Small films, big ideas
By Jim Bohen, Daily Record
It’s been a good year for independent films. Documentaries and low-budget productions such as “Super Size Me,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Open Water” have played to mainstream audiences. Zach Braff’s “Garden State” is still running at Garden State multiplexes. And even Michael Moore never expected to take in more than $100 million with his polemic “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
This is all good news to Christine L. Rusin, curator of the Hope and Dreams Film Festival. Now in its seventh year, the festival runs Oct. 1-3 at Hope Township Elementary School in the Warren County village of Hope.
Over its three days, the festival will present 14 independent films, including features, short films and documentaries.
“It’s a great time for independent films,” Rusin said. “With the advent of DVD distribution, many films are being shot digitally on video and going direct to DVD. We’re bypassing the filmic process. It allows first-time filmmakers to actually make a film without major Hollywood backing.”
Rusin and about a dozen volunteers put on the festival, she said. They solicit entries for a competition, with the winners to be honored at a ceremony Sunday.
“The films are sent from all over the world, and these are the finalists,” she said. Past entries have gone on to be aired on HBO or PBS, or have been released on DVD, she said.
“We look at it as a long-term relationship,” Rusin said. “We help them down the road, put them in touch with distributors, watching them grow from their first feature film to many other endeavors.”
The weekend is divided up into 10 time slots, each featuring two or more short films or one long one. Several of the filmmakers will attend the festival and answer questions from the audience.
“Our theme is ‘Changing the world one film at a time,'” Rusin said. “We’re bringing a lot of important concepts to the ordinary person and showing them films that they would never have an opportunity to see. In essence what you’re doing is bringing the world closer together.”
The Sunday 2-3 p.m. time slot will present three short films appropriate for children 6 and over, including Rusin’s own “One Last Cup: Closing Day at Hartung’s Store,” about the last day at a local Hope institution.
The festival will present its DreamCatcher Awards to three filmmakers: Irish television news correspondents Jim Fahy and Caroline Bleahen, whose documentary “September 11th: Stories from the Twin Towers” won an award at a previous Hope festival, and Polish-born PBS documentary maker Slawomir Grunberg.
Fahy will be present to answer questions from the audience after a screening of his new film “Assassination: The Death of Archbishop Michael Courtney,” about the killing of the Pope’s ambassador to Burundi.
During the weekend, the antique stores and shops of Hope will be open and will feature the theme “Movies and Memorabilia.” The Hope Township PTA will sell refreshments during the event.
“We were told seven years ago that you can’t do this in Warren County, and we’ve proven them wrong,” Rusin said.
Tickets are $8 per time slot; $28 for all day Saturday or all day Sunday; or $70 for the full festival. For advance tickets, call (908) 459-5797. For more information, visit www.hopeanddreams.com.
‘Out of Our Dens’
New Jersey filmmakers James Hannon and Leon Leybs found their subject close to home. Hannon is the webmaster for Richard and the Young Lions, a 1960s garage rock band whose members regrouped 35 years later. The band’s 1966 single “Open Up Your Door,” with its fuzz-tone bass and driving beat, was a regional hit that never broke out nationally. Still, it made them stars in places such as Detroit, where they played to 18,000 fans at Cobo Hall, second billed to the Temptations.
Hannon, a computer programmer from Scotch Plains, saw the group’s story as a good vehicle for a longer film than the shorts he had been making. The result was “Out of Our Dens: The Richard and the Young Lions Story.” The Hope festival will screen it today at 8:30 p.m.
“As time went on, a lot of cool things happened,” Hannon said. “Getting Pat St. John on board was great.” The veteran disc jockey, a fan of the band since the ’60s, narrates the film. As it turned out, Hannon said, “he lives in a big house in Montclair three blocks away from where the band rehearses.”
With the help of another fan, E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt, the group recorded a reunion CD of new material. But in June, after the film was completed, lead singer Howard “Richard” Tepp died of leukemia.
