Pop nostalgia is an odd thing. It’s the connective tissue between the new movie Jersey Boys and this week’s Doc Option, the tremendously obscure 1976 film All This and World War II. Jersey Boys is based on the hit 2005 Broadway play of the same name, a dramatization of the rise and fall of The Four Seasons. All This and World War II features the music of The Beatles, the act that dethroned The Four Seasons from their perch at the top of musical popularity in the mid-’60s. But the doc also incorporates The Four Seasons and its perpetual frontman Frankie Valli into its mix. If you’re wondering what kind of a production would concoct such a situation, well, the answer is stranger than anything you’re probably expecting.
All This and World War II is an 88-minute recap of World War II, consisting of newsreel footage and clips from movies and propaganda films of the period, all set to covers of Beatles songs. Ambrosia’s cover of “Magical Mystery Tour” plays as Hitler and his cronies go about their day in Berlin. “I Am the Walrus,” as played by Leo Sayer, scores the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And Japanese-Americans are rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps with Sayer intoning “Let It Be” in the background. Valli’s cover of “A Day in the Life” scores a montage of military fortifications and soldiers going about their daily work (the Four Seasons track is “We Can Work It Out”). So on and so forth.
If all of this sounds incredibly crazy, well holy shit you don’t know the half of it.
This doc is a jaw-dropping mix of the tasteless, the baffling and occasional moments of deranged half-brilliance. It apparently originated as a dream experienced by Russ Regan, the then-president of 20th Century Fox records. This explains both the half-assed commercialistic cash-in nature of the doc and its warped conceit. Susan Winslow was picked to helm the film on the strength of her work doing research for Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?, a similar film that blended footage of the Great Depression with songs of the era. But using music that comes from the same time as the events you’re depicting is a far cry from using music that originates 20 or 30 years after the fact. And All This and World War II is setting extremely grim events to upbeat or dreamy pop songs, to boot.
The film is morbidly riveting, as each new choice of song and visuals is more jarring than the last. It’s completely unsurprising to know that it sank like an anchor at the box office in 1976, pulled out of theaters two weeks after its release. The doc was never put out on any home media format, but bootlegs have circulated for years, and it is available in its entirety on YouTube, which is the perfect place for it. After all, that site is the home of hundreds of thousands of song and video pairings that leave their viewers scratching their heads as to what the hell their makers were thinking. In this way, All This and World War II could be considered unintentionally ahead of its time.
In 1976, people looked back on World War II with a long montage set to modern pop. In 2014, people look back on the 1960’s with a movie based on a play that takes a Rashomon-like approach to a true story. I wonder how people in the 2050’s will look back on this time. In any case, they’ll have both All This and World War II and Jersey Boys to instruct them as to how we of the past processed history.