Hello, theatre fans! Yesterday, we looked at "Phantom of the Paradise," a forgotten gem of cult movie-musical history. Today, we're looking at an even more obscure, and even wackier, cult movie musical- "The Electric Piper." If you loved classic rock, or enjoyed the film "Yellow Submarine," this psychedelic animated trip might be for you.
The little town of Hamlin, a typical mid-Sixties suburbia, is the epitome of everything the mid-Sixties thought it stood for: family values (patriarchy), equality (there are black people in the neighborhood, sure, but they are more whitewashed than Bill Cosby), and women's rights (the only powerful woman in town has no problems flaunting her assets to get ahead). Amid the conformity around them, Mick and Janis Dixon (Robbie Rist and Lesli Margherita), the teenage children of the town's blatantly sexist and chauvanistic mayor, Nick Dixon (George Segal), want to embrace the freedom and liberation of the Sixties, but their parents will have none of it. Blindly convinced of their town's perfection, the adults have deluded themselves into ignoring the plague of enormous, hyper-intelligent rats that threatens the town.
Enter the mysterious Sly (Wayne Brady), a guitar-slinging shaman from way out of town, whose hot guitar licks have reality-warping power and an almost hallucinogenic effect on anyone that hears them. Sly is more than happy to eliminate the rats from town, in exchange for a vintage motorcyle which happens to have sentimental value for the Mayor. But when the Mayor refuses, Sly takes his revenge on the whole town, liberating the children and placing a curse on the adults he and the teenagers leave behind. As Sly uses his magic to create an endless, but ultimately hollow, world of constant immediate gratification for the young rebels, and the parents find themselves aging at a hyperaccelerated rate, both groups look for a way to get back what they have lost.
The voiceover work is good overall, with several standouts, notably Broadway legend Christine Ebersole, in the supporting role of Pat Dixon, the mayor's wife. Subtly frustrated but unable to outright criticize her husband, her performance carries undercurrents of regret for a life not lived under the mask of cheerfulness- quite an achievement for only using the voice! Wayne Brady, in the lead role of Sly, sings like Jimi Hendrix and speaks with the unmistakable poetic cadences of Jim Morrison at his most mystical. The cameos throughout are fun to spot, with Rob Schneider and Rodney Dangerfield, among others, appearing as minor characters. Everyone accquits themselves rather well with the singing as well, with Brady showing off his strong lower range and Schneider displaying a surprisingly pure falsetto register.
In case you haven't figured it out yet, this movie is BIZARRE, but enjoyably so. Much like its spiritual godfather, "Yellow Submarine," "The Electric Piper" may be appropriate for kids, but it's really for their parents to enjoy. Literally every song, moment and frame of the film is crammed with Sixties rock lore and trivia. At some points, especially during the song "London on the Moon," the imagery flies by with a stream-of-consciousness rapidity of juxtaposed images- Paul McCartney's dream of a Flaming Pie, the moon landing, Monty Python's Flying Circus, the walk across Abbey Road, the Union Jack Bullseye logo of The Who, and dozens more Sixties icons appear literally in seconds. If you aren't a classic-rock and British Invasion nerd, you're more than likely to miss much of the movie's appeal. Even the movie's songs play into the "name that reference" game: about half of the songs have a teasing, "name that tune" reference to a Sixties hit built into them, some subtly, some blatantly, as if to see who's keeping score at home.
In closing, "The Electric Piper" may not be intellectual or high art, but it's certainly mind-expanding in the other sense. If you just want a psychedelic, Sixties-inspired good times, track down a copy and see for yourself what the buzz is about.
The Electric Piper: B
LESSON FOR ACTORS: Remember, the world of "acting" does not begin and end onstage. There are many different venues and opportunities- try out for television, for voiceover work, for internet-related media, for anything you get the opportunity for!
WARNING FOR ACTORS: Remember to stay in character! According to an anecdote passed down by the writer, the woman playing young Janis was so attractive that no one in the studio could keep their eyes off her, and even in the recording of some of their lines, you can tell that many of the other voice actors had a bit of a crush on her. Of course, most of this will be entirely impossible to spot for anyone who wasn't there when they recorded, but her brother Mick DOES occasionally sound a little weird around her...
LESSON FOR WRITERS: Let your freak flag fly! Write what appeals to you, not what you think will appeal to the mass market audience. Writer/composer Bill Burnett, may not have had a huge hit with "The Electric Piper," but he parlayed his working relationships into getting his show "ChalkZone" picked up by Nickelodeon, and we all know there's nothing weirder than "ChalkZone."
WARNING FOR WRITERS: Know who you're collaborating with. According to the writer/composer, the film was originally intended to be longer and somewhat darker, but when it was picked up by Nickelodeon as an original film, much of it was either cut for time or to "dumb it down." If you have the luxury to pick who you work with, pick well.