WILD IN THE STREETS—“We’re gonna make 30 a mandatory retirement age. And we’re gonna set up rehabilitation camps, mercy centers, in every state of the union. Citizens will report to them after five years, at the age of 35. And there, in groovy surroundings, we’re gonna psych ’em all out on LSD, babies.”
Robert Thom’s audacious script is based on “The Day it All Happened, Baby” a short story he wrote in 1966. Always on the sniff for fodder that would feed a trend, American-International Pictures canny producers Samuel A. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson read the tea-leaves of societal turmoil like carnival pitchmen sizing up a crowd of rubes, and acid-dropped their newest assault on dignity and taste smack into the middle of fabric-ripping 1968.
Charismatic rock singer ‘Max Frost’ (Christopher Jones) is an amoral creep with a large, fanatically devoted following. He’s also a born revolutionary with a cruel streak who takes advantage of being hired (to grab the youth vote) by ‘Johnny Fergus’ (Hal Holbrook), a liberal Democratic candidate in the Kennedy vein, running for Senate, partially on a platform to lower the voting age to 18 (this was still an issue when the movie was made: the Vietnam War gave it traction). Max jumps the shark with a televised demand to make it 14, and his obedient rebellious hordes turn Max’s crass ambition into raw political power. By the time Max’s megalomania and ruthlessness have made him President, “old is out, baby” and everyone over 35 ends up in “retirement” camps, being dosed with LSD (where are these camps and how do we get there?). But he made one mistake, man: taking the even meaner little kids for granted…
So scathingly satiric and ‘out-there’ it’s almost science-fiction, though beneath the young people pandering lurks a bleakly right-wing message that kids—and by default “the movement” (of the day)—can’t be trusted. Acted with energy, directed like an assault by Barry Shear, expertly edited (Eve Newman’s film editing got an Oscar nomination: a first for anything from A.I.P.), and marketed like it actually meant something, the $700,000 “statement” became one of 1968’s “event” movies. Though it wasn’t an artistic triumph (2001: A Space Odyssey), wasn’t exciting fun (Planet Of The Apes) and wasn’t sexy (Barbarella), it pulled in the same sensory-seeking crowd, tabbing #36 for the year with a gross of $11,400,000.
The sullen Jones, getting pushed in ’68 with the programmer Chubasco (which, alas, no-one saw) and the tease comedy Three In The Attic (a bigger hit–and lamer film–than ‘Wild‘) delivers his one decent performance here: his career flamed out almost as fast as Max’s. Holbrook at 42 had only appeared in one movie (The Group) at that point; he’s very good, as is veteran Ed Begley, playing a crusty older politician. Twenty-seven-year old Richard Pryor has a small role as Max’s stoned-out drummer: this was one of that legend’s first film appearances (he was NOT in The Green Berets: that was another Richard Pryor, a disk jockey from Texas). Ill-fated Diane Varsi had gone from being Oscar-nominated for her debut as a sweet young thing in 1957’s smash Peyton Place to adorning the sidelines as the tripped-out hippie chick trinket/free love sex dispenser she plays in this movie. Top-billed is Shelley Winters, as Max’s blowsy, harridan mama, a walking, screaming advertisement against adults. A little Shelley goes a long way.
“Senator, I’m sure my son has a very good reason for paralyzing the country.”
Includes the song “Shape of Things to Come”, which had a decent chart run. With Kevin Coughlin, Millie Perkins (wasted), Bert Freed (the frayed father), Larry Bishop, Michael Margotta, Barry Williams, Bobby Sherman, and A.I.P. go-to-girl Salli Sachse. Somewhere in the crowd are Gary Busey, Bill Mumy, and Peter Tork.
Cameos of comment from “adults” feature Dick Clark, Melvin Belli, Pamela Mason, Walter Winchell and Army Archerd.
* Most of Barry Shear’s directing career before & after was for television, but he did do 1972’s badass crime flick Across 110th Street. The press gabfest, and film editing recognition from the conservative Academy Awards, didn’t exactly gave American-International Pictures a boost into grudging semi-recognition as a force: mostly it was the hard fact of bucks that determined respect, since the in-your-face snarling of Wild In The Streets, along with 1966’s crummy The Wild Angels and 1967s trippy The Trip, was one of the company’s biggest grossers. Seen today, it’s hard to believe that anyone could take this seriously either as an actual lefty statement, which numerous myopic critics did at the time, or as something inherently fascist, as some reviewers warn us today. Take the green pill.