I’ll get straight to the point: it’s difficult to know what to make of Joanna. Now, anyone who has read my reviews before knows full well (it’s just outside Teddington, I believe) that I’m an avowed lover of all things Swinging 60s, Swinging London, and psychedelic. They comprise about 50 percent of my very raison d’etre. However, there are still certain other things a film has to contain other than just brightly-coloured clothing, medium-length hair, flared trousers and aerial shots of St James’s Park before I deem it a classic. A plot might help, for a start.
Actually, I’m being unfair. There is a very definite narrative thread running through Joanna. The problem is, most of the time, aspiring director Mike Sarne (yes, the former 50s Cockernee pop idol responsible for classics such as ‘Come Ahtside’ and ‘Will I Wot’ : spelt phonetically, folks, I am from Leyton after all), who had previously shot only one film, the 30-minute Road To St Tropez, also included here- can’t decide in which particular idiom it should advance. One minute comedic, the next deeply moving, the next utterly nonsensical and peppered with enough dream sequences to keep any Freudian viewers busy for a week, the film flits from genre to genre like a bee collecting pollen, but seems incapable of delivering the honey required to provide a truly nourishing snack.
Again, I’m all for cross-genre juxtapositions (one of my all-time favourites being the totally-unclassifiable-but- usually-called-horror-for-the-sake-of-convenience Goodbye Gemini) but Sarne spends so much time here trying to capture the essence of the ‘arthouse’ school he obviously aspires to, he forgets to ground the film in any solid focus- to say nothing of the fact that his vaudevillian origins keep showing through at several points, and they often jar incongruously with some of the film’s more interesting elements, such as the never-resolved flashback of Joanna (Genevieve Waite) driving her father, with a painfully slashed neck, at high speed across a beach. How did they get there? What happened? Did she do it? Who cares, shove in another costume change and a bit of stop-start photography and then we’ll be even more confused….
Daddy’s obviously still alive though, and very influential, as we find out later when Waite phones him up to stop boyfriend Gordon French (Calvin Lockhart) being strong-armed by a bunch of coppers- but her relationship with him (possibly incestuous?) although referred to at various points throughout, is never really dealt with, nor why a girl from such an obviously wealthy family should have to make do with return visits to her Gran’s house when visiting London rather than having a pad of her own. Perhaps the budget went on her clothes? Half of Sarne’s certainly did, as every five minutes she’s got a different cozzie on and had her hair ‘transformed’.
Again, I’ve no problem with this in theory, and she’s obviously beautiful, but at what point does a film cease to tell a story and simply become an excuse to show its heroine adorned in as many haute couture fashions as possible? In truth, these elements are less Sarne’s own doing and the result of interference from the film’s American producer Michael Laughlin, who, as the director explains in a 2009 interview featured here, also removed most of the wit, cynicism and sarcasm from the original script, but somehow, still, I don’t think all the blame can be laid at his feet, when the storyline- conceived as a “female Alfie” or a less realist Georgy Girl, is still pretty thin on the ground.
None of the above is to say that I don’t like Joanna the film, as I definitely do, despite its shortcomings. Joanna the person, on the other hand, I have a little more trouble with. Although the aim is obviously to portray a Candide- style heroine embarking on a Picaresque journey, not just through London but Morocco and England’s north coast, the overall impression given is one of a ditsy, clueless proto-bimbo who sees all men – with the exception of those who turn the tables on her, such as sugar-daddy Bruce (Anthony Ainley) and the more brutish Dominic (David Scheur) as easy pickings, prey for a sob story and providers of luxury and comfort, all the while maintaining the pretence of being an ‘art student’ but constantly missing classes and spending more time gallivanting about her social circle.
I’d like to think that Sarne was making some kind of satirical comment here on the nature of such women (he says in the interview that it’s based on a true story), who still exist all over the metropolis and elsewhere today, but the tale told in the liner notes, of how he randomly found her in an art gallery after attempts to cast first his girlfriend Gabriela Licudi (Herostratus, Unearthly Stranger) and subsequently Twiggy as his plucky ingénue had faltered, and how Laughlin subsequently cast her after one cursory audition, suggests an infatuation on the part of the director, whose heyday as a pop star was long since over by that point and who at 30 was probably considered ‘over the hill’ by the swinging jetset, even if ageism wasn’t quite the dominant force then that it is now. And though he and Waite neither had a relationship nor an affair at any point, one can’t help but see a parallel between her onscreen adventures and real-life inveigling/finagling , something which she would carry on after joining Warhol’s Factory and ultimately marrying Papa John Phillips- especially when Sarne freely admits now that her thespian abilities were less than scintillating.
