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Flashback: ‘Wild in the Streets’, 1968

J. Hoberman writes: A scurrilous political satire, “Wild in the Streets” opened in the spring of 1968 and played more or less continuously in drive-ins and grindhouse theaters throughout that convulsive election year.

Opposition to the Vietnam War was reaching its height and, in the wake of the catastrophic Democratic convention in Chicago, Fortune magazine estimated that a million young Americans identified with Students for a Democratic Society and other manifestations of the “New Left.”

“Wild in the Streets,” directed by Barry Shear from a script by Robert Thom (elaborating on his Esquire article “The Day It All Happened, Baby”) reflected, even as it satirized, a fearful fascination with the Kids. The movie industry calculated that more than half of its audience was under 25; in its own way, “Wild in the Streets” parodies Hollywood’s bemused efforts to reach younger viewers.

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Max Frost, a 22-year-old rock musician (Christopher Jones, star of the short-lived TV series “The Legend of Jesse James”), dupes a pandering, 37-year-old senator (Hal Holbrook, hair combed over his forehead in the style of Robert Kennedy’s) into supporting an amendment that would lower the voting age to 14. Benefiting from this newly enfranchised electorate, as well as a bit of LSD in the drinking water, Max himself takes power, putting everyone over 35 in New Age re-education camps.

Diane Varsi and Christopher Jones in “Wild in the Streets” (1968), directed by Barry Shear. Olive Films

Diane Varsi and Christopher Jones in “Wild in the Streets” (1968), directed by Barry Shear. Olive Films

The perpetually smirking Mr. Jones offers an amusing impersonation of James Dean doing Hitler. But the movie’s high point is a scene where Diane Varsi, playing the most zonked member of Max’s entourage (which includes a young Richard Pryor), addresses Congress as if from the stage of the Fillmore. Wearing a bicorn hat and lazily shaking her tambourine, she giggles that “America’s greatest contribution has been to teach the world that getting old is such a drag.”

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Although the movie’s pop-star-run-amok premise is similar to that of the British filmmaker Peter Watkins’s more sober “Privilege,” released in the United States during the summer of 1967, Mr. Thom might well have been inspired by the Doors singer Jim Morrison, who for several years had been performing “When the Music’s Over” with its cri de coeur ending: “We want the world and we want it… Nah-ow-OW!!!”

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“Wild in the Streets” would surely have been better scored by the Doors, but the film’s songs, mainly written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and performed by a studio band complete with a sound like Strawberry Alarm Clock, are not bad. (“The Shape of Things to Come” by the fake band Max Frost and the Troopers actually went to No. 22 in September 1968.) The reviews were also surprisingly good. Renata Adler, in The Times, called the movie “by far the best American film of the year so far,” and compared it, not altogether humorously, to “The Battle of Algiers.”
In its cartoonish way, “Wild in the Streets” prophesied Yippie threats, student uprisings, China’s Red Guards and the Kent State massacre … (read more)
via The New York Times

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