With 2006's end coming soon, it's natural to take stock of the previous year's events, and try to put them into some kind of perspective. Being in that contemplative frame of mind, I had a terrific time watching MPI's four disc set, The Sensational 70's, a ten-part Canadian documentary produced in 1979 by Philip S. Hobel, that looks at the highlights and curious sidelights of that famed decade. I grew up during the 1970s, so many of the people and the events were familiar to me, but you don't have to have lived through the 1970s to enjoy The Sensational 70's. Culled entirely from archival footage, The Sensational 70's largely employs grainy, washed-out 16mm news footage to give the viewer a kaleidoscopic view of each year (I love the disco music intro that sounds like the tracks they played at the drive-in, for the concession stand promos). Produced in 1979 as a summation of the decade, The Sensational 70's itself has become a time capsule; its rough look and its eclectic choices in what to highlight add a heavy nostalgic factor for viewers who remember how 1970s documentaries used to look and sound.
The narration for The Sensational 70's, delivered by noted Canadian newscaster Harvey Kirck in a bemused, wry tone, usually strikes a fair, even-handed balance with the reportage (except for some curious missteps - like when it ignores the tens of millions dead at the hands of Chairman Mao). Sometimes the choices for examination are questionable; it's understandable for a 1970s Canadian documentary to cover Maggie Trudeau in context with Pierre, but to feature her throughout several years may seem inexplicable today. And as with many MPI offerings that utilize vintage, archival footage, some kind of contextual references would have been nice, but all-in-all, the ten, 47 minute episodes of The Sensational 70's are an enjoyable visual trip back to a tumultuous, anxious decade.
Here are the yearly highlights of The Sensational 70's
Hello Dolly on Broadway with Ethel Merman; college kids on a world-wide college course-cruise; Japan's World Fair, the Canastas Quints in New Jersey; the war in Vietnam; the Kent State riot and student shootings; an anti-smoking cruise; Nassar dies in Egypt and Sadat takes over, with subsequent attacks on Israel; terrorist kidnappings in Canada; the death of the mini skirt; Solzhenitsyn receiving the Nobel Prize; U.S. Postal workers on strike (6 cents to mail a letter!); the Penn Central train line goes bankrupt; the Boeing 747 is introduced -- along with hot pants!
The White House wedding of Tricia Nixon; Pierre Trudeau marries Maggie Sinclair; anabolic steroids in athletics; Joe Columbo and the Mafia; unisex barbershops; the Attica prisoner riot and U.S. prison reforms; the popularity of belts made from bullets (imagine going to the airport in one of those today); DNA research; the Kennedy Center in D.C. opens, as does Disney World in Orlando (Walt paid $185 an acre before they knew it was him doing the buying); the Pentagon Papers are stolen and published by the New York Times; charges in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam; Apollo 14 and 15 moon launches; the B.D. Cooper sky robbery; Pakistan civil war; Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong dies.
The rise of superstars and the quest for fame, featuring Groucho, Raquel, and Cavet (if you don't know who they are, you need to watch this documentary); Arab Muslim terrorists attack the Olympics, killing Israeli athletes; Nixon in China, and in Ottawa (more Maggie Trudeau), and in Moscow; Governor George Wallace shot; Senator Eagleton's mental health issues and his spot on the McGovern Presidential ticket; the Watergate scandal; the rock revival on the music scene; Melvin Van Peebles; Ireland's Bloody Sunday riot; Howard Hughes and the Irving Wallace biography hoax; the growing health food and fitness awareness movement; Bobby Fischer and computers that play chess; the arms race; the Presidential candidacy of George McGovern; the Paris Peace talks for the Vietnam War; American troops coming home from the war; J. Edgar Hoover's and Harry S. Truman's deaths.
