Juli Jackson’s 45 RPM plays tonight at the ReelHeART International Film Festival in Toronto, CA.
At the open of 45 RPM, a little girl listens to a single on her plastic record player; the sound is muted and fuzzy and her mother comes in and breaks the record. The search for this near mythic memory becomes Charlie’s quest, which takes the young painter on a cross-country goose chase for a lost song from her childhood. On a bad tip, Charlie travels from New York to Memphis to find the 45 written and recorded by her father in his band, which may have been called ‘Five Man Trio.’ When a photograph sparks the interest of the self-proclaimed garage-rock expert at the Memphis record store, Louie, he connects it to his own obsession, a musician named Butch Derby. They embark on a journey on the back roads of southern roots rock, following a trail of unknown session musicians and independent labels that have long since disappeared from memory. It’s a film that anyone who’s ever searched for a particular record will appreciate, but it’s also about rediscovering your past in general, and opening yourself up to new experiences. Stylishly shot, and put together with an artistry that belies its budget, 45 RPM features a phenomenal soundtrack crammed full of bluesmen, rockabilly and garage rock, as well as a healthy dose of modern indie pop. I got a chance to talk to Arkansas writer/director Juli Jackson at the Phoenix Film Festival back in April as her film made a stop on its busy festival run (it makes its International Premiere tonight).“I have a good friend like Louie who owns a record store who talks obsessively about music,” explains Jackson. The script had its roots in this musical friendship. One discussion that peaked her interest was about these boutique recording studios across Arkansas that allowed bands to produce their own 45s to promote themselves. Most music anyone wants now days is available immediately to download, but if you were interested in one of these old 45s, “you have to go find the physical record that the music is trapped on,” says Jackson, and she “built the characters around that” kind of search. Jackson’s first feature is everything you shouldn’t even try in an indie film, which a majority of it shot on the road. What this affords the movie, however, is countless opportunities for music montages and shots of vivid scenery. There are actually 41 tracks in the film, and Jackson eventually hopes to release a soundtrack, which makes “excellent driving music.”
About 50% of the music in the film is authentic, virtually-undiscovered, southern garage rock, with the other half being modern low-fi, or retro feel bands “that kind of told Charlie’s story, the garage rock was for Louie.” Jackson sees herself more aligned with Charlie’s tastes, not just in genre but in purpose. “I’m not a collector,” she says, “I love records but I’m not the Louie. I want the beat-up dollar bin single that I associate with some memory of my past that I play on repeat for a while – although I am totally friends with the other type of collector.” Fortunately, the film did have a ‘collector’ whose archives they could tap. “I lucked out and this awesome dude named Harold Ott out of Jacksonville, Arkansas, who was credited on the film as Garage Rock Consultant, basically started compiling these albums of garage rock music [Psych of the South],” explains Jackson, “and I got a hold of those and started listening while I was researching the film.” Ott made a documentary in 2009 entitled THE LOST SOULS and has released four compilations on his own record label of unremembered bands with names like The Sons of Soul, The Red Light Funnies, and LD Mitchell & the Amalgamated Taxi Cab Service. Jackson describes him as “the guy that goes to the relative of the sister of the person that has the acetates in his basement and he digs them out and records off of them and puts them out so they aren’t lost anymore.”
Of course the most important record of the film, ‘Rusted Roof’ by Five Man Trio, the object of Charlie’s quest, had to be created. Written by Justin Vincent, of the band Come Sundown (he appears in a bar playing a snippet of the song), ‘Rusted Roof’ had to sound completely authentic, but fit exactly into the story being told in 45 RPM. “I gave him like an overly elaborate back story for Charles Clarke,” says Jackson, “stuff that’s not in the movie,” all about how he had seen the Beatles and had convinced his friends to start this band with him but it was his dream and it was on the verge of falling apart. The song took on a life of its own, with Vincent doing research into recording methods and instruments and ended up credited to the characters rather than the real band – it’s actually his band that appears in the promotional photographs that Charlie has of her father.
