In "Jingle Bell Rocks!", director Mitchell Kezin delves into the minds of the world’s most legendary Christmas music fanatics – including Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons of RUN-D.M.C., The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, filmmaker John Waters, bebopper Bob Dorough, L.A. DJ and musicologist Dr. Demento, and Calypso legend The Mighty Sparrow. Equal parts social history, pop culture pilgrimage, and revealing character study, "Jingle Bell Rocks!" confronts the Christmas music mainstream, reinventing the seasonal soundtrack for the 21st century. With rollicking live performances, intimate interviews, and a kaleidoscope of touching and rare archive footage, "Jingle Bell Rocks!" is a cinematic sleigh-ride into the strange and sublime universe of alternative Christmas music. It’s also a mix-tape of twelve of the weirdest, wildest, most poignant Christmas songs you’ve never heard.
Jingle Bell Rocks is the documentary on the one thing that plagues every shopping mall around the holiday season: Christmas music. But this is far from just a cursory examination of the usual, repetitive hymns and carols. This is the documentary that delves deep into a sub-genre that, despite being limited to one time of the year, has spawned countless songs, albums, covers and even music videos. With so much variety, it makes you wonder why stores and radio stations limit themselves to the same old renditions.
The film is directed by Mitchell Kezin who begins with a trip to the local music shop. Scouring over the various LPs, he relegates himself to a bargain section of holiday music. An avid music collector and lover of the seasonal tunes, his pile of stuff to buy mounts up quickly. He nearly freaks out when he realizes there is even more in the form of CDs and that the store will be closing soon. By the time he’s ready to checkout, he has his hands full and his shopping basket overflowing with Christmas music. And he still feels that he hasn’t found enough.
There is an entire world of underground Christmas music built on original songs and mix tapes. Mitchell takes us deep into that world by interviewing many producers and musicians who either dabbled in or conceived holiday tunes. This includes such big names as John Waters, Wayne Coyne and many others (though I wish Kezin included Christopher Lee in that list to talk about his heavy metal Christmas music). But Kezin doesn’t just ask them specifically about the music, but their Christmas nostalgia that inspired their work. I was especially intrigued by John Waters who relates one holiday memory to lighting Christmas trees on fire in an alley and drive past them all with a filming camera. There’s also some cool tales to be told from a singer who once wrote for Miles Davis.
At a brisk 93 minutes, the film zooms through a lot of a material with a scattershot method. The only element that ties this whole movie together is Kezin himself who relates his fondest memories of Christmas to an LP he simply cannot find. Frustrated that he can’t relive that exact memory, he receives the greatest gift from an upstairs studio: a new recording just for him. It leads up to a stellar piece of music, but it comes at the very end after a host of interviews that felt all over the place in what they took aim at. There is discussion of religion, consumerism, race and childhood as they all relate to the songs of the season.
The good news is that while most of these tales don’t feel that well-edited, they’re still very unique. I was entranced listening to Coyne attempt to recreate a Christmas movie taking place in space that his mother relayed to him once and could not find. He figures it was most likely a hallucination or the result of two Christmas movies being slammed together in her mind, but I’m glad he took it upon himself to make that dream a reality. The birth of Run DMC’s rap classic Christmas in Hollis is an interesting story in how all members agreed upon the beat almost instantly without initially being in the same room. There’s even a little history in how a few of the older gents discuss the cultural importance of Santa Claus Is A Black Man.
The biggest flaw for me of Jingle Bell Rocks is how it opens up a pea-sized hole into this world of alternative Christmas music. There’s not nearly enough music of the many hundreds of renditions and history covered that this music documentary appears more as a best-of than a full album. I’m grateful for having seen the film and feel just a little inspired to go searching for some holiday themed musical gems, but I would’ve appreciated a more focused documentary which picked a target rather than firing wildly in all directions. Whereas with shopping malls where one simply can’t stand Christmas music, Jingle Bell Rocks is a movie that could use a whole lot more.
You rated this film: 2
Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Classification is to be confirmed by the British Board of Film Classification
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