The group went on to perform at Van Zandt’s International Underground Garage Festival in August and still hopes to release the CD. As for the film, Hannon is just glad Tepp got to see it before he died.
“This was a personal project for me,” Hannon said. “Will I sell a million copies? I highly doubt it.”
For more information about the film, visit www.lantern-media.com
‘Chaos, Chords and Karma’
Music is also the soul of Canadian filmmaker Lalita Krishna’s “Chaos, Chords and Karma,” which will be screened Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Her documentary follows eight teenage musicians who come together at a community center at a Toronto housing project. The center’s director challenges them to form a band, raise money and take their act to India, where they are to perform a benefit concert for an organization that shelters homeless children.
Overcoming conflicts with each other and the adults who surround them, the teens make the trip and encounter a level of poverty in India that they never conceived. But they also have a spiritually uplifting visit with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader, at his home in northern India.
Krishna, who worked for Canadian television before forming her own company, previously made “Ryan’s Well,” a film about a 6-year-old boy who set out to help an African community dying from lack of clean water.
“That’s when my own focus shifted to young people doing extraordinary things in the world,” she said. “I’ve been looking for stories like these.”
She and her small crew were present through every step of the teens’ journey, and though at first some of her subjects might have felt self conscious being filmed, “soon you become part of the scenery,” she said. “They don’t even notice us.”
Her film, which will air on Canadian television at a future date, has already won an award at the Columbus International Film and Video Festival in Columbus, Ohio. She also hopes to get it into schools in Canada and the United States, since it has an important message for students.
“If you give kids the opportunity to think of something outside themselves, they make life-altering decisions,” she said.
‘Day of Independence’
Young people are the focus of the short dramatic film “Day of Independence,” which will be screened Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Set during World War II in a camp in which the U.S. government interned Japanese-Americans, the film uses a July 4 baseball game as the backdrop for a young man’s relationship with his parents, who are returning to Japan without him.
“A big part of what happened in the camps was how hard the parents tried to make those barracks a home,” director Chris Tashima said. “They created their own life behind the barbed wire. It was a great attitude.”
Tashima not only directed but also plays the role of the umpire, who addresses the camera several times with homespun ballpark wisdom. This device and the film’s distinctive look (processed in the lab to desaturate the colors, producing an aged or period feel) give it the quality of a dream or a fable. It softens a subject that might otherwise have gone in a dark or angry direction, Tashima said.
“We deliberately chose a different route, with baseball and dancing and those kinds of things,” he said.
He and writer Tim Toyama had previously collaborated on “Visas and Virtue,” a short film about a Japanese diplomat in 1940 Lithuania who helped Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust by granting them visas – against the orders of his own government. That film won an Academy Award for best dramatic short film in 1997.
The Oscar ceremony, of course, was a big thrill. “My parents were there, Tim’s mother was there, it was terrific,” Tashima said. “It ended up doing some great things for that film, which is still playing in festivals.”
He has plans for a feature-length film about the internment, in which he sees parallels to actions the current U.S. government has taken since 9/11.
“Certainly with the Patriot Act and many other things the government was doing against Arab Americans and Muslim Americans was very reminiscent of that wartime racist hysterical attitude,” he said. “Everyone in the Japanese American community immediately recognized what was happening. Our government made this mistake once.”
Jim Bohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 428-6632.
10/01/04 – Copied from the Daily Record – Morris County Edition
Rock ‘n’ roll never forgets
After nearly 40 years later, a legendary N.J. garage band stages an unlikely comeback
Sunday, August 08, 2004
BY JAY LUSTIG
In 1966, a songwriter and producer named Larry Brown walked into the Indian Pizzeria on Lyons Avenue in Newark. Some teenagers were leaning against the jukebox, singing along, and Brown spotted a potential star.
“I don’t know what song — it might have been a Rolling Stones song,” says Brown, a Newark native who now lives in Nashville, and is known as L. Russell Brown. “But I went, ‘Wow, what an interesting voice this kid had.’ There was a rasp to it, and a power, and a fury.”
