Playback: Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroiter's 'Lonely Boy'
Lonely Boy stands alone, teetering on a precipice between everything that came before and everything that came after. When I first saw it in the late ’60s, we already knew it represented both a lost world of soppy innocence and a brand new world of very cagey cinema. It is a brilliantly photographed, tightly structured, elegant 30 minutes in the life of teen idol Paul Anka, his teenage fans and a film crew from the National Film Board of Canada. It is enormous fun, and it is still for me the granddaddy of all the great rock’n’roll films, though it was made in the last flickering days of pre-R&R torch singing.
Way ahead of their time, directors Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroiter seem, in an instant, to have invented most of the devices of great post-war documentary-making: brilliantly hand-held shooting; visual jump cuts lapping over sound continuity; intense, rigorous editing of what appears at first to be sloppy shooting; and the apparently effortless self-reflection when an off-camera Koenig asks Anka and the dour manager of the Cope Cabana “…could we have the kiss again?…” It all looked so easy.
But what I remember most is the sound, and the idea that you didn’t have to hear what you saw. (Lonely Boy was edited by John Spotton and Guy Cote, and masterfully mixed by Ron Alexander). Until Lonely Boy it had never occurred to me that a sound mix was anything more than a nuisance, or that the manipulation of sound could profoundly change the visual storytelling of a film. But there it is. As Anka sings to thousands of screaming fans, we cannot make out his words, until ever so slowly the crowd’s roar fades away. Suddenly as we watch teenage girls silently scream, silently sob, and silently faint dead away, all we hear is Anka’s tender voice pleading “…hold me in your arms, baby…” We have slipped out of cinéma vérité and down a rabbit hole into Paul Anka’s head, into the film’s head. In a sublime, tingling moment, the filmmakers create a mystical meeting between boy and girl, not on a concert stage in New Jersey, but on some ethereal movie-stage.
The scene has a dreamy innocence about it, but the demons of sex, drugs, rock and roll and a war in Southeast Asia were already growling around the edges. Pennebaker’s brooding sarcastic Dylan was right around the corner. By the time I saw Lonely Boy, the last innocence was blown away in ’69 at the Altamont debacle, where the Rolling Stones, at the height of their power, met the Maysles at the height of their power to make the other great music film of our time, Gimme Shelter.
Looking back to Lonely Boy across that great gulf, I see a jewel of a movie, a near perfect reminder of why I got into this business in the first place. It is as fresh and sparkling as the day it was made, and as funny, heartrending and ironic as any music film ever made. I know now that it is not easy.
Jon Else directed The Day After Trinity, Cadillac Desert and Sing Faster.