Now is a good time to start talking about the film Howson made around the same period as producer and writer – Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1988).
This movie could have been a very bitter one, but I think it was written before the fallout of Backstage and anyway I get the idea Howson is a pure artist and not really like that… at least when this film was made.
In one interview Howson says the disillusionment and alienation, which is at the core of this movie, kind of predicted events in his life, which were to come later.
Like Backstage it is a movie nominally about the stage (the Hollywood one as well) and its relationships behind it. While it is set in Melbourne, it’s still pure Hollywood in some senses.
Aussie actor John Waters, who I remember in Australian children’s show Play School when I was a little tacker, plays dying Hollywood screenwriter and Aussie expatriate Tom Garfield.
A chain-smoker who we suspect has terminal cancer, he returns to Australia to seek out the wife and daughter he left behind a couple of years earlier.
On the wagon – it would appear alcoholism helped ruin his life (nobody’s perfect!) – he meets with an aspiring actress played by Nicki Paull, who is appearing in a new Melbourne production of one of his plays, The Human Heart. This is indicative of the personal work he did before he “sold out” to Hollywood.
To the other characters, he is apparently the man who has everything, as he sits at the beginning of the movie in his luxurious L.A. apartment surrounded by awards… but really he has nothing. He is lonely, alienated and isolated.
The film is about regrets and guilt about past mistakes and the wallow in depression and self-indulgence as a result. It’s all a part of the natural human condition to do that. It is also about redemption and the artist’s need for inspiration – and, importantly it’s about the creative process, in particular, writing. It’s also about love and family and constant longing…
As an artist, it is a film close to Howson’s heart. I think all his work is. And, fortunately, with his Boulevard Films fully behind the production, a free hand with the screenplay and the film’s music (another lifelong passion of Howson’s together with writing and the stage), the resultant film shines.
The script was inspired by an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story from 1931 entitled Babylon Revisited. It remains uncredited but Howson said he regrets doing that as the film might have been taken more seriously as a result.
The same Fitzgerald story was used for the Van Johnson (1916-2008 natural causes) and Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011 congestive heart failure) film The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954). It was an early film for director Richard Brooks (1912-92 congestive heart failure) who was responsible for classics like The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), In Cold Blood (1967) and Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977). The script of The Last Time I Saw Paris, incidentally, was by brothers Julius J. Epstein (1909-2000 undisclosed) and Philip G. Epstein (1909-52 cancer) who collaborated on Casablanca (1942). The Epstein twins were reported to the House Un-American Activities Committee by employers Warner Brothers in the late 1940s, as possible communists. When asked in a questionnaire if they ever worked for a subversive organisation, the brothers responded: “Yes, Warner Brothers”.
The Last Time I Saw Paris is quite a good movie to watch today but Howson’s film is better.
Anyway, in the original Fitzgerald story there is no redemption for the main character, while in Brooks’ movie there is redemption and tragedy… in Howson’s film we are given the full happy ending, if that is possible with its main character heading for palliative care. It’s a satisfying ending. This ending has often been seen as a cop-out pandering to public taste. For me there could be no other – it works. You decide if Howson “sold out”.
It’s a “weepie” or a “tearjerker”, which is the domain of the “women’s picture”, but with a male as the lead character, there is a broader appeal. The effectiveness of the tragedy of a weepie is usually measured by the amount of hankies you have used to dry your eyes throughout the movie. Boulevard is at least two!
For an Aussie film of the Not Quite Hollywood period, or “The Dark Ages” of Australian movies as Howson describes it – Boulevard is an exceptional rarity: a weepie with genuine power.
With its strong lead performance by Waters, the film also uses iconic Melbourne locations such as Italian restaurant Florentino’s and Drury Lane, to real effect.
The iconic moment at the heart of the film is a shot of Waters drudging down a Melbourne city street in a long jacket smoking a cigarette, which is a reproduction of the James Dean Boulevard of Broken Dreams poster/picture.
The soundtrack, which contains several original songs by Howson and Melbourne composer John Capek (1946-), whose parents survived Auschwitz, is still vital today. I own a copy on vinyl and loved it long before I saw the movie on VHS. The title song plays in my head to this day. There are other songs using the talents of Little River Band’s Beeb Birtles (1948-) and Aussie songstress and legend Renee Geyer (1953-).
So much care is taken with the soundtrack, Howson said it was an “organic” part of the movie. For example, at the beginning of the film, a song entitled Dreams comes on the radio when the alarm goes off to wake Waters’ character in Hollywood: “Dreams are all we leave behind, dreams for someone else to find…” – The artist’s dreams and resulting creations.
