Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story

A weird nexus between amateur aspiration and journeyman musicianship is examined in "Off the Charts," Jamie Meltzer's delightful look at the decades-old, subterranean "song-poem" industry.

A weird nexus between amateur aspiration and journeyman musicianship is examined in “Off the Charts,” Jamie Meltzer’s delightful look at the decades-old, subterranean “song-poem” industry. Docu has already had one airing on PBS “Independent Lens” series. Short running time will limit further exposure beyond fest circuit, but with right packaging this Errol Morris-like ode to eccentric Americana could score minor theatrical dates.

Though prized by some collectors (including NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino, interviewed here) and anthologists, “song poems” have been valued almost exclusively by their creators, who answer ads calling for lyrics in the back of magazines. For a price, their sentiments can be set to music and recorded by pros. Results are mailed back (as a 45 disc or, today, a CD) to the lyricist. Get-rich-quick hope springs eternal, but as endtitle here notes, among the estimated 200,000 song-poems produced to date, not one has actually hit the charts.

Scam is dubbed “song-sharking” by insiders. Churned out in bulk by clock-punching composers and session players (we see one pro go from first reading to final track in 49 minutes flat), the majority are trite odes to Jesus, Elvis or marital fidelity, set to generically derivative rock or country tunes.

But a kind of loopy genius sometimes emerges, in subjects like “Princess Whitey — My Precious Dog,” lyrics like “I’m devoted to TV/which leaveth no time/to serve God,” or arrangers like the late Rodd Keith, a drug-addled classical composer and suicide who despaired of his degrading day job, yet expended considerable imagination turning concepts like “The Music Man From Mars” and “Do the Pig” into woozy Phil Spector-ish epics of multitracking. Poignantly, his son Ellery Eskelin now regards these recordings with fondness as the closest he’ll ever get to knowing his father.

While it’s easy to smirk at their show-biz naivete or crackpot writing, the amateurs spotlighted here run a wide gamut, from wiseguys sending in potty-mouthed verse to a mentally handicapped man obsessed with kung fu and Priscilla Presley. Aware of their own limits (at least some), these folk seldom venture into performing themselves; when Iowan Gary Forney makes his public debut singing “Chicken Insurrection” at a small folk festival, one can see why.

For the men (women don’t seem to factor much) who run the business end of things, “sharking” is neither art nor trash, just commerce. “King of the Demo Singers” Gene Merlino, whose recording resume stretches back to the 1950s, is seen throwing a memorable tantrum during one long studio session.

Helmer Jamie Meltzer wisely eschews making fun of protags, affording them some dignity even when their art invites ridicule. Neatly assembled docu is above-average in tech values.

Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story

Production: Produced by Jamie Meltzer, Henry S. Rosenthal. Directed by Jamie Meltzer.

Crew: Camera (color, HD video), Bruce Dickson, Meltzer; editor, Stephanie Mechura Challberg. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 20, 2003. Running time: 63 MIN.

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