At left, you'll see SF Weekly music editor Jennifer Maerz's assessment of Anvil! The Story of Anvil, director Sacha Gervasi's documentary about the Canadian metal band with considerably more enthusiasm than album sales. Anvil! has been rapturously received by both audiences and critics — winning awards at the Chicago and Los Angeles International Film Festivals, among others.
Like about 99 percent of movies released theatrically or on home video, Anvil! has nothing whatsoever to do with Houston (except that it opens here Friday). But this is Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer movie season, so if nothing else, Anvil! set Noise to thinking about Houston, music and the movies.
Houston has never been, and probably never will be, Hollywood on White Oak Bayou. The reasons why we'll never be a trendy domestic-travel destination like San Francisco, Austin or Chicago are mostly the same stale ones— too flat, too fat, too spread-out, too congested, too polluted, too humid, too ugly, blah blah blah. Never mind that you could also level most of those criticisms at L.A.; most Houstonians are perfectly aware the San Jacinto Monument is not the Eiffel Tower, and are — if not downright proud — pretty okay with it.
Houston music in the movies
Besides, it's not like the city is completely invisible either. Although the last major studio production filmed mostly or entirely in the Houston area was a solid decade ago — the 1999 Jeff Bridges/Tim Robbins thriller Arlington Road — Houston Film Commission director Rick Ferguson says enough television (both reality shows and series like Prison Break), independent-film, commercial, music-video and documentary traffic comes through town to net the city an average of $20 million per year.
That figure only reflects projects the HFC is involved with, which, Ferguson estimates, is between 50 and 60 percent of the total production activity in the area. $35 to $40 million is nothing to sneeze at, of course — a whole lot of people in the Houston music community wish it could post numbers anywhere close to that.
Anyway, if this is all starting to sound a little Variety or Hollywood Reporter for you, adjust your mental projector a little to consider not only the movies onscreen but the music that comes with them. All of a sudden, Houston starts to look — and sound — a little more important.
For one thing, a handful of films shot and/or set in the Houston area are now best remembered for soundtracks whose influence proved to be much greater than the films themselves. The slicked-up, watered-down, two-volume Urban Cowboy soundtrack put Boz Scaggs and Anne Murray side-by-side with the Eagles and Charlie Daniels Band and, periodic "New Traditionalist" hiccups aside, established the blueprint for mainstream country music as we know it today.
In 1994, Reality Bites pushed all kinds of Gen-X buttons with Squeeze's "Tempted," The Knack's "My Sharona" and Big Mountain's update of Peter Frampton's "Baby, I Love Your Way," but it was the spunky alterna-pop of Juliana Hatfield and Lisa Loeb that made the soundtrack the Juno-size commercial juggernaut of its time. That same year, the expert blend of New Jack Swing, gangsta rap and blues scoring Jason's Lyric was a major factor in making that Third Ward romance the most authentic urban drama to emerge in the wake of Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society, one that still shows up on TV today.
As Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray vied for the affections of Olivia Williams's comely prep-school teacher in 1998's Rushmore, onetime Houstonian Wes Anderson introduced millions of young moviegoers to the shaggy, fuzzed-out '60s sounds of UK bands like Creation, as well as the folkier strains of urchins such as the Kinks, Chad & Jeremy, Donovan and Cat Stevens. Not long after, music was in the grip of a full-scale garage-rock and neo-folk revival that's still going on. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.
If you're the Netflix type, Noise recommends re-watching 1988's Married to the Mob to catch two songs by Pearland New Wave heroes The Judy's (director Jonathan Demme was a big fan; bassist Jeff Walton is now a film/TV composer himself). Besides a stellar slide-driven Ry Cooder score, Wim Wenders's dreamlike Paris, Texas (1984) features Houston femme-punks the MyDolls rehearsing during one nightclub-set scene, while Albert Collins instructs Elisabeth Shue and her young Chicago charges "Nobody leaves here without playing the blues" during another in 1987's otherwise completely forgettable Adventures in Babysitting.
Don't forget John Cusack's ex-girlfriend packing her stuff while he defiantly blasts the 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me" during the opening of 2000's High Fidelity. Local '90s pop-punks Fourth Grade Nothing's cover of Kim Wilde's "Kids in America" may be the only reason anyone remembers the dreadful Pauly Shore "comedy" Bio-Dome at all. Rent the 2001 straight-to-DVD Steven Seagal action flick Ticker (he plays a San Francisco bomb-squad captain battling terrorists, if you're curious), and you can catch Gulf Coast country-blues legend Gatemouth Brown and Houston-born Beatles protégé Billy Preston in the onscreen band.
Documentaries may be the richest category of all, and only getting richer. Les Blank's soft-spoken, no-frills film about soft-spoken, no-frills late Navasota bluesman Mance Lipscomb, 1972's A Well Spent Life, is now required viewing for any aspiring music-doc filmmaker (or should be anyway). Anyone who doesn't get enough Townes Van Zandt in Heartworn Highways, the story of his days in Nashville swapping songs and stories with Guy Clark and fellow former Houstonians Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell, to name a few, can make it a double feature with 2004 bio Be Here to Love Me. Also, For the Sake of the Song: The Story of Anderson Fair, about the Montrose club and early home to Van Zandt (until he was banned), Earle, Crowell, Lucinda Williams, Eric Taylor, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and a lot more, is due soon.
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And who can forget Peter and his fellow white-collar gangstas swaggering to the Geto Boys in Office Space? Or, after he's cold-cocked by the nihilists, The Dude's psychedelic bowling-alley dream sequence as Kenny Rogers and the First Edition croons "Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In" in The Big Lebowski, whose end credits roll with Townes singing the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers"?
You never know when a Houston-connected song is going to show up at the movies; Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings did a lights-out cover of "Condition" for last year's Soul Men, in fact. And the next time 2007 raging-hormone yukfest Superbad comes on cable, listen up for one of Van Zandt's musical mentors, Lightnin' Hopkins, singing "Policy Game."
So when the lights go down and you turn off those cell phones this summer, remember that plenty of times, if only for a few minutes, Houston musicians have made some good movies even better, and some pretty awful ones a little — or even a lot — more watchable.