Director Allan Arkush on his New Year’s Eve cult classic Get Crazy

Alla Arkush

Allan Arkush. // Courtesy Arkush

While the term “cult movie” has a broader definition than it once did, the 1983 rock ‘n’ roll comedy Get Crazy has fully earned the moniker.

It only played in theaters for a week and was unceremoniously dumped to VHS.

Even a soundtrack featuring of-the-moment acts like Sparks and Marshall Crenshaw—along with favorites like Lou Reed, the Ramones, and Fear—was hampered by the fact that it was released on a Motown imprint Morocco, at the same time Motown was experiencing the massive success of another soundtrack, The Big Chill.

From the film’s description, perhaps you can tell why it had such niche appeal:

“It’s December 31, 1982, and Saturn Theater owner Max Wolfe is attempting to stage the biggest rock and roll concert of all time. But things aren’t going right. His doctor tells him he might have a fatal disease; his nephew and his arch-rival are in cahoots; a crazed fire inspector is spraying the audience with foam; and someone is trying to kill him and blow up the theater. Of course, these are secondary problems compared to those posed by the crazy rock and roll performers themselves.”

Get Crazy was directed and co-written by Allan Arkush, the man behind another punky feature film: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

While that previous film has gone on to repeated acclaim and reappraisal over the years, Get Crazy—due in no small part to the fact that it’s never been available outside of beat-up tapes or fuzzy digital bootlegs—has largely remained obscure.

With the release of the film on a feature-loaded Blu-ray from Kino Lorber earlier this month, Get Crazy is posed to be seen by far more people than ever.

As it’s appropriately set on New Year’s Eve, we were extraordinarily thrilled to spend a Monday afternoon last week speaking with Allan Arkush about his musical history, Get Crazy‘s long and winding road to rediscovery, and more.

Unnamed 2The Pitch: I know that Get Crazy was inspired by your time at the Fillmore East, but I have to imagine that your love of music goes back further than that.

Allan Arkush: There was a DJ out of New York on AM radio called Murray the K. And Murray the K had a show called The Swingin’ Soiree every night. Aside from playing a lot of what, at the time, was current—doo-wop music and that kind of thing—he also had these comedy bits where he would tell a story, and the payoff of the story would be a line from a song segueing into the record.

So laying in bed, listening to this and I’m getting two things at once: narrative and music. Murray the K changed with the times. He moved over when surf music came up and he played a lot of the Brill Building stuff and he played the Beach Boys.

I listened to a lot of radio out of New York and then started buying records. The first time I heard Motown, I think it was “Shop Around” by Smokey Robinson and the first 45 I ever bought was “Please Mr. Postman,” by the Marvelettes.

The second one was not so impressive.

What was the second one?

A Johnny Horton song called “Sink the Bismarck.”

There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m a big fan of that song.

We’re going to get along fine.

How did you end up at the Fillmore East?

Growing up, I used to go to see concerts. There was a place in the town I grew up–Fort Lee, New Jersey—an amusement park called Palisades Amusement Park and they used to have shows on weekends where groups would lip-sync but, during the week in the evenings, they would have folk music shows live. I saw a lot of folk music every Tuesday night there, and that got me in the “going to see music” habit. Then I went and splurged on my first big concert.

For five dollars, I got to see Bob Dylan go electric at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium. he did one set of acoustic and then one set of electric. And this was the first concert after the Newport Festival thing. When I then went away to school and I was a DJ on the college radio station, I started reading Billboard. Remember, there were no rock critics then. There was no rock press yet. Rolling Stone didn’t exist yet. I started reading about all these bands and hearing about them.

I saw the Jefferson Airplane at a club in New York called the Cafe A-Go-Go. I saw the Paul Butterfield Blues Band there. I saw the Loving Spoonful in Central Park. I saw the first Grateful Dead tour at the Cafe A-Go-Go. We were going to concerts with my friends and we went and saw a Country Joe and the Fish show at Stony Brook University.

