Director Allan Arkush Remembers the Madness of Making the 1983 Cult Classic Rock & Roll Comedy Get Crazy (1983), a film that unfairly stands in the shadows of his Rock and Roll High School. Eric Davidson talked to Arkush about trying to capture rock chaos, have fun and still stay on a tight budget and the joy he had working with the likes of Malcolm McDowell, Lee Ving, Mary Woronov, Bobby Sherman, Flo & Eddie and, yes, even Lou Reed.
Allan Arkush has had an incredible film and TV career. Having started cutting up trailers for Roger Corman in the mid-1970s, right up to working on recent TV series like Witches of East End and Heroes, he seems to never stop for a breath. Going in to interview someone this tenured in the Hollywood system might mean a constant flow of cynicism. Not with Arkush. Chatting with him is like sitting down with a friend to hear about their first trip to Graceland last week. His excitement and desire to work in film, and his love of a wide array of music is palpable. But you know, once you get to make Rock and Roll High School as your first directing gig, I’d guess there’s nothing else life can throw at you that can get you down.
For all his work, you can bet once he shakes off his mortal dungarees, that classic Ramones-fueled cult flick will be in the obit headline. This year is the 40th anniversary of the film, and Arkush announced that Shout Factory is doing yet another “Special Edition” DVD/blu-ray release, though he insists this really will be a complete version, with all the extras from all previous editions, plus a new documentary.
“People still want to talk about it all the time,” said Arkush. “And it was fun helping with this new edition. It’s very flattering. But I am kind of talked out on it.”
What hasn’t been talked to death is Arkush’s third directorial effort (after the troubled production Heartbeeps), where he returned to the mythologized world of rock & roll. Get Crazy has had a far slower cult revival burn than Rock and Roll High School. Admittedly, because it isn’t quite the gleaming teen dream that Rock and Roll High School is. Not to mention it’s never received a proper re-release. But it is far zanier, way more packed with oddball cameos, surreally violent, and now exudes that classic B-movie peculiarity of capturing a zeitgeist before that zeitgeist even knew it was one. Get Crazy encapsulates rock & roll’s pop culture ascension just as it enters the honorable, if doom-laden age where it can get parodied.
At the time, Get Crazy came out as just another of a burgeoning batch of sub-budget, raunchy, rock & roll romps of the early ‘80s (Spinal Tap, Times Square, Ladies & Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, Roadie) that confused target audiences, bombed, grew in cult status on late night cable, and made its way to underground eyeballs via third-generation VHS tapes traded amongst music fans who would dote on how in the hell these underbelly musicians made their way into an ostensibly “Hollywood” movie.
“And it’s usually women who tell me this, who come up to me and tell me how much that movie meant to them because of the character of Riff Randal. How Riff empowered them to be who they wanted to be, and not how others wanted them to be, and to stand up for themselves.”
Basically, it’s the story of the last concert on the last night of an old theater that’s going to get torn down. But as in such beloved flicks, it’s all the silly, drug-fueled madness ladled on top that make the flick a gem well worth rediscovering. Though that will continue to be difficult, as, being laden with music rights more complicated and expensive than an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, there has never been and might not be a Get Crazy DVD or Netflix appearance. But just go ask one of your older brother’s punk friends, and I will bet they have a taped-off-Cinemax VHS in a box somewhere…
Arkush wasn’t even sure where his reels might be, as I caught up with him at home in L.A. for a, dare I say, crazy chat.
PKM: So how did Get Crazy come out, compared to what you’d originally planned?
Allan Arkush: The original idea was to do a movie about my experiences working at the Fillmore East in New York in the late ‘60s. I was on the stage crew there. The Daniel Stern character filled in my job description. And I wanted to portray the funny events, the crazy people, and the life of what it was like at the Fillmore from a very personal point of view. I worked there in college and first year after, during a golden age of rock & roll. I saw just about every band of the classic rock era except two – the Beatles and the Velvet Underground.
Anyway, it was going to be my personal recollection of the whole experience, but when we got backers and started to write a draft, the company backing it decided they wanted something more like Airplane in a rock & roll theater. Also, originally my idea wasn’t contemporary to the era, it was a period piece. So when they insisted, I switched it to an Airplane kind of thing. That was okay with me, it was going to be funny anyway. That’s when Danny Opatoshu came in, who was the original writer and had also worked at the Fillmore and went to film school with me. Then Henry Rosenbaum and David Taylor were brought in, they were friends of the line producer, Hunt Lowry.
