by RICHARD WINTERS
A British pop singer by the name of Steven Shorter (Paul Jones) becomes a major hit with the young teen audience of the day and his managers realize they have a powerful and influential weapon on their hands. They assign him to do an ad for apples and soon everyone is eating apples. They then use him as an example to support God and Country by making him sing a rock rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” With the help of some powerful church leaders they get him to introduce a Nazi-type salute for people to show their allegiance. Steven is aware of how he is being manipulated and is unhappy with it, but can’t seem to find a way out it.
This reminded me a lot of the Fonzi character on the old “Happy Days” TV show from the ‘70s, a character with a rebel image who eventually became benign and unrealistic when the producers tried to turn him into a role model for his young audience. The film’s message is certainly a good one and as pertinent today as ever. Unfortunately it is done in an extremely heavy-handed way that made this viewer feel like he was being hit over the head.
I became a fan of director Peter Watkins after seeing the pseudo-documentary Punishment Park where a group of hippies are thrown into the dessert and forced by the military to play a brutal game of survival. That film featured some emotionally charged scenes that were amazing and the execution was so flawless that it seemed almost authentic. This film takes the same documentary approach, but it is not as consistent with it nor as effective. The result is a weird mishmash between the surreal and allegorical to the dramatic and satirical and it never comes together as a whole. It does contain a few moments of funny humor, but there needed to be more of it and most of it comes in film’s first half. The drama is awkward and at times clumsy. It ended up leaving me alienated.
I had equally mixed feelings about the lead character. He was played by Paul Jones better known as the lead singer to the ‘60s group Manfred Mann who did such hits as “Do-Wah Diddy” and “Mighty Quinn.” He certainly had the chiseled, boyish good looks that one would expect from a teen idol and resembled Jim Morrison from The Doors. However, he seems passive to the extreme with no ability to ever stand up for himself. Although looks are certainly one element, a rock star also needs to have some charisma and this guy had none, and I would think the public would quickly see that. He allows his managers to almost completely dominate him and the constant shots of his pained and unhappy facial expressions become, like everything else in the film, way over-done. I could never understand why a singer with millions of adoring fans would feel so powerless. I would think he would have a healthy ego and sense of empowerment and if was unhappy with his managers then he would simply fire them, which happens all the time in the music world.
The camerawork and cinematography were excellent, which probably has a lot to do with Watkins’ background. The scene at the assembly where there is a giant picture of Steven and then the actual Steven stands in front of it making it look like he is being devoured by his own image was effective symbolism.
The points that the film makes in regards to conformity, those in position of power, and the superficiality of pop idols are all right on target. I just wished that the narrative and storyline were done in a little more sophisticated way and that the characters were more fleshed out. The works of British director Lindsay Anderson came to mind as I watched this film. A lot of his films had the same sort of themes like If, Britannia Hospital, and O Lucky Man. However, those films were more cerebral and layered and the wit was more consistent and biting.
My Rating: 5 out of 10 stars