Buried way down on the list of this week’s DVD releases — below Limitless and Take Me Home Tonight and Peep World — is a little movie called Skidoo, which you may have never heard of unless you are a bad movie aficionado (as your author is). This 1968 “comedy” was an attempt by Paramount and esteemed director Otto Preminger to make a hip film about the counter-culture geared towards the young people — starring such youth heroes as, um, Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Burgess Meredith, Mickey Rooney, and Groucho Marx. It concerns a gangster (Gleason) who is sent into prison to ice an informant and ends up dropping acid and escaping via a flying garbage can. It is as spectacularly ill-conceived as it sounds, and it sank without a trace following its release — though it occasionally popped up on cable, it was never released on home video (not even on VHS) until now.
Of course, Skidoo could be seen via the back channels of bootleg video, but it’s nice to see an oddity like this finally getting an official, authorized, legitimate home video release. And while the movie is an utter mess, it is an undeniably entertaining one, featuring inventive songs by Harry Nilsson and Groucho’s final film performance; let’s face it, even bad movies deserve to at least make it to the marketplace. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a wish list of some other titles that have never made it to DVD — some never even to VHS. Take a look after the jump, and add your own in the comments.
Let It Be
One of the most widely-bootlegged movies in all of filmdom, this 1970 documentary was intended to chronicle the Beatles’ returning to their roots (hence the original title, Get Back) but ended up serving as an exhaustive account of their break-up. Originally devised as a television special but expanded into a feature film to fulfill their contract with United Artists, it shows the Fab Four banging away at their new album and at each other; tempers flare, personalities clash, and everyone acts as though Yoko Ono isn’t there. But, in spite of all the troubles, great music is made — particularly in the film’s famous climax, in which the group took to the roof of 3 Saville Road for an impromptu concert that would turn out to be their final public performance. Let It Be was released briefly on VHS in the late 1970s (those tapes were the source of most of the bootlegs floating around), but has never seen a proper DVD release in spite of countless opportunities to do so (most recently, the release of the re-jiggered and re-mastered Let It Be… Naked album). It would surely make a mint; one can only surmise that the surviving Beatles — particularly Sir Paul, who comes off looking particularly petulant and unlikable in the film — are deliberately keeping it out of public view. That’s too bad; it’s not a pretty picture, but it is a fascinating document.
Robert Frank was a photographer and sometimes-filmmaker who shot the photos for the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street LP, so he seemed a natural choice to helm a documentary account of their 1972 US tour promoting the album. The Stones were no strangers to the documentary form; they had earlier starred in the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter, which ended up chronicling the tragedy at Altamont. Frank’s movie, given the non-family-friendly title Cocksucker Blues (after an unreleased contractual obligation single), was a verité-style look at the day-to-day life of a touring rock band — which is, it turns out, surprisingly dull, a problem that Frank decided to solve by staging scenes of additional sex, drugs, and general hedonism. The band went along, but on viewing the finished product, they decided Frank had gone too far and moved to block its release, even after a less-than-persuasive disclaimer was tacked on to the film’s opening (above). Frank took them to court, and the eventual verdict (seven years later) was that the film would not be released theatrically, and could only be shown a maximum of once a year — and then, only if Frank was present. Those director-sanctioned screenings have occasionally occurred, but the film has mostly thrived as a bootleg title (though clips from it occasionally turn up in Stones documentaries and collections, like the companion DVD to Exile’s 2010 “deluxe edition”). It’s not a great movie, but it is a compelling curio, particularly for Stones fans.
Eat the Document/ Renaldo & Clara
Though Bob Dylan has proven a riveting subject for several documentaries (chiefly D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home), his own attempts at filmmaking have proven, well, less noteworthy. He was no fan of Don’t Look Back, but admired Pennebaker enough to ask him to come along on his 1966 English tour with the Hawks, in which contentious audiences booed and heckled the “electric” half of the show. Pennebaker was working as a hired gun this time around, shooting but not directing; he did, however, put together a first edit of the project, which was slated to air as an ABC special. Dylan rejected the Pennebaker version as too conventional (and too similar to Don’t Look Back), deciding to recut it himself; he ended up taking years to do so, poring over the footage while recovering from his 1966 motorcycle accident. When he finally turned it over to ABC, they rejected the film as indecipherable. To some degree, they were right; the film is a confused hodgepodge of snippets and notions with only tantalizing, brief snatches of the incredible music created on the tour. (Scorsese repurposed much of the footage, to better effect, in No Direction Home). Eat the Document was never released, theatrically or for home video, though bootleg copies persist and the film can be seen in its entirety at the Paley Center for Media in New York.
