By Tammy T. Stone
What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art … Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art …
This article is an unabashed love letter to a film that many of you may not have seen, but which forever changed the way I look at movies. And since I’ve long believed that we can learn much about how we construct the world around us from the way we watch movies, it’s fair to say this film changed the way I look at the world too.
The movie is called Lonely Boy, a half-hour documentary made by Canada’s National Film Board in 1962, at the zenith of its artistic and technological innovative prowess. Using then-new synchronized sound technology, directors Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor (one of the key inventors of IMAX a few years later) created a brilliant gem of a film, doing – in my humble opinion – unbelievably sophisticated and resoundingly philosophical things with the raw yet profound material that is sound. I should also mention here that Lonely Boy was sound-recorded by Marcel Carriere and edited by Kathleen Shannon, two of the Film Board’s regular posse of gifted artists.
So what is this little film all about? First of all, it was made during a very exciting time in cinema’s history – and the greater cultural history at large. Koenig and Kroitor had just made a series of documentaries as part of a collective, Unit B, at the Film Board. Called Candid Eye, the films used a purely observational style to examine topics like tobacco farming, the Salvation Army and Montreal’s wintry days leading up to Christmas, all with a sense of ironic detachment that became emblematic of Canadian filmmaking in general. At this time, no small thanks to the Film Board itself, it was now possible to synchronize recorded sounds with the images being shot with 16mm Arriflex cameras. As documentary filmmakers, Koenig, Kroitor and their peers were ever-seeking ways to get closer to a more directly experienced and immediate ‘reality’, and more authentic ways of transcribing witnessed actualities as they were happening before them. The ability to record sounds and images simultaneously rather than use recorded interviews and found sound (like road traffic and music) over images – as was the tradition until then in documentary film – would prove to be an instrumental achievement in fulfilment of this goal.
Everything was pointing in the right direction, then, when they decided upon a subject for their final film of the series. They got word that Paul Anka, a native of Ottawa, Ontario and then 19 years-old, was going to be doing a few performances in Atlantic City. Anka was rapidly becoming a superstar in the era that eventually saw the likes of The Beatles causing girls to faint at the mere thought of them – but Anka did it first. Anka-mania preceded the Beatles 1964 invasion of America by about three years, which means Lonely Boy, the little movie that could, is in effect the first film to capture a music idol sensation in all his glory on film. One could even say it’s the predecessor to the now-famed genre of the rockumentary.
What better way to use synchronized sound, you may think, than to go to a few concerts and record the footage of an apparently very likeable star? Anka does, in the film, sing his legendary hits like Put Your Head on My Shoulder, Diana and the song that became to film’s title, Lonely Boy, and watching a teenaged Anka do so is startling and impactful. And we also get interviews with Anka about his artistic and fame-oriented goals, as well as a few scenes of him schmoozing with his manager and preparing future songs. But this is no mere canned portrait of the artist (or celebrity) – the filmmakers have a much more complex and even obtuse interpretation of what they found before them during the shoot. The best moments of the film, I think, occur when the filmmakers deviated from their standard mode of using pure observation to record events, and manipulate the sound and image juxtapositions to paint a multi-faceted picture of a young, ambitious performer.
In one scene, Anka performs at the Copacabana club to an older, more sophisticated crowd than the nubile ones screaming and swooning at his concerts. Anka’s manager, Irvin Feld, has earlier commented in an interview that if Anka could corner this older market his success would be guaranteed. As he performs, the viewer can see that Anka is engaging his audience. The camera shoots Anka from behind so that he appears in the frame alongside the white-cloth tables and metropolitan couples. The sequence also cuts to medium shots of Anka with the microphone in his hand, arms flailing and thrashing about, lips moving in song, and to close-ups of the smiling, calmly-enraptured faces of those being entertained. But here’s the trick: throughout the sequence, we can hear not one note of the song he’s singing. Instead, we get Anka speaking in voiceover about his having been given a gift to sing and entertain. On one level, this particular commentary is appropriate since the visual images are of Anka performing to a pleased audience. But there’s something eerie about hearing Anka proclaim he has a gift, and then seeing him sing with no voice, move his arms to a rhythm that those in the Copacabana were privy to but is entirely absent to the viewer of the film. It is as though the filmmakers are commenting on the fragility and incomprehensibility of stardom, on the question of what it is, exactly, that audiences are attracted to; they add a great sense of irony by inserting a voiceover discussing Anka’s musical gift and simultaneously stripping him of the very element that gives him this gift, emphasizing persona over performance. But the enthralment of the audience does emanate through the close-ups, culminating in a wave of applause that starts off in silence (again an eerie phenomenon) and reaching a thunderous sound that is also the only synchronized sound in the sequence. The entire film, which never really delves into Anka’s personal life, is about the construction of stardom (45 years before Bieber!). Here, Anka is literally constructed in the editing room out of silent body parts, an off screen voice, and faces of the audience upon which his image depends.
The filmmakers’ vision of Anka here is at once satirical and slightly disturbing. They use the same sound technique in another scene, however, to create a more sympathetic picture of Anka. This scene occurs near the end of the film, as Anka sits at a piano and tries to play a new song for Irvin Feld with some of the crew hanging out nearby. The cutaways to the others in the room enforce, by sheer observation on the part of the camera, an overall atmosphere of melancholy which would have been abundantly clear by presenting the scene exactly as recorded with with sync-sound. The filmmakers go one step further, however, by fading down the piano-playing/singing and bringing in a voiceover of manager Feld speaking in his fast-talk, glibly confident way about Anka’s talent. The film seems to be telling us that Anka’s entourage surrounds him not out of respect for his talent, but for the money. The filmmakers have used editing to literally fade down, or drown out, Anka’s music and his voice.
The girls, however, are always listening. In a time when sync-sound was still a new innovation, the possibilities of which were still being explored in film, it seems paradoxical and ingenious that Koenig and Kroitor used manipulated sound/image pairings to achieve an immediate viewing experience in which we feel we’ve plunged right into the already canned life of Anka, aged 19. Performances shown earlier in the film took advantage of sync-sound to simultaneously present a performer and the sound of his fans – a performer so successful his music was being overpowered by all of the cheering and screaming. The editing of the last performance of Lonely Boy, however, combines long shots of close-ups on girls’ faces with a muting of their screaming mouths to comment not only on Anka’s looming presence but on the girls’ lives, which are portrayed as having become completely devoted to the worship of a star. Tears stream down their cheeks, hands clutch their faces and mouths silently (to the viewer) contort their faces into claims of “I love you Paul!” Nothing can be heard but the song “Put Your Head on my Shoulders”, although the crowd must have been deafening. The final impact of Anka’s godly musical presence hovering over such riveted, lively yet silent faces transcends any discussion of message, intent and underlying philosophy of this film or any other, heading right into the terrain of the ineffable, even the mystical, reminding us why life is such a grand mystery. And in this case, the sublime has been achieved with sound, and its equally towering other half, silence. When I think of Lonely Boy, how brilliant it is now as then and how affected I can be watching it over and over again, I remember how possible it is to create our own worlds into the fantasies of our making while remaining truthful to our experiences and to life.