Wednesday 1 February 2017

In Search of the Wow Wow Wibble Woggle Wazzie Woodle Woo!? (1985)

Director: Barry Caillier
Writers: Tim Noah and Barry Caillier, from a story by Tim Noah, Creed Noah, Mary Noah and Barry Caillier
Star: Tim Noah

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Yes, that’s the real title and it’s enough to suggest that this short 55 minute feature is prime material for me to review as a Weird Wednesdays entry. But wait, there’s more! The film is a solo performance for Tim Noah, who has done almost nothing, according to IMDb, and comments there and elsewhere suggest that it’s a particularly surreal trip. ‘Try to imagine Pee Wee’s Playhouse in the Guggenheim without Lawrence Fishburne or any other entertainment value,’ writes one IMDb reviewer. ‘Is this what inspired the Just Say No campaign in the 80’s?’ asks a shocked viewer. ‘Saving it for the next time I drop acid,’ suggests another. It seemed like an utter obscurity, best appreciated by people who were already stoned by the time they pressed play. That it’s a musical comedy for children performed by a man who is far older than he should be only adds to the weirdness. And I can’t deny that it really did live up to all those expectations within the first twenty minutes. But then something strange happened: I started to dig this.

Now, I am still trying to figure some of it out, as there are some things going on that play very oddly, but I delved deeper into the history and reception of the film and found a lot that surprised me. For a start, it apparently won four Emmys, which is four more than, say, Star Trek, which was nominated for thirteen of them but didn’t win one. Now, I can’t seem to find any information about which Emmys it won because the Emmy website doesn’t mention it at all, so it’s likely that these are Northwest Regional Emmys, like the dozen which Noah won a decade and some later for a children’s TV show entitled How ’Bout That. His IMDb credits are also misleading; it’s fair to say that he’s a versatile and busy talent, merely not on the big screen, as his one feature, 1990’s Daredreamer, utterly failed to set the box office on fire. He’s recorded albums and written books. He’s toured exotic countries and even founded his own performing arts center, the Tim Noah Thumbnail Theater in Snohomish, WA.

What’s more, the lack of reviews at IMDb (there are only two, both of which give this one star out of ten) is more than made up for by the profusion of praise that dominates the DVD page on Amazon (87% gave it a maximum) and in the many testimonials Noah is happy to plaster across his website. Apparently this began life as an album, Noah’s debut, in 1983; it won the Parents Choice Award and the American Library Association listed it as a Notable Children’s Recording. This film version is really a long form music video for the album, which was aired on KOMO TV, an ABC affiliate in Seattle, and later HBO, the Disney Channel and even the BBC. Then again, the BBC brought us the Teletubbies, so that’s not entirely a given! It would appear that a sizeable audience watched it on TV, happily bought the VHS tape and proceeded to wear the thing out through repeated viewings. This is a genuine cult hit, merely a cult hit that’s not mentioned in the circles which rave about filmmakers like Herschell Gordon Lewis or Alejandro Jodorowsky.

So, what’s it about? Well, having just watched the film in entirety, I’m not entirely sure I can answer that question! At heart, it’s an attempt to connect to kids who aren’t having the greatest time of it and help them to escape their dull routines by exercising their imaginations, but then so’s every other show for children, right? Whatever this is, it can’t fairly be dismissed by dumping it into a basket with a host of other shows; for all its faults, it’s notably original. For a start, it’s focused utterly on Noah himself, as the only human being we see in 55 minutes of running time. Yes, we hear his mum’s voice and he interacts with a plethora of puppets, but mostly it’s him in a single set. Beyond acting, he showcases his singing in a variety of styles, all of which thankfully predate today’s pop trends. He bounces around a lot, in a mild but energetic combination of dancing and acrobatics. He pantomimes. He performs magic tricks. He sports a wild range of outfits, from eighties pastel shades to circus ringleader. Everything’s about him.
Another reason why he stands out is because he’s in colour while his room is in black and white. No, that’s not a clever effect; the room and everything in it is simply painted black and white. It’s a neat way to highlight a drab childhood, even if the real reason was that the budget was somewhere south of not a heck of a lot. It also means that each of the dozen songs gives him a chance to escape into a new world, which grow inside his room using imaginative stage gimmickry and props. The big exception is the first one, which is easily the most dubious and not merely because it’s shot using primitive eighties technology; there are things that I have trouble explaining away, given that this production was clearly aimed at young children. I’m assuming, for a start, that Noah wasn’t really trying to hint that kids should own up to their homosexuality, then have incestuous sex with paedophile fathers, but it’s right there, next to bouncing on peanut butter sandwiches in space, which symbolism now seems more kinky in context.