When I went to NYU in the fall of ’67, a theater on the Lower East Side which used to be a Yiddish theater put on a show. They would get rented out. And that’s where I saw The Doors and then later Cream. That eventually became the Fillmore East. There was another theater across the street, which preceded the Fillmore East that was called the Anderson Theater. That’s where I saw Big Brother and the Holding Company for the first time and the Electric Flag.

When the Fillmore opened, I naturally went opening weekend and it was Tim Buckley–Jeff’s dad—Albert King, and Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the tickets were three or four dollars. Then I went and saw the Doors two weeks later and the Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix and the opening act was Sly and the Family Stone.

Traffic. The Who.

I was there a lot and friends of mine had gotten jobs as floor ushers. They had put up a sign in the NYU dorm that they were looking for floor ushers. One of the guys who was an usher became one of my roommates and then he didn’t want to do it both weekend shows. There was used to be four shows a weekend. He said, “Do you want to do half of them?”

I said “Sure!” Then I naturally ended up doing both.

I became an usher there in the summer of ’68, and then after a year as an usher, I moved on to the stage crew in ’69. I was on the stage crew for at least a year and then into the psychedelic light show, so I basically—with some exceptions—saw basically every show at the Fillmore East.

Lee Ving Allan Arkush

Lee Ving and Allan Arkush. // Courtesy the director

You were alluding to the fact that the successes of certain DJs was due to the fact that they could change with the times. That seems very similar to you coming up, seeing all these shows that the Fillmore East, but then going on to make a movie with the Ramones and then later, Get Crazy, which features, you know, Lori Eastside and Lou Reed and Lee Ving. That’s definitely a sign of you being able to change with the musical times, as well.

The first time I read rock criticism was in a magazine called Crawdaddy.

I saw it in some record store. It was a mimeo thing. I bought a copy and I couldn’t believe the seriousness that these people were taking rock music. I was in college. They were writing about it the way I wrote papers from my modern English novel course. That intrigued me and the way that they analyzed it sort of upped my game.

I started taking rock criticism seriously as a source of music, not just the radio. I bought more records because of what rock critics that I respected said than I did off of hearing a song or album on the radio, for sure.

There was a guy named Robert Christgau. I started reading his column, “Consumer Guide,” every month and if he’d given something a good review, I bought it, since he spent all his time listening to records.

I took Jon Landau very seriously. Jon Landau’s analysis of music and stuff was really very formative, the way he broke things down and, and was searching for a certain kind of truthfulness and his views on soul music, et cetera. His views on not liking San Francisco bands that I liked really were formidable and really set up a dichotomy in me, so I re-listened to a lot of what he disliked.

So, when he wrote about the Ramones, I thought, “Well, I should see what this is about.” I was living then in Los Angeles, so I used to read the Village Voice every week. I went out to Tower Records and bought the Ramones record and brought it home and played it.

I went, “Every song sounds alike,” and I did not get it. Then I played it again and I played it maybe three or four times. In those days, I was hanging out with these guys. We’re all working for Roger Corman. It was a bunch of us: Joe Dante and Jon Davison and a whole bunch of us were huge film buffs. We’d watch movies every night in each other’s apartment on 16mm projectors, ’cause we had access to a gigantic film collection.

One night, we’re saying, “What are you listening to?” I guess around that time, I was really also into Jackson Browne and Steely Dan, and I had the first Springsteen by then. The Who albums. There was a steady stream of them. So I said, “Oh, you guys got to hear this band out of New York. These guys—every song is exactly the same.”

I put it on the record and I skipped through it–20 seconds of each song and in doing so, it dawned on me that it was not only meant to be, it was what it was, you know what I mean? It was structured that way and it was funny. Right then and there, I got it, you know, and then I bought the second one, and then I got Rocket to Russia and that from the moment I started listening to Rocket to Russia, I knew this was one of the greatest rock albums of all time.

