From Hamlet to Wanker: Malcolm McDowell & ‘Get Crazy’

Malcolm McDowell’s riotous turn as a codpiece-thrusting Rock God is the comedic heart of Get Crazy.

“That Malcolm McDowell was willing to take a lead role in a madcap comedy like Get Crazy further dispels the myth that he ‘only played villains’. Moreover it showed his desire to not take the Hollywood machine too seriously, and that he was willing to work in smaller budget films…”

Of all the obscure films of the 1980s no title unites those fortunate enough to have seen it like Allan Arkush’s 1983 ensemble rock film, Get Crazy. Those stateside who’d missed its deliberately brief run in theatres might have caught it on Night Flight – a cult show in its own right. Night Flight was a cable TV hodge-podge of comedy, classic films, animation and music videos offered to late night viewers during the 1980s. Viewers in the UK would have caught Get Crazy on Channel 4 or BBC2.

Though deliriously executed the plot is simple: It’s New Year’s Eve 1982 and to usher in 1983, legendary Bill Graham style concert promoter Max Wolfe (Allen Garfield) and his crew at the renowned Saturn Theater led by Neil Allen (Daniel Stern) scramble like mad to pull off the show of the century. All the while appeasing the wild parade of crazy performers and their equally crazed fans and entourages. Concurrently the diabolical Colin Beverly (Ed Begley, Jr.) and his henchmen (Fabian and Bobby Sherman) are attempting to attain Max Wolf’s lease on The Saturn by nefarious means. Merry and unapologetic drug use abounds as “Electric Larry”, a supernatural blend of Jack in The Box’s Secret Sauce Agent character and the Grim Reaper, provides a smorgasbord of substances from a glowing briefcase case. Not to be out done, a Dylanesque recluse named Auden (Lou Reed) composes in a taxi while racing to make the show only to sing over the credits!

An intrinsically joyous film, Get Crazy managed to avoid both the hideous misogyny and suburban blandness of countless 80s comedies. Thus it’s little surprise that US test audiences in the Reagan years “didn’t understand” how a Black blues band would be sharing a stage with white punk rockers. Arkush’s producers wanted musical numbers axed and Get Crazy’s smart rock music literacy watered down with lad’s mag humor. Those were just a few of the many demands that Arkush thankfully ignored as it’s the wide variety of music makes it so charming in between the many sight gags.

Unlike This is Spinal Tap which solely skewers Heavy Metal, Get Crazy covers every genre divider in your local record store. To see it is to love not just the spirit of The Fillmore East concert venue that inspired it but a dizzying array of music. Acid rock, punk, new wave, hippie folk, power ballads, traditional Yiddish, Delta Blues, “Blews” (an affectionate combination of the latter two) and of course Cock Rock. Which brings us (literally) to Malcolm McDowell’s riotous turn as Reggie Wanker; a bejewelled codpiece-thrusting, cockney blend of Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger during the Studio 54 era. Shouting, “Me blow! Me blow!” as his cocaine goes airborne on his monogrammed private jet, McDowell’s Reggie Wanker is the comedic heart of Get Crazy.

Malcolm McDowell was a last-minute replacement for Russell Mael of Sparks, who, despite his natural charisma, wasn’t to suited big screen acting. A loyal McDowell fan since Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 If…., Arkush now had his dream lead, whose contract stated that his singing not be dubbed.  Arkush encouraged McDowell to sing/speak in a bombastic Camelot style that worked riotously.  Iconic record producer Bones Howe (Mamas and The Papas and The Turtles) engineered the following tracks Reggie Wanker belts out to the packed Saturn Theater:

  1. Hot Shot: A Foreigner/Hot Blooded-style treatment of songs like Start Me Up and G’me Wings from Rod Stewart’s 1980 platinum album Foolish Behaviour.
  2. Hoochie Koochie Man: An arrogant Jet Set Jagger version. During the film each band performs their own take of this Willie Dixon classic to dazzling effect and to show the interconnectedness of Rock history.
  3. Hot Shot (Reprise): A hilarious parody of Bad Company meets My Generation Blues, the self referenced classic that The Who reworked during the 1970s. There’s also some Vanilla Fudge Keep Me Hangin’ On in this maudlin proto-power ballad.

The first time we see McDowell’s Reggie Wanker, he’s in poster form on the bedroom wall of manager Neil’s starstruck teenage sister Susie (Stacey Nelkin).  “I hope I get to meet Reggie Wanker!”,  she pines.  Reggie’s eyes and tongue begin to rotate lasciviously as the poster comes to life as she obliviously talks on the phone.  Arkush then cleverly cuts to the real Reggie Wanker onboard his private jet, bent over a giant table of cocaine with girlfriend/Britt Ekland clone, Chantamima  (Anna Bjorn) vying for his attention. Reggie moans that, “This bleedin’ Rock’n’Roll life is making me old before me time.” Backstage at The Saturn, Reggie is flummoxed by the garish stage costumes he’s being handed to wear including a British Union Flag jacket, “Where do you people find these rags? In a bleedin’ museum? Do you think I’m still a mop top?”

