When a director makes a film about a niche group of society, such as in Mighty Wind, or Best in Show, there’s a tacit contract made with the protagonists, that the director will treat his subjects with a degree of dignity, and most importantly, not hold them up as an object for ridicule. Yes, their accents might be different, their ways might seem curious, but if they are being put on screen so that an audience might point and laugh, well, anyone involved in making that film should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Of course, context is everything; an honest attempt at portraying a way of life might become a cause for laughter in front of the wrong group of people. You can probably guess what I think of them.
So, Off the Charts is the movie that brought film maker Jamie Meltzer to some sort of national prominence. It tells the story of song poems. If you’re not aware of what that is (and I certainly wasn’t), it’s something like this. Almost immediately on the heels of the popularization (and democratization) of recorded music in the 1950s, there started appearing in the back of comic books, science fiction magazines, the Readers Digest, adverts encouraging people to send in their poems and lyrics to be made into songs, enticing them with the promise of fame, or money, or just the lure of having a record made with their name on.
On receipt of these lyrics, often by just one guy in a studio, the team will go to work on turning them into a song. The entire process will take under an hour, and at the end, there will be a recording in whatever style they’ve gone for. Country and Western seems to be popular.
The film itself looks at both sides of this process; both at those who write the words, and the musicians who make the recordings happen. And, given my first paragraph, it does so with a very light hand. It would have been very easy to poke fun at some of the more oddball characters that they come across, to mock their misplaced ambition, their hopes, their songs. To call this outsider art doesn’t tell half the story.
The reaction from some of the stars of the film has been interesting. Whilst it’s given them increased exposure, it’s something of a double edged sword. As with anything that’s popular with the irony obsessed indie hordes, even the best intentions can be taken the wrong way. Certainly, there was a lot of laughter in the room in which I was watching. All this is not to say that it’s a funny film – it certainly is, but there’s something that sticks in the craw about rich urbanites laughing at the supposed gaucheness of other folk.
But who am I to tell people how to enjoy a film? No-one, is the answer. There are more details on the film on the PBS website, including some of the songs that are in the film, strange and beautiful as they are.