Appropriately, a phone conversation with Brumfield regarding the lost non-classic Rock N' Roll Hotel is buffeted by periodic spasms of nervous and incredulous laughter, a kind of detached but heartfelt guilt by association. This Thursday night, the Spectacle Theater is screening a digital copy of a VHS tape of the film unearthed in 2009 by Dale and production designer Craig Hodgetts, its second and only extant version, a comprehensive recut supervised by the tenacious father of starlet Rachel Sweet. It's the end of the line for a long and cataclysmic production that—for the fall and winter of 1982—devoured Virginia's Jefferson Hotel.
Originally, Hotel, an early MTV cash-in starring a pre-Brat Pack Judd Nelson, was shot using the same “Arrivision” 3D technology as Jaws 3D; the lion's share of extras were students from Virginia Commonwealth University, each paid with $30 and a box lunch from KFC. The film's only linkages to Roger Corman and Alan Arkush's Rock & Roll High School are the term “rock and roll” and the services of screenwriter Russell Dvonch—one of many. The shepherd of the 80s disasterpiece's remains, Brumfield entered into this as the film's unofficial biographer, penning a richly textured autopsy of the shoot for Richmond's Style Weekly. Putting the article together, Brumfield conducted extensive interviews and collected Facebooked memories by bemused extras, resolving decades-old questions about what the hell happened to the movie after the shoot abruptly terminated itself. My interview with him follows.
Whatever life Rock N' Roll Hotel has in its current form, you're the go-to guy. How did you arrive in that position?
I was real excited about it; it's probably the crowning moment of a writer's dream when you go looking for something and actually find it, and you're able to bring it back and show it. There are some beautiful sketches on there, by Craig Hodgetts and Mary Lambert. They worked on the film; those are mostly the result of their work, and the planning looks accurate. A lot of the stuff you look at, you go “wow, there should be nothing wrong with that movie.” But, boy, the production didn't make good use of their planning. Apparently there was some good Virginia film credit, so they came to Richmond, loved the Jefferson, set up production there in October.
All the sudden at the end of December, they near-vanished. They packed up, they left; nobody knew what happened. A lot of people didn't get paid. There were pissed-off Richmonders at that point. When they packed up and left, everyone said, “What the hell happened?” They were just gone, no word to anybody. It was a very troubled shoot. I mean, there were arguments, closed-door meetings, nobody seemed to know what was going on, according to a lot of the people who worked on it in Richmond at the time.
So then, after they were gone about three or four months, I just happened to be riding my bicycle downtown, and I passed the Jefferson, and there was a pile of debris that they were pulling out of the hotel. They were renovating. And I stopped and started poking through this pile of stuff—there were files, and papers, and other things; I found strips of 35mm movie film from the production. I had about a one-foot long strip of Rachel Sweet... So I took that film home, just dropped it in a drawer, and forgot about it. For 25 years.
I ran across it in 2009. I thought, “Oh, this is from Rock N' Roll Hotel—what ever happened to that?” So I started asking around, the people that I knew, and everyone who was involved in it, they all, “Oh, I heard that the negatives were destroyed in a lab accident.” “I heard that the finishing lab went bankrupt and the film disappeared.” “I heard that they were stolen.” All these rumors floating around.
So can you give us a taste of what we're gonna see at Spectacle on Thursday night?
Oh yeah. I hope you're not gonna be disappointed. They were trying to recreate MTV in feature length film form. Unfortunately, it just flat-out didn't work. The story follows a young trio of musicians, played by Rachel Sweet, Matthew Penn (son of Arthur) and Judd Nelson, called The Third Dimension. They enter a battle of the bands in an old hotel called the Rock N' Roll Hotel, and there's three old-timers there, led by Dick Shawn. They're called The Weevils; the Weevils are intent on stopping the young band from winning the contest, so they can win it for themselves. A half-baked concept executed very poorly, would probably be the best way to describe this thing.
It is a snapshot of 1981-82 music videos. The hairstyles, the fashion, those things—it's got a lot of historical value as far as that goes. A student of the evolution of MTV will be very interested, in that it was one of the first feature-length versions of a music video. There's a lot of good energy in this movie... The first version was “released” in March of '83, and they did an industry screening in Santa Monica in the original 3-D version. So they did this one 3D screening, and the original scriptwriter said it was so positively dreadful that it was yanked. But at the same time they did bring it to New York City; to the Waverly Theater [which is now the IFC Center]. One time, and one time only, and then it disappeared. That's when Rachel Sweet's father, Dick Sweet, got ahold of it, and recut it, from what I hear, to showcase Rachel, his daughter—to make the film more of a showcase for her. And that's the version that we found, the 1986 version.