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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Gonks Go Beat’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, though, even the important moments can’t beat their surroundings…

Gonks Go Beat (1964)
Distributed by: Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors
Directed by: Robert Hartford-Davis

There is a long history of quickie films tied to pop music, pumped out fast and cheap to take advantage of an act before it’s dropped from the charts. Most of these films were easily forgotten, barely getting onto screens before the performers they were made around ended up in the record discount bin.

Sometimes, you would get films like A Hard Day’s Night, which were so masterful they’d be remembered for years thereafter, and sometimes… Well-l-l-l-l…

Okay, before we go on, the obvious question needs to be answered: What the hell is a Gonk?

It has a long history that because they were very popular back in the 1960s, made them as much of a fad as the music the movie tries to exploit. For some reason, they’re staging a comeback, aided immensely by the fact that everyone forgot this film.

Would that we could blessedly forget this, too…

In fact, the crew responsible for the film seemed ready to forget Gonks as quickly as possible: We get only three scenes with them, one during the credits, one random “let’s look in on them” scene, and a “nightmare” where the Gonks are upstaged by a crew of dancers straight out of an ITV music special.

As the film really didn’t seem to want these so-n-sos, just throwing them against the wall with everything else to try and draw an audience to the pic, we can forget them as well and concentrate on…

Well, maybe “look at from a safe distance” might describe what’s going to happen here better, but anyways

We open in the headquarters of the Space Congress of the Universe, where the Great Galaxian (Jerry Desmonde) has troubling news from planet Earth. Apparently, Earth has been a problem child for ages, and the planet’s neighborhood, Galaxy 4, catches the flu every time a fever gets going on Earth. The latest flare up between two peoples on our planet, the citizens of Beatland and Balladisle, has to be resolved before they do more damage to the worlds around them.

Unfortunately, the only Metorian Ambassador they have deck to send on this mission is Wilco Roger (Kenneth Connor), someone so bad at his job that the personnel office there re-checked their records to make sure there wasn’t a mistake. The Great Galaxian tell Wilco he has to resolve matters between the two communities without resorting to the power of miracles; they have to willingly want peace.

And what are they fighting over? Recognition that their side’s music is better than the other’s. The people of Beatland are fans of beat music, enjoying such groups from the time of the film (who appear in the pic) as the Graham Bond Organization and the Nashville Teens. Balladisle, meanwhile, goes in for softer fare, represented in the film by the likes of Ray Lewis & the Trekkers and Lulu & the Luvvers.

In order to determine who’s music is better, they have a regular contest held by Mr. A&R (Frank Thorton). He holds a yearly competition where the winners will get a world tour and a television appearance, while the losers will have their instruments confiscated.

During this info-dump interview, Mr. A&R explains his name as derived from being the last artist & repertoire person left on Earth. This, along with the intense fight for survival through the contest, suggests that the film might have been going for a post-apocalyptic flavor. Even if that wasn’t what they were trying to do, looking at the set-up in this way helps to justify what we’re watching. (The fact that neither side ever wins the contest every year, the same way the arms race between superpowers was a zero-sum game, further supports this theory about the film.)

It’s after Roger gets the lay of the land that he comes up with a solution: Find some way to get members of both sides to come up with a middle-of-the-road cross-genre piece to keep either side from losing. Yes, Roger does evoke Romeo & Juliet, forgetting that singing your way through your differences didn’t help anyone in Bernstein and Sondheim’s musical…

A star-crossed couple is cobbled together quickly by the writers emerges when Steve (Ian Gregory), who was a Beatland spy, falls for Helen (Barbara Brown), the prime minister of Balladisle’s daughter. Can their blossoming affection for each other survive war, politics, and what turns into probably one of the strangest episodes of Britain’s Got Talent ever put together…?

Do we actually care? It’s a comedy without laughs, with music by acts who contributed songs to the film that they never released on their own labels, let alone promoted. Most of the talent who showed up and took their marks for a quick paycheck seemed to have wanted to drop this from their CVs and hoped that we’d never heard of the film. UK film critic Mark Kermode called the film “the Plan Nine from Outer Space of film musicals,” which later DVD releases used to encourage viewers who might want to relish a train wreck.

Which, to be fair, the film tries to avoid with one scene, where prisoners are forced to play drums all night…

This not-really-torture-from-where-we’re-sitting has considerable pedigree. We’ve got the incredible Ginger Baker, best known for his time with Cream and Blind Faith, behaving himself for this one. We’ve got Bobby Graham, who after turning down a chance to replace Pete Best in the Beatles, became a major session drummer in the UK. We’ve got Andy White, who did play with the Beatles, replacing Ringo on “Love Me Do,” whose work was on many other hits as well. We’ve got Allan Ganley, a giant in British jazz circles on his kit. We’ve got Ronnie Verrell, the in-demand jazz drummer whose skins were heard every time Animal performed with the Muppets.

They, along with arrangers and session drummers John Kearns and Robert Richards, made up some of the cream of British drummers from that period. There’s enough history between all of them to fill hours of documentaries about that time, any one of which would be better viewing than the movie surrounding this scene…

The film never got distributed in the United States, and had at best a spotty release in Europe. Other than for the drum scene above, everyone attached to the film seemed to have hoped we’d never see this one.

If you really, really want British musicians in a musical post-apoc story, though, you might want to turn to Stephen Stills and Graham Nash on this track:

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