|Imagine for a moment that you are new to this planet, or, better yet, were born in a time where the cornerstones of your cultural awareness are New Coke, Live Aid, and The Goonies. Now imagine that you wish to learn something of the vast American counterculture scene â in politics, the arts, and social movements â circa late 60s - early 70s. Though not the most complete, correct, or even coherent, you could do a lot worse than spending ninety minutes watching 1972's Dynamite Chicken, which functions as a serviceable overview of that turbulent though overly romanticized era.|
Directed by Ernest Pintoff (best known for his collaboration with Mel Brooks on the wonderful animated short The Critic), Dynamite Chicken is self-described in the opening credits as "A contemporary probe and commentary of the mores and maladies of our age.....with shtick, bits, pieces, girls, some hamburger, a little hair, a lady, some fellas, some religious stuff, and a lot of other things." The roster of names in the opening credits is impressive to say the least, and it includes major boho figures such as Paul Krasner, Peter Max, Alan Ginsberg, Al Goldstein, Lenny Bruce, Joan Baez, Malcolm X, The Velvet Underground, and John & Yoko.
The film consists of a series of thematic segments, loosely (very, at that) linked by footage of Richard Pryor (who is listed as the "star" of the film) riffing directly into the camera while wandering around a beat-up playground somewhere in New York City. Pryor occasionally slips into bits that he would become staples of his standup routine, but his presence here is strictly to take us to the bridge â I suspect he was oblivious of the footage that makes up the bulk of the film.
Pintoff & Co. were clearly targeting the tuned-in turned-on crowd, and the visual freak-outs begin right about the time the drugs would kick in. The material is strictly short attention span length, designed to make your trip more enjoyable â psychedelic concert footage (of Sha Na Na, believe it or not) is intercut with old movie clips (e.g., Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah) and seemingly endless footage of naked curvaceous hippies dancing or doing calisthenics. (If closeups of the mons pubis is your thing, this is the film for you.) This is supplemented with moments of agit-prop and pop-art; man-on-the-street interviews with toothless patriots talking about the flag, Andy Warhol recording Ondine reading from Warhol's novel a, some Frank Lauria poetry and jazz, and some creepy footage and interviews with workers at one of the first Burger King restaurants that would fit very nicely into Fast Food Nation.
|Other highlights include shtick from the Ace Trucking Company, a comedy troupe that featured Fred Willard and Match Game regular Patti Deutsch*, and a remarkable scene with Ron Carey dressed as priest outfitted in Joliet Jake hat and shades doing a dance in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral to Lionel Goldbart's God Loves Rock and Roll while somewhere else a nun does a striptease. (This must-see scene can be viewed here.) It goes without saying that the sexual revolution is addressed, and Pintoff chose some interesting spokespeople â on the one side, Al Goldstein and Jim Buckley, who (in nausea inducing fish-eye closeups) espouse the theory behind Screw magazine, and on the other some unidentified** feminist theorists discussing female sexuality and the use of derogatory language towards women.|
Dynamite Chicken embraces the then-chic philosophy of McCluhan, and this audio/visual mashup does indeed allow the medium to deliver its message, taking advantage of aesthetic techniques that were embraced in the cinema by both the high (Jean Luc-Godard) and low (Joe Sarno). Watching it nearly
To call Dynamite Chicken revolutionary is to do a disservice to the true revolutionaries of the era, many of whom coincidentally appear in the film even though some (as in the case of Lenny Bruce and Malcolm X) were no longer alive. Today, all it takes is a laptop and a handful of YouTube clips to create a film like this. Yet in that pre-Interweb age, it required significant effort to cull such diverse voices and images to create an entertaining yet critical take on the status quo, and the resulting film stands as a worthy artifact of the era.
Dynamite Chicken appears to be in the public domain. It can be found on DVD for about $3 or $4 dollars.
* Special thanks to Glenn Kenny for helping me remember her name