When Reggie finally takes the stage to sing Hot Shot the crowd goes insane. It’s a comment on Mick Jagger’s iconic skinny physique that Malcolm McDowell looks like a welterweight boxer comparatively when strutting in the former’s white spandex pants, silk scarves and jazz flats. A rhinestone codpiece (which appears to be unpadded!) completes the costume as an obvious nod to A Clockwork Orange. Agile, muscular and gracefully pulling all the moves like Wanker, it’s a treat to remember that this is also one of Britain’s greatest actors who’d done a well-received revival of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger only a few years prior! A star who famously told Arkush that, “The road from Hamlet to Reggie Wanker is a short one.”

Offstage following a blistering Hoochie Koochie Man, Reggie tells an amorous Chantamina, “I’m going upstairs to, uh, meditate .”  Arkush cuts to Reggie popping a fig before being carried away by a gaggle of near nude groupies. Chantamina peeps in horror then enacts revenge by seducing a Joey (Dan Frischman) a nerdy stage hand in the next room. Having an epiphany Reggie, now weary of his literal sold wall of naked women, wrests himself free declaring, “I want someone who loves me for me!”

Discovering Chantamina has turned the tables Reggie is stricken with an existential crisis, “Betrayed! You turn your back for one bleeding second and they stick a bleeding knife right up thee hilt!” Newly self-anointed as an R’n’B sage, “I bleeding well know the meaning of the blues!” he shouts as his band mates finish up their jam led by Toad (Doors drummer John Densmore). Reggie walks somberly onstage through the dry ice. His floor length satin Nehru trench half open with just underwear and jazz flats underneath he sorrowfully takes the mic:

“I’ve see the light and want you all to hear
It’s the story of a man whose ego has disappeared
If you look at my face you can see there’s a trace of confusion
Cause I’m out of control and I’ve poisoned myself with illusion”

Post-artistic rebirth, Reggie drinks from the backstage water cooler that Electric Larry spiked with psychedelics earlier in the film. A few minutes later in the men’s room his penis begins to talk and they have a conversation about how Reggie needs to listen more to his emotions.  Reggie and his penis then agree to, “Shake on it.” Reggie introduces Toad to his penis which proudly proclaims, “I’m your new manager. Let’s get a move on. I’ve booked you into every dive…” Toad is impressed but cautious when Reggie urges him to “Give the lad a drink.” Responding with “I ain’t gonna touch him”, he compromises by pouring some celebratory cognac on Reggie’s penis.

It’s difficult to name a 1980s film whose potential was squandered more than Get Crazy.  Among many missteps the film’s New Years Eve theme was bafflingly promoted as “The Last Chance to Party This Summer” and the soundtrack album was never promoted. Instead of Lou Reed or Malcolm McDowell, the Get Crazy film posters depict lurid pinup cartoons with no relation to the film.

Allan Arkush remembers:

“At the end, they decided they didn’t like the movie, and they wanted to bury it and make whatever money they could make off it, like in The Producers. So you can check that for the whole sordid tale of the financial nonsense they tried. They sold off all the rights, so when they took a loss, they still made money.”

That Malcolm McDowell was willing to take a lead role in a madcap comedy like Get Crazy further dispels the myth that he “only played villains.” Furthermore as a new resident of Los Angeles it showed his desire to not take the Hollywood machine too seriously, moreover that he was willing to work in smaller budget films helmed by Hollywood outsiders like Arkush.

Film historian Decervelage writes:

 “I see Get Crazy as a bridge between the Boomer SNL/National Lampoon breed of comedies with the 1980s Teen Comedies that supplanted them. The nostalgia for 1970s Rock Venues and the counterculture lasted right up until Reagan’s second term.”

It is fitting then that an actor of Malcolm McDowell’s stature who personifies how far a big name can go while still being an individual (and cult icon) is part of that moment in film history.

‘Get Crazy’ (1983) Director: Allan Arkush. Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Allen Goorwitz, Daniel Stern, Gail Edwards, Ed Begley Jr, Miles Chapin. BBFC Rating: 18. Initial DVD release: 22 February 1990. Kino Lorber has announced a Blue Ray in 2K restoration with the original soundtrack to be released in 2021 with no specific release date as of yet. 

❉ Super Amanda was born into a third generation musical family with her father producing the Rock Fusion Prog band Automatic Man for Island records (1976). She views reading and seeing A Clockwork Orange at age 13 as the most transformative experiences of her adolescence. Her favourite filmmakers (among many) are Anna Biller, Ken Russell and Lindsay Anderson. Malcolm McDowell and Sophia Loren are her favourite actors. The Who, The Bonzos and Mono Neon are her jams.

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