Saturday, December 31, 2016

Christmas Nostalgia: Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas (1977)

Mom surprised us this Christmas with a DVD version of this classic Jim Henson special and we watched it the other night.

So I'm gonna have to do write-up about it now. Not that this in anyway makes up for the fact I'd seldom posted on this blog these past few months except for when we've gone to the movies.

I said in my previous post how this was one of the Christmas specials we had on a recorded VHS and used to watch when we were kids.
And I was always kinda annoyed that my mom never let us sit through all of it in one sitting.
I mean, c'mon... all that Christmas goodness, why stop it?
Getting to the last two specials (Charlie Brown and Claymotion) was always a bit of a... I don't even know what word I want to use here... it wasn't easy to do. We'd get so far along, stop, and sometimes we just never got around to finishing and next year we'd be back at the start.

Anyway... trip down memory lane aside...
I had so many thoughts on this as I was watching, but I'll start with the craziest revelation that might not be so crazy...

Emmett Otter's special is universal in that it's good for all ages. And I found that I was getting a lot more out of it as an adult than I ever did as a kid.

This time around, for example, I was just marveling at the craftsmanship of the whole thing. Just looked it up and by the time this special was made (and apparently it was based on a book), Sesame Street and The Muppet Show were already in full swing.
So it's interesting to see marionette work at the forefront opposed to the muppets we got to know over the years.

I remember seeing this a few years ago, maybe on a home video VHS (that one of my aunts gave to us), and noticing the strings for the first time. I made a bit of a ruckus during Rudolph this year because our HD TV revealed strings I never knew were there. Not that totally ruins the illusion.

With this, I see strings with Emmett and his Ma and his friends. Moreso this time around, but the illusion isn't ruined at all. I find it endearing at certain points actually. Particularly where Emmett and Ma ride the slide onto the newly frozen lake. So cute to see them running and sliding around.

And the sets... just wow... in real life, all these buildings are probably so small, but they look so big on TV. And the way they're adorned, that's Christmas nostalgia right there.

I guess that means I need to get to the main story, then.

Emmett and his Ma, Alice, live in the town of Waterville. They get by doing odd jobs for neighbors like fixing things and doing laundry. They don't have a lot of money, but they always had each other. And a washtub, apparently.
It'll make sense later...

This year, both of them decide on their own that they really want to give the other a nice Christmas present, but they can't quite afford it. Alice wants to give Emmett a guitar they saw in a music store in town and Emmett wants to put a down payment on a piano for Ma. They had to sell it after Emmett's Pa died and they started struggling with money. Even though they were never rich with him being a snake oil salesman (haha- I didn't get that joke until a couple years ago- "there just aren't enough people who want to oil a snake").
And a local talent show presents the opportunity both of them want to take advantage of. But certain sacrifices need to be made...

This is sort of a take on "The Gift of the Magi," except that both of them sacrifice something that the other needs for their odd jobs.
Maybe 5-10 minutes after the two of them sing about not having a hole in the washtub... Emmett has to put a hole in it so he can play washtub bass in his friends' jugband. And Alice hocks Emmett's tool chest (that originally belonged to Pa) to get dress fabric so she has something nice to wear.
In the end, it is the thought that counts, though.

Throughout this special, we also see the residential antagonists from River Bottom. They're a bunch of delinquents with attitude. And surprise, surprise, they make an appearance at the talent contest as well.
Now that I think about it, I don't think I know any of their names aside from their leader, Chuck.

Oh man... that was something I found so hilarious as a kid and I still do. Chuck is a man (I have no idea what kind of furry creature he is, a bear, maybe?) of few words, but when he talks, you listen.

One of the them is a weasel who's very chatty and kinda talks for the group, but Chuck will often correct him and intimidates the crap out of him with his tough-guy voice. Just love it.

Chuck: I'm hungry
Weasel: Hey everybody, Chuck's funny
Chuck: No, I'm not hungry. I'm HUNGRY... now!

Oh geez... I guess Chuck is supposed to be a woodchuck, then, lol.
I just know there's a weasel, a lizard, a snake and some fish/mudskipper thing that they always seem to have a tub of water for him to swim in when they're traveling around town.

The talent show... wow, the nostalgia the first few minutes in that concert hall before it even starts... I'm just transported back with that. I remember watching the horse- which unfortunately gets split up in an earlier scene and the whole act gets ruined. I remember the dancing squirrels (omg, so cute!) and their mom cheering and clapping like a maniac when they're all finished.

An interesting curveball gets thrown at the jugband and they easily could have avoided having an issue if they rehearsed more than one song.
It turns out "Barbeque" is popular and some hillbilly badger takes up a banjo and performs it before it's their turn. So they need to put together a new song and fast.

Alice goes on just ahead of them and gives a really moving performance with a ballad. Complete with that out-of-tune piano (Rowlf might have been onto something- he said in "Muppet Family Christmas" how he loves out of tune pianos), nostalgia hits again.

With the jugband, they sound and look really good considering how last minute this song change was. But "Brothers" is not as catchy as "Barbeque"... I've always felt a little bit of disappointment where the first chords begin and it's not the same song. Just doesn't have that same impact.

Then the "River Bottom Nightmare Band" shows up and all hell breaks loose :P
Now this was memorable. The whole song and look of it. And each time, you pick out something different. Weasel does the main vocal on the bridge and his voice still stands out to me. And of course all Chuck has to say/growl is "River Bottom Nightmare Band!"... he's all decked out like Elton John or Liberace with this long blue shiny cape and Kiss-style platform shoes.

Gotta give them credit- they were true to themselves and didn't sugarcoat anything. This is more of a heavy metal type song with an organ, guitars and drums, so the song really isn't sing-along-y. But they do play good music.
There's an earlier scene where they're playing instruments in a music store and they sound better than you would think. Maybe they wouldn't be as troublesome if they spent more time with the music because it's a good outlet for them.

Anyway... the results are kinda disappointing. The Nightmare winds up winning. It's slightly more annoying when you consider the fact that they were a last minute entry. And they heard from the jugband about the talent contest... although Weasel says something like "they think they're gonna win the talent contest" jokingly, which says to me that they already knew about it.

But our heroes do get a happy ending and all they had to do was invent the song mash-up. They're walking by Doc Bullfrog's diner as they put their songs from the talent show together and he recruits them to be regular performers there with a salary and free food.

If I were to nit-pick anything... you hear a couple songs more than once and if you're not feeling it, you might get sick of them. But they are great songs.
"When the River Meets the Sea" is great and beautiful and it became a Henson classic because it was written for this and also featured on the Muppet Christmas album with John Denver. Even was played at Jerry Nelson's funeral, which was a fitting tribute. He did the voice of Emmett.

When they showed this on TV (and this carries over to our recorded VHS), they had an intro with Kermit pedaling his bike to Waterville, introducing the special and the River Bottom gang interacts with him.

It's a pretty funny exchange.

"What about the scarf?"- Chuck says after he's asked by Weasel whether he wants to take anything from Kermit.
And they argue among themselves before that whether he's a frog or toad :P

Kermit also appears at the end of the diner scene- they pan over to him as they're performing and he says (I think) how they were a big hit and their lives became better as a result. It's been so long that I don't remember the exact dialogue.
OH- someone posted them on YouTube calling them "the lost scenes"

Overall... great special and definitely will look forward to bringing it back every year from now.

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