Zachariah (1971)

“The first electric Western” is the kind of movie that could have only have come out in 1971.

How else do you explain a musical Western that is based on Hermann Hesse’s novels Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund that stars — and has music by — the James Gang (featuring Joe Walsh, playing Job Cain’s Band), White Lightnin’ (a Cream soundalike band that Old Man’s Band), New York Rock ‘n Roll Ensemble (a classical baroque rock group that includes Michael Kamen (who did incidental music for Lifeforce but is probably better known for all those Bryan Adams songs that your mom loved), Marty Fulterman (AKA Mark Snow, who composed the X-Files theme) and Dorian Rudnytsky, plus two rock musicians Brian Corrigan and Clif Nivison, as Belle Starr’s band) and Country Joe and the Fish as the Crackers?

This is a movie with no less than five writers**:

Joe Massot: This filmmaker is best known for George Harrison’s Wonderwall, as well as starting Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same before being sacked and subbed by Peter Clifton*. Massot was inspired to make this movie when he followed the Beatles to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  When he got there, only George*** and John were there, locked in a meditation duel.

Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Philip Proctor: Better known as The Firesign Theater,   who was called “the Beatles of comedy” by no less a source than the U.S. Library of Congress, this surreal comedy group existed to remind us that “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” Again, only in the 70s and not today, but they became famous through radio and comedy albums.

After finding a mail-order gun in the desert, Zachariah (John Rubinstein) and his best friend Matthew (Don Johnson) leave behind their small town and decide to become gunfighters. They start to follow the Crackers and Zachariah shows that he’s an able gunfighter, but when challenged by the deadly gunfighter drummer Job Cain**** (Elvin James, who played drums for John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis), Zachariah decides to leave behind this life, worried that at some point he and Matthew will end up killing one another.

Zachariah’s vision quest takes him to the Old Man who lives alone in the desert and refuses the violence of the west. He tells him of the town of El Camino, a place where pleasure — and Dick Van Patten — is readily available, including the carnal delights of Belle Starr (Pat Quinn, who played Alice in Alice’s Restaurant). But hedonism isn’t what our protagonist is into either. So he wanders back to the Old Man who teaches him the mantra “Hurry up and die.”

On the other hand, Matthew has moved up in the world of crime and has plans of taking over from Cain. He travels to El Camino where he meets Zachariah, who takes up his gun again and angers the Old Man so much that he claims that he will never speak with him again.

The conclusion takes both men into town where the death of Cain — and possibly both of our heroes — hangs over the proceedings. Can Zachariah’s love for his friend save both of them?

Director George Englund was married to Cloris Leachman for nearly twenty-five years and also made The Ugly American and produced the post-apocalyptic film The World, the Flesh and the Devil.

I have no idea why people aren’t losing their minds over this movie every single day. It’s a head film about cowboys who carry guitars along with their guns and where a man — a black man in 1971! — can shoot another man dead before playing a two-minute drum solo. Just imagine if the role went to the musician it was originally intended for, legendary maniac Ginger Baker.

*Strangely enough, Clifton had one of the missing NASA films of Neil Armstrong taking mankind’s first steps on the moon. Wait, what? Yes, believe it or not, Clifton has forgotten that he had the film, keeping it for twenty years in a safe as part of his personal film collection. He had originally ordered the film for just $180 from the Smithsonian and had forgotten to return it. The rest of the original NASA tapes have been lost somewhere in the U.S. and the hope is that Clifton’s part of the overall library will lead researchers to the rest.

**AFI reports that the Firesigns publicly rejected the film because their original script had been changed so much. Massot, who was to be the director, resigned over artistic differences.

***According to Levon Helm, Harrison discussed making Zachariah as an Apple Films project starring Bob Dylan and The Band. At one point, Cream’s drummer Ginger Baker and The Band were also to be the main actors in this movie.

****The sound was so poorly recorded here that New Orleans session drummer Earl Palmer had to play an ADR and hit every single bear. You can hear Palmer play on everything from Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” to “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke, Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve,” “River Deep – Mountain High” with Ike and Tina Turner and Tom Waits’ “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard.” He was also the session drummer for plenty of TV theme songs like The FlintstonesGreen AcresThe Brady BunchMidnight Special and Mission: Impossible. At 72 years of age Palmer played with Cracker in the video for “I Hate My Generation.” When lead singer David Lowery asked Palmer if he would be able to play along with the songs, he looked at the one-time Camper Beethoven singer and bassist before simply saying, “I invented this shit.”

You can watch this on YouTube.

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