Whatever its flaws, Eat the Document was positively cogent compared to Dylan’s next directorial outing, the four-hour monstrosity Renaldo & Clara. Shot during the 1975 “Rolling Thunder” tour, it was a strange and mostly impenetrable mishmash of concert sequences and non-linear storytelling, heavy on symbolism and meta-commentary. Its original 1978 release was greeted by scathing reviews and negligible box office; a shorter version (half as long, mostly concentrating on music) received a wider release but no better response. Dylan allowed a single airing on British television, but the film has never been released on VHS or DVD. Both Eat the Document and Renaldo & Clara prove Dylan is no filmmaker, but both feature tantalizing glimpses of his musical genius — enough to make us hope for official releases, in spite of their flaws.
The Decline of Western Civilization Trilogy
Mainstream moviegoers know director Penelope Spheeris as the director of Wayne’s World (and other, lesser big-budget comedies like Black Sheep and The Beverly Hillbillies), but music fans know her for The Decline of Western Civilization, the monumental 1981 documentary of the Los Angeles punk scene, and its two sequels (Part II: The Metal Years covered the L.A. “hair bands” of the mid-80s; Part III looked at the region’s “gutter punk” scene in the late 1990s). The first film featured performances by Black Flag, Fear, X, and others; Part II included Megadeth, Kiss, W.A.S.P., and Ozzy Osbourne, among others, engaging in indulgent “rock star” behavior (some of which was later revealed to be staged — shades of Robert Frank). All three films were released on VHS, but various legal issues over the rights to the copious music have made them, thus far, MIA on DVD. Spheeris’s website for the films claims that they are “coming soon to DVD & Video” — but the site has claimed that since at least 2007.
The Big TNT Show
The 2010 release of T.A.M.I. Show — an all-star 1964 concert movie long unavailable (officially, anyway) due to the refusal of the Beach Boys to license their footage — was a cause for celebration among fans of 1960s music. Now that we’ve had some time to enjoy it, the inevitable question surfaces: What about The Big TNT Show? Released in 1966 as a sequel to T.A.M.I., The Big TNT Show features performances by Ray Charles, Petula Clark, Joan Baez, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Bo Diddley, Donovan, The Ike & Tina Turner Revue, and many more. It’s never been released on home video, though scenes from it and T.A.M.I. were cut together for an early-‘80s compilation release called That Was Rock. But the clips that have made their way to YouTube are remarkable; here’s hoping the fine folks at Shout Factory who finally got T.A.M.I. out on DVD are at work on its follow-up.
Over the past several years, Martin Scorsese’s frequent excursions into documentary filmmaking have proven just as compelling as his more conventional, narrative features, producing such fine works as Public Speaking, A Letter to Elia, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, and The Blues. But Scorsese has juggled fiction and non-fiction throughout his career, clear back to his earliest efforts as an editor (including Woodstock). In the 1970s, he would often make a documentary as a thematic companion piece to his big narrative features; his American Boy was a profile of Taxi Driver bit player Steven Prince, while The Last Waltz utilized the big-budget musical techniques he’d played with on New York, New York. Scorsese made the 49-minute Italianamerican in 1974, on the heels of his breakthrough film Mean Streets; he was one of several filmmakers contracted by the National Communications Foundation to create programs on the immigrant experience. Scorsese didn’t make a densely researched sociological study — he just took his cameras to his mother and father’s Little Italy apartment on a Sunday and let them talk. The resultant film is charming, funny, and disarmingly casual, thanks primarily to the undeniable warmth and charisma of Scorsese’s mother Catherine, who frequently made cameo appearances in his films (she plays Joe Pesci’s chatty mother in Goodfellas). Plus, it ends with the recipe to Catherine’s pasta sauce — or “gravy,” as she calls it. Italianamerican was released (with American Boy) on VHS, but it has not yet seen an official DVD release — an oversight which should be corrected immediately, as this is one of the great filmmaker’s most overlooked and underrated efforts.