Almost every bit of advice I got from the producers and executives of the production was bad advice. They never said anything that was worth a shit. Every casting decision was argued, etc. And at the end, they decided they didn’t like the movie, and they wanted to bury it and make whatever money they could make off it, like in The Producers.
I did a Trailer from Hell about it:
So you can check that for the whole sordid tale of the financial nonsense they tried. They sold off all the rights, so when they took a loss, they still made money. Some of these people ended up in jail as part of a Ponzi scheme. Another person involved was David Begelman, and he’d been caught for embezzling money.
So once it became a broad comedy, a lot of the character parts of it, the growing up aspects, got pushed aside for the humor. But to that I added my own version of directorial rock criticism. To say I’d always been a fan of rock criticism, well I’d started listening to music before there was rock criticism! The first time I noticed there was such a thing, I was in a store in the Village, and I saw a copy of Crawdaddy. That captured in my mind the idea that there were people taking rock music seriously, and that their ideas were complex. And it was that point in college where I was taking courses that demanded that kind of analytical approach. I’d gone to a high school in New Jersey, and even though it was the mid-60s, that high school was like it was still the ‘40s and ‘50s.
So I started reading Richard Meltzer and whatever was out there, listening with open ears. The person who had a huge influence on how I looked at music was Jon Landau. I’ve never met the man, but he and Robert Christgau were really formative for me, making me look below the surface of the music. So with the comedy here, I was trying to make commentaries on rock. That’s why everybody in the movie plays that same song, “Hoochie Koochie Man.”
PKM: Oh yeah, so that you see how different bands and genres interpret things.
Allan Arkush: Yeah, exactly. That’s why the “King Blues” character – see, he was originally going to be played by Muddy Waters. He’d agreed to it. Wow, I’ll tell you, going to meet Muddy Waters! First, we’d gone to New York to have lunch with Lou Reed. He was already cast, he was set to go.
PKM: Can you tell me about that Lou lunch?
Allan Arkush: Oh sure! I was looking for someone to play the Dylan character, and it just seemed Lou would be great. I think he was the first person we approached. We had lunch with Lou and his wife at the time, Sylvia. I talked to him about his music. I was a huge fan of The Blue Mask. I still think, from beginning to end, it might be his best solo record. So we hit it off about that. Then I gave him the script, and we get a call back, and he really likes the script and wants to do it!
PKM: I interviewed Sylvia about a year ago, and she said Lou had fun making it. It always amazes me – we all know how Lou’s basic defined personality is as this kind of serious curmudgeon who doesn’t do anything other than laser focus on his music – and here you got him to do this wacky comedy!
Allan Arkush: OK, but wait, this story is not over. Ha. So we’re in the last parts of pre-production, and my phone rings at six in the morning. My wife answers and puts the hand over the receiver and whispers, “It’s Lou Reed, and he sounds really pissed off.” So I take it, and what it was, like a lot of people who aren’t actors for a living, or even some actors, he’d only read his dialog. He’d never read the scene descriptions. And now there was a shooting schedule, he’d read the scenes, and he was really angry. The humor parts were escaping him, and he thought it was stupid. So we talked, and he demanded that we shoot all his stuff in a day or two.
Almost every bit of advice I got from the producers and executives of the production was bad advice. They never said anything that was worth a shit.
PKM: What did he think it was in the first place? A serious movie?
Allan Arkush: Well sometimes when people read a script, they have their own set of images. And now that he had read it closer, he was, well, unhappy. So we shifted our whole schedule around so we can shoot him in two days. But that’s OK, that’s part of making movies. So when he arrives, I take this boombox out of my office. I knew Lou was a big jazz fan, so I’d made a mixtape of what I thought was his favorite jazz. He looks at the mixtape and starts saying, “Oh, that’s not his best, why’d you choose that song?!” He starts giving notes on the mix, he’s even writing on the tape! And Sylvia turns to him and says, “Hey Lou, he’s really gone out of his way to be nice to you, come on!” But the shooting went well.
PKM: I love those scenes in the cab, how the cab is screeching around, and Lou is just calmly strumming along on the guitar.
Allan Arkush: Ha, yeah. Because he was a non-actor, I didn’t want to do anything that was too uncomfortable, and wanted to keep some spontaneity. So we mainly just towed the cab and did those scenes a bunch, let him improvise. He did not like the opening scene, where we had this idea of covering everyone in cobwebs. So we nixed that, but it still comes off funny.
