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Shout Factory presents
Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story (2003)

"A song-poem is when people respond to those ads in the backs of magazines, tabloids, comic books that say 'send us your lyrics' or 'songwriters needed'. An average person writes a poem, or set of lyrics, and sends it to a company that promises to take those words, set them to music, and have a record made. The inference being that you can get into the music business this way."
- Ellery Eskelin

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: March 17, 2004

Stars: Gary Forney, Art Kaufman, Caglar Juan Singletary, Gene Merlino, John Trubee, Ramsey Kearney, Sonny Cash, Ellery Eskelin, Tom Ardolino, Van Garner, Jo Comberiate
Director: Jamie Meltzer

Manufacturer: 3rd Sector
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild language)
Run Time: 57m:47s
Release Date: January 27, 2004
UPC: 826663036091
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B-B- A-

DVD Review

There has been an unusual musical subculture percolating out there for decades that is as strange as it is poignant, a world where frustrated poets and wannabe songwriters—everyday folk from all walks of life and mental states—fire off endless reams of heartfelt lyrics to a number of tiny production houses that promise to turn their words into a record. This is the world of the song-poem, driven by those tiny ads that appear in tabloids, where small armies of studio musicians crank out hastily recorded renditions and slap it onto vinyl for a nominal fee.

It's tantamount to buying a dream for a lot of people, and in Off The Charts: The Song-Poem Story, documentary filmmaker Jamie Meltzer explores all facets of the industry, from the songwriters themselves, to the key industry musicians, to ardent collectors of the genre.

This is a fascinating little film (it runs just under an hour), which began as an outgrowth of a student thesis film project for Meltzer. The subjects he has selected are both forlorn and colorful, and Meltzer is rather sly about openly admitting whether or not he is poking fun at these people, or if he is really a true admirer of the whole song-poem world. Regardless, when his narrative moves to cover undiscovered songwriters like Caglar Juan Singletary or Gary Forney—who are two of Off The Charts' dominant characters—the presentation of moments like Singletary's Annie Oakley or the coverage of Forney's three-song, one-stop Iowa "tour" constantly meanders back and forth across the line of comedy and pathos with tempered subtlety.

Meltzer has seemingly delved into all of the salient elements of the genre here, and in one telling example we see a set of submitted lyrics go from the first read to being scored to being recorded in under 48 minutes, as well as the studio team that pinches out a whopping 30 songs (generally one take, warts and all) in less than 90 minutes. His segment on song-poem legend Rodd Keith—who recorded countless albums under just as many names—actually morphs into an unexpectedly sweet scene that connects the late Keith, who committed suicide, with one of the documentary's subjects.

The song-poem industry is a definite niche market, obscure to be sure, falling somewhere between kitsch and scam, and Meltzer's film is rafter-packed with all of the inherent weirdness that seems to go with it. Sure, it is easy to laugh at the ridiculously bad lyrics ("you're number two on my speed dial, but number one in my heart"), but it is harder to laugh directly at the songwriters themselves, once Meltzer has shown their stories.

They're living the dream, baby.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Shout Factory has issued Jamie Meltzer's documentary in a 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. The transfer reveals the grainy, low-budget roots of the project, and considering it was originally shot on 16mm that isn't terribly surprising. Colors are not particularly vibrant, and the presentation is additionally peppered by some periodic nicks and specks.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: A simple 2.0 stereo mix is provided, and while it isn't especially expansive, it does provide understandable dialogue with no clarity or hiss issues whatsoever.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 21 cues and remote access
7 Deleted Scenes
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Jamie Meltzer, Henry S. Rosenthal
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The short runtime of the feature is offset by the depth and breadth of extras from Shout Factory, beginning with a full-length commentary from director Jamie Meltzer and producer Henry S. Rosenthal. Meltzer traces the origins of the project, which began as his thesis film, and he provides background on the various colorful characters he highlights. Some morsels, like the cult status of John Trubee's Blind Man's Penis or how Tom Ardolino is considered "the Columbus of song-poems" fill out the history of the unusual subject matter, but their comments about Gary Forney's song, Jon-Benet (which sadly didn't make it onto this disc), made me wish they had included it.

The Sunburst Studio Sessions (17m:02) attempts to capture the typical recording session for a set of song-poems—in this case six selections—led by industry icon Gene Merlino. Though the studio time and musicians were arranged and selected by Meltzer (after being denied access to film by a number of song-poem production houses), the process is still a trip. The songs performed are I'm a Ginseng Digger, The 23rd Channel, Out in the Woods, Gem in Your Igloo, Feast of Lanterns and Memory Dial.

One of Off the Charts most interesting subjects is Gary Forney, and during the film Meltzer shows brief highlights of Forney's "Iowa Mountain Tour, Live!," and in this extended segment the performance is shown in its entirety. It is surreal, strange, a completely, unabashedly weird slice of Americana, and Forney and his son Josh perform the classics Chicken Insurrection (02m:29s), Three-Eyed Boy (02m:56s), Washboard and Guitar Instrumental (02m:50s) and Nothing in Hand (01m:40s).

The gem here is Columbine Records Presents "America Sings" (24m:06s), a bizarre infomercial-ish show that features questionable performances of a number of song-poems by a variety of performers, augmented by the Waiting for Guffman-like moves of the Columbine Gypsies dance team, all hosted by an oddly perky duo. Promising "the hits of tomorrow", America Sings is an unintentional (I think) laugh riot.

There are also seven Deleted Scenes (12m:05s), most of which feature more Gene Merlino, with scenes of him showing off his Wall of Fame or reading a comically vitriolic letter from a very upset song-poem submitter. The "Off the Charts" Premiere Party segment showcases some grainy, hand-held video of a couple of live performances of two of the film's oddest songs. Art Kaufman and The Amazing Embarassonics take on Non-Violent Tae Kwondo Troopers (04m:26s), while John Trubee and The Amazing Embarassonics delivers his infamous Blind Man's Penis (02m:48s). Concluding the extras is the Song-Poem Ad Gallery Tour (04m:22s), an overview of the various production houses and their ads, with a dry but fact-filled commentary from Phil Milstein, curator of American Song-Poem Archives, and Milstein jams in a lot of history in under five minutes.

The disc is cut into 21 chapters, and does include subtitles.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

This is terrific stuff from documentarian Jamie Meltzer, as his film Off the Charts wades through the eclectic world of the song-poem, dropping the viewer smack in the middle of genre where love songs about Annie Oakley or blind men and their penises are king.

Highly recommended.


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