Unfortunately it’s not just Waite’s character that falls into this category- her best friend Beryl (Glenna Forster-Jones) is even worse, claiming “Money? Who needs it!! There’s always a guy somewhere. If you’re a girl, you can get into clubs free..” and so forth. Even more worrying is her apparel- clad at various points in a spangly tracksuit and a red baseball cap, she almost seems like a progenitor of the chav movement that would eventually destroy most of London’s most psychedelic attributes. OK, I’m pretty sure she didn’t know that back then, and nor did anyone else, but it is slightly disconcerting to see the possible beginnings of today’s civilisation collapse in an otherwise beautiful environment.
And beautiful is the right word- the photography is stunning, particularly in its conveyance of sunsets, seascapes, interior décor , Paddington Station and even hospital wards, and Sarne should be commended for it, as too should Flipside’s ever-reliable remastering department. But the ‘look’ of the film still remains its strongest suit, which constantly reinforces the impression that something somewhere is missing. Personal identification may be at the root of it. If it were only the female characters that lacked depth, we could see it as maybe the result of some bias or predisposition, but the males are similarly unsympathetic- Ainley, who appears only briefly, is an oily creep, and Lockhart, whilst he may look like an utter dude, is little more than a dodgy gangster nightclub owner who’s happy to play up to stereotypes of his own race (“I’m a black bastard and I know what’s best for you” he says whilst cupping his doxy’s pert breasts).
At other times the character works, but the actor doesn’t: Donald Sutherland is obviously supposed to provide some emotional warmth and focus in the role of the terminally ill Lord Peter Sanderson, but makes such a typically piss-poor North American attempt at an English accent (one of the worst in cinematic history outside of Sinatra’s infamous “I’ve had enough of jew and jaw ideas” Spaniard in The Pride And The Passion) that it’s impossible to take him seriously. Apparently Sarne wanted an Englishman such as James Villiers, but none who tested were lovable in the right manner, until a girlfriend of Laughlin’s suggested the hangdog, laconic Sutherland: these qualities he may possess, but his atrocious delivery means that although he does get the film’s best dialogue, a heart-warming seaside rumination on how life is short, people are “beautiful things”, the world is wonderful, and every day should be enjoyed as much as possible, which in a way encapsulates the very essence of the peace and love era (if only he knew then what we now know..) it sounds at best like Richie Benaud commentating on the cricket, and at worst like a parody of Waite’s real-life Sith Iffriken twang, not that her English delivery is fantastic either.
Rather tellingly, the only male character that seems to come out of the film with any reward or respite is that of painter Cass (Christian Doermer) a role Sarne is rumoured to have originally intended for himself. Seemingly untroubled by everybody else’s issues, and possessed of a cool detachment offset by an undercurrent of dry humour, his role is almost that of an outside commentator on proceedings, ala Valentine Dyall’s Mummy in Secrets Of Sex (1969) something reinforced by his being the only cast member not to take part in the all-singing all-dancing railway platform finale, another nod to Sarne’s music hall past.
To understand the film in context, and best appreciate it, it’s important to remember that Sarne would soon go on to make a truly great work, the misunderstood Myra Breckinridge (1970) which to my knowledge is still sadly missing from DVD, but also, as an American-funded film, is not due for a Flipside release: therefore, in this respect, Joanna can be seen as a dry run, and the work of a soon-to-be master craftsman finding his feet. There are several moments of budding genius on display: the sub-plot involving the pregnancy of Margo (Michelle Cook ) and her subsequent abortion, is a pithy comment on the nature of human needs and desires (as is Sutherland’s seaside speech) and an even more pointed observation on British law, which had only recently made such operations legal. Likewise, any film which starts in drab black and white and then suddenly bursts into glorious colour the minute its heroine jumps off a train into central London is obviously the work of someone with a few good ideas up his sleeve. But it would take another two years before Sarne pulled them out of said sleeve and laid them on the table.
In short: Joanna is extremely enjoyable if you’re in the right mood, and you can dig the concept of a film as a 105-minute painting, or acknowledge the basic truth that good elements do not always a complete picture make, without stooping to such pretentious journalisms as “curate’s egg”. But will I declare it a masterpiece? Er, will I what? Will I what? I will not.
