All This and World War II
May 30th, 2007
If one ever needed a single example to show how different the movie industry is today compared to thirty years ago, one needs not look any further than Susan Winslow's baffling yet occasionally fascinating "All This and World War II," an ill-conceived documentary which has been practically, and wisely, buried since its 1976 release.
(It should be noted this review is being posted in advance of the film’s first public showing in more than thirty years, when it screens at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles on June 1, 2007, for a single show at midnight, and it being reviewed from a bootleg DVD sent to our offices years ago by an anonymous admirer of the site who thought I might be mesmerized by this unique film.)
A documentary about World War II in and of itself is not a bad thing. Over the past sixty years, there have been hundreds that have examined practically every imaginable angle of the conflict. A popular artist of the day redoing some of the best Beatles songs of all time in and of itself is not a bad thing either. Joe Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” is as indelible in modern musicology as the original. But a documentary about World War II that juxtaposes the music of the Beatles to assist in telling the story of The Good War? Not the best idea ever envisioned, as you can imagine. But how it came about is even stranger than the actual product.
Imagine if you will, two men sitting around one day, wondering how best to promote an album they are planning, with artists like the Bee Gees, Helen Reddy, Rod Stewart and Bryan Ferry doing their own versions of the songs of Lennon and McCartney. Spurred on by the then-current success of Phillipe Mora’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” which intermixed documentary footage of the Depression with music from the day, someone comes up with the brilliant idea of doing this with their music and both documentary footage and clips from dozens of Fox movies made during or about World War II.
The final product is often inconceivably irresponsible, yet like a horrific car crash on the side of the road, one you just cannot look away from. Yet even in the chaotic mess, there are moments of strangely inspired work. Imagine Helen Reddy singing “The Fool on the Hill” to footage of Hitler relaxing at his Bertchtesgaden retreat, Bryan Ferry’s version of “She’s Leaving Home” as the ladies of America prepare to go to war, or a filmic version of a DJ scratching with Rod Stewart singing “Get Back” as Nazi stormtroopers goose step back and forth over and over. Most of the sound and scene mix, however, borders on the painful and racist, such as when Tina Turner sings of “choo choo eyesballs” when images of Emperor Hirohito are shown.
Within the context of the movie, many of the songs are awkward fits. Away from the movie and listened to without the images they are shoehorned into, however, a number of the songs not only deserve to be remembered but should get a proper modern release, replete with historical context. Whilst it is true there are a number of songs that are rather painful to sit through (Leo Sayer’s caterwauling through “I Am the Walrus” anyone?), there are an equal number of songs that demand reintroduction into the musical lexicon. Peter Gabriel’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” was the first song he released as a solo artist, and is both a loving tribute to the original song and an interesting terminus a quo for what would come later, and is a must-have for any serious Gabriel aficionado. Ambrosia’s “Magical Mystery Tour,” Status Quo’s “Getting Better” and several of the Bee Gee’s contributions, along with the surreal Keith Moon version of “When I’m Sixty-Four” (recording just two years before he would pass on at half that age), are only a handful of songs from the project that warrant a second chance.
As a historical document, “All This and World War II” isn’t (pun somewhat intended) all that, and one that could have, and quite possibly should have, joined hundreds of other films from 1976 that have all but been forgotten. (Nobody is screaming for “Apple Pie” or “Hot Potato” or “The Yum-Yum Girls.”) Nostalgia often incurs when an item is kept from public consumption, and it is likely all wistful feelings for this film would disappear if it ever becomes available for mass consumption. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the film in the coming months and years, but those expecting to find a lost gem will need to keep searching.
For an idea of what this film is about, watch the 1976 trailer for "All This and World War II"
My rating: C+