I have to admit, 45 RPM really hit in the sweet spot for me… when she hears the song for the first time again, decades later, I actually cried. This is especially interesting because, as Jackson admits, the original ending of the film was entirely different. Without revealing too much about what does and doesn’t happen in the film, “the original ending happened around Charlie,” says Jackson, “she put the head phones on and tuned them all out and kind of fell into the world of the music.” But something didn’t work. “We had to create that ending in post because you know,” says Jackson, “if the ending to your film doesn’t work you agonize for months trying to make it work and then finally you’re like ‘just cut it, just cut it’ and do this insert shot and guess what, it’s totally different now.” Jackson still seems conflicted about the decision but admits, “what we shot, even though it’s the true ending, it’s still not what I wrote, we didn’t achieve the goals in the writing.” She says she hasn’t decided if an eventual DVD/Blu Ray release will include the original version but that “it’s good to talk about it, get it all out.” It is very refreshing to hear a filmmaker talk so honestly about such an important decision on her very first feature. She says: “I felt like we had to cut the climax of the film out but what we ended up with it becomes less about her finding the record and more about finding what she was really looking for.” That’s all I’m going to say on that matter, because there are plenty of other revelations along the way and in the end.
One of the best surprises in 45 RPM is the enchanting performance by lead actress Liza Burns. Jackson says they “lucked out finding her.” She had some friends out in LA do auditions for her and “Liza was one of the first audition videos I watched… I was like ‘oh my god that’s her, that has to be her.’ But I was like ‘no, no, I can’t chose now, I can’t chose the first person,’ so I auditioned a ton of other people but I kept going back to her video, and kept watching it and showing it to other people.” Jackson called her up “and said ‘wanna come out to Arksansas to make a movie for almost no money?’”
Charlie is in almost every frame of the film and her artwork (and sketchbook) serves as a stylistic transition device, adding a really exciting visual layer to the film seldom seen in an indie film at this scale. “I’m a really big fan of rotoscope,” says Jackson of the animation technique in the film, “I love the way it moves.” She explains “all the animation was hand drawn and hand painted,” by herself and the artist that did all Charlie’s artwork, Mandy Maxwell. “She and I just worked tirelessly on all the hand drawn animation,” Jackson says, “I took her style and morphed it into the animation style.” Maxwell lives and works in Arkansas, as does the still photographer, Kandi Cook, whose work also appears throughout the film.
More difficult to find proved to be Louis’ vintage car, in which the duo spend a majority of the film driving across Arkansas. Jackson’s team went on a similar “epic journey just to find the car, because the car is like a character in the film.” No particular make or model was needed, but it had to feel right. “Most people that collect old cars,” explains Jackson, “they’ve refurbished them, and they’re like pristine and beautiful and I did not want something like that. It had to be something Louie could afford and something he would drive everyday.” Randomly, after months of searching, they discovered a 1971 Pontiac Grandville a mere two miles from Jackson’s parent’s house.
With all these demanding elements in play, the film also, of course, had to contend with being shot and based in Arkansas, not really the filmmaking capital of the country… yet. 45 RPM received a grant from the Ozark Foothills Festival, a small non-profit film festival that partnered with the Arkansas Arts Council to create the Indie Film Initiative to encourage the filmmaking community in Arkansas. “Arkansas’s never given money for filmmaking at all,” says Jackson, “and I was the only woman to get one [a grant], I was the only narrative feature to get one, and we got done first.” Once the funding was put together, the actual shooting schedule became the final issue. “We needed to shoot in the summer and we had a deadline [because of the grant],” says Jackson, “but we also had to finish before [Jeff Nichols’] MUD started shooting because all of my crew was like ‘I’m gonna work on Mud, sorry Juli, I love your movie but…’”
Now, with all the research, day moves, and editing behind it, Juli Jackson’s 45 RPM has enjoyed a healthy trip around the festival circuit, playing some major festivals (Atlanta, Phoenix), as well as some off-beat ones that were new to me. She says she’s been basically “taking it anywhere that would have us.” The film makes it International Premiere at the ReelHeART International Film Festival in Toronto tonight. Her future plans involve a Kickstarter campaign to do a physical release of the film. Jackson says digital downloads are great, but not surprisingly, “in my heart of hearts, I want there to be a physical copy with cool artwork.” She hopes a crowd funding campaign might help her create “something that matches the tone of the movie.”