Thursday, November 17, 2016 Video Archives Vol 6: Screamin' Jay Hawkins- I Put a Spell on Me

Screamin' Jay Hawkins
One of the few things that Tom Waits, Alice Cooper, Gwar, The Cramps, and Rob Zombie all have in common is that they were all heavily inspired by the music and theatricality of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. The music and persona of the man can be best explained as one part refined RnB musician, one part Bela Lugosi, and one part pure guttural opera. In the course of his career, the man broke damn near every stereotype of a musician. Though you may not know his name, you undoubtedly know his song "I Put a Spell on You", made popular by bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Animals. Though the song was an enormous hit in many versions since it's initial release in 1956, bad record-deals and contracts between him and a white dominated industry meant little of the money actually went to the man himself.

documentaryHowever, that didn't stop him. Though he did often have to play in less than stellar venues throughout his career, he toured consistently until the age of 70 years old. His live performances were as much theatricality as they were musicality. He would emerge from a coffin and periodically fumble through his bag of toys, dolls, and bones. But the coolest prop of all was Henry. Henry was a skull on a stick that he had rigged to smoke cigarettes, and he went everywhere with him. Many black musicians from his day went out of their way to avoid racist stereotypes such as voodooism, cannibalism, or even the slight mention of a jungle. Screamin' Jay however, wholeheartedly embraced them. So much so he often performed with a bone in his nose.

I Put a Spell on Me
Jim Jarmusch
The man only started to get the respect he deserved towards the end of his life thanks to people like Jim Jarmusch who heavily featured both the man and his music in feature movies. Thankfully, on what ended up being his last tour, filmmaker Nicholas Triandafyllidis accompanied him through part of it. Not only did this result in the capture of his last ever performance, but he was able to document some incredibly intimate moments with the man while traveling. We watch Jay regale the camera with tales of Elvis, his skirt-chasing, and eating thirty plums for Mystery Train, all the while in taxi cabs, hotel rooms, and airplanes. This is the kind of raw, genius footage that truly captures a singular moment in time.

The cast of characters interviewed for this project are astounding. We get to watch Jim Jarmusch speak about searching out Jay to personally pay him for use of his song in a movie. We witness Bo Diddley talk about Jay being one of the first to notice that Elvis was copying black musicians. Many of his friends and family retell some of his personal stories including his getting shot and stabbed when he hit on his wife's girlfriend.

Image Grab
The documentary is rough around the edges. Shot on multiple types of cameras, occasionally the footage looks completely different, even during the same interview. Throughout it, the discrepancy in quality is often jarring and unwelcome (such as the noise in the wide-shot of Jarmusch's interview). Often times the audio is of equally poor quality. However, this is true documentary cinema and has more heart than anything professionals such as Alex Gibney have ever shot. Most modern documentarians concentrate more on presenting a brilliant luster on top of their movie than showcasing the raw emotion laying beneath it. Living in a day where many major documentaries now have the budget of actual movies, this is a breath of fresh air.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins, I Put a Spell on Me
Unfortunately, director Nicholas Triandafyllidis died on June 7, 2016 in Athens, Greece. His film I Put a Spell on Me won the First Prize in the Documentary Festival of Thessaloniki and the Second National Prize Documentary Film Festival in Thessaloniki under the Film Ministry of Culture Quality Awards. The man went on to make many more movies before his untimely demise. His latest film 90 Years of PAOK: Nostalgia for the Future about Greece's multi-sports club is currently in post-production. 

This Release
CoverThe original release of this seemed to be extremely limited and quickly went out of print (though you can still buy a bootleg version of this from Asia) as soon as it was made available. It is unclear why this is, but I would assume it largely to have to do with Screamin' Jay's estate not owning the rights to his music, this however, is pure speculation on my part. For years, the only way to watch this film has been either a terrible quality 360p YouTube video or a poorly encoded two part AVI file that has long been dispersed throughout the torrent community.

A few weeks ago I managed to get my hands on a ripped DVD* of the actual release. However, even it had issues such as interlacing and dancing tracking lines atop the footage. To remedy this I ripped the original 576i, 25FPS footage and up-res'd it to 720p. From there I de-interlaced it, cropped off the top to remove the dancing pixels and added a slight sharpening filter to it. I briefly attempted to "snap the blacks" as some of the footage was washed out, but noticed I was losing too much information in the shadows and left it as is.

*Note The only bonus feature included on this disc is a trailer for the movie

Final Thought:
I cleaned this up as much as possible, however there is only so much I can do without access to the original footage. Some shots are noisy and occasionally the audio is barely decipherable. However this is an amazing documentary about an amazing subject and made with that rare kind of love and reverence that is seldom reflected in cinema. If you like this release, purchase his music, purchase his live albums. My personal favorite recording is a three track single made for a Levi's commercial which features his interpretation of the Tom Waits' classic "Heart Attack & Vine" as well as his classic "I Put a Spell on You" and the amazing track "On The Job".