The second battle at Wounded Knee; the gas shortage; Bill Lear and his steam car; Secretariat; Princess Anne's wedding; Jane Fonda; the end of the Vietnam War; POWs returning home to the U.S.; Nicaragua's earthquake; Chile's civil war; the European Union; Reggie Jackson and the World's Series; the deaths of LBJ and Picasso; a first look at Bette Midler; the Watergate trials; Spiro Agnew's tax troubles; Gerald Ford sworn in as Vice President; Arab Muslims wage war on Israel; Jesus Christ Superstar and Last Tango in Paris open, the surge of "everyone as victim" in the movies (way ahead of its time); Pauline Kael on movie stars; hats big in the fashion world; hem lines at the knees; Seals and Croft (quite hilariously bad); bubble gum rock; teen fanzines; and the fastest growing sport in America: hang gliding.
The Fall of Saigon; the Mayaguez incident; Walter Cronkite badmouthing the U.S.; the landmark Apollo/Soyez spacecraft dockings; the Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance; Patty Hearst; the two Ford assassination attempts; Jackie O and the death of Aristotle Onassis; cruising Van Nuys Boulevard; men as sex objects; beauty pageants for kids; Arthur Janov's "primal scream" therapy (loads of laughs -- and somebody email me and tell me if that one patient flipping out isn't Robert Mandan from Soap); New York City goes bankrupt; the Rev. Ike's money-making church; Niagra Falls; the U.N. equates Zionism with racism (things never change over there); Margaret Thatcher wins the Conservative Party leadership in England; Gerald Ford as comical figure.
Jimmy Carter; Mandrill, the game-playing ape; the raid on Entebbe; the burgeoning sports business; a mean-spirited Muhammad Ali at a press conference (not so funny now when you watch him); The Man Who Skied Down Mt. Everest opens; women in the armed forces' academies; women mud wrestlers; Thai sex shops for tourists (shamefully treated like a joke); Liz Ray/Wayne Hays sex scandal in D.C.; Chairman Mao's death (no mention of the tens of millions killed by this dictator); Howard Hughes' final moments; immune system research; Legionnaire's Disease; the Bicentennial.
The U.S. basketball team in Cuba; Indira Ghandi out in India; Begin and Sadat meet; the Queen of England's Silver Jubilee; The Sex Pistols and punk rock; Bollywood; violence in American films; "video game parlors;" New York's Son of Sam; Anita Bryant and female impersonators; Japanese fashion designers; "schlock art;" Dutch terrorism; the growing energy crisis; the New York City blackout; more Maggie Trudeau stuff (who cares); Carter in office.
Stray dogs in New York City; the growing RV craze; camping; North Vietnam's invasion of South Vietnam; Vietnamese boat refugees; Nazis in Skokie, IL; Sadat in Israel; Camp David Accord; two Popes elected by the Vatican; the Christianity revival; Jim Jones and the Jonestown mass suicide; even more Maggie Trudeau trivia; Proposition 13 in California; Atlantic City and gambling.
Playboy's 25th anniversary; cocaine; gold fever; John Wayne dies; Lord Mountbatten is blown up; China formally recognized by the U.S.; Ted Kennedy's bid for the White House; Russian and Afghanistan War; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; Thorpe and Scott murder/sex scandal in Britain; Year of the Child; teenzines; the rich women of Palm Beach (nothing every changes -- see: The Real Housewives of Orange County); the Shah of Iran and Khomeni; higher gas prices; nuclear power and Three Mile Island; California's coming "Big One" earthquake in 1979 (here's a hint: it didn't); illicit drugs; The Rocky Horror Picture Show phenomenon; raising warring pigeons in New York City.
As I stated above, the full-screen video image for The Sensational 70's is extremely rough, due to the original source materials -- but who wants restoration with this kind of film? It's school-room 16mm crudity is part of its charm.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono presentation is perfectly adequate for the squelchy, scratching sound (I love it!).
There are no extras for The Sensational 70's -- too bad there wasn't some attempt at some contextual references for the documentary.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.