Engrossing profile of a major promoter of lowbrow art and retro-rock and punk music
An exotic documentary about John Edward Mermis, a first rate oddball Southern Californian a denizen of Long Beach who collects pop ephemera, especially toys, books and works of "lowbrow art." He also has run a low budget indie record company for the past 17 years, turning out over 750 albums by over 550 groups, mainly punk and retro-rock, and helping to launch the careers of White Stripes, Hole, The Dwarfs, and Rocket from the Crypt, among many others.
This film marks the directing debut of Gregg Gibbs, whose main line until now has been production design (including the current film, "Black Dahlia"). "TLGJ" is a hugely ambitious project. Besides profiling Long Gone John, it seeks to cover the field of lowbrow art and also the music that John has promoted on his label, "Sympathy for the Music Industry." We learn that all through the recording years, he's never signed a written contract with anyone. Everything's been done on a handshake; every musician is always free to drift away. And many do, which John is resigned to. He bills himself as the "anti-mogul."
John is interviewed at length, and material is presented in segments laced through the film. He's just plain interesting to listen to. He also hosts a tour of his home, which is filled to the ceiling with his collections ("You collect this mass of stuff and then you die," he says). We also learn a lot about John from the art (graphic, musical) and artists that fascinate him.
Lowbrow is a southern California pop art phenomenon, with roots in the 1950s hotrod and surfing scenes, and, a bit later, underground comics and street culture. Lowbrow artworks feature pop icons. The term "lowbrow art" was officially coined by the artist Robert Williams in 1994. Williams has promoted the lowbrow art movement through his publication, Juxtapoz, now the second best selling art magazine in the U.S. We meet and see the work of a huge cast of lowbrow artists, among them Bad Otis Link, Blag Dahlia, The Clayton Brothers, Camille Rose Garcia, Liz ("Bloodbath") McGrath, The Pizz, Mark Ryden, Savage Pencil, Todd Schoor, Shag and Williams.
We get a similarly detailed survey of some of John's fav musicians thanks to a soundtrack with 40 songs from albums made by John, featuring 33 bands, including Beck, The Bloody Hollies, The Lazy Cowgirls, Rocket from the Crypt, The Shitbirds and The Von Bondies.
There's more. LGJ proudly opens a high school yearbook with many inscriptions dedicated to John (not John Mermis, of course, but some other John...LGJ stole the yearbook). He collects celebrity prescription drug bottles and shows off one that once contained Debbie Harry's Prozac. There are catchy animation sequences, and marvelous comic imagery. And a first rate opening credit sequence showing the manufacture of art print CD covers for one of John's albums. With the aid of time lapse photography, we follow the development, over more than a year, of a huge painting featuring Long Gone John himself as the king of lowbrow art collectors, painted by Todd Schoor.
Well, you can see what I mean about this being an ambitious film. All of this stuff just keeps coming at you in just over an hour and a half. And yet, the work is edited in such a manner that the pace is congenial and the material engrossing from start to finish. I guess 'engrossing' came to me instead of 'absorbing' or 'engaging' as something of a pun, because the one thing required to fully enjoy this movie is that you can sufficiently dig the art and the music. Since some of this material is indeed gross, now and again that presents a challenge. My grades: 7.5/10 (low B+) (Seen at the Idaho International Film Festival, 09/30/06)
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