Wild in the Streets
Shelley Winters, Christopher Jones and Diane Varsi star in American-International’s most successful ‘youth rebellion’ epic — a political sci-fi satire about a rock star whose opportunistic political movement overthrows the government and puts everyone over 35 into concentration camps… to be force-fed LSD.
Wild in the Streets
1968 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date August 16, 2016 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring Shelley Winters, Christopher Jones, Diane Varsi, Hal Holbrook, Millie Perkins, Richard Pryor, Bert Freed, Kevin Coughlin, Larry Bishop, Michael Margotta, Ed Begley, May Ishihara.
Cinematography Richard Moore
Film Editor Fred Feitshans Jr., Eve Newman
Original Music Les Baxter
Written by Robert Thom from his short story “The Day it All Happened, Baby”
Produced by Burt Topper
Directed by Barry Shear
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Back around 1965 – 1966 we endured this stupid buzzword concept called The Generation Gap, a notion that there was a natural divide between old people and their kids. It permeated opinion pieces and editorials and did a great job of dividing the public and preventing discussion of real issues. The ubiquitous catchphrase “Never trust anyone over thirty” became a joke that marred otherwise cleverly written movies, like Planet of the Apes. Forget the endless lame movies and TV shows that pretended it was a real issue, as even the celebrated The Graduate was built around a (mis-) understanding of the topic. At its heart, the country was fixated on an imagined exciting, oversexed libertine life now open to a youth population that was taking over the consumer culture and enjoying new freedoms. Meanwhile, their parents raised in the depression and shaped by WW2 were left behind to pay the bills. Their pundits decried the loss of decent values.
I was in high school in 1968 when American-International’s Wild in the Streets was released. I saw it new. The media onslaught included a well-timed breakout of the film’s hit song, “The Shape of Things to Come”. I woke up one morning and saw part of a Today broadcast in which a woman critic (Judith Crist?) was telling the host that a new youth rebellion was underway. She didn’t mention the student-worker demonstrations and riots that just a couple of weeks before had shut down parts of France and Italy. She instead announced that the new wave of youth culture would be led by Simon & Garfunkel’s song “The Sound of Silence”… and the right-on new movie about The Generation Gap, Wild in the Streets. Being sixteen and ignorant, I accepted this at face value. As a good teen consumer, I owned a Simon & Garfunkel record, and was therefore part of something bigger than myself. Even though it was’ suggested for adult audiences,’ I was able to take my girlfriend to see the so-called revolutionary movie. Its director is Barry Shear, a TV veteran whose counterculture credits include The Donna Reed Show.
Wild in the Streets is a political science fiction tale with similarities to Peter Watkins’ Privilege, an English movie which was released (barely) in 1967. Paul Jones, the lead singer of the band Manfred Mann, is Steven Shorter, a rock star co-opted by a Fascist English government to ‘keep the kids in line.’ Shorter rebels, and takes over. His girlfriend is played by the model Jean Shrimpton. Both features conclude like The Who’s rock opera Tommy, facing a mass counter-revolution. Coincidentally, a lyric in Wild in the Streets’ hit song sort-of predicts Tommy Walker’s infirmity: ‘Let the old world make believe we’re blind and deaf and dumb, but nothing can change the shape of things to come.’
But Wild in the Streets is not a copycat. Its writer is Robert Thom of the TV teleplay The Legend of Lylah Clare. Thom’s short story “The Day it All Happened, Baby” was published in Esquire in December 1966. The film version written by Thom and produced by Burt Topper is a fast-paced political satire, pitched almost at the level of a Mad magazine parody. A sarcastic montage shows young Max Frost (Max Jacob ‘Frost’ Flatow Jr.) growing up in a stressed American family, where both he and his father (Bert Freed) are oppressed by the rigid bourgeois values of Max’s abrasive mother, Daphne (Shelley Winters). Her unpardonable crime is putting plastic covers on the furniture. Blowing up dad’s car with his own bomb and amassing a nest egg through sales of home-brewed LSD, Max becomes a rock star. He lives in a Beverly Hills compound with his girlfriend Sally LeRoy (Diane Varsi) and his band / brain trust: Billy Cage (Kevin Coughlin), Abraham The Hook (Larry Bishop), Fuji Elly (May Ishihara) and Stanley X (Richard Pryor in his second film appearance). Initially enlisted by the Kennedy-like Senatorial candidate Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook) to court the youth vote, Max finds that his political youth rallies draw so many kids that he gains political power of his own. Max goes off message to demand the lowering of the voting age to 14 (later compromised to 16). Despite the outrage of old-school politician Senator Allbright (Ed Begley), candidate Fergus is elected by a landslide. Having ignored the advice of his wife Mary (Millie Perkins), Fergus realizes he’s created a monster when Max Frost shuts down the nation by ordering his ‘troops’ to go on a general strike. He puts Sally LeRoy into a vacated Congressional seat, spikes Washington D.C.’s water supply with LSD to neutralize the legislature, and takes over the government. All citizens over 35 are sent to concentration retirement camps and force-fed mind-altering drugs.
The audiences I saw Wild in the Streets mostly took it as a comedy, and when its message got darker accepted it as having a few ideas worth thinking about – maybe. The final irony of Max Frost’s political career, with a new generation of 11 year-olds vowing to rebel, was not taken very seriously. In my view, the ‘ cultural reaction’ was negligible compared to that for Planet of the Apes, which was released right around the same time. Few people seemed to catch on that Apes was an anti-blacklist in spirit, using its satire to express a liberal viewpoint. But the sight of the Statue of Liberty in the Charlton Heston movie was met with gasps of genuine surprise and accepted as profound. Nearly everybody saw Planet of the Apes, which was much more influential than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although it did well and received quite a lot of buzz, Wild in the Streets did not build into a major phenomenon.