Fear and Desire
Unlike most of the other films on our list, Fear and Desire may actually have an official home video release in the works. It’s been a long time coming; this 1953 war drama marked the feature debut of Stanley Kubrick, who directed, produced, shot, and edited the film, and then spent the rest of his career keeping it from being seen. The film’s original distributor went out of business and Kubrick reportedly went to great effort to acquire any remaining prints, so embarrassed was he of the film’s amateurishness. But enough copies remained in circulation for occasional screenings (legal, because the film is technically in the public domain, but discouraged by the filmmaker), and though Fear and Desire was never released on home video, shoddy bootlegs satiated the appetites of Kubrick-philes. However, the discovery of an original print in a Puerto Rican lab last year has started chatter about a possible restoration and, at long last, a DVD release.
When Grindhouse was released in 2007, several critics and fans commented on its ingenious central premise — a pretend double-feature, with fake trailers and everything! How clever! Those moviegoers with longer memories, however, wondered if Tarantino and Rodriguez had merely borrowed the idea from Stanley Donen’s delightful 1978 picture Movie Movie. It is a 1930s-style double feature, introduced by George Burns and featuring a black-and-white boxing melodrama (Dynamite Hands) and a full-color backstage musical (Baxter’s Beauties of 1933) — both of which, in true double-feature-from-the-same-studio style, utilize the same cast (George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Red Buttons, Eli Wallach, Harry Hamlin, and Ann Reinking, in her film debut). The films were linked with a fake trailer, for a WWII aviation picture (above). Movie Movie is an affectionate send-up, full of laughs and high style, but it has only seen an early-80s VHS release (with Dynamite Hands incorrectly shown in color) and no domestic DVD. Maybe Criterion could get their hands on this film-lover’s treat and finally show it the love it deserves.
“It’s all downhill from here,” mused Steven Soderbergh as he collected the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or (their best picture award) for his debut feature, 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape. It got a laugh, but a knowing one — no one was more aware than Soderbergh that his follow-up feature, now matter how strong, would be scrutinized for signs of a “sophomore slump.” Instead of fighting that trope, Soderbergh decided to embrace it: he used his considerable Cannes cachet (and the blank check of sex lies’ box-office success) to acquire Lem Dobbs’s Kafka, one of the most famously respected-but-unfilmed screenplays in Hollywood. The resulting film was strange, alienating, and wildly idiosyncratic, a peculiar hybrid of biopic and adaptation that presented “Kafka” (Jeremy Irons) as a character in something akin to one of his own stories. Unsurprisingly, it was not a hit, and reviews were somewhat mixed; Soderbergh spent the next several years making equally obscure films before finally helming Out of Sight in 1998 and beginning his wildly successful second act in Hollywood. Kafka, meanwhile, saw only a VHS release; though problematic, it is an energetic and intriguing film, and worth viewing (if for no other reason) as part of the artistic progression of one of our most interesting filmmakers.
Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story
We’re cheating a bit with this last one, which not a feature film at all, but a 25-minute film made for public television. What makes it interesting is that it is a 25-minute film made for public television by Woody Allen, who created this wickedly funny political satire for New York’s WNET in 1971. In addition to writing and directing, Allen played the titular role, a close adviser to the Nixon White House (clearly modeled on Henry Kissinger). The film was done in a pseudo-documentary style that inserted Allen’s Wallinger into real footage of the historical figures he was parodying — an early prototype for one of his most acclaimed films, 1983’s Zelig. (The film was also his first on-screen collaboration with future leading lady Diane Keaton.) Though Men of Crisis is clever, well-made, and explosively funny, WNET got cold feet before it aired; the station feared that the notoriously petty Nixon administration would take offense to the film and pull their funding. So it never aired, much to Allen’s chagrin, and was something of a legendary unseen work until a videotape finally turned up at the station in 1997. Unfortunately, Allen has yet to allow it to either air on the station or see a DVD release; the only way you can view it (legally, anyway) is at the Paley Center for Media. If you live in New York, however, it’s totally worth the trip.