But as we learn there must be more to life…
Also on the soundtrack is the affecting Buddy Holly song, True Love Ways, the rights of which must have cost a pretty penny on a modestly budgeted piece. For a film that reportedly came in on a budget of two million Aussie dollars – it’s amazing, including the apparently “stolen” footage from L.A. used in the film’s opening credit sequence. The film simply looks good.
Pino Amenta directed with distinction and the film was nominated for many Australian Film Institute Awards in 1988 and John Waters won for Best Actor.
I don’t want to give too much away as I want you to enjoy and maybe wallow a bit in Frank Howson’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams!
Ps the critics at the time were unkind as usual to this love letter to the Hollywood weepie, and celebration of Melbourne and F Scott Fitzgerald.
Howson’s next film, which I will discuss, was another personal item, at least in terms of the mainstream music industry.
A film made in between by his production company, What the Moon Saw (1989), is much more personal though. It’s an affectionate love letter to the family and the stage. It covers Howson’s career as a child prodigy and writer of musicals for the stage and incorporates them. Please don’t ignore this one as I am unintentionally doing now.
Heaven Tonight (1989), which he co-wrote with Alister Webb, is a story about father and son musicians and the gulf between them – and also the perceived gulf between rock and roll and popular synthesizer music. A gaping one if you are only a fan of one or the other.
It is again produced by Howson’s Boulevard Films and features a soundtrack of original music albeit not as “iconic” as the Broken Dreams album. It has been criticised for its 1980s synth music, which taken out of context, may appear dated.
It opens with a very well staged montage of the meteoric rise and fall of a fictional band called the Chosen Ones, led by Johnny Dysart, who is played by John Waters, once again effective.
This mop-headed group of musicians are performing what is certainly their greatest hit entitled Heaven Tonight while clips and photos from key moments of the late 60s are interspersed. The band apparently endured a drug bust before a world tour is spectacularly cancelled. It ends more or less with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy (1925-68 assassin’s bullet) and a picture of his prone body. It was truly the end of the Summer of Love.
Then it’s twenty years later and Waters’ Johnny Dysart is an aging rocker trying to make a comeback while his teenage son Paul’s own group Video Rodney is starting to make it big on the local Melbourne music scene as a New Wave synth outfit.
There’s tension between father and son, as Johnny thinks his son’s music has “got no heart. It’s cold, it’s mechanical, it’s a load of crap!” He doesn’t like it!
On this gulf, I remember I was drunk or stoned, or both one evening out and I told the light of my life that our song Don’t You (Forget about Me) by Simple Minds from the movie The Breakfast Club (1985) was “plastic”. I was heavily into Jimi Hendrix at the time (well that night!) but the next day I would probably claim Wang Chung’s synth soundtrack for To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) was one of the best of the year. So you get the idea – and don’t say things like that, no matter how drunk or stoned you are to the woman you love, as she won’t forget!
Johnny has experienced the giddy heights of fame but now can barely make ends meet for the family. His latest tape, which he has sent to the local record company, is passed on immediately, as they are looking for something “more modern, more electronic… more commercial”.
But he still has song-writing talent even if few are turning up to his gigs anymore – even the band’s drummer. Any fans there just want to hear the Chosen One’s Heaven Tonight, which only leaves Johnny frustrated and angry.
He is one of rock’n’roll’s survivors. Johnny didn’t die young. “I’m still here!,” he says. He can’t let go of what could have been…just broken dreams.
Early one morning, his band-mate Baz from the original Chosen Ones line-up, calls while totally off his face. He is a character who Howson said was drawn from Stevie Wright (1947-2015 pneumonia), lead singer of The Easybeats (1964-69), who is “bent on self-destruction”. Howson has stated that every character was based on people Howson knew in the industry over the years and that every incident was factual. After the opening montage, the next song played is The Easybeats’ classic Friday on my Mind. Johnny’s wife tells him it’s a wrong number.
Stevie Wright is a true example of the boulevard rock’n’roll legend. He said he was the inspiration for AC/DC’s Bon Scott (1946-80 choked on vomit). His life, after the overseas success of The Easybeats, was blighted by drug and alcohol addiction. The Easybeats, like the Chosen Ones in Heaven Tonight imploded due to this.
Wright also had the bad luck to be treated for addiction at the Chelmsford Private Hospital, where the resident mad scientist gave treatments, which included Electoconvulsive therapy (ECT) and drug-induced comas.
This nasty piece of Aussie hospital history was dramatized in thriller/horror form for the Queensland-shot Linda Blair (1959-) movie Dead Sleep (1992). In reality over twenty people died!
While Wright performed the classic Evie (Parts 1, 2 & 3) in the mid-70s, a heavy heroin habit took its toll, and by the 80s he was scratching to record music and even turned to crime briefly to fund his habit. He did work as a factory hand and a sales assistant. There were a few tours and in 2009, he headlined at a rock festival in Byron Bay before dying of pneumonia aged 68. Twice the age of Bon Scott. He had a son born in the mid-70s.
