If you've ever served or just hung out backstage for a theatrical production you know well how frenetic things can get. I have not ever lucked into backstage passes for a concert, where I've heard things can get downright Bacchulean, but I did volunteer for a few community theater and school productions and spent time behind the scenes with friends who apprenticed at the Jupiter (formerly Burt Reynolds) Theater. Not the same as that of a rock and roll festival, I grant you, but a similiar atmosphere of (somewhat) controlled chaos reigns and at any moment, something rather extraordinary can happen: an unannounced celebrity may sneak in the back door, a shower of sparks may rain on the flyspace, or a performer can ad lib something more inspired than what was planned.
Those things, in one form or another, all happen in writer/director Allan Arkush's thoroughly whacked 1983 comedy, GET CRAZY, a film he based on his time ushering at the famed Fillmore East venue in NYC in the early 1970s. This is another of those films for which you have to dig as it has not received a DVD release, likely because of the music in it, and the associated rights and royalty issues. Such has held up/prevented the release of many other films, especially from the 1980s. GET CRAZY was released on VHS way back and pops up on obscure cable channels every once in a while. I happened to notice the title on the On Demand menu and quickly grabbed it, having not seen it in nearly 30 years.
GET CRAZY concerns a New Year's Eve concert at the ficticious Saturn Theater in L.A., a much beloved hall that has seen its share of anarchy over the years, what with flower power hippies, glam boys, classic rockers, bluesmen, troubadours, and punk and New Wave maoschists taking the stage. This night in 1982 is the 15th anniversary of such shows, featuring artists, (some of whom are portayed by real life musicians) of the above genres including: Captain Cloud and the Rainbow Telegraph (hippies); Nada, an all-girl rock/punk band with occasional vocals by a rather destructive singer called Piggy; Auden, a Dylanseque recluse (played by Lou Reed); King Blues (Bill Henderson), heir to the throne of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and Reggie Wanker (Malcolm McDowell, in one of his most entertaining performances ever), a clear parody of Mick Jagger. There's even a subtle ribbing of McDowell's unfortunate lead role in CALIGULA.
The myriad of subplots include threads dealing with the preparations for and the show itself, threatened by evil record company exec Colin Beverly (Ed Begley, Jr.) and his 2 lackey yesmen who want to buy the Saturn from beloved longtime owner, Max Wolfe (Allen Goorwitz/Garfield) who seems to be in every other movie I've seen lately, and turn it into a high rise. Max is modeled after Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter who wanted to make Big Acts accessible and affordable to the average listener. Colin could be any corporate jackass who's littered the headlines over the past few decades.
We also meet stage manager Neil Allen (Daniel Stern) and former Saturn stage manager named, yes, Willy Loman (Gail Edwards) who happens by. In the midst of the fracas, the film slows down to chart their obvious budding romance, sometimes framed in cute fantasy sequences.
But once the concert is underway, GET CRAZY really shines. By then we've been given some fine character work by each actor, who, including McDowell, sings his or her own songs. Their stage personas are natural extensions of their offstage selves, and it just adds to the fun (and sense of genuiness). Wanker's backstage excesses of every imaginable sort turn sour and inspire him to return to the mic for an encore, an uncharacteristic ballad that leaves even the punks misty eyed. By the way, the music throughout this movie is damned good. One funny motif: after King Blues does his version of "Hoochie Coochie Man" (which the film has him as the originator), the other acts cover it. Each time, Blues overhears and is impressed, at one point stating "I'm going to go bask in my own genius".
During my recent viewing, I was surprised at how much I remembered of this film. But also, how unrelentingly goofy much of it is. Some of the gags in this movie are painfully dumb, and mostly drug related: a rock group's jet flies upside down when the pilots get high, a robot named Electric Larry shows up at key moments (soundtracked by Adrian Belew's trippy "Big Electric Cat")with briefcases full of pharmaceuticals to "save the day", and one of the audience members is literally a walking marijuana joint. And so on. The pace of this movie is rapid fire, the gags nearly non-stop. There is incredible energy, undeniably. Much like Arkush's previous foray into rock comedy cinema, ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL which prominently featured tunes (and appearances) by The Ramones.
GET CRAZY is mostly recommended for music philes, the type of people who can list album tracks in order, argue about whether the Beatles sound better monoaurally or in hi-fi, and read artist bios. It is obvious Arkush has real affection for his time at the Fillmore, and this film is an imagining of what that hall might've been like had it survived past 1971. It is at various times a clever, vulgar, silly, insightful, stupid, and rockin' good time. I might consider it a small classic if it had dispensed with some of the wackier gags and just tried to be a mock documentary, or a rose-colored glasses remembrance like ALMOST FAMOUS. I still recommend it to those who..well, if you read this far you know who you are.
P.S. Lou Reed's character, Auden, sings a sweet tune live over the credits. I've also neglected to mention how funny his take on Dylan is.