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.
Is it your guess that the original cut would be a better movie?
Well, Russ Dvonch saw both cuts and he said they were both terrible, but I think he thought the first cut was the worst, because of the 3D. He said the movie was dark, it was hard to see anyway, and he had to wear 3D glasses, which only made it darker, and he said those 3D effects worked, the non-3D production values were cheap and amateurish, and he honestly, I think the second cut is slightly better according to him.
(Laughing) I know. I know.
So you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.
Exactly. There was no winning solution for this thing. Which is weird; the one thing I thought was strange was, by the time Dick Sweet recut it in 1986, I don't know if he even released it. I don't think he did. There's no evidence that he did. But Judd Nelson was actually a bankable star by that point; Rachel Sweet was pretty much a nobody in 1986. Why he didn't choose to show Judd Nelson is indicative of the lousy planning that went into this thing.
Tell me about the fundraiser screening, for Richmond's Byrd Theater, back in 2010.
It went fantastic. We packed the place. About a thousand people showed up; we had a party beforehand, down at the Jefferson, which was fixed up beautifully. We bussed people up to watch the movie and then we had an afterparty. The movie was a hit—it's one of those things where you're watching it and it's not a terrible movie like Transformers is a terrible movie, it's terrible in the fact that it's fun and goofy-terrible. It's not like you're gonna watch it several times—it's fun to watch it one time, and if you've had a couple of drinks in you, it's even more fun to watch. But really, it is a godawful movie. There's no other... Russ Dvonch said, “I think it's the worst movie I've ever seen.” Russ said, “Well, they credited me as lead scriptwriter, but almost nothing I wrote is in this movie.” They went through so many rewrites... I think it was rewritten constantly. God knows what they did to it when it reached the West coast. That's when they added all these extra scenes and it became almost like two different movies spliced together.
Let's say you're a studio executive and you have to release this thing in its current form; since the movie has no single director credit, whose name do you put on it?
I have to say Paul Justman directed the whole of the music numbers, so I'd say he had the biggest hand in it. If you would get permission I think his name would be the one to go on it, but there's no director credit on the movie at all. I would say Justman, more than anybody, if you look at some of the videos he did at the time, but the first 45 minutes of the film is West coast stuff, and I have no clue who did that. Nobody knows. For us, the trailer was the holy grail, so we had no idea we'd ever get the whole movie.
Are you holding out hope that you'll someday get your hands on a copy of the 3D version?
I did send out some feelers after we showed the film and it was so big, people embraced it and loved it so much, just saying “Hey, here's the article, we loved it, we'd really like to find the 3D version.” Our crowning achievement would be being able to show the original 3D version. Nothing ever came of it, so I don't know if it exists. It may have been destroyed. Maybe something really did happen to the negatives... Honestly, I think people don't want their—don't want to be attached to it.
Um. It's basically a full-length music video... just, a very hard-to-describe mishmash of teen horror, and rock-and-roll musical. The only way I can describe it. The connecting scenes are what stops the movie dead in the water. If it were just the musical numbers, it would be salvageable, but it's the bridges, the first 45 minutes, the lead-up... and then it turns into a kind of a Frankenstein story at one point, and then it veers off into some really beautifully done musical numbers, and then it veers back into some weird horror thing again. It's all over the freakin' place.