Then we’re lighting the scene where he sings “Little Sister” to the girl. And I said, “You know, you’re thought of as ‘Lou Reed,’ this image. How do people actually treat you?” And he said, “Well, a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I OD’d to your music,’ or this or that crazy thing. Their experiences are hair-raising. I have no control over what happens once I make the music. But I was in Manny’s music store once, and I see this young kid who’s with his father, and they look like what I did when I was living in Long Island. And this kid wants this Fender guitar, and he’s trying it out. And I’m watching this thinking, this might even be this kid’s Bar Mitzvah gift. He’s like 13. And I’m thinking, I wonder what he’s going to play? All the sudden, the kid starts playing, and he’s playing ‘Sweet Jane.’ And I thought, he’s playing ‘Sweet Jane.’ I am fucking Lou Reed!” So that was a nice conversation with him.
He really hated the movie when it was done. Years later, I ran into him at a restaurant, and he said, “You know, I hated that movie at first, and I gave some interviews saying I hated it. But over the years, everyone tells me how great I am in it, and you know what, it’s really good.”
PKM: Those cab scenes and other things about the movie – I know it’s supposed to be set, I believe, in L.A., and it was shot there – but it has a real New York feel and look to it.
Allan Arkush: Yeah, I don’t think we meant it to be any particular town. We couldn’t afford to do anything to change the look of the locations. If there were palm trees in a shot, there were palm trees. And we did it at the Wiltern Theater which at the time was closed. But it resembled the Fillmore East in size and feel so much.
PKM: And it was kind of falling apart anyway, soon to be renovated, right? In the movie, it’s supposed to be the last night of this failing old theater.
Allan Arkush: Right. And we added the backstage, all that was built, some of the other sets were actually built into the place. Because of the budget, we could only shoot in that theater. We couldn’t afford to have Teamsters and trucks and do a lot of locations. So we basically never left that building, and the production office was only two blocks away. It was a very tight shooting schedule, and the movie had a bond on it – that is, it had to be brought in for a certain budget, it’s insured. There were actually people there from the insurance company on set to make sure we weren’t spending too much money.
PKM: There’s a quote from Malcolm McDowell (who played Reggie Wanker) saying that, since the building was busted and scheduled for renovation anyway, you could beat it up a bit.
Allan Arkush: That’s right. I remember, we were doing a screening somewhere, and we were both on a panel. And somebody asked him why he did the part of Reggie Wanker. You know, here’s this great actor, he can do Shakespeare! And Malcolm says it’s a very short road between Hamlet and Reggie Wanker. And I said, “And not often traveled.” Malcolm was a joy. He came into the production late because of a casting change.
PKM: Who were others considered for the role?
Allan Arkush: Russell Mael from Sparks. Sparks wrote the theme song. We loved Russell because of his music and humor, but the role demanded a stature on camera that Russell, as someone who hadn’t acted before, couldn’t carry. We wanted Rod Stewart, we approached Elton John, a lot of people. So one of the producers knew Malcolm, and he said no at first because he said, “I don’t want to be in a space movie.” Because there’s a rocket prop in a scene! Ha. It’s like, read it again.
PKM: Does nobody read the whole script?!
Allan Arkush: Right. So he did, and he said, “This is great!” We made an assumption he could sing, but when we got into the studio to record him, he couldn’t sing. So we just decided we’d rerecord and make the “singing” like dramatic readings. Right on the spot in the studio with the band – and the producer was the great Bones Howe – and we just made it a little slower, more spoken.
PKM: But that character kind of comes across like a little bit of everyone you just mentioned that you wanted to cast, with a lot of Mick Jagger in there too.
Allan Arkush: Yeah, that worked out great. He was great, really fun to work with and talk to.
PKM: Did you get to talk about his other work, like A Clockwork Orange.
Allan Arkush: Oh yeah. And Oh Lucky Man is one of my favorite movies; If is the movie that inspired Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. So we had a lot to talk about. And since Get Crazy, I’ve worked with him a few more times. He was terrific.
PKM: So finish what you were saying about Muddy Waters.
Allan Arkush: So we meet Muddy in Chicago, in a lounge at the airport. We see him walking towards us, and he’s wearing like these brown golf pants and a Hawaiian shirt, something just totally uncool. And you have your image of Muddy Waters in one of those cool, silvery suits. Though as he walked towards us, people didn’t know who he was, but they knew he was somebody. Just the way he carried himself, he gave off a vibration around him. People would stop and look.
