“Christmas music: you can love it or hate it, but you can’t really ignore it.” True words spoken by cult director John Waters in Mitchell Kezin’s 2013 documentary JINGLE BELL ROCKS!, and yet slightly ironic as the film opens the viewers eyes to just how much Christmas music actually exists out there but has gone completely unnoticed for decades. In Kezin’s film, a holiday-themed cousin of Vinyl Nation (previously, featured in our Virtual Movie Palace), we take a trip across the United States to indulge Kezin’s passion for obscure Christmas music. On this journey, he searches out and interviews like-minded collectors of vinyl, tape, and discs that celebrate “the most wonderful time of year.”
The documentary opens at Amoeba Music in Hollywood where we meet Kezin (who makes himself a subject of the film) as he commences a hunt to find anything and everything Christmassy. He narrates his efforts as he starts “sweating like crazy” over the vast availability that he wasn’t expecting, as the store prepares to close, yet still wondering if there is a collection somewhere that they’re not letting him see. His basket overflows with CDs, from the familiar (Sinead O’Connor sings “Silent Night” and two copies of “John Waters’ Christmas”), to some that even he has never heard of, like “the Forgotten Carols”, and a release from a group called “Local H” that he takes simply because it’s a dollar. While he appears stressed over the task at hand, he manages to laugh with glee as he mines through the rack and stumbles upon items priced at $3.99 that can be sold on eBay for as high as $60-$80.
It’s an amusing and peculiar scene to watch, and offers a proper introduction for a film that for the next 90 minutes will take us on a cross-country tour to Pennsylvania, Alabama, Maryland, Louisiana and more to find the people who share his unique admiration for holiday tunes. Some are musicians driven to create a new Christmas song to break the mold of obligatory classics, and others are radio DJs and fellow collectors who Kezin admits are probably even more dedicated to the hunt than he is.
First, forget what you know about Christmas music because the assortment of musicians who participate in the film is a clue to the genre medley that the soundtrack includes. Some of those interviewed include Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, Rev. Run of Run DMC, blues artist Clarence Carter, Schoolhouse Rock composer Bob Dorough, Sandra Dedrick of The Free Design, and Akim Vann of “Santa Claus is a Black Man” fame, among many more.
The collectors Kezin meets are, for the most part, the middle-aged white man stereotype that Vinyl Nation asked us to forget about. They are nevertheless fascinating, with their encyclopedic knowledge and unique personalities—one of the DJs we briefly encounter goes by the name of Dr. Demento and physically creates his own on-air sound effects in an old-timey fashion.
From a distance, these people don’t seem like they could share the same category but Kezin creates a collage with their stories to allow an understanding as to why there is such an immense range of Christmas music. Kezin asks us to listen and hear the stories inside the music. He implores us to understand what makes each song unique, asks us to reflect on our own past and put it in perspective, and to have empathy for others, whether we think they may have it better or worse. And he asks us to break from our holiday routines where the same old holiday tunes get played on repeat on radio stations and in department stores.
JINGLE BELL ROCKS! is a unique holiday feature that is worth the watch (or re-watch if you caught it when it screened at our 2014 Cinetopia Film Festival) during this especially different holiday season. I recommend giving this film a watch and letting it inspire you to use this unpredictable time to your advantage and break out of your routines–and if it encourages you to kick off or expand your current Christmas music listening, I support that too!
Another unique holiday favorite of mine is also available in our Virtual Movie Palace: RARE EXPORTS, a Finnish horror/comedy that reshapes the typical image of Santa. But trust me, he remains just as memorable.
Have a great week!