It’s a Complex World (1991)

Uh-oh. The studio copywriters are name dropping hit films on the VHS sleeves again. This can’t be good. Wayne’s World? This is Spinal Tap? The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Say what? Bill & Ted’ s Excellent Adventure? The Blues Brothers? Repo Man? Monty friggin’ Python? Surely, you jest, ye stoned public relations copywriter.

Yeah, I fear this is going be Zoo Radio all over again, with its claims of “. . . if you like Porky’s and Animal House. . . .” Yeah, you better strap in, Elwood. This review is going off the friggin’ rails, B&S About Movies style! It’s time for everything you wanted to know about It’s a Complex World . . . but were afraid to ask. . . .

VHS image courtesy of mcknight138/eBay

So, did you know there were two rock ‘n’ roll flicks shot in Providence, Rhode Island? True story.

The first was A Matter of Degrees (1990)—a movie that, courtesy of the oft-seen Prism Video imprint (and Atlantic Records involvement in its production), received decent distribution and was somewhat easy to find on home video shelves. We say “somewhat” because, even with multiple (in my case, three) mom n’ pop video store memberships stuffed in the wallet (and yes, three more from the mega and regional chains of Blockbuster Video, 10,0001 Monster Video, and Video Ave.), most of us didn’t see that beloved (but failed) college radio drama as a rental during its initial year of release—but as an alt-rock artifact excavated by-chance during one of our triangulating-by-phone book home video store excursions on the asphalt rivers. (I eventually came to score two used copies: one I kept; the other was birthday-gifted—along with a CD copy of the soundtrack.)

By then, that John Doe-starring flick (backed by the college rock sounds of Firehose and Miracle Legion) was a forgotten, dusty analog tchotchke stuffed on the shelf of an out-of-way video store sandwiched between a Target and smoothie joint that I happened upon that was having a going-out-business sale. To say I was the proverbial “kid in the candy store” that day is an understatement: I also scored copies of the “No False Metal” classics (but saw them as multiple-rentals) of Hard Rock Zombies, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, Rocktober Blood, Shock ‘em Dead, and Terror on Tour—and a copy of the never-seen, second “rock” film shot in Providence: It’s a Complex World.

As with that first Providence-shot flick, It’s a Complex World was a highly coveted rock ‘n’ roll tale lost in a morass of production and distribution snafus; a highly-sought after analog rumored-fable by VHS loving rock dogs (such as myself). Did this movie really exist, or was this another Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel (1983): just another 3/4” inch tease that was never finished, never made it to home video shelves, and never aired on cable courtesy of USA Network (where all VHS B-Movie schlock went to die) and HBO?

Sadly, this “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel” fable (okay, it’s a nightclub, but you get the idea) was a rock joint rife with anticipation that, once found, was a letdown (at least for me; some, in other quarters, love it . . . and so it goes).

Instead of those previously mentioned VHS rock ditties that lent themselves to multiple viewings (add The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Cannon’s wacked rock fable, The Apple, and Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise to the list), we ended up with another musical-snoozer ala Playing for Keeps, Scenes from the Goldmine, and Suffering Bastards (all rock club shenanigans flicks). Alas, I didn’t “check-in” to the FM Hilton: this was another Zoo Radio. I wasn’t staying at the hotel Breaking Glass: this was another piss-stained motel Splitz (1984; Robin Johnson from Times Square fronting an all-girl band) . . . or Joey (1985; about the comeback of faux ‘60s rocker Joey King and the Delsonics) or Immortal (1998; boring North Carolina rock-vampire horror). You know what I mean: Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume (1990) was pirate radio gold; Ferd Sebastian’s On the Air Live with Captain Midnight (1979) was a dented, tarnished pewter ale stein crusted in barnacles. . . .

Snork—yes, that’s me yawning; shocking awake to a VCR blue screen, shaking the popcorn dust from my t-shirt and going to take a piss. . . .

Sorry, no offense is intended to the denizens of Providence who have (justified) fond memories of the film’s production and local theatre screenings. For me, It’s a Complex World was one of those chipped VHS Bric-à-bracs that you watch once for the anticipated-curiosity value—fooled into hoping you’re getting an inversion of Allan Arkush’s rock club flick, Get Crazy—and it’s shelved back into the collection as a dust magnet for the next pass of the Swiffer.

Yeah, uh, sorry, Mr. Copywriter. For this ain’t no Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

Courtesy of Dangerous Minds.net

So, how did this movie come into being . . . and where did it go wrong?

Well, like most indie movies: out of desperation to make “something.” And it took five cooks to clankin’ the pasta pots. Five writers: screenwriter Dennis Maloney, along with director Jim Wolpaw, club owner Rich Lupo, producer Geoff Adams, and actor-musician-star Stanley Matis each offering their own ingredients to an all-too spicy, starchy pot. And the film had an additional, fifth producer, Charles Thompson, who probably dropped some bardin’ as well.

