“How does a thirty-five year old faded British rock star survive in Los Angeles,” asks Ian Whitcomb, an exiled British ex-patriot Ian Whitcomb searching for roots in Los Angeles in L.A. IS MY HOMETOWN, out on DVD from Scorpion Releasing.
While attending Trinity College in Dublin to study political science, he formed Ireland’s first rhythm and blues band Bluesville, and their second album was the first Irish album to chart in the US. He followed this up with the single “You Turn Me On” which made #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965. He went to America as part of the British Invasion and toured with The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. After recording his second single (which made the Billboard Top 50), he returned to Dublin and finished his degree. He returned to the States and recorded four albums for Tower Records and produced the album “Great Balls of Fire” for Mae West and MGM Records (he also had the unfortunate experience of collaborating with West on her disastrous comeback picture SEXTETTE, the Scorpion Releasing disc of which features an interview with Whitcomb on the experience). Although he continued working in music, his career certainly faded; however, he bounced back as a writer, penning AFTER THE BALL: POP MUSIC FROM RAG TO ROCK in 1971, TWENTIETH CENTURY FUN in 1973, and TIN PAN ALLEY in 1975. The film L.A. IS MY HOMETOWN was born out of an article Whitcomb wrote for the BBC about the British community (or colony) in Southern California, who lived an almost pre-WWII existence of gentlemen’s clubs, tea houses, and cricket and polo matches. Director Geoffrey Haydon approached Whitcomb about producing a documentary for the long-running UK arts program OMNIBUS (1967-2003), for which Haydon had previously directed the episode OMNIBUS AT THE PROMS.
The opening – thesis question included – suggests that the film will be a “day in the life” of a faded rock star (who starts out a bit Norma Desmond with a call to his messaging service and learns that he has no messages) as Whitcomb rides his bicycle out to the local YMCA for a fitness class with lots of short-shorts. Then it’s on to the Huntington Library to do some research into the beginnings of Hollywood as a retirement community. We move towards the British theme of the film with the note that the first film studio was founded by a Welshman; alas, he did not have the staying power of fellow countryman Charlie Chaplin who came along a little later. Next, Whitcomb rolls up in his beat-up Oldsmobile to the red carpet opening of the British Commonwealth Fortnight at the Egyptian Theater. This veritable “who’s who” of Los Angeles British society garnered a visit from a Deputy Attorney General on behalf of President Ford to convey his greetings (apparently). VIPs like Roger Moore and Cary Grant are on holiday; however, Juliet Mills (BEYOND THE DOOR) is rumored to be milling about, but we do catch sight of Hermione Baddely [then in a recurring role as the housekeeper on MAUDE]). Whitcomb drives up into Beverly Hills (once the playground of film stars, now being invaded by rock stars) to Artie Shaw’s love nest for Lana Turner, now the home of musician-turned-producer Peter Asher of the fellow British Invasion group Peter and Gordon (Asher was glimpsed earlier in his studio working with Linda Ronstadt), who has remained unaware of his clubbier countrymen.
The British Commonwealth Fortnight also plays host to the British Commonwealth Games, which includes soccer matches between the US and Australian junior teams and jousting by the entirely American Southern California chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism). Whitcomb then heads down to the Santa Monica pier, once a popular holidaying spot of Los Angeles’ British society; now, it’s the home of Muscle Beach, which is where Whitcomb runs into actor-turned-photographer Roy Dean. Once a West End stage actor, Dean arrived on the Broadway stage in “King Lear” with Orson Welles, followed by a string of TV guest appearances in shows like ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and DANIEL BOONE; however, his big film appearances such as MY FAIR LADY and THE MUSIC MAN were uncredited bit-parts. Dean developed an interest in photography – specifically, physique photography – and is seen here photographing a model named Don Bowman (Whitcomb calls him Gordon on the commentary track and notes that he was a porn star [Bowman is also known as Gordon Grant]), telling him to flash that “big Indian smile” (as in Native American, a representative of the other Indian victims of British colonialism shows up elsewhere). Whitcomb tries to get his American lemon serviced at Scotty’s Garage – run by retired Colonel Ian Goldstone – which only services British automobiles, and then guests on a radio show (alongside western author Louis L’Amour) hosted by one of his YMCA buddies in which he answers where the best hamburger can be found (certainly not in England, it seems). After a game of polo on Roy Rogers’ former estate, Whitcomb leads a sing-along at the British Armed Services Club with a racy song about a barmaid’s cleavage.
He caps his day out with a dip in the pool of neighbor and fellow ex-pat Suze Randall, a pin-up model-turned-erotic photographer whose scandalous life story was just about to run in British papers. Interestingly, Randall says that she did not leave England because she felt oppressed; rather, there were so many photographers in London that it was hard for a female photographer to get her foot in the door. Randall tells Whitcomb that she does not see herself practicing her brand of photography for more than another two years; however, she left PLAYBOY magazine and became a staff photographer for HUSTLER, directed a few adult films in the early eighties, and is the president of her own erotic website). The whole thing closes with a quintessentially American bit of pomp: the Disney parade (although the film’s end credits give special thanks to Disneyland, everything Disney from Whitcomb’s Mickey Mouse alarm clock to the characters of the concluding Disney parade are blurred out).
