MEYER MONTH – When Worlds Collide; Russ Meyer, the Sex Pistols & ‘Who Killed Bambi?’

18 May

One cannot deny that the idea of Russ Meyer working with the Sex Pistols is an interesting one. Meyer, the King of sexploitation filmmaking, and the Sex Pistols, the ‘first’ British punk rock band, were worlds apart. And yet in the 1970s, a collaboration between the two began and failed miserably.

Malcolm McLaren, manager and mastermind behind the Sex Pistols, decided that a good way to break the band into the US would be through a feature film. Intended to be released in 1978, the film was to be the punk version of A Hard Day’s Night. McLaren had reportedly already considered Peter Cook, Stephen Frears and Ken Loach for directing  before eventually settling on Meyer, who he described as ‘the epitome of American Fascism.’.  There are conflicting reports as to who suggested Meyer first, with one story being that the Sex Pistols themselves chose him after seeing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls at Screen On The Green (I’ve read the same story with McLaren in the watching role…). McLaren flew to Los Angeles to meet Meyer, who in turn brought Rene Daalder with him. Daalder was a Dutch filmmaker and script writer active in the LA punk scene. Unsurprisingly, Daalder and McLaren hit it off quite quickly, whereas Meyer and McLaren clashed.

A treatment for the film, which at that point had the working title of Anarchy in the U.K., was written by Daalder and McLaren, centering on the ‘actual story of the Sex Pistols’. Meyer hated it and trashed it immediately. Adamant that he didn’t want to make a ‘depressing’ film, Meyer bought screen writer and film critic Roger Ebert on board to write the script after their successful pairing on 1970 release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and 1976 release Up!. Ebert installed himself at the Sunset Marquis Hotel and in the June of 1977 wrote the script for the film, now titled Who Killed Bambi?. Although written by Ebert, McLaren had a great deal of input, giving Ebert and Meyer a crash course in punk rock.

With the script written, the group headed to London, although at this point warning signs should have been ringing for Meyer. A successful (practically) one-man filmmaker with studio experience behind him, Meyer at this point had no signed contract and was being paid weekly in cash. It would eventually be money that spelt the end of the project.

Once arriving in London, Meyer and Ebert finally met the band themselves. Ebert later wrote that he and Meyer were ‘a little non-plussed… to hear Johnny Rotten explain that he liked Beyond the Valley of the Dolls because it was so true to life’. Paul Cook and Steve Jones got on with and liked Meyer, the latter impressed that the sexploitation maestro had directed Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, although he had no idea who Meyer was until this fact was pointed out to him. Johnny Rotten and Meyer, however, did not get along. Rotten was rude, anti-American and boasted about the IRA which Meyer did not like. The director ended up calling him a ‘little shit’ over dinner. The sentiment was mutual. Rotten later wrote in his autobiography that he had hated Meyer from the first moment he met him; ‘this dirty old man… an overbearing, senile old git.’. Ebert has said that when Meyer rang him for the first time with the project he stated that the band went to see Dolls every weekend but other accounts I’ve read seem to contradict this. My main impression is that McLaren had more to do with choosing Meyer as the director then the band.

The premise of the film goes something like this. MJ (apparently a swipe at Mick Jagger), a decadent rocker, gets driven around the countryside looking for deer to shoot. He dumps his most recent kill on the doorstep of a family whose little girl opens the door to find the carcass and exclaims ‘Mummy, they’ve killed Bambi!’. MJ then attempts to corrupt the Sex Pistols, as does their manager, whilst other mad distractions happen along the way (including an encounter with a Scientology machine…). The little girl returns at the end to shoot MJ in the face and avenge Bambi’s death. All of this is taken from Jimmy McDonagh’s Meyer biography although Ebert did eventually post the screenplay he had written online in April 2010. Also included in the script was a scene for Sid Vicious in which he had sex with his mother and did heroin with her afterwards. Meyer had already cast Marianne Faithful for the role of his mother. Vicious was livid. Apparently he didn’t mind sleeping with her but he drew the line at the shooting up scene afterwards…

It was during filming, however, that everything began to fall apart. At this point in Pistols history, both Rotten and Vicious despised McLaren and Rotten particularly hated that he was playing a sex fiend in a Hollywood version of punk. Julien Temple, who later picked up Meyer’s pieces and made The Great Rock and Roll Swindle in 1980, claimed that it was during Bambi that McLaren really lost control of the band and that the film was a large part of the reason the group broke up.

It would have been interesting to have seen Meyer’s final project, if not just for his depiction of London as a city. He was determined to include NO shots of red double-decker buses and was obsessed and amused by some of the street signs around town, convinced that they depicted sex in some way. In October 77, the opening scene of the doorstep dumped deer was shot but three days into the shoot it became apparent that there was no money. Sets had already been built near Heathrow and crew was being assembled but McLaren had never finalised a deal. Legal documents and contacts had been produced by 20th Century Fox but McLaren had kept changing his mind. Concerns were also raised about the script’s content once it was actually read by the studio and Fox’s stockholders began to get cold feet. They decided to pull the plug, although rumour has it it was one particular stockholder that nailed the final nail in the coffin. According to Meyer associate Jim Ryan, him and Meyer ended up taking an elevator ride by chance years later with the people who had axed Bambi. According to them it was none other than stockholder Grace Kelly who eventually killed the project saying she ‘didn’t want another X picture from Meyer.’. Who’d have guessed?

Bambi was Meyer’s last hope of making it back into the big league after being released from his three picture deal with Fox after the critical and commercial failure of The Seven Minutes. Yet all he was left with were tangled lawsuits from all sides. Meyer even ended up suing Julien Temple and extracted a printed apology from him published in Screen International. Temple, during the promotional tour for the The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, told a reporter that Meyer had personally shot a deer during the shooting of Bambi, to which Meyer took some serious offense.

Bambi footage ended up being utilised into Rock and Roll Swindle,  including the deer shooting opening scene, with more footage emerging for the documentary The Filth and The Fury which was released in 2000. Ebert has claimed that only a day and a half’s worth of shooting was ever achieved, although this is contradicted by Julian Bray, who supplied location services to McLaren’s Matrixbest company. Other shot footage includes musician Sting as a leader of a pop group called The Blow-Waves that assaults drummer Paul Cook as he stops to ask for directions. One can only imagine what Meyer’s finished project would have looked like…

The video above is a small clip from the Meyer edition of The Incredibly Strange Film Show, an interesting half hour show on the director well worth watching to hear him talk about his own filmography.

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