He was with his daughter, and he asked me to explain what I thought the character “King Blues” was about. I said he was more than a character, he was the influence that made rock & roll. That’s why he starts the concert within the movie. And that it was also kind of a joke on how at that point Chuck Berry would just show up and hire some local bands as his backup. Since this character was so key, the other bands were all going to do his song throughout the movie. And that Muddy had written, “The blues had a baby, and they called it rock’n’roll,” that was one of the thematic aspects and inspirations of this whole movie. So he turns to his daughter and says, “I believe this boy is telling me the truth. I’ll do the movie.” And that was it! But then, he had to bow out because he was having heart trouble. Then we met Bill Henderson, and he turned out great.
at one point, Iggy jumps off the stage, and the audience is carrying him.. but instead of running back to the stage, he ran up to the balcony of the Palladium, and jumped off .. which is fucking nuts! It’s really high up! But they caught him. And we all looked at each other and said, ‘we gotta do that!’
PKM: Oh yeah, he’s really funny in it. So I’ve got to ask about Lee Ving from Fear, and how he got involved.
llan Arkush: Oh yeah! Lee Ving and the Nada band are part of the same casting thing. So the inspiration for Nada was, okay, so there was this club in New York called Webster Hall…I used to go there all the time. And one Christmas, there was this show where all these women from different bands had gotten together – Annie Golden from the Shirts, Tish and Snookie from Trash & Vaudeville, everyone who had a band on the Lower East Side — and formed this sort of super group, and played all their favorite songs. They were so much fun to watch and such a good time on stage – that’s where the Nada band idea came from. There was a Claude Chabrol film called The Nada Gang, which was about these anarchist terrorists. And since nada was another word for no, well you get it.
My original choice was the B-52s, but they didn’t want to act. I approached the Roches, they weren’t interested. Tried to reach Joan Jett. That was the hardest to cast. Then I saw a tape of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and Lori Eastside was a backup singer, and she had so much personality, and did gymnastics on stage! So I cast her and her friend, and Lori became the choreographer. And we’ve been friends ever since. She choreographed many of the videos I did, for Elvis Costello, the Mick Jagger/Bette Miler video, she did all the choreography on Shake, Rattle, and Rock , which was the prequel to Rock and Roll High School I did for Showtime in 1994. All the women in Nada were from L.A. bands of the time.
So, the idea for Lee Ving’s character, “Piggy,” was obviously Iggy Pop. I wanted someone with that anarchic, full release rock & roll. I was trying to capture all the aspects of rock & roll through these acts. We were in pre-production, and we hired an AD named Cliff Coleman. He was John Ford’s second AD; his father was CC Coleman, a very famous AD. He did a lot of classic Ford movies. Cliff was the first AD on The Wild Bunch, Animal House, he was what we wanted. We wanted an intensity to the concerts, especially during Piggy’s set – having this massive slam dance. And of course, Cliff had never seen a slam pit.
So Iggy Pop was playing at the Palladium, and I got tickets for Cliff and a few others, and all went to see Iggy. It was a massive, awesome Iggy show. I was trying to impress on Cliff that this is what I wanted, slam dancing, the audience being on the verge of out of control. So at one point, Iggy jumps off the stage, and the audience is carrying him overhead, and they put him down, but instead of running back to the stage, he ran up to the balcony of the Palladium, and jumped off the balcony, which is fucking nuts! It’s really high up! But they caught him. And we all looked at each other and said, ‘we gotta do that!’
PKM: Was there anything that went wrong shooting that audience diving scene?
Allan Arkush: In order to convince the actors that they wouldn’t get killed, we did it in two pieces – they jumped off the balcony and were caught on a pad; then a cut to them falling into the crowd, to make it look like the big leap of faith. But that first jump onto the pad was high up. So to convince them it was safe, I did it first, and jumped off the balcony. I’m actually in that scene doing one of the jumps.
PKM: Were you able to get backstage and meet Iggy that night?
Allan Arkush: No, but later on, in 1989, I was doing this show for NBC called Shannon’s Deal, and we cast Iggy in the show, and we hit it off really well, and we’ve stayed friends. He did music for me on Shake, Rattle, and Rock, and I visit him in New York. Haven’t spoken to him in a while, but I really admire him, he’s so smart.
PKM: Speaking of which, how did you get Lee Ving involved?
Allan Arkush: I had seen Fear many times, and I thought they were great! I think Lee was the first person we went to, and he said yes. And some of the Fear guys ended up in Reggie Wanker’s band, and they did the basic tracks of Piggy’s music in the movie.