So, how indeed does a faded British rock star survive in L.A.? Certainly not with the aide of one’s peers it seems (although Peter Asher seems to have been well off without them). Although this is not one of the “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” releases, Scorpion’s DVD L.A. IS MY HOMETOWN features an audio commentary moderated by Katarina Leigh Waters in which Whitcomb tells us that he was virtually blackballed by the local British society after the film was shown on UK television. UK by TV critics attacked the film on the basis of the nudity in the Roy Dean and Suze Randall scenes. Los Angeles’ British population was also less-than-thrilled about how they were portrayed. Although it would be easy to focus on the “shocking” nude scenes being in bad taste for an arts educational program, the film really does ridicule Los Angeles’ British society, only it does it with such a straight face. From the incompetence of the British Commonwealth Fortnight planners for scheduling a major event during a time when many of their notables would be on holiday, to the open disparaging of the organization of the British Commonwealth Games by New Zealand radio and TV personality Jeremy Corbett (for those who haven’t already been misdirected four to five miles out of the way to the location by “Cynics’ Choice” radio host Brian Clewer). Whitcomb is no innocent here; he is very much the provocateur showing up at a black tie event with a Bugs Bunny tie, playing an off-color song at the stuffy armed forces club sing-along (not to mention his smarmy remark about Randall’s “assets” and his impromptu skinny-dipping). Director Haydon – worked as an assistant on Ken Russell’s OMNIBUS docudramas DELIUS: SONG OF SUMMER (1967) and DANTE’S INFERNO (1968) – both of which are available in the Warner R1 set KEN RUSSELL AT THE BBC – reportedly found aspects of the project distasteful, and is equally responsible for the film’s portrayal of its subjects (but in different areas). It is the editing that present Roy Dean as a “fallen” actor-turned-predatory-pornographer by intercutting his light-hearted interview with the photo shoot, insert shots from his book IN SEARCH OF ADAM, and photos of his stage and film roles. Randall laughing off the article poolside pretty much plays into the portrayal of her as a tabloid tart. Whitcomb’s narration and line of questioning, on the other hand, is cheery and straightforward; perhaps deceptively so, but it really depends on how much of the structure was scripted and how much of it was “found” in the editing room. On the commentary track, Whitcomb says that director Haydon replaced the original parade music with “Animal Crackers” to poke fun at the US Consul who agreed to appear in the parade, but the music change may also have been a preemptive strike against litigious Disney.
The choice of Waters as moderator is apt as she and Whitcomb are both ex-patriots now living Los Angeles (although Waters grew up in Germany and only spent about ten years in England). They compare their Californian experiences and share chuckles over the pretensions and follies of their fellow countrymen. We learn that Whitcomb wasn’t allowed inside Randall’s studio during her shoot with the nude model (which calls into question just how much of what we see and what he narrates is actually representative of L.A. as “his hometown”). Whitcomb expresses a lot of fondness for some of the people in the documentary in contrast to how they are represented; although, it is possible that time has tempered some of his feelings towards them (he doesn’t seem too put off by being blackballed, but his description of the BBC article he wrote made it seem like it was a pleasant surprise to find this insular society of compatriots so far away from home). Following the film, Whitcomb continued writing (a number of books on the ukulele and ragtime, his well-received personal memoir of the 1960s ROCK ODYSSEY, and a fictional novel which resulted from his research into old Hollywood) and composing (including songs for the documentary BUGS BUNNY: SUPERSTAR). Some of his old-time Hollywood songs were also heard in the slasher TERROR NIGHT/BLOODY MOVIE – in which a silent film star stalks 1980s youngsters – and his hit “You Turn Me On” was heard in ENCINO MAN. Whitcomb has also been hosting an internet radio program since 2007.
Since this hour-long film was produced for the show “Omnibus” one would assume that only a tape master would be available, but Scorpion has presented L.A. IS MY HOMETOWN in a new progressive transfer from a high-definition master of the original 16mm elements. As with Scorpion’s release of Karen Arthur’s art film LEGACY, the intended 1.33:1 aspect ratio has been retained within a 16:9 palette with thick pillar-box matting, the same manner in which uncropped 4:3 aspect ratio programs are usually presented in HD on television and on Blu-ray (the pillarbox matting should be treated as overscan and cropped out if the DVD is viewed on a 4:3 television). There are some scratches (which probably have more to do with the cheap processing rather than the thirty-plus years of storage), but it is nevertheless a clean and colorful presentation clear enough to make out the patterns of the star filter on Suze Randall’s camera. The Dolby Digital mono audio is also in good condition, with the narration and the recorded spoken dialogue coming through clearly. Most of the Whitcomb music heard on the soundtrack is his ragtime stuff with an intentionally low-fi quality, but the clip of him performing “You Turn Me On” and a bit of Linda Ronstadt’s “Lose Again” (one of the songs produced by Asher) have a bolder presence on the mono track. The aforementioned commentary is the only extra. Trailers for PUPPET ON A CHAIN, QUEST FOR LOVE, SEXTETTE (appropriately), SAY HELLO TO YESTERDAY, and GOODBYE GEMINI round out the package. (Eric Cotenas)
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