Judge Paul Corupe pimped his Scion to make it look like a toaster.
"He's the Salvador Dali of the movement—a surrealist in his design" Tom Wolfe
An iconoclastic painter, cartoonist, and industrial sculptor who inadvertently shaped everything from modern car design to graphic illustration and marketing concepts, automobile "Kustomizer" Ed "Big Daddy" Roth is the pinstriped patron saint of hot rodders everywhere. Integrating the Universal monster resurgence of the 1960s with the emerging car culture, Roth created iconic drawings of crazed "monster drivers" with bloodshot eyes and wagging tongues, feverishly clutching gearshifts from atop their tricked-out dragsters. His weirdo aesthetic somehow clicked with a nation of car- and creature-obsessed kids, and resulted in a mountainous legacy of pop paraphernalia-comic books, monster-emblazoned T-shirts, record albums, Revell model kits, and even Roth's own homemade vehicles. His most indelible creation, however, remains the filthy, green-skinned rodent Rat Fink, who has become a gleefully obnoxious symbol of everything bizarre and unique.
Toronto-bred pop culture aficionado Ron Mann has explored the social history of North America in engaging films like Comic Book Confidential Twist, and Grass. His documentary on Roth's life, Tales of the Rat Fink, may be his most focused effort yet. This unabashed celebration of the artist's life and work illuminates the legendary figure and firmly places him within in the Kustom car movement of the late 1950s and early '60s. Mann first announced his intentions to make a doc on everyone's favorite Rat Fink way back in 2000, but when Roth unexpectedly passed away the following year, he was left to make a film without the participation of the originator himself. Inventively, Tales of the Rat Fink solves this problem by doing away with the concept of talking heads entirely. Instead, John Goodman (The Big Lebowski) steps in to narrate as though he's Roth's monocle-clutching spirit watching up from heaven, with additional commentary provided by Roth's wildly inventive car creations, who fill in the remaining details via celebrity voiceover.
Unlike most rubber burning drag racers, speed was first and foremost a visual aesthetic for Roth, who could make your ride look like it was tearing ass even when it was just idling in the parking lot at Bob's Big Boy. When Roth's own tricked-out hot rod began to turn heads down on the strip with its colorful exterior and hand-painted lettering, the fledgling artist took on a few freelance assignments, adding flamed-out side panels and elegant pinstripes to give his friend's vehicles a personal flair. His personal passion ultimately became a national obsession when car culture reached a critical mass, and Roth's unorthodox, unpretentious designs suddenly made him an unlikely spokesman for grease monkeys across the country. He printed his monster drawings on undershirts for car club members—virtually inventing the silk-screened Tee in the process—and lent his image to model kits, comic books and more. Eventually, Roth began to construct one-of-a-kind, way-out motorcars like the Beatnik Bandit, The Orbitron, and Rotar before the fickle public deemed his aggressively unsophisticated style a fad and moved on to the next big thing.
In Mann's last pop culture doc, Grass, the frequent use of animated sequences that bridged between each "chapter" of the film became a distraction of sorts. But Tales of the Rat Fink merges animation directly into the stylized narrative, creating a cohesive, relentlessly energetic and undeniably entertaining film. As the story unfolds, bouncing cut-and-paste photographic elements meet up to computer-rendered zipping pinstripes, and newsreel footage collides with vintage hot rod B-movie cheese, giving the doc a crazed, speed-addled quality that fits in nicely with Roth's gonzo graphics. Likewise, the prospect of having the film narrated by a series of talking cars (voiced by notables including Jay Leno, Tom Wolfe, Matt Groening and Robert Williams) works better than anticipated, complementing the frenetic visuals of the film and using humor to keep the tone light and enjoyable.
Mann concentrates on exploring Rat Fink's mantra of "It's okay to be weird." In many ways Roth was about more than just celebrating individualism; he was championing a distinct, DIY aesthetic that sneered at the Detroit automobile designers. As Roth got hold of a revolutionary new material called fiberglass, he turned away from simply adorning pre-fabricated automobiles to build a new breed of vehicle from the ground up. This fundamental shift put the tools of production into the hands of the craftsman, flat out rejecting the assembly-line culture that had dominated the country since the industrial revolution. This idea is far more pertinent in Roth's self-mythology, and the primary reason that he is still relevant today (especially since the rise of cookie-cutter Pimp My Ride customizing).
Shout! Factory's presentation of Tales of the Rat Fink is eye-poppingly immaculate. With bold, attention-grabbing colors and a brilliant sharpness, you won't find a speck of dirt or digital artifact, except possibly in the vintage footage incorporated here. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is similarly loud and self-assured. As for extras, the disc offers a 10-minute video interview with Roth that looks to be about 20 years old, in which "Mr. Gasser" pontificates on the stagnancy of car design in the U.S.A. "Rat Fink Reunion" is a take-it-or-leave-it segment that has Roth team up with fellow Kustomizers like Von Dutch to add their distinctive detailing to a car. An interesting but relatively short interview with Mann chronicles the history of the project, and it's cutely done in the same "talking car" style of the feature. Finally, there's a deleted scene of Mike Roberts' brain-melting animation, a video by Toronto twangsters The Sadies (who also supply the film's excellent, reverb-soaked soundtrack) and a still gallery of Roth comic books, car creations, monster cartoons and artist tributes.
Rather than a straight-up, objective documentary, Tales of the Rat Fink is nothing more than a heartfelt tribute to Roth. Mann's enthusiasm and reverence for his subject translates well on screen. While gearheads already familiar with Roth's wildly conceived illustrations and wide-ranging influence probably won't pick up anything they didn't already know, everyone will appreciate Mann's dynamic visual style and respectful treatment of a unique artist. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• "Big Daddy Lives!" Rare interview with Ed "Big Daddy" Roth
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