PKM: Did you sit in on any of the recording sessions for the songs?
Allan Arkush: Oh yeah, I was there all the time. Because the secret to making a great musical is to not allow the music to be performed without a storyline or point of view. To simply record the music being shot is what most rock musicals do, but I don’t do that. I feel you have to say something about making the music. That’s why when you see Stop Making Sense it’s so fucking brilliant, because the director is showing you how the music is being made, or its point of view. So for instance, when I did the Temptations mini-series for VH1, every song is shot so that the song is the way an action scene functions in a western or gangster movie – they resolve story. I don’t want to just stop and go, “Oh look, there’s a band playing.”
PKM: So you do consider Get Crazy a musical? Is there any musical movie or director you thought of as inspiration for this?
Allan Arkush: Yes. I reference Vincent Minelli – and he’s referenced in the scene in Rock and Roll High School too, in that “Do You Wanna Dance” scene. Frank Tashlin, because of the broad humor. I watched every rock documentary available at the time and wanted to give you that feeling of being in the center of the music and crowd. I felt that was true of Gimme Shelter. One of the biggest influences in my life musically is the scene in A Hard Day’s Night where they sing, “I Should’ve Known Better,” you really feel the intimacy to the performers there.
PKM: So you pitched it to the musicians as a musical?
Allan Arkush: Oh yeah. And if you’re going to do that, you have to be at the recording session, because you’re acting the scene twice – you’re acting the scene when you record it, and you’re acting the scene when you shoot it. You have to bear in mind the story and attitude when they’re recording that fits the film’s story.
PKM: Do any of the Get Crazy recording sessions stick out?
Allan Arkush: When we did “Hoochie Koochie Man” with Fear, I kept telling the guitar player, Derf, “Rougher, rougher! More intense! You’re playing it too safe.” And he goes, “No one has ever said that to me!” Lee Ving couldn’t stop laughing. I worked with Lee Ving again a couple years later on the first episode of Fame that I did, he sings “The Impossible Dream.”
PKM: I would guess Lee Ving was a natural and didn’t have a problem getting in front of the camera.
Allan Arkush: Oh god no! He was great! It was his idea to hit his head on the hood of the car.
PKM: So that scene was written with him popping out of the trunk of the car?
Allan Arkush: Ha, yeah, but then he said, ‘it’d be great if I ran at the car and was mad at the hood!’ So we had an extra hood made out of soft metal.
PKM: I shouldn’t put that in the article. I’d prefer people think Lee Ving regularly smashes his head on cars.
Allan Arkush: He actually did a few takes, and by take four, he was staggering. He doesn’t hold back, he’s real punk rock. He’s not pulling punches, like John Wayne.
PKM: So getting Howard Kaylan (the Turtles; Flo & Eddie) to play Captain Cloud. Was there a particular band in mind to parody there?
Allan Arkush: It was the cliché of the typical ‘60s psychedelic band. Way back, I’d done the light show for Hawkwind, they were really psychedelic. I was doing psychedelic light shows with Joe’s Lights, which grew out of the Joshua Light Show . We did lights for them at the Rainbow Theater, and they had a lot of people on stage. It was a lot less music, and a lot more lights and some weird sounds. And I remembered working with Joe Cocker and Mad Dogs & Englishmen. When they came to the Fillmore East, it was fucking chaos! You had this giant band, and they brought along their “Space Choir” or whatever, and they brought their kids and their dogs. I remember the first day, they’re getting on stage for the first show, and some of them had their kids with them on stage. Dogs running around, and somebody dropped a baby. So then the stage manager had a meeting with them: “Okay guys, no dogs on the stage, and no dropping babies!” So that’s the chaos I wanted to have during those Captain Cloud scenes. And there’s some David Peel & the Lower East Side in there. So basically, a cliché of what people thought the Grateful Dead were like. Casting Captain Cloud, I knew Jerry Garcia well, but there was no way he was going to do it.
PKM: Yeah, I was thinking about you casting and doing a parody of a hippie band in the early ‘80s, that the hippies that were still performing were probably not yet in a place where there were willing to make fun of themselves. Or they were in rehab.
Allan Arkush: Or, like the Dead, were still touring a lot. One person we approached who we thought would be good for that part was Dr. John. I just thought he would be hilarious. Then my friend Harold Bronson, who ran Rhino Records, suggested Flo & Eddie. We’d done a light show with Flo & Eddie when they were with Frank Zappa. When they went solo, I saw all their shows in London because we did their light show. When I was working at New World, they’d done the music for this movie Dirty Duck. That seemed like a natural, and it worked perfectly.