Kym Gyngell, who was also great in Boulevard of Broken Dreams, is Baz, who eventually tracks down Johnny. Baz is supposed to be in London working but no, he’s a druggie loser, back in town ready to drag everyone down with him.
Meanwhile, by way of an invitation of sorts, Johnny has turned up to one of Paul’s gigs which is at a venue called id’s.
The id according to Freud is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories. As a result it plays a big role in the creative process. In Heaven Tonight the main hidden memory in the id between father and son is the creation of Heaven Tonight. As Johnny and Baz sit at home and watch an 8mm film project memories from the 60s, Paul watches secretly as he sees himself as a baby with his father. He discovers that moment captured on film is when Heaven Tonight was actually written by Johnny and Baz. And it was actually written for Paul.
This echoes for Howson the instinctual creator of the Heaven Tonight song, which he also co-wrote. The shadow of the projector spool is cast over Johnny’s face, forever turning like a record in his mind. Forever in the moment of what would be a career high.
When Johnny finally listens to Paul’s music at id’s, we realize that their unresolved tension has been Oedipal as well, all for Johnny, and that Paul might just not suck as a musician.
Johnny thought that Paul was only interested in “beats per second” and how they sound through a soulless computer. “All you care about is your computers,” says Johnny facetiously, thinking his son has no insight into lyrics or the human condition. Paul: “I care about you, you bastard!”
But it is still unresolved and later in the film, Johnny’s frustrated creative id raises its ugly head again as he angrily trashes his den behind a closed door. A record company wanting an interview had mistaken him for Paul. Oh the humiliation…
Johnny rates his failure as an artist by his previous success while Baz, crashing out in his seedy flat after a night out with Johnny, swats away a dead spotlight from his face and says: “The meaning of life… nothing.” The bright lights will no longer be on him!
Baz says later when they are together again on the street: “When are you going to let go? We got to the top, now it’s over. So let it go and give some other poor bastard a go at it!”
All this just before the police arrive to bust them and Baz produces a toy gun he keeps at his apartment and raises it Breathless (1960 and 1983) style – only to get blown away. Way to go Baz! He gets killed on Christmas morning, when Christ was born, the Chosen One, son of the Creator – Baz co-creator of Heaven Tonight!
Johnny clutches the lifeless body of Baz – he still can’t let go – but in the end he must.
Johnny watches the 8mm film again of the pair at play and the same shadow is cast on Johnny’s face. The Boulevard of Broken Dreams has come full circle all that is left behind of the Chosen Ones and Baz/Stevie Wright is a legend… and the music. There will be no comeback. Heaven Tonight forever.
So Johnny decides to hang up his guitar and open a Japanese restaurant with his wife. It’s apparently based on fact, so it’s only natural. I guess it doesn’t mean he has to give up song-writing altogether. Paul plays his songs and they are very successful. While Video Rodney goes on stage at the local music awards to play Heaven Tonight, Johnny is invited on stage to a huge standing ovation. Father and son embrace and the baton is passed.
In Heaven Tonight, Paul is the new Chosen One, and the song is reborn.
It is all Frank Howson wished for, just like Laura Branigan in Backstage. However while the actor and the stage can be different, when it comes to music, performer and the stage are one. But all the lines become blurred in real life.
Heaven Tonight is a lyrical movie, just like a good song.
As for a writer who gives birth in terms of a screenplay, it may change into something you may not like – Backstage – or you may have control over your happy family/production – Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Heaven Tonight.
Heaven Tonight may have not been a number one hit in real life and the movie was not a box office success… but it fulfils a dream. It too is ingenious, like Backstage, as the dream plays out like the end of a record, only to be played again. As good as the time before, perhaps even better! In that sense Heaven Tonight is a hit!!
And the trio of films I have spoken about, they endure despite being rejected at the time. I won’t go into the reviews. To get the full effect of any movie, it must be taken within its context of time and place.
Director Pino Amenta has done a great job again.
As Stevie Wright’s son said at his father’s packed funeral: with his father “it really had to be unconditional”. Like Paul always loved his father despite what his father said – he really had it more together than Johnny the whole time.
That Howson’s son was born around the time of the making of this film shows perhaps the confidence and love of an artist to leave behind a positive cautionary tale.
So for any artist/creator who walks the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, when all is done and dusted, said and done, once the money is gone, the fair-weather friends have deserted you, when your career is in tatters and the person who you love no longer loves you – it is only unconditional love of family which endures.
But anyone who has an unconditional love for the art of movies and music like Howson apparently does – go for a walk down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams – and you’ll never walk alone!!
For an interview about these movies with Frank Howson PRESS HERE