Anyway, in 1987, Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, a legendary, real life Providence rock club, was in danger of closing (to make way for a condo development). So owner Rich Lupo came up with an idea: let’s make a movie to commemorate the club’s demise and trash the joint!

And as luck would have it: Lupo’s head bartender and club manager, his ex-Brown University roommate, Jim Wolpaw, was a budding filmmaker who received a “Best Documentary, Short Subjects” Oscar nomination for his 1986 short Keats and His Nightingale: A Blind Date (several of his shorts and documentaries have since won prizes at a dozen film festivals worldwide). So the duo organized a benefit concert in July of 1987, booked the Young Adults, filmed it (thus creating their own, original stock footage; take that, Roger Corman!), then scripted “a plot” around the last night shenanigans of a club closing (just like Allan Arkush’s earlier Get Crazy from 1983 commemorating the closing of NYC’s Fillmore East).

The completed film—which took two-and-a-half months to shoot in 1987, then went through two years of post-production, reshoots, and legal wrangling—had an unprecedented four month run at Providence’s Cable Car Theatre, along with a two-month run in Boston and a one week run in New York City—garnering good reviews from the city’s local film critics.

Then its planned, national theatrical distribution with Hemdale (The Who’s Tommy, Escape from the Bronx, Turkey Shoot, River’s Edge, The Terminator, back-to-back Academy Award winners Platoon and The Last Emperor, The Terminator) went sour. While Wolpaw won the case and received a miniscule settlement, the film’s chances for a national release were over.

At that point, the film was turned over to Prism for a home video release. A film that would have programmed nicely amid the USA Network’s “Night Flight” rock programming block alongside Breaking Glass and Ladies and Gentleman: The Fabulous Stains, wasn’t forthcoming—and no HBO or Showtime showings, either. The last public theatre showing of the film was a 20th anniversary screening in 2010 on November 5 and 6 (four sold out showings) for a charity event held at Cable Car Theatre (Carolyn Forest for the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Foundation and in the name of producer Charlie Thompson for Advocates in Action). At that point, Wolpaw vanity-pressed a small lot of DVDs (with two cuts of the film; the rough cut and the video/theatrical cut) for sale through a since defunct website (that also benefited the same charities). But that was ten years ago and those limited-run DVDs are long since out of print.

Courtesy of the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame

For years, it was believed that (in the VHS wastelands outside of Providence, natch) the Young Adults were a faux band scripted for the movie; it turned out they were a real band, real enough that—it’s been said in the annals of Young Adults wikidom—at one time TV producer Lorne Michaels had the Rhode Island rock hopefuls on the short-list to be the house band for Saturday Night Live. Other YA factoids: future Talking Heads founder, David Byrne, auditioned for them. And Charles Rocket, who became a Saturday Night Live cast members and starred in the Farrelly’s Dumb and Dumber, was the lead singer in an early ’70s embryonic version of the Young Adults, the Fabulous Motels. And director Jim Wolpaw and the Young Adults worked together before: Showtime aired their 1978 half-hour documentary, Cobra Snake For A Necktie, with the band backing rock ‘n’ roll legend Bo Diddley. The nine-day sold-out stint was recorded on the Heartbreak’s stage during Diddley’s tour for his 1974 album, Big Bad Bo. (Of course it’s on You Tube! Isn’t everything on You Tube?)

Based on the Young Adults wacked out stage wares and the cheeky brand of Catskills-vaudevillian shtick by comically-dubbed co-lead singers Ruby Cheeks and Sport Fisher, it’s easy to believe that SNL rock-factoid. In fact, comparing the Young Adults to the ’70s San Francisco-era, pre-MTV stardom days of Fee Waybill and the Tubes is not far off the mark. One may say, because of the costuming, Adam and the Ants; but the Ants never recorded songs like “Christmas in Japan in July,” “Do the Heimlich,” “I Wanna Throw Up in the Back of a Limo-sine,” “Kill Yourself,” and “Meat Rampage,” did they? The Young Adults’ lone indie album recorded live at Lupo’s, 1987’s Helping Others, served as the film’s pseudo-soundtrack. Sadly, unlike with A Matter of Degrees, there was never an official soundtrack released to also showcase the music of the also appearing Beat Legends, Roomful of Blues, and Stanley Matis.

The plot, such as it is (less narrative story and more a series of variety show-styled vignettes), is another one of those dads-disappointed-with-his-rock-son flicks. In this case, Jeff Burgess is the manager of a Providence rock joint, The Heartbreak Hotel. A disappointment to his conservative, ex-CIA agent father-cum-Senator now running for the Presidency, Robert Burgess feels his son’s rock club will negatively affect his presidential campaign ambitions. (Hey, isn’t that the plot of 2003’s Malibu’s Most Wanted starring Jamie Kennedy?) So the future “Mr. President” hires revolutionaries to stage a terrorist bombing at the club . . . and his son dying in the chaos will garner him the sympathy vote. That’s politics.