The singer’s name was Howard Tepp, but he would soon change it to Richard Tepp and front the band, Richard & the Young Lions. The band released a howling debut single, “Open Up Your Door,” that was a regional smash in markets across the country, including Detroit, Cleveland and Seattle.
But further success was elusive, and by the end of 1967, the band had broken up. Garage-rock aficionados never forgot about them, though.
“They defined garage-rock,” says Steven Van Zandt, the Bruce Springsteen collaborator and “Sopranos” actor who hosts the nationally syndicated “Underground Garage” radio show and is presenting a garage-rock festival at Randall’s Island in New York on Saturday (see accompanying story).
“(Tepp) had a great attitude in his voice, and they had a fuzztone bass, which is a garage-rock move. It was just sort of that basic, simple music that we used to call rock ‘n’ roll dance music. It was the kind of music that made people get on the dance floor and go berserk.”
In 1998, “Open Up Your Door” achieved the ultimate garage-rock honor, being selected for an expanded CD reissue of the seminal 1972 garage-rock compilation, “Nuggets.”
The song “was everything I liked about that particular era of music,” says “Nuggets” producer Lenny Kaye, who is best known as a member of Patti Smith’s backing band. “It was driving, rocking, elemental, and full of the things that all the ‘Nuggets’ bands have, which is desire. You can feel these people seeing the gold ring, and grasping for it, and actually snagging it.”
Tepp, who died on June 17 of leukemia, at the age of 57, had other bands after the Young Lions broke up. But he never made as big a splash as he did the first time around.
“What he wanted out of life was to play again,” says Lynne Taylor, who lived with Tepp in the upstate New York town of Tannersville for the last 24 years of his life. “He always felt like he came so close.”
Tepp supported himself primarily with bartending and, later in his life, disability checks. He suffered from a number of ailments, including psoriatic arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease, and the blood disorder, polycythemia.
“He never quit, no matter how many things they socked him with,” says Taylor. “That’s why it was so hard to see that he finally went.”
Tepp’s wish to reunite with the Young Lions was granted, improbably, in 2000. Band members got back in touch with each other, and decided to come out of musical retirement.
The reunited band performed at clubs like Maxwell’s in Hoboken and the Village Underground in New York. Shortly before Tepp died, the group, which released three singles but no album in the ’60s, finished its first full-length album, with Van Zandt handling much of the production work.
The album is dominated by new originals, but also includes remakes of “Open Up Your Door” and “You Can Make It” (the third of the band’s ’60s singles), and covers of some obscure garage-rock songs. It is not yet released and has no title, but Van Zandt plans to put it out on his own Renegade Nation label, with distribution by a larger record company.
“We took the attitude that we had unfinished business: the unfinished business was to do this album,” says guitarist Lou Vhalakes of North Plainfield, one of the three musicians who backed Tepp in the ’60s and are keeping the band going after his death. The others are bassist Fred Randall of Montclair and drummer Mark “Twig” Greenberg of New York; all are in their mid-50s.
The album will follow the recent release of a DVD documentary, “Out of Our Dens: The Richard and the Young Lions Story.” James Hannon of Scotch Plains, who designed the band’s Web site (www.richardandtheyounglions.com), co-directed the low-budget film. Disk jockey Pat St. John (Q104.3 FM, Sirius Satellite Radio), a Richard & the Young Lions enthusiast, narrated.
“Richard and the Young Lions were absolutely essential to my youth,” says St. John, who lives in Montclair, but heard “Open Up Your Door” as a teenager in Detroit. “It was one of my favorite records of all time.
“It was a happy record, and it was a record that was relatable. Everybody has that feeling when you’re knocked out by somebody. ‘Open up your door!’ — you want to get to her.”
The band will perform at Saturday’s festival, after a short video tribute to Tepp. Mike Fornatale, who has previously played with Moby Grape and the Monks, has been recruited to handle most of the vocals.
