October 2007

The Spike Jones Story
Storyville Films 26024
Format: DVD
Originally broadcast: 1988
DVD released: 2007

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality **1/2
Image Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***

Beginning in 1941 and continuing into the early '60s, musical anarchist Spike Jones and his band, the City Slickers, specialized in performing deadly parodies of popular songs, as well as send-ups of beloved classical pieces, such as the William Tell Overture. When Jones died in 1965, his career had been on the decline for a few years. By 1961, when he last starred in his own television series, rock‘n’roll was dominating the charts and, as his wife Helen Grayco tells us in this 1988 documentary, Spike felt "songs that were out today were funnier than he could ever make them." Yet Jones clearly influenced the younger generation. The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Monty Python, and many other '60s icons followed his lead in using sound and music to create humor.

The Spike Jones Story includes interviews with members of Jones’s bands, cast members of his television shows, and his family. In addition, Milton Berle and Danny Thomas, friends and contemporaries of Jones, share their memories. Everyone remembers him as a driven, hard-working performer and perfectionist. The arrangements he and his band played demanded precision -- those burps, gun shots, hiccups, oddball percussion, and other noises required split-second timing.

As The Spike Jones Story demonstrates, Jones was as skilled at visual comedy as he was at musical parody. The documentary includes many clips of Jones and his band in performance. His experiments with the comic possibilities of television match those of Ernie Kovacs, another pioneer of the time. Jones himself was almost a living caricature whose loud, checked suits emphasized his ice-pick thinness. Many of his cast members, especially Freddie Morgan and Billy Batty, were obviously chosen as much for their humorous appearance as for their musical skills. The performance footage also shows Jones to be a percussionist of extraordinary abilities.

Jazz critic Gary Giddins called Jones "a free-ranging parodist who took no prisoners." The Spike Jones Story contains plenty of reminiscence, but its most stirring and convincing moments are of the man himself, practicing his craft.