The disc’s bonus feature, on the other hand, the previously unbelievably rare Death May Be Your Santa Claus- missing from late night screenings and bootleg trade lists for so long many actually believed it ‘lost’- is a far more fascinating curio. Often, the excitement generated by a film’s rarity, like the fascination surrounding many ‘lost psych classic’ albums of the same period (something also applicable to this film thanks to its soundtrack by UK freakrockers Second Hand), is found to be purely because of that rarity, and once the object becomes available, disappointment is inevitable: yet here, this is not the case, and the brouhaha is at least partly justified. It’s definitely not , however, a horror film, as was supposed for many years by many who had never seen it but had drawn their own conclusions based on its title and what little they knew about its allegedly violent plot.
Directed by one Frankie Dymon Jr, who appears to have been a member of the British wing of the Black Panther Party, the film purports to tell on a basic level the tale of a black college lecturer (Ken Gajadhar) who is sacked from his London job for indulging his students in too much radicalism, then spends most of the rest of his time lying in bed reading and shagging beautiful white, hippie goddesses (Donna Dolce) and capering around what appears to be either Hampstead Heath or Woolwich Common quite a lot. Interspersed with this are scenes of a gun-toting Che Guevara- style rebel taking a baby off its naked mother who breastfeeds it in the street before handing it to a passing Pope (yep, it was the 60s, folks), real-life verite footage of an educated black revolutionary arguing at Speakers’ Corner with a mixture of people of both races about the state of the nation, a rehearsal scene featuring the band themselves, covered in face paint and masks, jamming in a disused Notting Hill building, and an infamous sequence involving the castration of a supposed racist, which one supposes is primarily responsible for the misleading “horror” classification.
What this all adds up to is open to interpretation, save to say that maybe even a militant such as Dymon Jr both acknowledged and wanted to show that everyone has their viewpoint and perspective, and in a cross-cultural melange such as the London of 1969, these can often lack clarity. The oft-repeated lyrics of the album’s title track (“man with a Negro brain…needs a woman to drive him insane…”) hint at only part of this, although whether they portend death for the central character is a moot point. One thing is for certain, though: even late 60s London at its darkest, dingiest and most unforgiving, as shown here, still seems like a walk in the (Hyde?) park compared to the thrusting, 100 mph culture of today. The castration scene, whilst unpleasant, actually has more the feel of some students collaborating on an art project, which is essentially what it is (Action Image Exchange, anyone?), and one can take comfort from the thought that these days, there would be less knives and more Uzis involved. Even the racists, anti-racists and general cynical misanthropes arguing with each other on Park Lane seem mild-mannered compared to today’s antagonisti.
Indubitably, it’s not a film you could watch again and again, as even for a 35-minute short, it seems incredibly long and protracted in places, but it’s great to be able to finally see it and dispel the genre myths, even if I haven’t got a clue what, if anything, it’s actually trying to say. If I were to attempt to sum it up, I’d say my fellow film historian Darrell Buxton hit the nail squarely on the head when he described it several years ago as “Godardian”- and Le Mepris aside, I never had much idea what he was on about either….
As a package, Joanna/Death May Be Your Santa Claus/The Road To St Tropez (the last of which falls somewhere between romantic travelogue and glorified advert, betraying its director’s secondary background in commercials) won’t sell nearly half as many as Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, Privilege or Bronco Bullfrog, although the inclusion of Santa Claus itself, if aimed at the right people (ie psych and prog rock collectors) may add a few noughts to the profits. If nothing else it will keep Flipside ticking over til the release of Deep End (1970) next month, which must stand as one of the company’s most eagerly-awaited acquisitions. With regard to both Joanna’s star and director, it should be noted that Sarne is still acting regularly, mainly on television, although he hasn’t made a feature film since the surprisingly well-received The Punk And The Princess in 1994: Waite, conversely, seems to have vanished into obscurity somewhere in the States, and did not contribute to the research of this DVD in any form, but her glam-torch album Romance Is On The Rise (1974) is worth seeking out. This makes Joanna probably the only film I’ve ever reviewed directed by and starring two people whose music I prefer to their films: ironically, neither appears in the movie itself, although several songs by Rod McKuen and Scott Walker’s evergreen “When Joanna Loved Me” do.
In the meantime, remember: riding elephants down Bond Street is not advised during peak traffic hours.