Canadian film maker Mitchell Kezin first began collecting Christmas records back in the 1990s but, he says, the idea for a documentary on the subject didn’t occur to him until much more recently.
“The idea itself didn’t come to me until I was making a rather significant transition from trying to fund my very artsy films through grants and government money versus wanting to find a more commercially-oriented project that I could pitch to television broadcasters. That happened in 2005,” he explains.
From that stage to screen however still took the best part of a decade. “It was originally inspired by a fantastic article which read like a treatment for a documentary film, it was published by the fabulous but now out of print music magazine out of Seattle, called Cool Strange Music.
“It was an article written by a legendary Christmas music collector about a handful of other collectors primarily living in the United States who had massive collections of the weirdest, most obscure, original stuff. It blew me away. First of all I thought ‘There’s other people doing this, there are five or six other people in the world doing this besides me’ and I felt like suddenly I belonged to this secret club. Then it was amazing because the song titles, the artists, I’d never heard of most of them; I was still in my infancy back then even though I’d been putting together and collecting for 15 years by that point.
“Now we’re almost 30 years on it’s nowhere nearly as much fun because it’s so easy to find stuff now, so the really hardcore digging and spending eight hours in a thrift shop or the basement of a church trying to find that one record that first of all you don’t know if it even exists, you don’t know what you’re looking for, you just know what the signposts are, whether it be a particular Starday Records label 45 – Starday put out some of the best honky tonk and country and western records out of Nashville and the South – any time I see a Starday record that goes in the pile. The hunt aspect of it has certainly changed.”
Kezin’s own collection of Christmas records is now substantial. “I would say just ballpark 3,000 records, 600 CDs then odds and sods of other things, lots of weird cassette tapes and old 16-inch albums, they’re twice the size of a regular EP and play at 16-and-a-half rpms so the quality of the sound is fantastic, but you can’t play it on a regular record player. A friend of mine who’s a real music nut has an old player so once in a while I come across these.
“They’re primarily like advertising records and spoken word things and Christmas countdowns, that kind of ephemera, I really love finding those treasures because they’re great for using between transitions between songs and just adding texture and colour and flavour to the mix every year.”
The first Christmas record that Kezin fell in love with, aged five in 1968, was Nat ‘King’ Cole’s seasonal tearjerker The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot. He says he still feels a profound association with the track which he first heard at a time when his parents’ marriage was breaking up.
“Of course it’s changed – I understand that it’s a record now and not an actual live guy singing to me from this weird box in the living room – but it depends on my mood and what’s going on in my life at the time how heavy the emotional impact is on hearing it but I have a mixture of excitement and also dread because it stirs up so many memories and a lot of emotion sometimes,” he says.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard it even once on the radio in my entire life, and I have never heard it in a mall, the only time I can hear that song is if I put the record on. Over the years I’ve collected many copies of that record; now I have a couple of sealed copies because I usually will give it to someone at a screening or as a gift.
It was an article written by a legendary Christmas music collector about a handful of other collectors primarily living in the US who had massive collections of the weirdest, most obscure, original stuff. I felt like suddenly I belonged to this secret club.Mitchell Kezin
“I get letters and emails all the time from people who have seen the film around the world saying how much it moved them or touched them or opened their ears and eyes to music they didn’t even know existed and it really expanded their holiday playlist so sometimes I’ll send something to them as a thank you. I just like to share the music with people, that’s what the Merry Mix [Kezin’s annual playlist] is about and the reason for making the movie was the same sort of inspiration.
“Even when I was a kid I would always pull the Nat ‘King’ Cole record out the first day of holiday from school and listen to it from front to back. Of course The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot is the last song on that record. I got to know the tracklist so well that I’d think ‘It’s coming up three songs from now’. It started on side A and then get to side B and finally I’d hear the weeper. It still has an impact, for sure, but it was quite cathartic making the film and dealing with that. Many people have divorced parents and it’s not so traumatic for some but my father’s absence from my life particularly at Christmas time was quite an ordeal.”
In his film Kezin tracks down many fascinating interviewees including John Waters, director of such films as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray, Joseph ‘Rev Run DMC’ Simmons, Wayne Coyne of Flaming Lips and Bob Dorough, the veteran jazz musician who sang on Miles Davis’ Blue Xmas. “That’s the only time Miles ever recorded a vocal in his entire repertoire,” Kezin notes, recalling how the record started his obsession with collecting. “Bob tells a funny story of hoping he would also get to play the piano on the recording session, which of course didn’t happen. I wouldn’t have made the film if I couldn’t have secured his participation; he’s the very first artist I approached back in 2005.
“It took three to four years to raise the money for the film and we ended up having a very unorthodox shooting schedule where we could film as many events as we could, unlike Santa Claus we can’t be in more than one place at a time in December and so many of the live events that we wanted to capture, like Dr Demento’s Christmas show, those are things that happen only once a year so we had to be there and we could only do a handful of them each year, so we’d shoot for a month or a month and a half a year then we’d take a ten-month break when we’d edit and pursue the music rights then we’d go back and shoot the next series of events that were happening, it was a strange process that way.”
The song was the lone original on a collection of Christmas standards by jazz artists that kezin first found in a Salvation Army store. “To this day it’s still not only the hippest, coolest jazz Christmas recording ever, I think, but it’s sentiments, the values it speaks about, the hypocrisy of the Christmas season, all of those themes are more relevant today than in 1962 when Bob wrote it, it’s prophetic.”
The pair got on so well that Kezin’s next film project will be entirely devoted Dorough, who at 94 is still gigging.
When compiling his own 12 coolest tunes for Christmas, Kezin says he was looking for “sincerity and some original or interesting or thoughtful take on the holiday stuff that wasn’t crass or tried to cash in on the oversentimentality of the season”.
“There’s so many Christmas releases now, now that it’s much easier to record and release a song of your own, if you’re an aspiring musician, on a blog. CD Baby you could punch in Christmas and see probably 500 new singles being released this Fall and 490 of them are terrible, they’re just written quickly, they just don’t have soul. All of the artists I sought, most of whom said yes...I knew those songs meant something to those artists and that they would be interested in talking to me and that they would see value in a movie about this kind of subject matter. Because they knew the motivation that motivated them to record their songs there was no a knee-jerk reaction. In the early days of pitching my movie to executives and broadcasters and funders they misunderstood what I was making a movie about, they defaulted immediately to the chestnuts and the really awful stuff, grandma got run over by a reindeer and all those terrible songs, it took me a while to make them understand. Aside from a few examples most of the music is relatively unknown to most people, it’s not music you’ll hear on the radio very often or in the malls, you’ll hear it on college radio stations or independent radio stations who are a little more adventurous in their playlists. I just knew that they’d say yes and every single one of them did.”
The Culture Vulture and Scalarama Leeds present Jingle Bell Rocks! at Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds on Friday December 15. The event starts at 5pm with stories by local authors Clare Fisher and Chris Nickson and will be followed by an afterparty at Hyde Park Book Club. www.hydeparkpicturehouse.co.uk or jinglebellrocks.com