Let’s get to the verdict right away: despite its attempt at a ‘with it’ sensibility, Wild in the Streets actually promotes conservative values. The movie is about The Generation Gap, all right, but its message is anti-youth. The Kids Aren’t Alright, they’re just sheep waiting to be led. There’s no hope of a new Youth Movement being sincere. The sixties generation is just an unseen mob following whatever dictates are laid down by the manipulative rock icon. Max Frost is a right-winger’s idea of Beatle John Lennon crossed with Hitler, a charismatic rock ‘n’ roll dictator, a low grade reboot of Lonesome Rhodes from ten years before.
I thought Wild in the Streets was pretty good when I was in high school. Although Max Frost’s other songs are dire, I liked the theme song that became a radio hit. Seen now, the movie looks and plays a lot better than most of A.I.P.’s ‘youth rebellion’ movies, such as Psych-Out or Maryjane. To the credit of producer Burt Topper, the film has a slightly European look — there are no faux-hippie visual or design touches, no transitions with paisley animation, etc. Although made as inexpensively as possible, there are real crowd scenes here and there, a convincing set for the senate chamber, etc. The montage ‘glue’ scenes holding the movie together are much better done than was usual for an A.I.P. picture — close-ups of headlines, good magazine mockups, and stock footage inserts of picketers, demonstrators and riots. Some high angle footage of real demonstration (in a park? on a campus?) is excellent. Arkoff and Nicholson spent some money on this thing, actually springing for a name cast.
Bloozy, loud and over the top, Shelley Winters gets the highest billing and dominates her scattered scenes — in this rigged scenario she represents everything wrong with the older generation. James Dean look-alike Christopher Jones is okay, but like most all of the actors playing ‘kids,’ is pushing 30 and looks it. It’s a toss-up as to whether the film’s view of Max Frost is a credible teen fantasy, or just plain panders to teens. Frost’s entourage lives in a constant state of drugged-out euphoria in his Beverly Hills palace. They look pretty tacky now, but are supposed to be an elite representing coolness itself. Diane Varsi’s ex-child star Sally LeRoy is forever topless, yet maintains modesty with conveniently long hair. One of Max’s droogs is a financial genius and another a good luck charm by virtue of a missing hand. Richard Pryor’s Stanley X is the team’s black token hipster. Max Frost isn’t a legit teen emancipator, but a cynical operator from the start — the whole group laughs at the thought of gaming the system to put Max in power… far out!
Whether phony or prophetic, Wild in the Streets was exhibited and reviewed as a mainstream cinema entry. It became one of American-International’s few pictures to transcend the studio’s down-market ‘exploit the kids’ modus operandi. Like I said, TV critics trying to avoid the fate of Bosley Crowther would latch on to pictures like Wild in the Streets (or Michael Sarne’s Joanna) to claim counterculter cred. Roger Corman’s Wild Angels and The Trip had initiated influential trends, but despite serious attention overseas they were taken here as over-performing drive-in movies. A.I.P.’s subsequent youth pictures didn’t do so well, not because the audience wised up to any degree, but because most of them were terrible.
Overlook its general obviousness, and Wild in the Streets is still an interesting curiosity. It’s fun to see Shelley Winters go all-out grotesque — she tailors her unpleasant character exactly to the film’s needs. Christopher Jones self-destructed a few years later. He would have become obscure much sooner if it were not for one of the most catastrophic mis-castings in film history — the usually infallible David Lean slipped a cog and hired the inexpressive actor to play a shell-shocked British officer in his monumental (and unfairly slammed) Ryan’s Daughter.
It’s also fun to see Hal Holbrook looking youthful and fresh — the great actor is still with us. The other name actors (Pryor, Perkins, Varsi) don’t do anything that notable. Ed Begley would die a couple of years later; he and favorite Bert Freed hold up the ‘older Generation’ end of the film with honor. And those that care will note that Max Frost as a child is played by Barry Williams, ‘Greg’ on TV’s The Brady Bunch. The show is pretty much the career apex of its key creatives — Barry Shear, Burt Topper. Robert Thom had his adherents and some contacts at the UCLA film school. Unfortunately, his movie Angel, Angel, Down We Go (Cult of the Damned) is the kind of film that negates previous accomplishments.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Wild in the Streets is a decent transfer of a film that has seen a lot of mileage, as was one of A.I.P.’s more popular titles of the decade. Colors are just fine. It’s matted widescreen, and the addition of proper framing helps a great deal, erasing blah memories of flat television prints. The sound was never terrific but Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s thinly orchestrated song “The Shape of Things to Come by ‘Max Frost and the Troopers’ comes across just fine. Christopher Jones lip-synchs the voice track laid down by songwriter Harley Hatcher.
Giving some credence to the montages of demonstrations are newsman cameos by Army Archerd, Dick Clark, Melvin Belli, Louis Lomax (as himself) and a real Los Angeles TV news personality, Jack Latham. Walter Winchell is in there too, but he seems out of place. The voice-of-doom narration by Paul Frees at times makes Wild in the Streets feel like Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The film’s title design is pretty limp, but I’d give special praise to editors Eve Newman and Fred Feitshans Jr., for keeping the movie moving fast enough to not fall flat on its face. If not really revolutionary, it is certainly audacious.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Wild in the Streets Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good – minus
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 21, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson