Nearly four decades ago, director Allan Arkush followed up his punk rock hit Rock ‘n’ Roll High School with another zany music-fueled comedy titled Get Crazy. Inspired by 1941’s Hellzapoppin and the movies of Frank Tashlin, Arkush sought to compress his early 1970’s experience at New York’s famed rock club The Fillmore East working as an usher and stage crew member into a one-crazy-night odyssey led by his virtual doppelganger Daniel Stern, then fresh off the movie Diner.
The movie also features Malcom McDowell as a hybrid of Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, Bill Henderson as a Muddy Waters type blues man, Lee Ving as a ferocious Iggy Pop stand-in, Lori Eastside as the leader of a girl group, and Lou Reed as, basically, himself. You can also spot many regulars from the movies of Joe Dante, his friend and collaborator from their days working for Roger Corman, including: Robert Picardo, Paul Bartel, and Dick Miller. After decades of not being available on anything other than a blurry pan-and-scan VHS, Get Crazy is now out on a new Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber, packed to the gills with bonus features including a feature-length making of featuring many of the cast and crew over Zoom, a commentary featuring Arkush and Eli Roth, as well as a reuniting of the movie’s girl group Nada, led by Eastside.
Watching the new restoration of the film, which Arkush says is as close to his original vision as it has ever been, it plays as a wild, unruly joy filled with Mad Magazine style humor along with a genuinely sweet disposition, not to mention a true appreciation for the spectrum of music it represents. From Blues to Punk to the psychedelia of The Grateful Dead, Get Crazy is a smorgasbord of talent on display, matched by the gonzo energy of a director one wishes got more chances to do material like this.
When Below the Line had the chance to talk one-on-one with Arkush about the trials and tribulations of both making the movie and finally getting it seen again four decades later, he was not only very open about the experience but also seemingly renewed by the new audience that can now appreciate what he tried to do so many years ago.
“The company that made the movie was an independent movie company that had financing from various sources, and I don’t want to mention names,” Arkush told us. “They had a lot of money and they were all the heads of the company. One had been in the movie business, the other had actually been in the silver market and made a fortune, and another was kind of a shady lawyer. They all drove Rolls Royces that were exactly the same, parked side by side, three of them. When I said I wanted Lou Reed they kept arguing to me about Lou Rawls. They didn’t know who he was. Every decision I made I had to fight for. Every casting choice their head of production would give me a hard time about. I had to have their financier’s representative on the set at all times to guarantee that I would get the day’s work done and that I wouldn’t fall behind. They were overseeing every decision I was making.”
This business deal with the devil, so to speak, caused even more catastrophic problems for Get Crazy once Arkush was done making it.
“When they saw the movie, they didn’t much like it,” he said of the consortium of producers. “It had a mediocre sneak preview, and the audience didn’t know what to make of it. They tried to sell it to various companies and they finally made a deal with Embassy. In the midst of this, which I did not know about, they decided that it was never going to make any money and it was going to be a loss. ‘Let’s do it as a tax shelter.’ I didn’t find out any of this until about four or five years after the movie was gone. Somebody contacted me from a financial group and asked to go out to lunch and explain this to me, that his financial group had been approached by these guys about financing movies, they thought that there would be many movies, it was just this one. They got together a group of tax shelter people for this movie, the idea being that it would lose all the money. That’s why they dumped it, right? Losing that much, they would make a lot of money and be able to write it all off and not put any of their money out. The tax shelter group would lose all their money.”
This technique of essentially overselling the movie to other gullible investors is not that far off from what Max Bialystock is doing in The Producers. Like that Mel Brooks classic, it turns out some of these shady characters wound up in a similar place in the end.
