images of Lou. Can't wait to to see this thing...

Nastassja On Ebay: Rare Thai Cat People Poster and Premiere Cover


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Blaxploitation Operation: Johnny Tough


It is a real shame that the directorial debut from Horace Jackson, 1974’s Johnny Tough, isn’t a better film. A shame because the idea behind it, to remake Francois Truffaut’s monumental masterpiece The 400 Blows as an inner city African American drama, is a fascinating and compelling one. Even though the film is a disappointment and a heavily flawed feature it is still an interesting one and is deserving of a look if you can track the film down.

Jackson only directed two features in his career, with the other being 1977’s Joey (a.k.a. Deliver Us From Evil), and he is probably best know as the screenwriter of the fascinating The Bus Is Coming (1971)…a film I will be focusing on soon.
Jackson’s film career started in the mid sixties with Living Between Two Worlds (1963), a film he wrote, produced and even acted in. Johnny Tough shows him as an ambitious talent but unfortunately an experienced cast and budgetary problems damage the film nearly beyond repair and today it is mostly just a valuable curiosity more than anything else.
Johnny Tough is indeed an almost straight remake of Truffaut’s legendary first Antoine Doinel film with young Dion Gossett (seen here in his only big screen appearance) as the troubled title character. Gossett is actually quite good in the film and, truth be told, he is more convincing than most of the adult actors that surround him.

The rest of the cast is almost entirely made up of actors with no film experience and it shows as almost everyone struggles with Jackson’s ambitious screenplay. Character actor Renny Roker is the only one featured of the major players who has more than a handful of credits on his resume and it is no surprise that he gives one of the better performances in the film. The rest of the cast, put simply, fail to sell the material at nearly every turn and the film has a hard time making up for this.
The film is also visually flat and resembles a TV movie more than a big screen feature, although admittedly the faded full frame print I saw makes it hard to definitively judge the photography of Pets cinematographer Mark Rasmussen. Even in this print though it is clear that Johnny Tough lacks the urban finesse that typified the best of this period. It is a bland looking picture about an exciting subject and it simply never visually pops.

The score, by acclaimed Detroit musician Dennis Coffey, is also a bit of a let down as it suffers from a lot of needless repetition, which is more than likely due to the limited budget and short shooting schedule.
Despite all of the major problems the film has, it is still hard not to admire what Jackson was attempting here. The film has balls and I must admit by the closing scene (which does a fascinating turn on Truffaut’s famed closing still of Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Doinel) I was more than a little moved…even though my emotion was due more to the fact of what was behind the film rather than what was actually on the screen.

Johnny Tough was released in theaters in 1974 and failed to connect with audiences or critics. It floated around for awhile (sometimes under the title of just Tough) and reappeared in 1977 on a Drive In Bill as a companion piece to Jackson’s Joey. It can be found on a public domain, transferred from VHS, DVD usually for around a dollar around the country.

Johnny Tough is a well meaning little film that has too many flaws to give a real recommendation to. Still, warts and all, fans of African American cinema in the seventies and admirers of Truffaut’s film in general shouldn’t miss it.