PKM: Ever hear that YouTube track of the vocals-only of “Happy Together?” They claim that was a quick knock-off song they didn’t like much, and it became their biggest hit. But you listen to that vocal track and think, wow, if they were just fooling around…
Allan Arkush: Oh yeah, they were amazing backup vocalists. They were on Bruce’s “Hungry Heart,” and all those great T. Rex songs. But yeah, Howard Kaylan was perfect for Captain Cloud.
PKM: That scene where you have the suitcase full of dope that glows and looks electrified when it opens…
Allan Arkush: Oh yeah – Electric Larry! He was a real person. He was from my days at the Fillmore East. There was a drug dealer called Electric Larry who would show up, but we didn’t let him in unless he had a pass from one of the groups. It wasn’t like we were letting drug dealers walk in. But, you know, Larry was very good at getting around. He was often there, and he would sell cocaine and pills and whatever to the bands. He was thin, with thinning hair, big bushy hair on the sides, and always wired on coke. So we decided to twist it and make the character in the movie look like death. We didn’t want him looking exactly like the real person. The idea being he was enticing, but on the other hand, that was death.
PKM: Was that image, with the lights coming out of the suitcase of drugs, a reference to the end of Kiss Me Deadly?
Allan Arkush: Oh yeah, I think that was definitely one of the ideas, because I know that movie well. The other thing is it was a Halliburton case, because that’s what Larry used to have. The Grateful Dead’s famous roadie, Ramrod – a great guy who’s passed away –always carried around a Halliburton case, and that’s where they kept their acid and pot and everything, and it was always within eyesight of Ramrod. They used to have their acid in little Visine bottles, and so when you worked the stage at their shows, you never put a beer or soda down near their roadies, because the roadies would try to get the stage crew members messed up. If you saw a soda or beer with a dent in the can, that meant it had been dosed.
So then later, like 30-plus years later, a lot of Ramrod’s stuff and Dead equipment and whatever went up on auction at Butterfields; and I go to auctions there a lot for movie posters. They sent me the catalog of all this rock stuff they were selling – and suddenly, holy shit, there’s Ramrod’s Halliburton case! I told my wife if I opened that up and licked the inside I’d be stoned! She said, you should get on it! Well, it was $30,000, so I didn’t want it that bad.
PKM: How’d you get John Densmore (Doors drummer) in the flick?
Allan Arkush: Well we needed a drummer, and he was around, didn’t have a band going. I named him “Toad” – that was the name that Ginger Baker called his drum solos. That’s another inside rock trivia bit. The movie is packed with them. If we can ever do a DVD of Get Crazy, the commentary is going to be nothing but that.
PKM: You obviously came up through the hippie psychedelic scene. But then here you are working with the Ramones and Fear in these kooky movies – did you ever have older friends who were like, ‘What the hell?!’ Like they didn’t get it?
Allan Arkush: Yes! But again, I have to hand it to Robert Christgau, who I don’t know that much personally. I used to talk to him a lot at the Fillmore East, and Lisa Robinson too. She doesn’t know this, but she was one of the main inspirations for Riff Randal in Rock and Roll High School. Anyway, by reading Christgau’s column, and the Village Voice in general, that’s where I got most of my information about what was happening in music. Because I was out in L.A., and not around the Village and the CBGB scene and all that. I was working for Roger Corman out there, so I had no money, but I earned enough to go to Tower Records and buy records sometimes.
Well wait, first, I was completely broke in 1973. The light show had broken up, I went back home living with my mom in New Jersey – no job, no prospects, just a film school degree. I was every mom’s worst nightmare. Studying film was the stupidest thing I could do instead of just being a lawyer. So I’ve got about 30 bucks in the world, nothing to do, and I’m riding around Route 4 in Paramus, and I’m listening to WNEW, Scott Muni. So he’s playing new records, and he played this new record, Greetings from Asbury Park, from this guy Bruce Springsteen, and he warned that “it had a lot of words.” Ha. I was just taken with it. So I pulled over to Sam Goody’s just to see the cover, and I see that postcard for Asbury Park. And I’d spent every summer there when I was a kid. And I took three or four bucks out of the $30 I had, and bought that. So that’s who you’re talking to here.
