Thursday, November 1, 2012

All This and World War II (Get It?)

Another entry into the “What Could Possibly Go Right?” file.

In 1976, a 20th Century Fox released a film called All This and World War II. A collage of World War II footage owned by Fox, it combined newsreel footage, snippets of the studio’s classic movies from that era, and propaganda films or the age. All of this was set to the songs by the Beatles performed by the London Symphony Orchestra with such luminaries as Leo Sayer, David Essex, Frankie Laine, and the Bee Gees.
Again, this was called All This and World War II. (You know, like as in “…and world war, too.”)

Needless to say, the movie was savaged by critics, met with disgust by the public, and was only in theatres for a matter of weeks. It has never been issued on VHS or DVD. You cannot see it on Netflix. 20th Century Fox does not want you to see this movie.

Ludicrous concept aside, it is not well made. The editing is choppy and the juxtapositions between the images and the songs are more often than not, seemingly haphazard. The whole movie feels like a YouTube video put together by a 14 year old Beatlemaniac as an extra credit project for history class. Still, there is an almost adorable naiveté to the project. It is completely un-ironic , with an apparent lack of awareness that anyone could find this concept to be less than brilliant, much less completely offensive. In fact, the only irony is that someone thought that this was a good idea.

The soundtrack, however, did have some success. It spawned a few hit singles and, according to blurbs on, the CD reissue delighted a small group of zealots who grew up on the album. According to the liner notes of the soundtrack album, All This and World War II began as a dream by Russ Regan, the president of 20th Century Records. This seemingly belies the assertion made by some that the filmmakers had originally intended to use the actual Beatles recordings for the movie, as in retrospect, it seems as though the movie was merely an ad for the soundtrack album.

This one will give your kids Peter Gabriel
While the movie is a splendidly, ludicrously misguided mess, one can see how the album on its own could have seemed like a sound business decision. It was, after all, lushly recorded set of familiar and beloved songs performed by some of the biggest artists of the day. The double album was elegantly packaged with a gatefold sleeve with slip case, accompanied by a booklet loaded with lyrics and beautiful (if sometimes off-putting) illustrations. While Frankie Laine (who delivers an oddly earnest version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) and Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons were past their peaks in term of popularity, the presence of Bryan Ferry, Elton John, Jeff Lynne, Peter Gabriel, Rod Stewart, and Peter Gabriel lent some credence to the project. Unfortunately, it never feels like they are any more than guest artists, lending their voices for the day.

In fact, the album is really the work of Lou Reizner, the mastermind behind the orchestral production of The Who’s Tommy in 1972 (which was either a travesty or a work of genius, depending on who you ask).  Once again, he sought to re-imagine rock music on a larger, more heroic scale. Instead, the orchestra weighed down the arrangements, providing bombast without grandeur.

The sad thing is that some of these versions could have been good with better arrangements and recordings. Ike and Tina’s earlier cover of “Come Together” is far superior to Tina’s solo version featured here. Rod Stewart’s version of “Get Back” finds him in fine form, but with a stilted and poorly mixed backing track, it merely makes one wonder how great it would have been if it had been recorded with Faces. Peter Gabriel’s version of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which was apparently his earliest released solo recording, is actually interesting as his vocals textures subtly vary throughout the song, but with an uninspired backing track, it does not soar (an interpretation by Genesis might have been life-changing). Also, one has to wonder when listening to the Bee Gees’ cover of “Golden Slumbers” why some of their trademark harmonies weren’t added to the arrangement. It was another one of many missed opportunities.

Still, searching for quality in a project like this should be aside the point. Even when divorced from the bizarre concept that ostensibly led to its creation, the album was a pretty bad idea. It was not too long after this album came out when people realized that it is probably smart to avoid covering the Beatles (probably right around the time of Robert Stigwood’s film of Sgt. Pepper featuring Peter Frampton, The Bee Gees and Aerosmith). One would have to be pretty audacious to think one could do better that the Fab Four.

Still, anything worth doing is worth doing outrageously. If the references to World War II that made the movie so hilariously appalling were present on the album, it would have survived as a cult curiosity. Sadly, with most of the album merely being bombastic without being absurd, it simply is too much cheese and not enough camp. 

This is not to say that there are not some fantastically bad tracks here that almost save this album. Italian singer-songwriter Richard Cocciante’s cover of “Michelle” devolves so quickly from melodrama to hilarious histrionics that it is almost worth the price of admission. The version of “You Never Give Me Your Money” credited to Wil Malone (who did the arrangements and conducted the orchestra) and Reizner himself, is a wonderful example of why some producers should not try to be performers as well. The vocoder effect used on this track makes this one of the most embarrassingly comical on the whole album.

In the end, the results are bad, but not ludicrous, and as I have said in the past (see Empire Jazz), if you are going to do something so misguided, it must be laughably horrible or inexplicably brilliant. Anything in the middle is a failure. Still, there is plenty to hate here and there are more than a couple of choice cuts to irritate your friends with. And that’s kind of a good thing, I guess.

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