- Mitchell Kezin
"Merry Christmas ... I hope you have a white one, but for me, it's blue." That's the opening line of the jazz number "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)," by Miles Davis and Bob Dorough. Dorough's distinctive, honeyed voice continues with its bebop ease over the tumbling of Davis's instrumentation: "Blue Christmas, that's the way you see it when you're feeling blue / Blue Xmas, when you're blue at Christmastime you see right through / all the waste, all the sham, all the haste / and plain old bad taste."
It's a striking and unusual Christmas song, and one that struck a chord for Canadian filmmaker Mitchell Kezin, whose 2014 documentary film Jingle Bell Rocks! dives into the details of the song, among many others, in an attempt to map the strange and special world of Christmas music that challenges the overplayed norms. And with a Christmas season coming around that may feel uniquely blue for many this year, there's no better time to gain the unique perspective of Jingle Bell Rocks!, which will be screening for free online thanks to the Utah Film Center at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 22.
Released in 2014, Mitchell Kezin's "little xmas evergreen" seems to be on its way to becoming what he terms "the Rocky Horror Picture Show of Christmas." The director regularly gets messages from fans of the film—though this year, with a unique pandemic Christmas on the horizon, the messages have changed a bit.
"I've heard from a few viewers who have come to me as fans saying that re-watching it again this year ... it sort of touched them in a different way. There's depth to it I think ... 'cause it's all about togetherness. It's all about wanting to belong, being with people who get you, who understand you," Kezin says of the film, which peripherally demonstrates his own finding of his people, via other record collectors of no small influence.
"Music is so integral to the holiday. It's so wrapped up with the memories we have of previous Christmases," Kezin points out. Yet he also admits that what stops even the deepest of music devotees from giving Christmas music a chance is, of course, the repetition of the same songs—to annoying effect—throughout the season.
A jazz and blues fan, it was finding the album Jingle Bell Jazz that sparked Kezin's own interest in underground, underappreciated or just plain unknown Christmas music. Long before beginning research for Jingle Bell Rocks!—and the filming process which took eight Christmastime-dependent years—Kezin used to stop Christmas music naysayers in their tracks, giving them one of the discs he used to carry around with his 20 favorite underground Christmas songs on it.
"I said, 'I can't explain this to you, you need to hear this.' Even music nerds didn't know some of this stuff existed," he says. Among that "stuff" are tracks from the goldmines of lost and abandoned 45 rpm singles left over from radio's heydey, a time that Kezin describes as one where it was popular for artists to try for on-air fame with original Christmas compositions.
Besides those innovative, bygone wannabes, other makers and collectors featured in the film mirror Kezin's ponderous attitude towards the holidays: John Waters makes an appearance to reminisce about raising hell around Christmas growing up in Baltimore; Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips shares his thoughts on Christmastime's dreamy nostalgia; a member of the band The Free Design looks back on an anti-war Christmas song they played for U.S. troops in Vietnam. And Kezin's own narrative—one of growing up obsessed by the tragedy of Nat King Cole's "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot," which paralleled his own fatherless childhood—gently guides these stories of outsiderisms around a holiday that's so loaded.
Along with exploring the uncomfortable, often contradictory qualities of the season, Jingle Bell Rocks! shows the bravery and sense of mirth one needs to actually indulge in the alternative world of Christmas music. It raises questions about what Christmas music can be, and who it is for—questions surely on many a mind during a year when Christmas looks less glittery, and feels more lonely, than it ever has.
With Jingle Bell Rocks! in successful screening rotation all over North America, what's next for Kezin? He's still got his Merrymix project (mitchellsmerrymix.com), which is something of an "audio xmas card" featuring the best Christmas songs Kezin's found all year. A habit he started as a broke college student in need of cheap gifts, he's still at it, and has contemporary recommendations which are posted up on City Weekly's Buzz Blog. Kezin's hoping for a Jingle Bell Rocks! sequel of sorts, tracking the making of contemporary Christmas tracks by modern indie artists, curated by his singles-collecting friend Robert Vooght of the Snowflake Christmas Singles Club. That, of course, along with more profiling of the lost, forgotten and unknown outsiders of Christmas.
"I don't think I'll ever be satiated," Kezin says. "I don't think I'll ever stop finding new, great buried treasures. There's just too many of them."
Peruse those treasures he's already unearthed when the film screens Dec. 22 at utahfilmcenter.org, and who knows? Maybe discovering Christmas tunes that are just as odd as this year has been can turn a not-so-merry Christmas into a merry one after all.