Friday, November 29, 2013

Jingle Bell Rocks!

I first met Mitchell Kezin four years ago at Toronto's Lee's Palace when he was filming one of El Vez's legendary "Mex-mas" shows for a documentary he'd been working on for a while, Jingle Bell Rocks!

I had assumed my Santez alter-ego for the evening and Kezin interviewed me for his film about alternative Christmas music. That clip, with good reason, was eventually edited out of the film as it went through a number of changes that continued to delay its finish. But Kezin and I became friends and kept in touch as I sent him a few ideas, photos and videos for possible use in the film (which, probably again with good reason, weren't used), and I was trying to set up an interview between the filmmaker and Stompin' Tom Connors just before the Canadian music icon passed away on March 6.

Kezin kept me updated on the film's progress through emails and occasionally over beers on the few occasions when his busy travel schedule for shooting the film would allow a get-together. And I'm happy to report that Jingle Bell Rocks! is now finally finished and making its world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam this week.

The Canadian theatrical rollout begins next week, TVO will air Jingle Bell Rocks! at some point for Ontario television viewers, and it will appear at American film festivals throughout next year before receiving its theatrical release south of the border in December 2014.

While Jingle Bell Rocks! has plenty of both the kitschy songs and previously unknown-to-me musical gems that I expected, what really got me was the poignancy of many of its scenes and stories -- particularly Kezin's tale of how his father was seldom around as a child and he identified with Nat King Cole's "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot."

Twenty years later, Kezin later discovered a 1962 album titled Jingle Bell Jazz, which featured a cynical song called "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)" that Bob Dorough had written and sang on the record by request of Miles Davis. It was a Christmas song for those who aren't particularly impressed with Christmas, and it launched Kezin on a largely secretive, quarter-century quest to find and collect honest and real Christmas songs and other "hip, heartfelt and irreverent" seasonal tunes you don't hear on the radio or in the mall every December. In the process, he found he wasn't alone in this obsession. And Jingle Bell Rocks! features some of these collectors, some of the songs that mean the most to them, and some of the people who recorded them in the first place.

Most of these collectors aren't like the eccentrics who amused and sometimes frightened me in Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig's 2000 documentary Vinyl, but are seemingly socially adept and normal people who just happen to have an extraordinary passion for Christmas music.

Mitchell Kezin and Wayne Coyne

You'll hear reminiscences from both well- and little-known folks, including Dorough, former Def Jam Records publicist Bill Adler, Canadian radio host David Wisdom, record producer Tommy LiPuma, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, The Free Design vocalist Sandra Dedrick, "naughty" soul singer Clarence Carter, cult film director John Waters, punk-cabaret genius El Vez, Run DMC's Joseph "Run" Simmons, novelty song collector Dr. Demento, minimalist indie duo Low, and many others.

Perhaps the most moving part of the 93-minute film takes place in a recording studio above Charlie's Calypso City record store in Brooklyn, where calypso legend Mighty Sparrow fulfills Kezin's wish by recording "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot" as the film director tears up with emotion as he looks on.

Mitchell Kezin, Joseph "Run" Simmons and Bill Adler

Musically, what pleased me most was the inclusion of Plan 9's gritty 1984 garage-psych nugget "Merry Christmas," which instantly grabbed me when I first heard it on a mix tape a friend made for me back then. Other favourite tunes that get the spotlight treatment in Jingle Bell Rocks! and will likely be unfamiliar to many include Jessie Mae Hemphill's "Merry Christmas, Pretty Baby," Carter's "Back Door Santa" (which Run DMC sampled for "Christmas in Hollis"), Paul "Fat Daddy" Johnson's "Fat Daddy Claus," El Vez's "Santa Claus Is Sometimes Brown," Heather Noel's "Santa Came On A Nuclear Missile" and The Flaming Lips' "A Change at Christmas (Say It Isn't So)."

Whether you identify more with Scrooge or Saint Nick, you should find songs and people you can relate to in Jingle Bell Rocks!


AZ said...

glad our friend Mitchell managed to make a film without eccentrics. I'm being facetious. but I know what you mean, I think.

Steve McLean said...

See Vinyl, if you haven't, and you'll realize that those collectors are more out there than those in Jingle Bell Rocks! And yes, pretty much all of them are men in both films.