Friday, May 20, 2011

"The Jesus Trip" and "J.C."

Early in the VHS tape trading days, these two were sometimes confused with one another, with people assuming one was the other with an alternate title. Surely, they must have figured, there can't be two different Jesus themed biker movies. But luckily for us, there were. So I sat myself down for a blasphemous double feature...

The Jesus Trip (also released as Under Hot Leather)
D: Russ Mayberry

Some bikers on the run take along a nun as their hostage

Waco (Robert Porter) and his gang are on the run after being duped into smuggling heroin in from Mexico, and hole up in a convent. Local cop Tarboro (Billy Green Bush) finds them, but he's subdued and the bikers take off with Sister Anna (Tippy Walker) as their hostage. They keep Anna around longer than needed, primarily because of Waco's infatuation.
Tarboro turns out to be a borderline crazy vigilante cop with some 'cycle buddies of his own, and he's bent on tracking the gang down. Also after them are the drug smugglers--whom biker Pinole (Carmen Argenziano) may or may not be working with.
It's a fairly unique story that builds to a decent enough ending, but despite a few entertaining moments (like the great scene where Tarboro forces a couple of bikers to talk, or Folsom [Virgil Frye] very realistically shitfaced in a bar, yelling like he has Tourette's), "The Jesus Trip" is a letdown overall.
First and foremost, things like backstory and insight to motives are almost nonexistant. This is absolutely inexcusable, because there's a lot of time that would be better spent making us give a shit about the characters (and explaining what the hell the deal is with Tarboro and his gang) that is instead given over to an insane amount of filler. Riding scene, stop to rest and talk a second, riding scene. Every lingering shot lingers three or four times what is even comfortable, nearly every scene is just too long. It's a potentially original story, but it's never fleshed out; in the end it's interesting enough that you only feel you've wasted about 40 minutes of your life rather than the entire hour and a half.
By the way, why the hell is the soundtrack so horror movie?
Only 2 crosses for this one, but nice try.

D: William F. McGaha (also wrote and produced)

A peace-loving biker and his crew stop in his hometown to visit his sister, and are not welcome.

I really need to know more about William F. McGaha, the southern filmmaker who cranked this one out. He'd previously done "Bad Girls for the Boys" (1966; sounds like a porn) and "The Speed Lovers" (1968) before this one, which has a labor of love feel to it.
The film's writer, producer, and director also stars as the titular JC, the leader of a loose collection of bikers. No more into negative waves than Oddball, JC would rather smoke weed in his underwear than be out there with all the bummers, but a trippy dream leads him to give a sermon to his gang about peace, freedom, and a giant eye winking up in the sky that's one part lefty cliche and two parts insanity. They hit the road, deciding to stop at the small Alabama town JC grew up in. He wants to visit the sister he hasn't seen in ten years, but as we learn in bits and pieces, his past there is a dark one.
Aside from JC's sister Miriam (Joanna Cook Moore), no one in town is pleased to see him. Miriam's husband, the blue-collar, southern, angry racist stereotype Carlton, never liked JC even pre-biker, never mind now that he's got a nigger couple with him, and JC's former friend and rival Dan is now a deputy in line to be sheriff.
This never goes where you think it will, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The whole JC/Jesus Christ thing would have been far more effective if we'd gotten some background info earlier than we do. All of the "can't we all just get along" themes are typically syrupy, but somehow all of the related angles transcend the schmaltziness. Somehow, the way it's all tied together, the fact that it's actually not very good never bothers you. The only part that really bugs you, unfortunately, is the one that sets the climax into motion. In a major "dude, seriously?" moment, it's David (Hannibal Penney) --the black guy who has the rednecks the most irate-- who makes the beer run into town. How do you suppose that goes over?
A good job is done capturing the biker movie feel and mood, not bad considering no one involved had done one before or would again. McGaha pulls of being rivetingly good despite the fact that he's not very good; while not a terribly talented actor, he's got enough "it" to hold your attention (he also, I believe, breaks the record for ending sentences with "man," a record set by Duane Allman in a radio interview). The other bikers and mamas --with names like Mr. Clean, Happy Von Wheelie, and Shirley the Saint-- are nearly all non-actors, carried by the townspeople, mostly played by actors with minor TV and movie experience. The notable exception, of course, is the sheriff, played by Slim Pickens. The role, unfortunately, is a little inconsistent, with him sometimes seeming like a not-so-bad guy trying to keep peace, others like a bigoted thug. As a result (and also since he probably just wanted to shoot his scenes, pick up his check, and split), it's an uneven performace, with Pickens not clear on which way to go with it. But at his best, he has a ball with the role.
Hate to be a heavy negative vibe merchant, but the music, mostly hippie-christian folky pop by a group called Bethany, is just awful. Worse, the gang includes its own minstrel, who frequently warbles cringe-inducing ballads about their situations. He's a real bringdown, man.
But while I wished I was deaf here and there, I was never bored. This is a unique story that, cliches and all, moves along nicely. McGaha aimed higher than "The Jesus Trip," and was also more successful. Three crosses, and a recommendation that you check this out at least once.

Neither of these are the Bizarro World Jesus as MC prez/ cult leader you or I wish existed, but at least both sure beat the shit out of "Jesus Christ Superstar."

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