“Nobody can replace Richard,” says keyboardist Rick Robinson, who has been in the band since it reformed in 2000. “We’re going to try to do something that sounds like the band, but not in any way try to pretend he’s been replaced.”
The Richard & the Young Lions story began almost 40 years ago, when Tepp was a student at Newark’s Weequahic High School. He joined a band called the Emeralds, which soon changed its name to the Original Kounts.
Tepp was still in this band — also featuring guitarists Bob Freedman and Marc Lees, drummer Norm Cohen, bassist Ricky Rackin and keyboardist Jerry Raff — when Brown discovered him. Brown worked for Bob Crewe’s SCC Productions; Crewe was an music-industry powerhouse who managed Frankie Valli & the Four Season and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, among other.
Brown, whose future successes would include co-writing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” thought “Richard” was more rocking than “Howard,” and asked him to change his name. Remembering that he had met Tepp on Lyons Avenue, he came up with the idea of renaming the band the Young Lions.
He also insisted on using his own studio musicians to back Tepp on the band’s recordings.
“Open Up Your Door,” the band’s debut single, came out in July of 1966. “It was inspired by another song, (the Rolling Stones’) ‘Satisfaction,’ just the spirit of that piece,” says Brown, who cowrote it with then-partner Ray Bloodworth and another songwriter, Neville Nader.
“I also liked the Spencer Davis Group,” says Brown, referring to the band that launched Steve Winwood’s career. “I was looking for a voice that had the power of a (Mick) Jagger or a Winwood, and I had it with Richard.”
Soon after the single came out, the band was in chaos. Rackin and Raff had gone back to high school. Lees had mononucleosis, and he and Cohen — who were both unhappy with Brown’s decision to use studio musicians — quit.
The band had been booked to lip-sync “Open Up Your Door” on television’s “Clay Cole Show,” and Tepp found himself without a backing cast. He met Vlahakes and Greenberg — teens from Livingston who had played together in local bands the Mark IV and the Orphans — at the South Orange ice cream parlor Gruning’s, and enlisted them. They made the appearance as a trio, with Greenberg pretending to play bass.
Greenberg soon switched back to drums, and Randall, of South Orange, took over on bass. Freedman, who had never quit the band, and never even knew about the “Clay Cole” gig, was ready to go, too. The band was stable once again, and its glory days were just beginning: “Open Up Your Door” was taking off in the markets where it had been released.
Out-of-town gigs became more frequent. Up to Maine. Down to Virginia and Florida. Out to Cleveland and Detroit.
The peak came in October 1966, when the band played for thousands of screaming fans at Detroit’s Cobo Hall arena. There were 19 other acts on the bill, including Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Question Mark & the Mysterians and future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers the Temptations, Bob Seger and Del Shannon.
Richard & the Young Lions were billed second, after the Temptations.
“I recall going out on-stage, and just the roar,” says Randall. “For that moment in time we got to feel what a big rock star gets to feel when he goes out on-stage. It was overwhelming, the amount of raw energy that was coming at you.”
On another trip to Detroit, the band heard that the Yardbirds were playing in nearby Ann Arbor, and didn’t have an opening act. They called the promoter, and were booked.
“We went down there, and there was Jimmy Page on-stage,” says Vlahakes. “Jeff Beck had just left (the band), and Jimmy Page had come in. It was an incredible night — the Yardbirds were our heroes.”
“I’m a 17-year-old kid, and obviously, I loved the Yardbirds,” says Greenberg. “And there’s Jimmy Page. So I go over and introduce myself: ‘Hey, Jimmy, how ya doin’? I think you guys are really great.’ I’ll never forget his immortal words to me. ‘Do me a favor, get me a coke.'”
The Young Lions didn’t stick around for long. The band could never get “Open Up Your Door” released outside of isolated markets — it peaked at No. 99 on Billboard magazine’s national chart — and the two subsequent singles did not fare well.
