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Tom Waits: Making it Big

By John P. Thompson

Big Time

Conceived by Tom Waits

Directed by Chris Lum

Shown during the Boston Film Festival

OCCUPYING the screen for nearly every moment of Big Time is Tom Waits' face: contorted by emotion and music, smeared with a cheesy huckster grin or haggard with the effort of lonely dreaming.

These three faces of Tom Waits are what make Big Time more complicated to watch than a straightforward concert movie, such as Let's Spend the Night Together. He seems to be trying to figure out which of the three he is: the dreaming outsider, writing down lyrics fresh from the insanity of his lonely life; the cynical salesman-performer hyping himself into the big time; or a passionate performer who's kept his purity even in success. If you know Waits only for his music (an obviously ridiculous "only" considering how long he's been putting out good albums) you could enjoy the movie for just the performances, and ignore the rest as peripheral weirdness; a mistake which would be almost justified by the power in the concert scenes.

Most of the material is from his later albums, Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years. He unwinds the songs onstage with a steady release of coiled intensity--he sweats and grimaces, the lyrics rasping across his throat as if he's unwilling to let out a private vision. There is no vanity in the way he lets the camera zero in on this struggle; the songs fight their way through his body and vocal cords. leaving him buffeted somewhere between rapture and pain.

The question is, why the rest? He's given good performances in other movies (a moody, sarcastic DJ in Down By Law, and Jack Nicholson's decaying companion in Ironweed), and he's obviously interested in doing more than just translating his concert to the screen; the result is close to surreal.

The movie opens with Waits getting into a bed surrounded by large glowing colored boxes, which, we discover later, make up his concert set. By the bed is a TV buzzing with static; Waits harrumphs and coughs, scratches himself, sits on the bed to shave his neck, then, curious, points his electric shaver at the set and hits the button: zap, the fuzz snaps for a second to Waits furiously singing. Hmm. He hits the shaver again--Waits in a Lone Ranger mask. Again--Waits in a satin white jacket. Chuckling, he turns away, pulls a sheet over his boots and jeans, and falls asleep. The TV fritzes again, as it does between scenes through out the movie, and we're with Waits onstage in the white jacket--cuffs too short, wrist loaded with bad watches--telling smarmy, cynical jokes.

THIS is one of the three faces we meet in the movie: a sleazeball performer disgusted by his audience and probably himself, telling (extremely funny) stories about the kind of characters Waits writes his songs about--lost, desperate, mired in some shitty marriage or godforsaken slum, and longing for something else.

"...Well, one day Frank went out and drank himself some beers, bought himself a can of gasoline, a perfectly normal adult activity, and went home to the wife, the dog and his furniture sales. There was the gas and the furniture, gas and furniture...I don't know...a match was involved. It's physics, I dunno, you tell me...So Frank went out to make his way in the world of entertainment..." And so we meet Frank heading out for his wild years, with his slick mustache, black and red smoking jacket, three-inch cigarrette holder, greased back hair, and sad crazy eyes. Frank works as an usher, peering wistfully through the doors at the stage where Waits performs.

The movie leaps from one character to another, weaving innumerable surreal symbols among them, as Waits struggles to decide whether the intensity and innocence of the unknown are lost or perverted in the star. The huckster squalls piano-bar ballads--I'm gonna hit the top, take New York, and hey don't ya love my band--Waits drives out his songs, pistol ricochets dubbed over the cracking of his boot heels, and Frank spins out his dreams.

Waits is playing with all kinds of innocence and perversion: one concert scene flashes between an emotional gospel tune and a simpering, streetcorner Bible thumper, also played by Waits; another shifts between Waits singing on stage, and, as Frank, mouthing the same song on the roof of a building, as if the hard-luck lyrics were straight reportage of what's below him. Because there's no plot or dialogue to speak of, almost everything is conveyed by symbol--the three characters, the handheld lamp which focuses the audience's attention on his face, the bathtub that Frank sings in at the movie's end, in his only onstage appearance.

Again, you can ignore all the symbolism and visual weirdness in Big Time as irrelevant and just enjoy the concert scenes--or you can look, in Frank's last song, for Waits' resolution of his struggle between musical innocence and cynical showmanship.

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