REVIEW: Jingle Bell Rocks!
Directed by Mitchell Kezin
Feature documentary with: Mitchell Kezin, Bill Adler, Andy Cirzan, Tim Sewell, “Run Run” Simmons, Bob Dorough, Erin Moran, Dr. Demento, John Waters, Clarence Carter, The Mighty Sparrow, Low, The Flaming Lips and David Wisdom
Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Sometimes a film can surprise you in a delightful way. Jingle Bell Rocks!, Canadian Mitchell Kezin’s new feature doc, looks like it should be a pleasantly kitschy sleigh ride through a field of pop trivia—the Christmas record.
Who doesn’t moan politely as old vinyl, cassettes and CDs are brought out to be played at home this time of year? Even if you avoid hearing “White Christmas” or “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” in your own living room, there’s surely no way to avoid it in stores and shopping malls.
Jingle Bell Rocks! could have been the kind of doc that would playfully go beyond those old standards to find the cool rarities, the oddball collectibles of the season, that can actually make someone’s Yuletide bright. And, to be fair, that’s exactly how the film starts, as we see director/avid collector Kezin moaning in delight at the many choices he has to make when buying discs at an L.A. shop filled to the rafters with music.
With Kezin, a big guy with a bearish clumsy charm as our host, we’re introduced to Bill Adler, a writer and ex-music producer, record promotion guy Andy Cirzan and other cheerfully obsessive types. Lots of funny tunes and crazy covers featuring Lawrence Welk and Jose Feliciano are brought out for quick laughs.
Pretty soon, though, Kezin begins to explore his own strange relationship to Christmas. Turns out that his favourite seasonal record as a kid was a doleful ballad called “The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot,” the nearly forgotten B-side of Nat “King” Cole’s huge hit “A Christmas Song (chestnuts roasting on an open fire).” For Kezin, whose parents split up when he was a kid, the B-side connected with his sad, injured psyche.
Drifting away from the land o’kitsch, Kezin’s film veers into obscure Christmas records that actually had subversive messages. We hear “Christmas in Vietnam,” a tough little ditty and “Santa Claus Is a Black Man,” sung during the radical era of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Kezin visits Baltimore’s gay icon John Waters, who gleefully recalls how much he enjoyed the idea of a black Santa around the time he was creating Pink Flamingos. Bob Dorough, legendary be-bopper, who sang and composed “Blue Xmas” for the great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, also receives a Kezin visitation.
Clarence Carter who put the X in Xmas with his soul hit “I’m Your Back Door Santa” is interviewed as is “Run Run” Simmons who sampled that raunchy Yuletide tune for Run DMC’s rapper classic “Christmas in Hollis.” Not only does Bing Crosby seem yards away by this point in the film, so do Brenda Lee and Elvis.
Gradually, it becomes clear: Kezin and his friends may love Christmas and enjoy pop culture, but some serious emotions are lurking in the shadows of the film. They’re loneliness and despair—the things one feels as an outsider during the holidays. We’re in Alan Zweig territory: just like his Vinyl is really about the sadness of collectors, Kezin has created a soulful look at a holiday that is many things, not all of them lovely and bright.
Produced by Montreal’s excellent doc-makers EyeSteelFilm, Jingle Bell Rocks! is a rarity that you can enjoy—and not try to collect.