Hooray for Cleveland. Last year, Forbes magazine listed our fine city, the greatest location in the nation, number 12 on "America's Most Miserable Cities" list. This year, we're number 17, baby! Let's celebrate with a look back at Cleveland's cinematic history, which is getting better every year.
Up Tight!(1968, Netflix Streaming, Amazon Prime VOD) Director Jules Dassin's film, set in Cleveland in the late 1960s, is the story of Tank, a guy on the outs with his militant black revolutionary group after his drinking almost gets some of his fellow revolutionaries busted. No longer wanted by the group, Tank wanders aimlessly, broke and busted. He sees a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of Daisy, a man who makes his living selling out his African American brothers to the cops for a fee. Tank, at the end of his emotional and economic ropes, decides to take up Daisy on his offer of ratting out one of the members of his ex-group for some quick cash. This leads to some devastating results for Tank. Based on John Ford's 1935 movie The Informant, Up Tight! is a gripping film, if not slightly overly melodramatic. There are fine performances all around and a great soundtrack by Booker T. and the M.G.'s.
Ghetto Freaks (1970, $8.99 on Amazon) Now here's a little cinematic slice of Cleveland that needs to be seen to be believed. Did you know that Cleveland was once the backdrop for a psychedelic, anti-war musical? Well, it was, but that version, which was originally called Sign of Aquarius, didn't make any money, so the producers took out the singing, added a few minutes of hallucinogenically induced nudity and retitled it Love Commune. Then, when that failed to make any money, they put in some more nudity and called it Ghetto Freaks. Hated now by the director that made it (he told me via email that he does not endorse the version that is out on DVD), but loved by Quentin Tarantino apparently, Ghetto Freaks is one of the strangest films I have ever seen, which makes me even prouder that it was made in my hometown! It's the story of a commune of peaceniks that just wanna stay out of the way of The Man and live their lives while enlightening the residents of C-town and gettin' groovy with their friends. But, man, the harsh realities of the real world keep crashing their buzz. Downer. Keep a lookout for a few local celebrities of the day (anyone remember Houlihan from the old Big Chuck & Houlihan show?) and at least stick around for the song "My Name is Mousey."
Double Dragon (1994, Netflix Streaming) I vaguely remember when this picture was being filmed in Cleveland. My friends and I, all big Nintendo players at the time, were convinced that Double Dragon would be the action movie of the summer of 1994. Well, it didn't exactly barnstorm the box office, but it was declared worse than the Super Mario Brothers movie, which if you've ever seen the Mario flick, you know is quite an accomplishment. Starring one of the kids from Melrose Place and the guy who would go on to be the Chairman on the American version of Iron Chef, Double Dragon is a dizzyingly bad movie about two hot-shot karate-fighting brothers in the not-so-future slums of New Los Angeles. They are also in possession of one half of a special necklace that, when combined with its missing partner, will give them super human abilities. The other half is in the possession of Robert Patrick, who plays the villainous Koga. He wants the boys' half of the necklace to make his plan of conquering the world a bit easier. Let's get this straight: Double Dragon isn't a very good movie. There aren't very many scenes that could be considered "good," and at times it seems less like a professional production and more like it was shot by very earnest amateurs. Heck, they even manage to squander the good looks of Alyssa Milano! So, no, I can't really say it's good, but no one ever said it has to be good to be entertaining.
Telling Lies in America (1997, Netflix Streaming) Telling Lies is Clevelander Joe Eszterhas's semi-autobiographical story of an immigrant kid coming of age in sixties-era Cleveland. Brad Renfro plays Charlie 'Karchy' Jonas, a kid who can't figure out his place after coming to America from Hungary. One thing he loves is music, and after being taken under the wing of Billy Magic, Cleveland's most popular radio DJ (played by Kevin Bacon) by winning a school sponsored contest (with the help of some ballot stuffing), Jonas' eyes are opened to not only a world bigger and brighter than he could imagine, but also to the realities of how much some have compromised morally to reach that mountain. On its sleeve, Telling Lies in America offers some interesting insight into the "Payola" scandal that rocked radio in the late 1950s, but this movie is so much more than that. To me, Lies is a movie about that moment you realize that you're not a kid anymore, and that no matter what you do, there comes a point when you can't go back.
Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman (1997, Netflix Streaming) Danny Greene is a fascinating character: a fearless Cleveland mobster that had no problems taking on the local la Cosa Nostra while being a mob informant himself and the eventual victim of a fatal car bombing in 1977. He helped the needy of his community but also violently took out his enemies with the help of his own mob (called The Celtic Club). This documentary, while short, does a very good job of not only shining a light on Greene as a criminal force, but through interviews with friends and family, also gives some interesting insight into the personal life of one of Cleveland's most notorious figures.