Also, I read Lisa Robinson and Danny Fields in Rock Scene, and some Rolling Stone and I was seeing a lot about this band, the Ramones. So I bought it, and I thought, well this time, Christgau is wrong. Ha. This is the same song over and over. And remember, I was not exposed to that scene. Though I did drive a cab in Manhattan for most of 1973, my girlfriend and I got an apartment in the cheapest part of the West Village, and I saved up about $400.
Lisa Robinson too. She doesn’t know this, but she was one of the main inspirations for Riff Randal in Rock and Roll High School.
I came out to L.A. on October 4th, 1974. My friend Jonathan Kaplan, who I’d gone to film school with and worked on the light show job with, he got a job working for Roger Corman, on this movie Night Call Nurses. It had done well, so they offered him Student Teachers, and me and more friends moved back out there and got some work with Roger Corman. I shared a house with a friend, Jon Davison, who was Roger’s assistant, he also ran the trailer department, he did everything – that’s how it was when you worked for Roger. He went on to produce Airplane, Robocop, lots of movies.
PKM: So I guess when the Get Crazy producers wanted it to be more like an Airplane comedy, did you ask him advice?
Allan Arkush: Oh yeah. I knew Airplane really well because I also knew the Zucker brothers well – they were second unit on Rock and Roll High School. So anyway, I was living in the garage of Kaplan’s house in the Valley, sleeping on a foam mattress, until I met Joe Dante, and got a job as his assistant in the editing room at New World, late spring of ’74.
PKM: You were saying how you weren’t around the Bowery music scene…
Allan Arkush: Yeah, what happened was we all had 16mm projectors, and two of my friends had a lot of movies, and they were over at my apartment all the time to watch movies. One night they ask me, what are you listening to these days. And I put on the Ramones, and they all said, what is this, it all sounds the same?! So I started moving the needle from song to song, and hearing the lyrics, and suddenly I realize this stuff is actually funny. I get it! They distilled down something that is really distilled in the first place.
PKM: So you were still in touch with some New York characters. Like you brought in Mary Woronov again, who was Ms. Togar in Rock and Roll High School, though she had a smaller part in Get Crazy.
Allan Arkush: That was based on a real person who was a lighting designer at the Fillmore, Candace Brightman. She left the Fillmore and became the Grateful Dead’s lighting designer. Mary was really getting into her painting at the time and acting was kind of a side thing.
PKM: And of course, you cast the great Dick Miller too, who sadly passed away recently.
Allan Arkush: Yeah. At that point, I had worked with Dick on everything. He was in the first movie I made, Hollywood Boulevard. He was in Rock and Roll High School.
PKM: He had one of my favorite lines in any movie, as the Ramones walk by: “They are ugly, ugly people.”
Allan Arkush: That was completely Dick. He improvised that one.
PKM: Two of the leads – Daniel Stern and Ed Begley Jr. – I’m guessing, as opposed to some of these other people we’re talking about, they kind of fell out of the purview of the music scene. Did they kind of look at all of this as kind of weird or…
Allan Arkush: Nah, they were up for it. Daniel was game, and Ed is one of the funniest people I ever met in my life. And again, with his character, I was thinking of rock criticism – who wants to undo the fun rock theater? The people who are manufactured “rock stars.” So we got Bobby Sherman and Fabian to play Ed’s henchmen.
PKM: And were they game too? They’re even farther removed from the punk scene.
Allan Arkush: Oh yes! We had to work around Bobby Sherman’s schedule, because by that time he was working as an EMT. But they had no inkling about the punk scene. The actors had fun, they were all in the theater together a lot. We weren’t shooting on different locations, it was mainly in that building. Some even slept in the theater. We had a lot of extras who were L.A. street kids. All those kids were put together by this woman who was a big part of the L.A. punk scene, Janet Cunningham .
She was awesome, she got everybody. A lot of the people in that crowd were friends or people I’d met in the punk scene.
Lou really hated the movie when it was done. Years later, I ran into him at a restaurant, and he said, “You know, I hated that movie at first, and I gave some interviews saying I hated it. But over the years, everyone tells me how great I am in it, and you know what, it’s really good.”
So what Cliff Coleman would do to control all those people, this big crowd, was something he learned on a Sam Peckinpah set. He would carry around a gun with blanks in it. He would tell people, ‘I want you to riot…But when I want you to cut, to stop the scene, it might be loud, so I’m going to fire this blank pistol into the air,’ and everyone stops what they’re doing.