So, let’s back up a step and see if any of you can suggest a better explanation. We begin when Mr. Tim (as the disembodied voice of his imagination calls him) arrives home and enters his black and white room with his giant black and white boom box. He listens to different stations, reacting with dance moves or air guitar, but retunes a lot as they’re all obsessed with his closet. Announcers tell him not to look in there, singers sing about its hidden dangers and he even tunes into KLST Kloset. He’s promptly sucked into that closet anyway but comes out of it as a spaceman, leaping off a moon and having a bath in space with an inflatable shark. He’s naked as a jaybird but daddy joins him in that bath anyway, dressed up as a sailor in a pink shirt and a porn moustache. Here’s verse two of Zoom, which this accompanies: ‘Me and my friends were in the bathtub havin’ fun tryin’ to get clean, when in walked my father; he dived in the water, took us for a ride on his submarine.’ Yes, please explain this without incest, paedophilia and gay group sex.
While it’s hard to explain that one away, the rest of the film settles down considerably. Mr. Tim’s imagination rings him on a stone dinosaur to set him a mission: to find the Wow Wow Wibble Woggle Wazzie Woodle Woo. Mr. Tim doesn’t want to know. He’s well aware that his imagination tends to get him into trouble, but he’s promptly talked into it for the fame and the fortune. The second song, If I Only Knew, the first one we see Noah actually sing, is a strange meta piece because it’s all about how he doesn’t have a clue what the Wow Wow Wibble Woggle Wazzie Woodle Woo is. No, we don’t have a clue either. If I understood the point of the movie, then it’s whatever Mr. Tim wants it to be. Like any six year old, Mr. Tim is upset that he doesn’t know what it is, gets distracted by monkeys and then decides that it’s going to be whatever he wants. That’s a pretty fair lesson to teach the little ones, much better, for instance, then suggesting that they can live in the trees and raise a family of monkeys. I don’t think biology works that way.

While I don’t usually pull out records for kids to listen to, the twelve tracks we hear from Noah are actually pretty decent. They’re varied in style, from the country folk of Sunshiney Mornin’ through the James Taylor-esque seventies soft rock of Friends with a Song to the Elvis Presley style rockabilly of Big Booger. That one’s about Mr. Tim getting picked on at school by a musclebound bully and the teacher never noticing; it leads into a self-explanatory sad little ballad called Tears on My Toes. Noah wisely avoids trying to be hip and leaping on the latest styles, using whatever works for each moment in this story. He doesn’t have the greatest voice in the world but he’s versatile enough to sound right with each of these styles, which is a good thing given that the success of this entire enterprise rests on him and it only exists to showcase the songs. I wouldn’t rewind a VHS tape of this to watch again and again but I can see why so many kids did. It’s like a compilation of different music that teams up to tell a single story.
The weirdest song has to be Musty Moldy Melvin. While Mr. Tim is the only human in evidence, he’s had a great time with puppets while singing a number of songs. He keeps a cat and a dog in his chest of drawers. During If I Was, a gorilla rips off his trousers and an elephant pulls him behind a tree. There’s an oddly undulating giraffe in his room during The Monkey Song, perhaps because it’s just the right height to look up his loincloth when he’s chilling with a monkey on top of the closet. But Musty Moldy Melvin features a host of weird creatures like the title character, who does the hoochie-koochie-koo, and Greasy Grimy Gertie who does the boogie boo. In fact, all the creepy little critters in the gurgly-gloppy-goo want to dance with him and they get their shot. He doesn’t seem remotely happy about it, but they were my faourite part of the movie. Sadly, my grandkids know how to whip and nae nae; I wish they’d do the boogie boo instead with these glorious nightmare creations that look like diseases on legs.

I can’t see Tim Noah doing the stanky legg, but he does seem to have found that magic spot where he can explain real world social issues, like social ostracism and environmental awareness in songs that are engaging to children. His album, Kaddywompas, appears to be a good example of this. I’m not sure how his feature, Daredreamer, works from that standpoint; from what I’ve read about it, it seems to revisit many of the themes he explored here and in a similar musical fashion, but with the inclusion of odd anomalies like a brief nude scene and a couple of swearwords that would bar this from appealing to the same audience. Surely, however, an adult audience would have a problem with Noah, who would have been 39 when Daredreamer was shot, portraying a high school student. We can't buy it here in In Search of the Wow Wow Wibble Woggle Wazzie Woodle Woo!? and he was a relative spring chicken at only 34! I will find that and check it out, but I can’t see it living up to this one, even the calmer last forty minutes after Zoom is done.
What shocks me most about this film isn’t the title and it isn’t even that first deviant song, it’s the fact that Noah managed to do so much with so little. The budget is so low that almost everyone else in the credits has the same last name. Tim Noah wrote the story with Creed Noah and Mary Noah (and director Barry Caillier); Creed Noah also produced (with Pat Royce), while Bill Noah and Zola Noah were both executive producers. Mary Noah also created the costumes. At this point, we have to wonder if set designer Rollin Thomas is merely a pseudonym, given that it’s his sole credit. While the film clearly belongs to Tim Noah, Rollin Thomas cannot be ignored for the craftsmanship that he put into these sets and the imagination with which he endowed them; if he’s real, I can only assume that he was massively experienced in stage work. And here I am praising this picture, even though I fully expected it to be a bad acid trip that would have been impossible to watch. To be honest, I’m half disappointed! But only half.

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