Big Time (Chris Blum, 1988)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Big Time.

criterion logoFilmed during his 1987 tour, Big Time represents Tom Waits’ last great hurrah with his alter ego Frank O’Brien, a used furniture salesman who burned down his middle class, Californian existence and left for Hollywood to find show biz success.  Chris Blum’s film finds O’Brien working in an old theatre and dreaming of an eclectic cast of broken-down performers – wise-cracking pianists, masked preachers, skid row troubadours.  More than a mere concert film, Big Time is a musicotheatrical fantasy in dream time, embellishing Waits’ barks and stomps with unconventional sound-effects and additionally staged footage to create a vaudevillian fantasy and an ode to the musically surreal changes brought by his move to Island Records.

Disc Features:

The origin of Big Time starts with Tom Waits’s 1983 album Swordfishtrombones and the song “Frank’s Wild Years.”  Frank O’Brien, the song’s main character, abandoned his job selling used office furniture, burned down his middle class, two bedroom, suburban home, and set off north for Hollywood.  Frank’s existence could have remained bound within the song’s brief minute and fifty seconds, but a spell had been cast on Waits.  With his wife Kathleen Brennan, Waits wrote an entire play, Frank’s Wild Years, inspired by the character.  It ran for 2 months in 1987, and Waits released a studio album of the play’s songs.  Still enchanted by Frank, Waits went on tour in late 1987 promoting the album, playing Frank once again.  Footage for the film Big Time was shot during the middle of the tour, taken from performances at the Fox Warfield Theatre in San Francisco and the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles.  The concert, widely considered Waits’ best, represents his highly productive period with Island Records and relies heavily on the music of his Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987) trilogy, however Big Time is no mere record of those performances but a cat of a different, certainly more elaborate colour.

In Big Time, Frank falls asleep as a caretaker to an old theatre and dreams a dream voyage through an entertainment industry underworld.  Waits channels all manner of carnivalesque personas – smart-mouthed pianists, back alley balladeers, lunatic preachers, smooth-operating lounge-singers.  It’s not exactly clear what footage in Big Time relates to which concert performance, but that’s a minor concern given that director Chris Blum’s film significantly elaborates on Waits’ stage show and has little interest in creating some kind of shrine for those who attended that tour.  Waits’ voice is lowered significantly in Big Time, Blum adds various sound-effects (foot stomps, finger snaps, gunshots, train whistles, applause), songs are reordered, and additional footage is presented, recorded without a live audience.  The end result is a musical montage wherein Waits bellows, rumbles, jokes, and croons with the childlike charm, self-deluded confidence, and ragged experience of an artful dodger in the city of angels.

Fans of Tom Waits have to settle for Big Time in less than ideal versions: a long out of print video cassette, grey-market DVD-Rs, uploaded copies thereof, or the occasional theatrical screening compliments of Blum’s own 35mm copy.  Rumours exist that the seemingly unending chain of film companies consuming one another’s catalogues has landed Big Time in the bowels of MGM, somehow stranded without release.  Netflix has apparently screened Big Time – go figure!  Absence, of course, makes the heart grow fonder and fans long for a quality edition of the film.  A Facebook page asking for Big Time‘s admission to the Collection is just one example.  Waits and Blum’s film would be a welcome addition to the Collection, improbably linking its documentary/concert films to its avant-garde titles, and through 1980s cinema no less.

Chris Blum has not made another feature film, claiming to lack the attention span.  Much of his work since has been in the areas of graphic and web design, including creating the packaging for Waits’ 2004 album Real Gone.  So how great would it be to have Blum design the packaging to the title’s release himself?  Has any filmmaker designed their own cover treatment for the Collection?  It seems about time.

Credits:  My greatest resource to this post has been the section on Big Time at the Tom Waits Library.  The site is replete with materials on the film, including press kits, interview excerpts, articles, and song list comparisons.  David Smay is the author of the excellent 33 1/3 monograph on Swordfishtrombones, which he’s adapted into a bus tour, Crawling Down Cahuenga: Tom Waits’ L.A.  I’ve linked a clip of the tour above, but imagine a more elaborate piece for the Criterion edition.  Luc Sante is a frequent Criterion essayist, providing essays on Jim Jarmusch films.  I’m trusting he’s a Waits fan and would be an appropriate author to tap.  I’ve been typically aggressive in my special features, trying to emphasize Waits’ Island Records years, some earlier work to offer some comparison, and Chris Blum’s breadth of film and video work both with Waits and without.

One thought on “Big Time (Chris Blum, 1988)

  1. David September 23, 2015 / 5:51 am

    Great post! We can only hope…

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