Meanwhile, Providence’s corrupt Mayor (Rich Lupo himself), unaware that the Senator has his own nefarious plans, hires a Civil War-obsessed biker gang (led by wrestling legend Captain Lou Albano; the rock n’ wrestling flick Body Slam) to bust up the club and drive it out of business for a land deal. That’s politics.

Then there’s the disenfranchised Morris Brock (Providence comedian-musician Stanley Matis), an angry, disillusioned geeky singer of angry folk songs who desperately wants to get out from under his successful dead brother’s shadow. So he joins up with the terrorists. That’s proving those parents wrong—even if you gotta blow up the joint “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” style.

Hey! Elvis isn’t going to let his namesake rock club be destroyed! So, from beyond the grave (by voice only; he’s not actually in the film, like in Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance; he doesn’t show up like Hendrix did in the the doppelganger Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel) “The King” reaches out by phone to Beatlegends, a Beatles tribute band on the bill, and discloses some secrets about John Lennon—and warnings of what’s about to happen to the club.

The rock ‘n’ roll is also provided by blues rockers NRBQ (“12 Bar Blues” and their new wave radio hit “Me and the Boys” appear in the film), who do coke in the bathroom (they also appeared on the soundtracks to Tuff Turf and Sean S. Cunningham’s Spring Break). Also appearing on screen and the “soundtrack” are the New England bands (why Providence’s rock denizens love this movie) Roomful of Blues and Beat Legends. And get this: New Jersey neighbors the Smithereens (appeared on the soundtrack to Albert Pyun’s 1987 juvenile delinquency flick Dangerously Close with “Blood and Roses”) worked as extras getting snookered at the bar (but none of their songs are in the film).

VHS image courtesy of mcknight138/eBay

And proving that all actors have to start somewhere: Peter Gerty and Becca Lish, who starred as part of Lou Albano’s biker gang, are still thespin’ in 2020. You’ve seen Gerty as a regular and guest star in Dick Wolf’s NBC-TV productions Homicide: Life on the Street and the Law & Order franchise. HBO and Showtime subscribers seen him as a cast member on The Wire and Brotherhood, and most recently on Ray Donovan (starring Liev Schreiber), but you’ll definitely remember Gerty as Mall Security Chief Brooks from Paul Mart: Mall Cop among his hundred-plus credits. Providence-based actor Becca Lish got her start in A Matter of Degrees and worked her way up to recent roles in TV’s Law & Order, Younger, and the rebooted Murphy Brown, in addition to voice work on several Disney series.

Cinematographer Denis Maloney is also still going strong in 2020; among his hundred-plus credits are the Witchcraft series (based on the 1988 original; remember the witch with six-breasts? Or was it eight!), Cyber Bandits (1995; Adam Ant), Liberty Stands Still (2002; Wesley Snipes), the Farrelly Brother’s There’s Something About Mary, as well as several, recent Lifetime movies (none with our beloved Eric Roberts, at least not yet!).

The Young Adults’ Ruby Cheeks went on to have a cameo in the Farrelly Brothers’ later Rhode Island-based picture, Jim Carrey’s Me, Myself and Irene.

. . . Now, let’s clear up the Seinfeld rumors that one of “George Costanza’s bosses” appeared in the film: it’s true! Daniel von Bargen (Mr. Kruger from Kruger Industrial Smoothing) stars as the terrorist group’s leader, Malcom.

Say what? There’s no freebie online VHS rips? Oh, well. And since those 2010 DVDs are out-of-print and there’s no official streams (not even as a with-ads stream on TubiTV?), all we have to share with you are the trailer, along with the opening title credits sequence and a clip of the Young Adults on stage in the film.

Ugh, this really is Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel all over again! When will we ever see the full film?

You can learn more about the catalog of the Young Adults on their Discogs page and a wealth of their tunes are preserved on the You Tube page of Flamingo Land. We’ve also found three of Stanley Matis’s “geek folk” tunes: “New Jersey” (which he performed in the film), and three later tunes: “Buster Christ,” “Empire Review,” and “Frugal Duck.” And the Roomful of Blues album that I remember the most—that got some notice on the more adventurous new wave-oriented radio stations—was their second album, 1979’s Let’s Have a Party, which is on You Tube. (Remember Jack Mack and the Heart Attack in Tuff Turf? Well, it’s cool like that.) You can also learn more about the Rhode Island music scene via the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame You Tube page and website.

Forget Cleveland! Providence Rocks!

Oh, and since It’s a Complex World (somewhat) qualifies as a Box Office Failure, be sure to check out our recent, week long February tribute week to “Box Office Failures.” You need more rock bands flicks? Then check out our “Ten Bands Made Up for Movies (and a whole lot more)” featurette.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

Special thanks to Dangerous Minds.net, Dr. Bristol’s Prescription blog, Providence Daily Dose, Providence Monthly Online, Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame, and Spectacle Theatre NY for their efforts in preserving this rock flick obscurity, which assisted in the preparation of this review.

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