We Talked Alternative Christmas Music with the Director of Jingle Bell Rocks

Oliver Lunn

Five years in the making, Mitchell Kezin's documentary about alternative Christmas music is a heartwarming festive gem (read our review here). Featuring Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, former Def Jam publicity wizard Bill Adler, Run-DMC and Low, as well as obsessive collectors such as John Waters and Kezin himself, Jingle Bell Rocks! follows these eccentric characters' search for the ultimate underground Christmas songs.

We spoke to the director about why the worst kind of music in the world is bad Christmas music, the thrill of discovering unknown xmas records, and why he remains so loyal to vinyl. 

GFW: Alternative Christmas music might seem like niche subject matter for a doc. – what made you want to make a film about it?
Mitchell Kezin: Well, I had received a record from a collector in New York and inside the record he had included a photocopy of an article from a really cool zine that was all about underground alternative music. And the whole article was on legendary Christmas compilations and, of course, that blew my mind. I had no idea these guys existed. I thought I was the only freak doing this. So I read this article and once I found out that there were these guys with much bigger back-collections than myself, that was the spark to make the film.

How did the collectors respond when you approached them as another obsessive?
Very enthusiastically. They were thrilled that someone was finally making a movie about the subject. But none of them realised that they would be with me for five years!

So, what’s so great about Christmas music?
What I love about it is that, first of all, I’m a pretty nostalgic, sentimental person so the nostalgic aspect of Christmas really appeals to me. I don’t agree with Wayne Coyne that people are insincere at Christmas time in trying to make peace and be kind to each other, you know, I think there is a change at Christmas, as he says in his song. And what I love about it is that you have songs that are covered by every single genre of music: c a hip-hop cover, a soul cover, a country version, all of the same song, but it can be done in twenty different ways and approached by artists from all angles, and to me that’s fascinating; and it’s also very emotional music.

Director Mitchell Kezin with Wayne Coyne.

Would you agree that the worst kind of music in the world is bad Christmas music?
Oh, I would completely agree with that and I was so happy that David Wisdom said that in the movie because it’s so true: there is way too much Christmas music in the world, and there’s way too much really bad stuff. There’s way too much insincere, commercial, rushed, badly produced music made for Christmas that should have never been recorded.

Which songs do you hate the most?
I hate the ones that are too sentimental, too sappy, too unoriginal. There are so many Christmas songs that think about the same thing: tinsel, bobbles, Christmas lights. And it’s just superficial. There’s a place for novelty songs but there are good novelty songs and there are bad novelty songs, and the ones I hate the most are the ones that poke fun at the holiday and do it in a really nasty way. There’s that song “Santa Claus is Watchin’ You” by Ray Stevens – that’s one of the songs I hate the most. It’s so negative, it’s so down, it’s so nasty.

But you can have good depressing Christmas songs, right?
Oh sure, there are a number of them. So many blues tunes about being broke or alone or your husband or your wife has left you, you know, there are many beautiful ones. That’s kind of why we opened with The Moonglows [“Just A Lonely Christmas”] – it’s a really sad, sombre song.

Sifting through bargain bins for obscure Christmas records looks really fun. What’s the thrill of it for you?
Well the thrill is finding the unknown; it’s about discovering a buried treasure. I know that they’re out there, but what’s ironic and kind of unusual about this for all of us who collect this stuff is that we’re not looking for a specific song that’s not in our collection, the motivation is to find stuff that’s unknown. For me that’s the thrill: finding a song that I never knew was recorded. I mean, the odds of finding a good one is pretty slim, but when you do find it it’s very gratifying. 

And do the store clerks look at you weirdly when you’re searching for Christmas records during the summer?
Oh yeah. Some get it, and others roll their eyes, some refuse to go get them for me; they’ll say: ‘Oh it’s tucked away up in the attic’ or something. Some are quite snotty and they’ll refuse to put Christmas music out before certain dates … but most people think it’s funny, eccentric and weird and they can make a lot of money from some of them.

Run-DMC's Joseph Simmons and Bill Adler. 

Wayne Coyne made an arthouse Christmas movie – is that why you approached him? Or was it a Flaming Lips song?
It was the song [“A Change At Christmas (Say It Ain’t So)”]. The movie was an added bonus; initially my film was just gonna be me talking with him, like I did with the other artists, talking about his Christmas song. And I asked Wayne: ‘Is there any material we can access to put around your interview?’ And we realised, after we did the interview, how great he was in Christmas on Mars and we can use him throughout the film like we have; I didn’t expect him to have so much presence in the movie. And it was great to meet him – he’s one of my heroes.

Was there anyone that you couldn’t get for the documentary that you would’ve loved to include?
There were a couple of people who died during production: Chris Dedrick of The Free Design. He lived outside Toronto, I had his contact info, and I was just so nervous about calling him and I waited too long. And what was funny was that he has his own website, because he’s a film composer, and I didn’t realise that simultaneous to this he had a Facebook page for The Free Design in which he was posting about his cancer treatment. And I was watching the other site, not aware of the Facebook page, and then a year and a half went by before I finally checked in and found out, by which point he was on his deathbed.

There was another artist, a rockabilly singer named Johnny Preston who did a great Christmas song on a compilation called “I Want A Rock And Roll Guitar”. And I was in the process of reaching out to him when he died.

The artist that I most regret not getting in the film is a Canadian artist, because as you know, there are no Canadian musicians in the movie, they’re all American or Trinidadian. And it was an artist called Stompin’ Tom Connors, who was a legendary country/folk artist.

Mitchel Kezin and John Waters (holding a copy of "Santa Claus is a Black Man")

It seems YouTube and Spotify offer an unlimited, accessible archive of musical oddities. Why do you remain loyal to vinyl?
I love the tactile, tangible, physical product of a record. You get beautiful cover art, you get liner notes, you get the opportunity for coloured vinyl. I love looking at the labels, I love finding little one-off labels and I love learning more about the artist. You can sit and learn about the artist, generally speaking … I try to find original stuff and I love having a physical collection. And it’s growing to become unmanageable now.

Which records would you save if your house was ablaze?
I’ve thought about that and I’d be devastated; it would be very sad because I haven’t digitised most of my collection. I’ve been meaning to do that actually, so at least I'll have digital versions in the event of something tragic like that.

Do you feel nostalgic in the same way for Christmas movies?
Not so much. I have a few favouties: I love The Grinch [How the Grinch Stole Christmas], I love Charlie Brown’s Christmas. My favourite movie of all time, not just as a Christmas movie, is It’s A Wonderful Life. That’s a beautifully told story, and I watch that film every year.

And you mentioned music docs earlier – which docs inspired you?
Grey Gardens by the Maysles Brothers, Chris Smith's American Movie, Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, The Devil & Daniel Johnston by Jeff Feuerzeig. 

Finally, what Christmas songs will you be listening to this year?
I recently found Psych-Out Christmas at Sonic Boom in Toronto. Also a bunch of singles of various mixes from a new used Record Shop in Toronto called KOPS Records, an amazing store with cool Christmas 45's.

'Jingle Bell Rocks!' opens Friday, December 6 at Toronto’s Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Also plays Monday, December 16 at Vancouver’s Vancity Theatre. The film is due to be released in the UK Xmas 2014.

For more info on the film, head to jinglebellrocks.com

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