Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971, Floyd Mutrux)

"Wind it up baby, the Solid Gold Weekend is coming to a close..."
U.S. One-Sheet

Mitch and Beverly aka Dusty and Sweets

Larry and Pam

Big Time Male Hustler and a customer

Floyd Mutrux's pseudo documentary Dusty and Sweets McGee is one of the great lost curios of the American New Wave.  It is, to use a term too freely thrown around, truly a time capsule of a time and place, which has long since morphed into something else entirely. Made on a shoestring by the then 28 year-old Mutrux, fresh from the Warner Bros. story department, the film was pulled by that very same studio after a week of very solid business.  It is said that studio executives were scared off by the nonjudgmental style in which Mutrux and his team (including William A. Fraker, Laszlo Kovacs, and Bobby Byrne) portrayed the film's eclectic mix of real-life Los Angeles junkies.  Uncharitable reviews like the one by the Times' Howard Thompson, which characterized the film as "sickening" and "interminable," surely did not aid the film's cause.  

However, the film is much better than that. Using the ubiquitous voice of an all-night radio d.j. as something of a framing device, Mutrux follows a collection of dealers and dopers during one "Solid Gold Weekend."  Some like Tip and the Big Time Male Hustler spout their philosophies to the camera in an interview style.  Others like Mitch and Beverly ("Dusty and Sweets") the camera observes in a more fly-on-the-wall manner. An on-screen text scroll at the start of the film tells us that the addicts in the film are really addicts.  The dealers (Father Knows Best child star Billy Gray among them) are actors.  Most of the attention is wisely placed on the addicts who range from a tragically young teenage couple, Larry and Pam, to a low-level criminal and "card-carrying everyday dope fiend," Tip.  Interestingly, it is Gray, the one real actor in the piece, who comes off weakest.  His screeds seem forced and inauthentic in comparison to the otherwise unprofessional cast.  Still, it is a trip, to say the least, to see the former child star with long greasy hair and a swastika tattoo.

Mutrux injects no overt commentary into the film--there is no voiceover and no onscreen titles except for the aforementioned opening.  Instead, he expertly uses familiar golden oldies of the 50s and 60s and some lesser remembered tunes from the early 70s as a sort of Greek chorus and, in the case of the finale which utilizes Jake Holmes' "So Close," achieves a staggering effect.  Mutrux, like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, is clearly aware of the great dramatic effect that the right pop song can have on a film.  The soundtrack, which includes footage of Blues Image performing their sole hit "Ride, Captain, Ride," plus Del Shannon's "Runaway," the Monotones' "Book of Love," the Marcels' "Blue Moon," Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," Harry Nilsson's "Don't Leave Me Baby," and others is surely contributing to its continued absence on any home video format.  The licensing fees are no doubt enormous especially for such a niche title.  The keen ear for pop music that Mutrux demonstrates here is not surprising considering this skill would be integral to his later output, aloha, bobby and rose, The Hollywood Knights, American Hot Wax (perhaps his most fully realized film), and There Goes My Baby

Warner did strike a new print for a weeklong run at San Francisco's Roxie in 1996 and both dailies, the Chronicle and Examiner, gave it good notices.  I would very much like to see a DVD so that the fine camerawork by Fraker and "extra eyes" Kovacs, Byrne, and Richard Colean could be better appreciated and so that we could have much-needed input from the rarely heard from Mutrux about his concept, its production, and its participants.  Though I don't have great faith that many of the "stars" are still living, I would like to definitively know what became of them, particularly Larry and Pam, whose scenes are the most harrowing and painful to watch.  Most famously, in 1998, Billy Gray settled a libel suit with Leonard Maltin, over the film's entry in Maltin's annual film and video guide.  Maltin incorrectly labeled Gray an addict in the guide and was forced to remove the damaging text in subsequent printings and issue a public apology, which he did on July 18th of that year.  

Mutrux is an interesting case.  Like Paul Williams, he peaked rather early and though he's still kicking (there was a late 90s article floating around the Internet about all of his near-misses), many of his projects have never gotten past the development stage.  Mutrux's 1975 follow-up film aloha, bobby and rose starring Paul LeMat and Diane Hull is available from Anchor Bay.  His 1978 classic American Hot Wax, which chronicled the times of pioneering d.j. Alan Freed, appeared very briefly on home video at the dawn of the format, but has since been in the vaults due to its mammoth double LP length soundtrack.  A collection of pop hits did not, however, stop Sony from belatedly releasing the inferior The Hollywood Knights (a more raunchy American Grafitti) on DVD and VHS in the late 90s with its soundtrack intact (this was around the time that the studio also paid the soundtrack royalties for Heavy Metal and American Pop and released them on home video).  1994's There Goes My Baby was a casualty of Orion's collapse and sat on the shelf for a few years. 

He appeared as an actor in Rosemary's Baby, Noel Black's Cover Me Babe, and 60s episodic television.  His writing and story credits include Two-Lane Blacktop (uncredited), The Christian Licorice Store (also producer), Freebie and the Bean (executive producer), American Me (executive producer), Bound By Honor, and Mulholland Falls (which you can read about in a lengthy article at Radiator Heaven).  He was an executive producer of Dick Tracy. His former wife is the producer Gail Mutrux.

The key art for Dusty and Sweets McGee is not all that visually interesting, however I do appreciate the text, which attempts to link all or most of the characters in a way that the film never actually does. In any event, it does a good of selling the film.  The tag line refers to the aforementioned radio announcer's jargon.  When taken out of its original context and used as poster copy, it is melancholic and ominous in a way that is befitting for the film. 

6 comments:

kevin said...

I just watched this film and it is stunning. The print, from the Warner Archives DVD-R series, is great. No extras, but I will definitely watch it again soon. Very moving.

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for the review, Kevin! I've been on the fence about the Warner Archives series because of the quality issues and price point. When I'm assured that they've worked out the initial kinks, DUSTY AND SWEETS is tops on my list.

Marshall Crist said...

Yeah, also just checked this out for the first time via Warner Archives. It was riveting.

anaïs nincompoop said...

Thanks for posting this!

I've been wanting to see this film all my life. My father had a small role in it (one of the non-junkies) and I'm thrilled to know I and others can finally step into the "Dusty and Sweets McGee" world...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I've loved this movie (for so many reasons) and have rarely met anyone who's seen it. I'm also thrilled to read here that it has been released on dvd. Floyd Mutrux's use of pop radio is sublime in it - such an expert use of it. Also, recently watched Flesh (Warhold/Morrisey) in which the story and characters are beautiful and tender in the same ways I find them to be in this movie - and similarly underappreciated . Thanks again - so happy to find others who appreciate this.

Ned Merrill said...

@Anonymous,

Thanks for the comment. I suspect that many more people will see DUSTY AND SWEETS now that it is available on DVD. Believe it or not, I still haven't seen FLESH...need to catch up on many of those Warhols.