Saturday, October 13, 2012


UPDATE 9/24/13: This coming Tuesday, October 1, 2013, will see the release of Animal House of Blues on several on-demand video platforms including VIMEO On Demand, Amazon Instant Video and Amazon Prime. The film has, since the writing of this review, undergone the normal process of editorial tightening and restructuring, and I feel it's important to note that the version which will be made to the public is not the version upon which this review is based. I have not yet seen the final version so, even though I suspect the movie will remain in spirit essentially the same, I wanted to make sure that it was clear that the following is a review originally written in October 2012 of a version of the film that the public will not be seeing. (The trailer attached at the conclusion of this post is a trailer for the release version.) Either way, I have no doubt that Animal House of Blues will remain a documentary well worth seeing, one which celebrates the origins of a popular movie classic and the people who added their own special flavors to a very strange, very wonderful brew.
The following, then, is my review of Animal House of Blues as it originally appeared on this blog on October 12, 2012.

To paraphrase Sergeant Joe Friday, there are lots of stories in the big city and, as it turns out, in the little city too. The making of National Lampoon’s Animal House is a classic Hollywood tale of a project for which Universal Studios had next to no expectations that then turned around and not-so-quietly erupted as a huge box-office hit and a milestone in movie comedy. But there's yet another story behind this culture-changing comedy, a tale centered on the local talent, actors, students and everyday people from Eugene, Oregon and the Willamette Valley, where the movie was filmed in 1977, all of whom made unique and significant contributions to the production and helped make Animal House a legend. That story is told with snap, crackle and pop in the new documentary Animal House of Blues, which makes its world premiere Saturday, October 20 at the 2012 Eugene International Film Festival.

Written and produced by Katherine Wilson, who served as the local casting liaison on the movie and has been intimately involved in documenting the history of that production ever since its release, the new documentary shines the spotlight on the local Eugene actors, students, personalities and other creative artists (including Ken Kesey’s infamous Merry Pranksters) who interacted with the Hollywood crew and brought a special flavor and influence which helped make Animal House the beloved movie it is. (Full disclosure: I am one of the extras interviewed in the movie, and the best thing I can say is that my presence is somehow not catastrophically detrimental to the buoyant, celebratory vibe the documentary generously radiates.)

As its title suggests, Animal House of Blues is not however just the story of how the spirit of Eugene and the University of Oregon became inextricably fused with that hit 1978 comedy. It also tells the story of John Belushi’s chance encounter with blues musician Curtis Salgado, whose performance alongside his blues band at the Eugene Hotel would inspire the actor to create two Saturday Night Live characters, Jake and Elwood Blues, and how those culture-appropriating fictional blues legends went on to real pop stardom with best-selling record albums and a movie of their own, John Landis's follow-up hit The Blues Brothers (1980). Salgado waxes alternately proud and bittersweet in his telling of how some of his signature moves became comedy touchstones through Belushi and Dan Akyroyd's lucrative tribute, and his presence in the documentary lends the proceedings an air of forgiving grace in the acknowledgement of how sources of inspiration can sometimes get lost in the rush to coronate the pop artists who reincarnate them for mass consumption.

Animal House of Blues is a lively, intimate documentary, a product of the newly reinvigorated Cinema Studies program at the University of Oregon, and if it sometimes bears the mark of a film made by enthusiasts who are still in the process of learning how to structure a feature, then it also lacks the slickness of the typical studio-issued promotional "documentary," and the experience of watching the movie benefits from that rough-hewn quality. Director Jay Richardson, assisted by the capable, light touch of editor Matthew Brauer, conjures an intimacy from his relatively raw approach and lends a genial folkloric attitude to the local stories and characters which quickly settles the movie into a very appealing, loosely paced front-porch sort of friendliness. (To this end, the movie is narrated with joshing exuberance by Izzy Whetstine, who played the chainsaw-wielding janitor in charge of cleaning up Dean Wormer’s equine expiration problem in the 1978 movie.)

Loads of fun and understaying its welcome at brisk 75 minutes, Animal House of Blues is a fitting tribute to the legacy of the locals who made a major Hollywood production into something they could, in a very real way, call their own. Without the people of Eugene, Animal House simply wouldn't be the movie it eventually became, and with absolute fascination and a sense of fun to equal that of its inspiration Animal House of Blues makes it crystal clear exactly why this is the case, and why theirs is also a story worth telling and celebrating.


1 comment:

Katherine Wilson said...

Dennis, this superb review left me speechless, it was so amazing that channeled the Spirit in which we were trying to tell this story, and the Energy we were trying to create. Only 6 pages were filmed from my 30 page screenplay, so this film is simply an Ode to what we felt were the most important stories. We consider you and your blog SLIFR as one of our "sources of inspiration (that) can sometimes get lost in the rush to coronate the pop artists who reincarnate them for mass consumption" in the film critic world. Dude, we dub ya as an inimitable Delta for all time.