'80s Maryland rock hits movie screens

'Heavy Metal Picnic' is at AFI Silver and 'The Skeptics: In A World of their Own' screens at Creative Alliance

  • The band The Skeptics is featured in a film screening at the Creative Alliance.
The band The Skeptics is featured in a film screening at the Creative… (Handout photo )
August 05, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

If the directors get their hands on some magic editing scissors, Keith Chester's "The Skeptics: In A World of Their Own" and Jeff Krulik's "Heavy Metal Picnic," new movies about mid-'80s Maryland rock, will some day be a tight, hard-driving double-bill. Right now they're a couple of indelible curiosities playing Friday at different places: "Heavy Metal Picnic" at 9:30 p.m. at the AFI Silver and "The Skeptics: In a World of Their Own" at 7 p.m. at Creative Alliance's Patterson Theater.

"The Skeptics: In a World of their Own" has more variety and intrigue and several close-to-home connections. The Skeptics created their seductively eclectic sound — a Cuisinart blend of garage rock, surf tunes, roots music, punk, and psychedelic whimsy — in their hometown, Frederick. But on April 12, 1984, they got their biggest boost when they appeared in the third annual "Battle of the Unknown Bands" sponsored by The Sun at the Famous Ballroom on 1717 North St.

Steve Blickenstaff, the Skeptics' drummer, told The Sun's Rafael Alvarez, "The majority of the people here [in Frederick] wouldn't like what we do," because Western Maryland's music fans were "more into Top 40 and country-western" — a theme that crops up in the movie's interviews. Alvarez wrote that of the three competitors, a band called 33rd Street was "shooting for the stars," perhaps because its drummer called their sound "pop, middle-of-the-road, toe-tapping music with the vocals out front."

But the Skeptics beat the odds and won that competition. The Washington-based Slickee Boys soon invited them to be their opening act. (Chester includes interviews with two Slickee Boys: Mark Noone and Kim Kane.)

As the Skeptics began to win time on local airwaves, Baltimore's Skizz Cyzyk became a die-hard promoter, touting them relentlessly on Towson University's student-run WCVT-FM. The film contains hilarious footage of Cyzyk talking to the Skeptics at WCVT in what's either a spacey interview or a put-on. Confronted with their mute faces, Cyzyk asks them what vegetables they would be if they were vegetables. One answers, asparagus. Then the boys from Frederick start talking about an art project they did in kindergarten.

Chester turns "The Skeptics: In A World of their Own" into his own endearing post-'60s art project. He punctuates the music-making memories — some from heavyweights like Inner Ear studio's Don Zientara — with atmospheric or goofy shots of power lines, animals and helicopters.

He mixes lucid statements from lead singer and songwriter Andy McCutcheon with vital '80s performance footage, new performances filmed and cut in a magical-mystery-tour style, and some heartfelt and amusing testimony from Frederick fans who say the band refreshed or changed their lives. Unfortunately, he also includes spectacularly unfunny appearances by a made-up character named "Ol' Hole Heels," who purports to be the band's manager and secret genius but appears to have escaped from a rerun of "Hee-Haw."

The band broke up in 1990. They perform these days to support the film, as well they should. Chester's enthusiasm for their buoyant, wayward spirit fills the screen. The best part of Chester's movie is that it makes you want to listen to the Skeptics' music. Happily, they will play a set at Creative Alliance right after the movie on Friday night.

"Heavy Metal Picnic" comes from the same period, but it's a whole different bucket of weed. It's a one-joke documentary with a very good joke. "Heavy Metal Picnic" provides a mid-1980s riff on the seminal wisecrack about the 1960s: that if you can remember it, you weren't really there. A commemorative T-shirt proclaims, "If You Remember The Farm Parties You Probably Weren't There." Everyone you see is so stewed, they probably think that the gag is original.

The Skeptics film is all about the music. "Heavy Metal Picnic" is all about the wild and woozy atmosphere generated by 30-hour-party people at a field bash called "The Full Moon Jamboree and Heavy Metal Sunday," May 4-5, 1985. Director Jeff Krulik builds the film on video-cam coverage shot there by metalhead Rudy Childs. A substance-abusing attendee calls it Maryland's Woodstock. (So does a stone-cold-sober broadcaster.) But it was a spring-break sort of celebration, all beer, bikinis, and drugs.

Another guy laments that he didn't market Childs' footage as the first "Girls Gone Wild" videos. Comments like that keep you perked up whenever the film over-relies on "Then and Now" video snapshots of the partygoers. Krulik may not be a master craftsman, but he has a genuine feel for down-home hedonism. The message of his movie is, "Just say Yes."

On screen

"The Skeptics: In a World of Their Own" screens at 7 p.m. at the Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave., with a live set by the band to follow; "Heavy Metal Picnic" screens at 9:30 p.m. at AFI Silver, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; invited guests include filmmakers Jeff Krulik and John Heyn and "Full Moon Jamboree" creator Billy Gordon.

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