At the same time, parallel to this, I went to see a Vincent Minnelli movie at the LA County Museum, Cabin in the Sky. Duke Ellington had just passed away. I knew who he was, but I didn’t listen to his music, and I was so taken with him. I started buying Duke Ellington records. I had already listened to Miles Davis and Coltrane and so forth, so now I was going into jazz. Obviously, I also bought a lot of blues because I was listening to the Stones. So all that stuff was just coming out that way.

I did not buy, for instance, Elton John records, because you could not turn on FM radio at that point without hearing Elton John. I liked it, but it wasn’t big for me. Then Christgau started writing about African music, so I started buying that.

With the advent of all these packages of out-of-print stuff, et cetera, I have far too many Grateful Dead records, because I have had a personal relationship with Garcia and the band since 1969. I am an educated Deadhead.

For the purpose of this interview, I have never played hacky-sack. I just want to make that clear. I have never sold a burrito in a parking lot. Nothing, sir, nothing. And I’ve seen many, many Grateful Dead concerts and I was a friend of Garcia’s, so there are people I have enthusiasms for and I buy their records sight unseen.

I’ve heard the stories of the bands who were originally considered for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. While I think Todd Rundgren or Cheap Trick might not have fit the energy, it seems that they have the attitude that fits with that film. Those are bands who, like the Ramones, use humor in their music.

That’s a good point. That’s the whole aspect of it that, at the time, proved to be the most illuminating as we worked our way through it—especially what it came to once the Ramones were in the mood and once we started cutting the movie and looking for what’s called the needle drop.

We were working a lot with Seymour Stein, who was the head of Sire Records. Basically, Seymour was our music supervisor and sent us these fabulous boxes of albums.

“Paper Airplane Music,” came from a box set that Sire had of Fleetwood Mac albums when they were a blues band. They never appeared anywhere else, you know? He sent us the Clash, which was barely breaking in America.

Once we heard “White Riot,” we thought, “Oh, perfect,” but when we put it on the picture, it wasn’t working at all. The issue becomes, “How do you line up something that has humor to it?” The second we put “School’s Out” on, that was great.

We had two assistant editors who were punkers and we used to call them the Dead Boys. They brought in “High School” by the MC5 and I had that record. I hadn’t thought about it and that seemed perfect. That was kind of organically how it happened, you know? I was a big fan of Todd Rundgren ever since he was in the Nazz and then I liked the solo records and that’s where I heard the song, “Heavy Metal Kids”—which was original, in my mind, the title to the movie—but that’s kind of how all that music got into the movie.

The same thing with Get Crazy: I’m putting different songs into it, what we could and couldn’t afford. Whenever Captain Cloud appeared, that piece of music is called “Big Electric Cat,” by Adrian Belew. When we heard that song, it just seemed to have something about it. When we synced it up, it just worked perfectly.

And then, we needed something psychedelic for the men’s room.

I was into Black Uhuru at the time and that same assistant editor said, “How about we put some dub in there?” That’s how Black Uhuru got in.

For the scene where Susie’s walking down the street to a piece of a song by the Ramones called “Chop Suey,” the original choice for that was one of my favorite all-time live cuts and that would be Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” from a live record at the Academy of Music.

I don’t know why we couldn’t get it, but it also was kind of weird to hear the applause. I think that’s what did it, so we got “Chop Suey.”

Until this Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber, Get Crazy had been unavailable for almost 35 years. I had read that some of the elements were damaged and that I had heard that it was never going to ever come out, so when this got announced, I was just blown away. Can you tell the story as to how we got this?

The company that made the movie did not particularly like it and didn’t understand it. They had pushed me to alter the original concept of the movie. First, to move it to present-day—which at the time was ’83—and not make it about the late ’60s at the Fillmore and me and the original writer came to terms with that. We found a way to make that work for us, plus it allowed us to put in more varieties of music, like Nada and so forth.

Then, they gave me an ultimatum: they would not make the movie unless I made it more like Porky’s and Airplane. That was how these people thought. Danny [Opatoshu] said, “I’m out. I can’t do that now,” so he left and we got in two other writers, who did a good job and they added a lot of what is really gratuitous nudity, and they changed the main character of Max to a much more average business person.

