"SONGS—POEMS: We need new ideas FOR RECORDING! Your Songs or Poems may EARN MONEY FOR YOU! Songs Recorded—Royalties Paid. FREE EXAMINATION. Mail to: Star Crest Recording Co. Hollywood, Calif."—Song Poem Advertisement
Thank Jehovah for Jamie Meltzer and his astounding documentary.
Facts of the Case
It all starts with a tiny advertisement in the back of a magazine. With vague promises of future riches and fame as a songwriter, a "song-poem" company coaxes an ordinary person to send in lyrics or a poem for "evaluation." Along with a letter of acceptance (submitted song-poems are always accepted), the company then asks for a nominal fee to cover the cost of recording the poem with music. A song-poem is then produced as quickly and inexpensively as possible, and the company returns all manufactured copies (usually just one) back to the original lyricist, pocketing the extra cash.
Originally broadcast on the PBS show Independent Lens, Jamie Meltzer's hour-long documentary focuses on all aspects of the century-old "song-poem" industry, from the producers, to the collectors, to the song-poem writers themselves. The focus is on gaunt, chain-smoking Gary Forney, a lyricist from Iowa who actively promotes his song-poems. He sends out recordings of his song "JonBenet" to radio stations in Denmark, and proudly shows its chart position on an independently assessed top 40 list. In the end, Forney takes his show on the road, performing live with his son at a heartland music festival to a bewildered audience of twelve.
Song-poems have enjoyed a rediscovery over the past few years, and are now sought after by collectors of incredibly strange music. Frequently bizarre lyrics and indifferent musicianship have given songs like "Blind Man's Penis" a sizable cult following. New discoveries are made all the time, and with an estimated 200,000 song-poems recorded since the turn of the century, there is no shortage of material.
First and foremost, it's important to note that Off the Charts is not an exposé. Because nobody has ever broken into the music business from a successful song-poem, the industry is usually dismissed as a web of false promises used to bilk money from naïve folks. Wisely, Meltzer chooses a light-hearted take on this obscure pop-culture phenomenon, treating it as a business transaction in which people pay to have their songs, no matter how eccentric, recorded by professional musicians. This is the film's greatest strength. By cataloging instead of condemning, Meltzer's film carefully balances humor and heartbreak, making for an engaging documentary.
Off the Charts is often quite funny, although it never pokes fun at the writers, many of whom are even more peculiar than their lyrics might suggest. Filled with references to everything from celebrities like Elvis and Jimmy Carter to pets, drugs and religion, song-poems reveal more about North American obsessions than any Top 40 list ever could. Caglar Juan Singletary is interviewed about two equally bizarre compositions, "Annie Oakley," in which he fantasizes about losing his virginity to this "historical honey," and "Non-Violent Tae Kwon do Troopers," with its catchy chorus, "Thank Jehovah for Kung-Fu bicycles and Priscilla Presley." Nilson V. Ortiz is an equally remarkable character, who has written a rock song based on John Carpenter's remake of The Thing.
Once the poem is written and paid for, it enters the assembly line. Gene Merlino and Art Kaufman are two song-poem producers (also known as "song-sharks") featured heavily throughout the film. Kaufman is particularly interesting, a one-man song-poem company who does everything from fetching the mail to recording a synthesized music track to singing. He even shows how the whole process can be done in a mind-boggling 48 minutes. Merlino operates in a more old-fashioned way, with a three-piece studio band. As they play pre-written music, he reads the poems for the first time as he sings them.
We've seen this "chasing the American dream" sensibility before in exceptional films like American Movie, but in some ways Off the Charts is even more ambitious. Through interviews with Gene Merlino, Art Kaufman and other producers, Meltzer traces a brief history of this little-known industry, before explaining how NRBQ's Tom Ardolino and other modern day music fanatics rediscovered song-poems. At its heart, this film is about Gary Forney's desire to succeed with his country music songwriting career, despite all evidence to the contrary. More than that, Off the Charts is a thoroughly enjoyable and informative experience that should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in the business of music.
Originally presented on TV, Off the Charts is adequately presented in a full-frame transfer. Because it was originally shot in 16mm, grain and artifacts sometimes pop up, but it seems appropriate to this film. I don't think the world is ready for the gentle intensity of "I am a Ginseng Digger" in DTS just yet, so the Dolby stereo track makes a fine choice.
What this documentary lacks in running time, it more than makes up for in bonus features. This disc is simply bursting with extras for the song-poem fan. First up are performances of some of the songs from the film. Meant to illustrate the speed at which the companies work, "Sunburst Studio Sessions" features Gene Merlino leading his studio musicians through the recording of six song-poems in 15 minutes. Running about the same length, "Iowa Mountain Tour, Live!" is the complete live performance by Gary Forney and his son of such songs as "Three Eyed Boy." Short clips in the film represent both these segments, so it's best to think of these extended scenes. Shaky video and bad sound mar a pair of otherwise enjoyable performances from the Off the Charts premiere party. Art Kaufman performs "Non-Violent Tae Kwon do Troopers," and John Turbee, the writer of "Blind Man's Penis," does a rendition of his own song-poem to an enthusiastic audience.
The seven deleted scenes included on this disc are only mildly interesting, mostly just outtakes from Gene Merlino's interview. "Scam Scam," another song by Nilson V. Ortiz is worth checking out, though. Next up is a gallery of advertisements helpfully narrated by Meltzer, who identifies the different companies and gives a brief history of each one. Perhaps the oddest (and funniest) thing to be found on this disc is an infomercial from the early 1980s called "America Sings." With some of the worst production values this side of local TV telethons, two hosts exchange awkward banter and introduce performances of songs from the Columbine Records song-poem catalog. At the end, viewers are invited to write for more information—"Who knows, maybe someday you'll hear your song…on America Sings!"
Rounding out the extras is a scene-specific commentary by Meltzer and producer Henry S. Rosenthal. It's an interesting track, full of more tidbits about the characters and songs featured in the film, although some may find it focuses too much on the technical aspects of making the documentary.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This isn't really a fault, but because Meltzer's film concentrates on some of the most extreme examples of the genre, it gives the impression that most song-poems are hidden repositories for insane genius. As anyone who has heard his or her fair share of these tracks can tell you that's simply not true. For every "Blind Man's Penis," there are thousands of banal, poorly written song-poems barely worth the time spent listening to them.
After getting a copy of their song-poem back in the mail, most aspiring songwriters were probably disappointed when they didn't get famous. However, through this documentary and a new breed of collectors actively seeking out song-poems, these "ordinary people" are now having their promises of fame fulfilled—even if it is in a way not originally intended. Meltzer's documentary is a tragically humorous look at this strange subculture, and is not to be missed.
This disc is innocent of all charges, and is to be escorted home with a court-appointed convoy of Kung Fu bicycles. For their outstanding commitment to obscure pop culture, Shout Factory is ordered to keep 'em coming.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• The Sunburst Studio Sessions
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