Monday 17 November 2014

Zoom! - Tucson's Late '50s Rock 'n' Roll Record Label (2013)

Director: Dan Kruse
Stars: Burt Schneider and Ray Lindstrom
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
Even with a conscious effort to maximise viewing opportunities at Phoenix Film Festival, I end up missing a lot of worthy films and short documentaries somehow always end up on that list, prioritised lower than almost everything else. Just in case anyone else finds themselves doing the same thing, I'll highlight that the three not so short documentaries (the shortest ran for 26 minutes) that comprised the Arizona Short Documentaries set this year were consistently excellent and really don't deserve to end up at the bottom of anyone's list, including mine. Let's see if I can follow my own advice next year! Fortunately I caught up with these three films later, as each of them has a subject deep enough to draw us in and is shot with an abiding passion that keeps us there. This one was made by Dan Kruse as a thesis film at the University of Arizona School of Music, as part of his masters degree in musicology and ethnomusicology, and it's easy to see why the story engaged him enough to want to document it.

For all that it's a history lesson, it's a very engaging personal look at one. Back in January, 1959, a school dance at Catalina High School in Tucson inspired the creation of something which Kruse joyously shines a light back onto over half a century later. On the stage was Jack Wallace and the Hi-Tones and on the floor was a bevy of screaming girls. Also there to feel the energy were a pair of fast talking seventeen year old boys, both seniors at the school who, in their own words, didn't 'play anything except the radio'. So, for no reason other than it seemed like a great idea in the heat of the moment, they started their own record label, Zoom! Records. They're Burt Schneider and Ray Lindstrom and they're also the primary reason why this short is as successful as it is. Now with their sixties becoming their seventies, they still appear to be as bright eyed and bushy tailed as they must have been back in 1959 when all this went down. It's hardly surprising that they talked the singer at that dance into recording their first single, I Think of You.

As a fan of indie music, I found their story fascinating, even if that's as much for how they were part of a wider trend as for what they did themselves. If I understood correctly, Zoom! didn't last too long, but the records they made survive today, sound pretty cool and have a number of interesting stories to tell. Burt and Ray left the music business almost as soon as they entered it, but they remember the experience in detail and Dan Kruse hauls in an agreeable amount of appropriate experts to back up their stories. What comes out of the interviews is a magic time of opportunity where prices were low and ambition high, but naivete was stronger than anything. Never mind just the kids, they were no more naive than the folk they worked with; they all learned as they went on. Wallace himself didn't know what a B-side was even as he was recording a single. King Rock and the Knights were getting reviewed in Billboard, even though their manager, Bill Wershing, hadn't heard of it. Hearing themselves on KTKT in Tucson was jaw dropping.
I lapped up all these colourful stories. Why did Burt and Ray choose Sidney J Wakefield's recording studio in Phoenix? Well, because it existed, because Duane Eddy recorded there and because it only cost $15 an hour, but also, above all, because it was open for Saturday sessions as they were in school for the rest of the week. They recorded everything live and in mono; multiple tracks weren't even thought of and even stereo wouldn't arrive for a while. Recording engineer Jack Miller fed the results into a speaker in a 2,100 gallon water tank, functioning as an echo chamber, and back through a microphone outside of it. KTKT DJ Frank Kalil played their records in the afternoon and everyone tuned in to listen. I even loved the asides, like how Tucson kids drove up to Phoenix for ice skating, swan boats in Encanto Park and the escalator at Porter's. All this went down only half a century ago right here in Phoenix and a couple of hours down the interstate in Tucson, but in the music industry it's an eon away and it needs historians to recount.

While the subject matter, wisely advertised in the film's title, is enough for me all on its own, others will benefit from choices Kruse made while creating it. It wouldn't have been the same without Burt and Ray, so their inclusion is key, not only to talk about what they did but also to revisit their past in the present. There aren't many other interview subjects but there are enough and, with only one exception, they're a perfect selection. Most were actually part of the Zoom! story at the time, including everyone mentioned thus far. Others include Al Perry, a singer/songwriter and record collector; John Dixon, an Arizona music historian; and Brian Moon, Kruse's musicology professor at the U of A who's really interesting even if his voice really isn't. Kruse also plays many of the Zoom! hits, so we can hear what they're all talking about. There's even a telling scene where Burt and Ray visit Miller at Canyon Records in Phoenix to see just how much the industry has changed since they contributed to it. That's a perfect cap to a great documentary.

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