It was a much more collegial thing. They made us emphasize the real estate thing with Ed Begley, et cetera, but still—it was a strange movie and didn’t test particularly well.

They decided to just take a tax loss. They sold out the rights of it to an investment group and then dumped it. I was Bialystocked, like in The Producers. It played for less than a week and then was pulled from the theater so that it would lose money. There were virtually no ads and no critic screenings. When the critics saw it, we got really good reviews. People understood what we were doing, but it was gone.

As much as I fought for it, it was gone and they put out a crappy VHS. The VHS is like 3:4 and mono. They did everything they could to fuck it up, so then no one would buy it. Then they were sold to another company and then they were sold to another company and, as happens when you sell companies you sell a library and no one is paying attention to the elements and what’s happening to them and to the paper trail and so I had no idea where it was anymore.

I got a call about it from maybe someone at MGM and said, “We have this movie and we’d like to maybe put it out, but can you tell us where they mixed the sound?” I said, “Why?” And he says, “Well, we can’t find the sound element.”

They couldn’t find also the original optical track, which was Dolby. Then I heard that they couldn’t find the negative anymore, so I pretty much gave up on it ever coming out. Every couple of years, someone would call me from another company because it was getting shown in theaters–because there were prints of it.

The Alamo Drafthouse, they ran it quite a bit. Quentin [Tarantino] ran it quite a bit at the New Beverly. Eli Roth was a big fan and when he would program stuff, he would run it, so it was a little bit out there. Twice a year, people would get to see it.

Finally, someone called me and said, “Let me look for it.” They called me back and said, “MGM has gone through all their vaults for streaming and all that stuff and organized everything. And that’s where it is. I’m going to try and distribute it,” and they wouldn’t sell it. As soon as you ask a company, “What are you going to do with this?” the company, all of a sudden, thinks, “Well, maybe it has value,” so they don’t let it go, so he couldn’t get it done.

I called MGM and spoke to the people at MGM. I said, “You own it. It’s there. Why don’t you just put it out?” And they said, “Let us look into it.” I know why they didn’t–they did not have all the paperwork. They thought, “With all this music, it’s not going to be worth our time and lawyers.”

Two years went by and I got a call from Frank Tarzi [VP of Acquisitions and Business Development] at Kino, and he says, “I love your movie. I’m actually talking to MGM about it. And I’d love to be able to talk to you, but do not say a word because I don’t want to scare them.”

He was like the guy with the trap and the bird is on the ground, and he wants to put this net over it.

I was sworn to secrecy and it took him a year to catch that bird and then we had it. And then he says, “Would you like to do the commentary?” And I said, “Not only would I like to do the commentary, but I’d also like to do the Blu-ray extras. This is an unfinished piece of business in my life. And it’d be a way for me to describe how the movie started, what we went through, and what we ended up with.”

You don’t get to do that very much.

You know how when you get in a discussion with someone and you’re riding home in the car later, and you say, “I wish I’d said this?” This was my chance to be the person who says that. That’s what we did. I called up the actual original creative team, the editors and everyone, and said, “We want to do this, guys. We can all get to work together again.” We’re close friends, but we haven’t gotten to work together.

So I said, “I got $4,000. That’s it. So we’re going totally Corman on this.” And everyone said yes. We exploited the shit out of everybody and they all got everyone to work for nothing. We trained a couple of AFI students, you know, and just did the whole Corman thing on the Blu-ray extras.

Doing it on Zoom really helped the concept. We basically said, “Look: for $4,000, we got to make it look like a home movie. We’re better off just making it look like a home movie and a conversation.” By doing it on Zoom, it became very conversational. No one had to go anywhere. Everyone was in their home and had a cup of tea or whatever it was in front of them. By talking for an hour to an hour and a half, stuff came up that wouldn’t have, if you only got a half-hour, and that’s what gave it that feel.

Get Crazy is out now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

Categories: Movies