Randall, who had just entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., was finding it hard to be both a college student and an aspiring rock star, and stopped making road trips. Larry Smith, a friend of Greenberg and Vlahakes, replaced him. Greenberg quit later, and original drummer Cohen rejoined.
The band had no definitive final moment. “We kept practicing for a while, and then practices became less often and less often, and then we just dispersed,” said Tepp in “Out Of Our Dens.”
Tepp’s later groups included a California progressive-rock band called TIME (Trust in Men Everywhere). One night, arriving at a TIME gig, he was mugged, shot, and left for dead. He survived, and eventually ended up in Tannersville, where he bartended and played low-profile gigs.
Some band members kept playing music with local bands. Others didn’t. And they all eventually adjusted to their new lives as non-stars. Greenberg, for instance, has worked on Wall Street, and sold Jaguars. Vlahakes has sold sporting goods and life insurance, and is now in the wholesale seafood business.
Vlahakes, Greenberg and Smith stayed in touch, but most of the band members had no contact with their old friends. They heard about the inclusion of “Open Up Your Door” on “Nuggets,” though, and some tried to track each other down. The Internet was invaluable, but fate played a part, too. Smith, for instance, spotted Randall at a softball game at Livingston High School.
Band members began getting together socially, then decided to try playing. One day in 2000, they all brought their instruments to Randall’s basement. Greenberg, who hadn’t played drums since 1968, used Randall’s daughter’s kit.
The band sounded “terrible,” Greenberg says. But concert promoter Jon Weiss, who was presenting a series of New York garage-rock festivals called Cavestomp, heard the Young Lions were active again, and offered them a gig at the next one. It was four weeks away.
“There was no way we could do it,” says Greenberg. “But we decided to say, ‘Give us till next year, and we’d be happy to.’ And we came (to Randall’s basement) just about every Sunday.”
When the band finally played Cavestomp, Van Zandt saw them in action, and pledged his support. He had been Greenberg’s friend since the early ’70s and knew he had once been in a band, but wasn’t aware it was Richard & the Young Lions.
“One day,” says Van Zandt, “he came to me and says, ‘That band I used to play in, in the ’60s, one of our records turned up on the ‘Nuggets’ collection.’ I was like, ‘What? Excuse me?’ So I went down to see them, and they were fantastic.”
As always, there were lineup convulsions, and some new faces, including guitarist Eric Rackin (Ricky Rackin’s cousin) and keyboardists Robinson and Shelly Riff, were brought in.
Tepp “was such a cool guy,” says Riff. “I did a gig with them at the Village Underground and ended up heading into the hospital, the Tuesday after, to have my appendix removed. He calls me up in hospital and says, ‘Hey, one weekend with us, and there goes your appendix’.”
The band is now a six-piece, featuring Vlahakes, Greenberg, Randall, Robinson, Riff and Fornatale.
While they were making the album, Brown flew in from Nashville for one of the band’s rehearsals. “It was one of the most amazing moments of my life, to be with all the guys again,” he says.
He admits that back in the ’60s, the band never got the support it deserved from SCC Productions, which was preoccupied by Valli and Ryder, and didn’t consider Richard & the Young Lions — whose raw sound was unlikely to generate huge sales — a priority. Brown was also distracted by his work as half of the duo the Distant Cousins, and his songwriting for other groups, including the Four Seasons.
“Richard Tepp got lost in the shuffle of other people’s careers,” Brown says.
“We were the black sheep of the family, times a hundred,” says Greenberg. “The fact that ‘Open Up Your Door’ was a regional hit … that was great, but they didn’t want to put money into that. The last thing they or we ever expected was that in the year 2004, Richard and the Young Lions, the original band, would be putting out this album. It’s like impossible.”
For information on the band or the “Out of Our Dens” DVD, visit www.richardandtheyounglions.com.from NJ Star Ledger, Aug 8th 2004