' ' Cinema Romantico: Jingle Bell Rocks

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Jingle Bell Rocks

The opening sequence of "Jingle Bell Rocks" finds its director and human through-line, Mitchell Kezin, entering an expansive record store and digging through racks and crates of Christmas music compact discs and vinyl records, audibly fawning over particular discoveries like someone from "High Fidelity" stumbling across a trove of "original, not rereleased – underlined – Frank Zappa albums." In that moment it doesn't feel to wrong worry that the ensuing ninety minute documentary will simply focus on collectible minutiae with a music snob's bent. And really, what could be worse than someone being snobbish about the sonic dreck that is Perry Como crooning "Do You Hear What I Hear?"

"Jingle Bell Rocks", however, resists a memorabilia fetish and a dive down the rabbit hole of kitsch, a dive which would have been so easy considering the plethora of tacky crap passing for most of Christmas music. That, in fact, is one of the very ideas which Kezin sets out to refute. Sure, he spends a few minutes here and there on bum offerings like "Santa Came On A Nuclear Missile", but even that is intended to demonstrate a specific time and place and how an otherwise disposable holiday tune can actually bear the brunt of history. No, his goal is to look past the Xmas Mall Muzak and illustrate that a long-suspicious genre is an off-the-beaten-path goldmine.

The film addresses several of the more mainstream melodic eccentricities, such as Run D.M.C.'s legendary "Christmas In Hollis", which includes a quickie interview with Run (i.e. Joseph Simmons) himself who makes every writer feel like a useless pustule when he claims to have written the whole thing in seven minutes while eating eggs. Yet the film offers many more rarefied gems, some by name, some just appearing here and there on the omnipresent soundtrack, such as Reuben Anderson's remarkable Calypso-flavored "Christmas Time Again" which I have been playing non-stop this December.

Kezin relays his own auspicious introduction to the majesty of Christmas music - specifically a Nat King Cole song called "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot". And seeing him recount this story, the emotion in his voice and in his expression become palpable, and you realize just how personal this documentary is for its auteur. To be sure, his intimacy with the material brings "Jingle Bell Rocks" to the edge of pathos - like Charlie Brown if he didn't have Snoopy for levity - and it is occasionally inflicted with the same sort of sentimentality possessed by the songs it seeks to denounce. Yet the overriding intent is so true that it renders these faults a wash.

It's not simply the idea of the season's music that he is attempting to rescue but the idea of the secular holiday itself as something beyond the billion percent off sales, lame office parties and Santas at the mall. He sees Christmas as a connector to our past, and as one interviewee astutely observes, "There's nothing like music for evoking memories of the past."

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