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Jingle Bell Rocks!

Oscilloscope Laboratories // Unrated // December 9, 2014
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Oscilloscope]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted January 1, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The holidays signal many things: families reuniting, plenty of heavy meals, and of course, an-ever increasing emphasis on shopping. Underneath all of it (or, depending on your tolerance level, obnoxiously underlining it) is Christmas music, which is now mandated to begin playing at malls and grocery stores across America at 12:01 on November 1st. However, for some people, Christmas music isn't seasonal, but a year-round obsession, and one of them, Mitchell Kezin, decided to give his obscure hobby a spotlight with a documentary. Jingle Bell Rocks! follows Kezin as he goes around the country, speaking to musicians and other collectors about Christmas music, both to try and dig a little deeper into the music or help them spotlight their favorite oddball cuts, as well as attempt to dig into his own love of this particular, fascinating subgenre of music.

In terms of personal discovery, Kezin is well aware of the two songs that really inspired his love for Christmas music and pushed him into collecting it, both of them melancholy. The former is Nat King Cole's "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot," a tragic tune about a good kid who accidentally gets passed over by the big guy when it comes to presents. The other is "Blue Xmas" by Bob Dorough and Miles Davis, scoffing at the increasing commercialization of the season. In many ways, he's the most open of his interview subjects, freely admitting that the former hit him hard due to his father's frequent absence around the holidays when he was a young child, a disappointment that would later curdle into the desire to hear something like the latter.

Although his candidness is commendable, it also raises a simple question: if the source of his obsession isn't what it is he wants to figure out, what exactly is he looking for in making the movie? The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne astutely points out the link between Christmas music and Christmas memories, generating a cycle that motivates artists to create Christmas tracks, so the appeal of making a seasonal song isn't really up for debate either. Kezin crafts yearly Christmas compilations and sends them out, and for awhile the film also lingers on the idea that the movie might be about Kezin having Cole's song rerecorded for his newest mix. Alternatively, it could be about Kezin recovering some of his Christmas spirit, seeing through the cynicism of the holidays. There is a delightful montage of him providing each of his subjects with a musical gift, an earnest and heartwarming bit of generosity, but it feels more like an epilogue rather than the film's backbone.

Still, even if the movie's narrative drive is vague, Kezin's many interviews are frequently delightful. Coyne, in particular, has plenty of entertaining stories, including one about a half-remembered Christmas movie his mother told him about, which he could never find, prompting him to make his film Christmas on Mars. He speaks to Run of Run-DMC about their holiday staple "Christmas in Hollis," and its origins over an egg and weed breakfast, as well as talking to Clarence Carter, whose song "Back Door Santa" is sampled on it. John Waters pops in to sing the praises of "Santa Claus is a Black Man" by Akim and the Teddy Vann production company, which Kezin supports with interviews with Akim and Wanling Vann. The collectors also pull out a handful of fascinating tracks, including Clarence Reid's "Winter Man", Heather Noel's song-poem "Santa Came on a Nuclear Missile", and the truly haunting "Christmas in Vietnam", by Private Charles Bowens.

Unlike most Oscilloscope releases (although, maybe they've just changed their style recently and I haven't been paying attention), Jingle Bell Rocks! comes in a standard Amaray case rather than their traditional plastic-free cardboard case. The key art is a simple image of records bundled up as a stereotypical-looking "gift." There is no insert in the case, either, which is also a bit surprising -- no postcard promoting their mail-in program (although maybe it was just my copy).

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, Jingle Bell Rocks! looks and sounds very good across the board. No banding or artifacts mar the footage shot just for the film, and colors appear natural, with vibrant christmas reds and greens. The audio track is, of course, mostly about presenting the music with the most fidelity and accuracy to the original recordings, mixed in among the other documentary audio. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included. On both counts, of course, there is some material taken from other sources, which has "baked in" anomalies. There is also a 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo track.

The Extras
All of the extras on the disc consist of additional footage. Frustratingly, there is no "Play All" option for any of these sections, which makes it a real pain to sift through. Deleted Scenes (14:43) are refined segments from the film that didn't make the final cut, spotlighting a couple of other songs and digging a little deeper into some of the collectors' archives looking for other albums of interest. These are supported by three meaty extended scenes (32:17) One is a loose, lengthy version of a scene seen in the movie, Kezin going through the storage unit filled with Free Design records and memorabilia, and the other two are snipped sequences, one of a collector and his wife talking about their relationship, and the other with an Elvis impersonator. The disc wraps up with two bits of extra footage entitled "Christmas Leftovers" (6:45), including the unedited reel-to-reel recording heard briefly in the film.

Jingle Bell Rocks! doesn't really build to anything, nor is it comprehensive. It may have been better suited to really focus on snippets of interesting and obscure Christmas music and interviews with some of the musicians, and just leave Kezin's story out of it. At the same time, the film is a labor of love and a spotlight on the people who share his passion for this kind of music, so perhaps its fitting that he factor so prominently into the film. Recommended.

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