What do you get when you combine Nat King Cole, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Run-DMC, Schoolhouse Rock, El Vez, John Waters and James Brown? A classic celebration of Christmas, natch! Our intrepid reporter offers a look at this recent holiday season film and conducts an interview with the director.
BY JASON GROSS
Canadian Mitchell Kezin isn’t your ordinary music nut who collects Christmas music—he’s so devoted to it that he now collects other Christmas music collectors themselves, crafting this documentary not only to chart his own mania but that of the other people who share the same obsession.
As such, Jingle Bell Rocks! (Oscilloscope), released to coincide with Record Store Day’s Black Friday event and in time for this year’s holiday season, is a labor of love that tracks Kezin’s sad childhood, which led to an early attraction to holiday tunes, as well as a journey across America to find kindred spirits of all kinds. With a mostly absent dad, he turned to Nat King Cole’s tear-jerker “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forget” as a refuge and became a Christmas music fan right away. From there, the film chronicles his recent journeys meeting up with fellow fanatics.
Foremost among them is writer and former Def Jam publicist Bill Adler, who’s collected and compiled Christmas CD’s for his friends for years. Adler takes him to Joseph Simmons of Run-DMC (pictured above: Kezin, Rev. Run, Adler) to talk about the most famous holiday rap song “Christmas In Hollis,” which he wrote while smoking weed over his breakfast eggs, and to Brooklyn haunt Charlie’s Calypso City to meet owner Rawlston Charles, who’s recorded and sold plenty of Caribbean holiday music. We also meet Sandra Dedrick of Greenwich Village folk group Free Design who did the underground holiday classic “Close Your Mouth It’s Christmas”; and radio legend Dr. Demento, who talks about Xmas novelties.
Kezin takes us on trips to: Chicago for writers Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis’ Sound Opinions radio show focused on holiday music; Baton Rouge where he meet R&B singer Clarence Carter to talk about his “Back Door Santa” (which formed the music of the Run-DMC song later); Baltimore, talking with director John Waters about his R&B-fueled holiday music obsessions; Oklahoma to meet Flaming Lips honcho Wayne Coyne, whose own childhood holiday obsessions led him to make the Lips’ cult movie Christmas On Mars and the Poconos to meet singer and Schoolhouse Rock songwriter Bob Dorough who talks about a cynical Christmas music session he had with the grumpy Miles Davis.
There’s also onstage and backstage footage of former L.A. punk El Vez, the “Mexican Elvis,” who does annual holiday-themed shows.
As we travel through the collectors’ collections, we also see that what whets their appetite (and that of Kezin) isn’t the standard classics but the fringe, weird stuff like “Santa Came On A Nuclear Missile” and “Christmas In My Pants.” As former A&R guy and present radio holiday music host Andy Cizan observes, because of this strange nature of holiday songs, singles/45s is where the action is at since labels wouldn’t let these bizarre artists make a full length record. Bob George, co-founder of the massive ARChive of Contemporary Music, also observes that many Christmas greats were written by Jewish composers, maybe because they had nothing else to do during that holiday.
Towards the end of the movie, Kezin’s outlook becomes less cynical about the holiday’s over-commercialization as he seems to believe in its transforming power. In addition, Kezin also finds comfort in the fact that there ARE other Christmas music collectors out there, making him feel a little less weird.
Sure, a movie like this is meant for other holiday music obsessives but if you find yourself singing along to any of the old Christmas songs during December, you’ll probably delve in deeper here. As for us other Christmas music fanatics, this is indeed a holiday present.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JINGLE BELL ROCKS! DIRECTOR MITCHELL KEZIN
BLURT: Were there any writers/artists/DJs you would have liked to include that you weren’t able to in the film?
KEZIN: Yes. One major musician. YULE (sic) notice that there are NO Canadians in my movie…Well, that was not my intention. I considered Mary Margaret O’Hara who released a sublime Christmas EP (in 1991) simply called Christmas which included a stunning version of Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” as well as an original written by her titled “Christmas Evermore.”
Many folks passed away as I was trying to secure artists and funding simultaneously: A few are Christopher Dedrick (The Free Design), Teddy Vann (“Santa Claus IS A Black Man”), Johnny Preston – the late, great rockabilly singer (“I Want A (Rock & Roll Guitar)”).
But, the person I most wanted is a Canadian legend. A folk, country troubadour named Stompin’ Tom Connors, who I adore. He recorded a fabulous Christmas record in 1970 (BOOT Records). It was called Merry Christmas and it features a few sacred carols, a few covers and several originals, including my all-time favorite Christmas song “Down On Christmas” which is actually not a downer at all. It’s a very upbeat little ditty about everything that goes wrong for a guy on Christmas Eve: “Here I am down on Christmas, and my credit’s off at the store… A religious group sent a box of soup, but it came to the guy next door!”
How long were you working on this film?
The idea came to me a few days AFTER Christmas 2004. I pitched it to a network executive named Charlotte Engel (who oversaw shows at the now defunct BRAVO! Arts channel) during Hot Docs Film Festival in spring of 2005 and she gave me (and my then-producing partner Step Carruthers) a development deal, which ultimately never went beyond that. There were MANY twists and turns in terms of producing partners and fundraising, which became about a four-year ordeal to raise the necessary budget.
I was fortunate, in early 2009, to form a co-production with a fabulous team who are based in Montreal. The company is EyeSteelFilm and they are one of Canada’s most lauded, prolific and award-winning feature documentary companies. I also had the extraordinary luck to meet a man named Jeffrey Kline (a self-confessed Xmas loving Jew) who became our Christmas angle when we needed one desperately. Jeff — whose company is Darby Pop Productions — personally invested a very large sum of money to help us secure the final music licensing and archival footage clearances.
Have your ideas/feelings about Christmas music changed since making the movie? If so, how so?
Boy, that is a good question, but one that I can’t answer in short form. Over the eight-plus years it took to make this movie, so many amazing and astonishing things happened (and we see one of the most incredible unfold IN THE ACTUAL MOVIE)… But let’s just say — without giving too much away — that the manner in which the film ends was an overwhelming and incredibly cathartic experience for me, and I am no longer HAUNTED by the Nat King Cole song “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot.”
Other than the Nat King Cole record, could you list 5 more Christmas records hat have special meaning for you?
1) Jingle Bell Jazz (originally issued on Columbia Records / 1962 CL 1893)…this is the compilation which has the Miles/Dorough tune “Blue Xmas (To Whom It My Concern)’ on it. But the entire record is awesome, featuring the giants of jazz performing covers of classic chestnuts.
2) The Don Ho Christmas Album (Reprise Records / 1967 RS 6265) Within the Christmas obsession is a penchant for Hawaiian Xmas music, and I’ve adored Don Ho since I was a child. I finally got to meet him when I was at the Hawaii Int’l Film Festival in 2000. You won’t believe this but it is actually true: Not only did I meet Mr. Ho at the Sheraton Waikiki that fall, I ended up ON STAGE with him and I actually SANG a duet of “Tiny Bubbles” that brought the house down ! (I have pics to prove it)
3) Jimmy Smith Christmas Cookin’ (Verve Records / 1966 V6-8666) The funkiest, swingingest soul/jazz record EVER produced. Smith performs in small Trio as well as gigantic big band arrangements o this LP. An ABSOLUTE MUST HAVE!
4) James Brown The COMPLETE James Brown which is comprised of 4 LPs Brown recorded back in the mid to late ‘60s; they are all together on a two-CD set (2010 on Hip-O Select label)/
James Brown Sings Christmas Songs / 1966 – KING Records
A Soulful Christmas / 1968 – KING Records KS 1040
James Brown And His Famous Flames Sing Christmas Songs / 1966 – KING Records KS 1010
Hey, America / 1970 KING Records & Polydor
5) Rockin’ Sidney A Holiday Celebration With Rockin’ Sidney / 1983 ZBC Records LP-100