Sunday, 27 February 2011

AFED #57: Wild in the Streets (US, 1968); Dir. Barry Shear

It's a reflection of just how vibrant a time the late sixties were, both in the cinema and the world at large, that a film like Wild in the Streets is largely forgotten today.


In fact, this tale of a rock star who becomes President actually earned an Oscar nomination for its modish editing. This represented a rare distinction for a film by AIP, a company best remembered today for Roger Corman's Poe adaptations but whose teen-centric productions had grown increasingly more stylish and 'turned on' to the counterculture as the decade continued, with work such as The Wild Angels and The Trip.

Although the idea of the euphoria surrounding pop star being exploited for political ends had been explored by Peter Watkins in Privilege the previous year, that film had centred on the notion of the celebrity as a Warholian facade ripe for manipulation. Wild in the Streets offers a premise that's superficially more progressive but ultimately far more reactionary.

Max Frost (Christopher Jones) is a massively successful pop star who lives in decadent palatial splendor with an entourage of fellow band members and sycophants (amongst them a young Richard Pryor). Yet he's also the quintessential rebel, with an unhealthy contempt for the older generation (borne of an unhappy childhood) and aspirations of changing the status quo. So when a politician (Hal Holbrook) campaigns for Senate with a pledge to lower the voting age to 18, Max sees it as an opportunity to play agent provocateur. After ostensibly giving his support he then declares during a performance the age should be reduced to 14 and issues a rallying cry to the youth of America.

The film makes heavy use of a much banded statistic of the time that 52% of the US population were under 25. The potential of these baby boomers to overthrow the establishment was of course hugely relevant, although there's something perversely optimistic about the idea that widespread protests would cause the government to buckle and give in to demands, as happens here. It didn't quite work out like that at the '68 Democratic Convention a few months after the film's release.

Having usurped the system and manoeuvred his way to the Presidency, the 22 year-old Frost reveals a fascist agenda by announcing that anyone over 35 will be rounded up into 'retirement camps' where they will be encouraged to take LSD to help them appreciate the younger generation's perspective. Alternatively they can just kill themselves, it makes no ends. The film ends with the caustic reflection that he too might be considered old to those of a certain age, and might himself end up on the receiving end of a coup by an even younger generation.

While Wild in the Streets has some pertinent things to say about the 'cult of youth' and how modern America appears to value it over wisdom and experience, the underlying cynicism is transparently obvious. It's a cartoonish satire, a morality that's unlikely to have changed many opinions, but at least manages to be fairly entertaining.

Christopher Jones is a charismatic lead with shades of James Dean (at times he appears to deliberately mimic the late actor) who might have progressed to bigger things had tragedy not also intervened in his own career. Jones was a close friend, and also supposedly lover, of Sharon Tate and was profoundly affected by her murder. Although he worked with David Lean on Ryan's Daughter shortly after he became disillusioned with acting and left the profession to become an artist.

Hal Holbrook also gives good value as Max's foil, but the inclusion of Shelley Winters as the star's disowned mother and light relief doesn't enhance the picture. Ms. Winters did turn in some splendidly over the top performances in other AIP films such as Bloody Mama and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, but here she just seems superfluous.

It's probably a film that's best filed alongside such oddball dystopian fantasies as Strange Holiday (1945), and whilst not the most acerbic social commentary it's slick and tasty enough to go down without much discomfort.

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