When I got out of college I moved to LA for a bit, and picked up a copy of Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. It’s a huge compilation of capsule reviews of “Drive-in” style movies, and as a result of reading that book, I made my first feature film and haven’t looked back. I hope that somebody stumbles on this, sees some movies that they wouldn’t otherwise, and become strangely inspired to make their own thing the same way I did. Art is self-perpetuating, and who knows what would come of watching a double bill of Dirty Dancing and Howard the Duck, or The Lost Boys and Breakfast Club? Either way I think I’d watch the lovechild of those in a hot second.
Do you have any favorite parts of the book?
I was able to write about a couple of things I feel really strongly about. Queen’s music for Flash Gordon – it was the first cassette I ever got, I had that thing memorized. I got to write about Purple Rain, probably my favorite soundtrack album of all time. I got to spread the love about some lesser known films that I admire, like Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell that stars a ton of English musicians, and Streets of Fire, a kind of retro-50s-gang-movie-meets-MTV flick.
What’s next? Do you think there will be a second edition, and what would you like it to contain?
The next thing I’m going to do is a book on the horror films of 1988. Because of the horror boom in the mid 1980s, following successes like Nightmare on Elm Street, there were something like 70 horror films released that year, and tons of them are great. I was in college at UW-Milwaukee and obsessed with horror movies around that time, so it’s another dip in the well of nostalgia for me. Now, with DVD and Blu-Ray and occasionally streaming services, you can find quite a lot of these things and watch them. For Synthesizers and Saxophones, I actually found myself buying some of the films on VHS via eBay just to get good-looking copies, though, which sounds really backwards.
Why are your memories of synthesizer music so strong?
I was raised on 60s and 70s music – my dad listened to The Beatles, The Eagles, Steve Miller. Synth solos in 70s songs were always the strangest part of the tune – Heart’s “Magic Man” kicks in with that thick Moog thing for a moment and it takes it into another world. But when the 80s rolled around I finally had my own music. I distinctly remember the eerie experience of hearing Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” then the slightly haunting early songs of The Police like “Spirits in the Material World.” They were slightly cinematic. Then music videos hit and those specific pictures and those specific songs were permanently melded.
Like every kid of that era I loved Star Wars, but somehow Flash Gordon spoke to me even more – the operatic Freddie Mercury vocal, the soaring Brian May guitar, the satin jumpsuits and art-deco models. Between cinema experiences of that era, and songs playing on the radio, and the MTV-like music video anthology shows on Saturday morning TV… We were immersed in it, it was the sound of my adolescence. And it’s still some of my favorite music, and people working today in that retro sound still capture some of the magic of it.
What is it about the music industry and the movie industry that made this a worthy subject for a book?
The music industry seems so splintered now – and “pop” kind of seems absent from the landscape. Certainly, the number of great hit songs that debut in mainstream movies is much lower than it was when films like Flashdance and Footloose appeared, with albums that stayed in the charts for half a year. Best you can hope for is an 80s song trotted out as an ironic joke – or like the new Captain Marvel, where the whole soundtrack is 90s tunes because it’s a period film.
The book goes into the economic motivations that brought pop music and movies together. MTV was big, pop music had become a big money maker with the now-affluent teenage set who would not only buy the records but the entire Madonna-wanna-be ensembles. The 80s didn’t invent the rock and roll movie, but with the advent of cable and VCRs new markets opened up and producers saw dollar signs.
But, pop music and movies had some kind of a falling out. They just don’t make it like they used to. Take Ghostbusters: when was the last time you sang the title of a movie? In the book there’s a Billboard chart from 1985 where the top three songs are occupied by movie songs (St Elmo’s Fire, Power of Love from Back to the Future, and Tina Turner’s song for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). Has that happened since?
Total media synergy before that was a buzzword. It was starting to be more and more common then, I can think of one other example from The Last Dragon where a martial arts movie basically stops to show an entire DeBarge music video. But the thing was produced by Berry Gordy, basically the godfather of Motown, with an eye on the music’s bottom line.
Typically the reverse was true – MTV ran tons of songs-from-movies where the music video was the footage of the artist intercut with scenes from the film. Then you couldn’t help but see the financial motivation – or not! Maybe the music was wholly inseparable and aesthetically linked to the content at the molecular level! When those were good, they were great. Look up Billy Ocean’s “When The Going Gets Tough” from Jewel of the Nile. We needed Danny Devito, Michael Douglas, and Kathleen Turner singing backup in a white tuxedo! It’s sheer exuberance at its best. Or the cameos in the video for “Ghostbusters,” or all the music videos that Freddy Krueger was in. I love and live for movies, the only thing I like just as much is music. Put those together with a sense of humor and I’m in heaven, man.