“As it turns out, one of these guys went to jail for having a Ponzi scheme,” said Arkush. “Then another guy was a degenerate gambler and eventually shot himself. The movie played for less than a week. They would schedule critics screenings and then cancel them a half hour before, so the critics were pissed. I still got good reviews, right? They put it out in the worst theaters imaginable, and then took it out of theaters. They made the worst deals. So it was gone. Embassy went out of business, it was sold to Dino De Laurentiis and then Dino went out of business, so all the materials of the movie -your negatives, your outtakes, and all the business materials – all the files kept getting moved as each company took over. You can imagine how little respect these people would have for original negatives. When DVDs came out, I got a phone call from some company who was trying to get the rights to it and they said ‘We can’t find the sound.’ ‘What do you mean, the mixed soundtrack does not exist?’ It was Dolby Surround, which is a five track mix, and each track had a different discrete channel. They never found it, and then they couldn’t find the negative.”
Over the years, Arkush kept getting approached by different companies trying to put the film out, but to no avail.
“This went on for 25 or 30 years,” he explained. “Me getting a phone call or me getting people writing to me asking why it hasn’t come out. Then about five years ago someone I knew from the Telluride Film Festival and a real film buff, who was a vice president of an independent releasing company that made videos said, ‘I’m going to try.’ I said, ‘Best of luck.’ He calls back a couple days later and says, ‘We found it. The negative and it’s all there.’ MGM had bought it. They had bought a lot of stuff and they hadn’t organized their vaults. When Blu-rays came along and streaming, they organized all the vaults, and now it was clearly in their file. But then because we were asking they wouldn’t sell it, because it must be worth something. So after they couldn’t get it, I went to MGM and had a meeting to talk about putting it out. It was all about business affairs saying it’s a lot of legal work because we don’t have all the paperwork here, and it’s a music picture and who wants to see a 38-year-old failed rock n’ roll movie.”
Finally, it took the master curators at Kino Lorber to overcome the business hurdles and finally get the movie out there.
“Then I got a call from Frank Tarzi at Kino Lorber,” Arkush explained. “I have been doing commentaries for Frank that’s one of my hobbies. I did the Carole Lombard ones and the Isadora Duncan one. So Frank says, ‘Don’t say a word. I don’t want to spook MGM. I’m gonna put this out as low-key as I can until we know.’ About a year-and-a-half ago, Frank said, ‘We got it. What would you like to on it?’ That’s when I came up with the idea of taking it full circle and saying my side of it and getting this out. I do not ever talk about those guys who f*cked it over. We’ll never say their names and I’m really not very interested in what happens to them or their story, because it gets in the way of what we accomplished, and it gets in the way of people appreciating a movie.”
When Arkush first set out to make Get Crazy it was originally going to be a more straightforward autobiographical film, not unlike Almost Famous. Due to producer demands that the tone be “more like Airplane,” he dipped into his Looney Tune-inspired zaniness. So the resulting film is an interesting amalgam of real life incidents, such as when the water coolers at the club got spiked with acid, and off-the-wall moments as when a character gets suddenly pushed out of a helicopter, or when McDowell has a lengthy conversation with his penis. This rubber-band reality and the genuinely sweet nature of most of the characters makes it an enjoyable watch, and those good vibes carried over into the making of the extras as well.
“That’s why the big extra is called ‘The After Party,’ because it’s been all these years,” Arkush enthused. “That was very gratifying to me. They asked me if I would be involved in a commentary, and I said I really want to do the extras. This movie has been with me since I was at NYU, since I was working at the Fillmore. So it was a way of me having to bring the stuff that I couldn’t get in because of history, because of the way it got developed and the way it got changed. Then everyone brought the overarching story to the viewer, but what was surprising was the affection of the cast and crew, as if we had just made the movie last month. Remember, this is thirty-eight years ago, all these people have had lives and careers, and have been on many movie sets. I mean, Jesus, Malcolm McDowell… how many movies and TV shows has he made? But it was if it had just happened, the making of this movie left a very strong impression on them. And for myself, who has been through hell with this, and been treated badly by all the things that can happen to you in the movie business, this was a really rewarding thing to have happened.”
Get Crazy is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.
All film stills courtesy Kino Lorber, all photos of Arkush courtesy the filmmaker.