Cliff really worked them up into a frenzy, he loved it. He said it was like working with cattle. But you know, everyone on that movie had a fantastic time but me. Ha. They were very long days, and the pressure from the producers. And every time we shot something, you had to go up and down stairs in that theater, to the balcony, , so by the end of the week, I was exhausted. I obviously enjoyed directing it. The scene where the dogs are chasing Captain Cloud, that was hilarious that it worked! Or the scene blocking up the bathroom so there’s water in there, all that stuff was fun to do. The crowd scenes, I really enjoyed doing that stuff! But it was tough.
PKM: So Get Crazy came out in 1983, right in the heyday of “teen sex comedies,” like Porky’s. So is that what the producers were asking for, more of that kind of bawdy stuff?
Allan Arkush: Yeah, exactly. And when we tested the movie, we got a lot of laughs, but there were things that really bothered the audiences. Like they all seemed to wonder, how can you have a concert with a blues band, a big rock star, a hippie band, and a punk band all together? That didn’t make any sense to some people. So those kinds of notes – which I would ignore – the production company would take to heart. “Well, what are we going to do about this? Are we going to cut some bands out?” No, we’re not going to cut bands out! In general, they thought their job was to disagree with me, that’s how they thought they could control me. They were just, just… oh never mind..
PKM: Maybe my favorite part of the movie is the credits roll, where Lou Reed is singing “Little Sister” to the girl, all alone in the theater. I think that’s one of his best songs of that era, and he gave it to you for this movie.
Allan Arkush: I agree. When I was listening to it, I told him how much I liked the guitar solo. I think it was Robert Quine. Lou told me, “I told him I wanted a big solo there, and he just started to play, and it was like the clouds parted and the sun came through.” I thought that was beautiful.
PKM: Do you remember shooting that scene?
Allan Arkush: Yes. That girl was Stacey Nelkin. She’d been in Annie Hall, I think, and a couple other things. She was in the Mick Jagger/Bette Midler video too.
PKM: Was that scene in your head as the closing credits scene?
Allan Arkush: It wasn’t planned that way. I think maybe during the guitar solo, the credits were supposed to start, I don’t remember exactly, but that was yet another case where I got overridden by the producers. They were like, “The movie’s over, why are we watching this long thing?” And I said, “Well we’re watching Lou Reed, that’s why!”
PKM: And of course, like Rock and Roll High School, you end another picture of yours ends with a big explosion.
Allan Arkush: Yeah, well I kind of wish that I had done more shots connecting the guys in the car, and how they eventually come falling into the theater. It could’ve used a shot showing them blown out of the car and up into the air, then a shot of them flying down. It just shows a jump cut coming through the skylights. We didn’t have the money for an effects shot or a model shot.
Someone who helped us an awful lot though was Woody Allen’s editor, Ralph Rosenblum. He wrote this book, When the Shooting Stops, which I thought was one of the best books about the editing process I ever read. I thought with all these multiple story lines and all this stuff going on, we might need someone to step in and give us guidance. So we contacted him, and he came out a few times while we were cutting and gave us advice. That was really a luxury, and a wonderful man.
PKM: Do you ever run into people from that big crazy shoot who say, “Hey, I worked with you on Get Crazy!”
Allan Arkush: All the time. But remember, I’ve directed 250 episodes of television and produced another 200. So I always run into people I once worked with. What happens a lot is, when you get a job, you look up people you’re going to work with, or someone just tells them about you, and they always ask me about Rock and Roll High School, and how they’d get loaded and watch it. And it’s usually women who tell me this, who come up to me and tell me how much that movie meant to them because of the character of Riff Randell. How Riff empowered them to be who they wanted to be, and not how others wanted them to be, and to stand up for themselves. And I consider that a pretty great legacy. I don’t think that film would’ve lasted as long as it has if it was just the Ramones that got you to see it. I think the Riff Randell character resonates in ways.
And I wish with Get Crazy, I could’ve made it more personal to me. I say this with all respect to the movie, but it’s a movie with 2,000 punchlines, but only 1,500 jokes. Y’know what I mean? It’s trying so hard to be funny, and I wish we were allowed to find a middle ground where we had more character stuff.
MORE FROM PKM:
LOU REED’S ARCHIVE HOLDS SIX HUNDRED HOURS OF MOSTLY UNRELEASED AUDIO, AND OTHER REVELATIONS FROM HIS ARCHIVIST
DESIGNING AND LIVING WITH LOU REED: AN INTERVIEW WITH SYLVIA REED