Interview: Mitchell Kezin

Jingle Bell Rocks - Interview
Filmmaker Mitchell Kezin (left) with jazz legend and frequent Schoolhouse Rock composer Bob Dorough.

Vancouver filmmaker and music collector Mitchell Kezin has returned from the premiere of his most recent work in Amsterdam with some choice records that speak to the subject of his most recently completed passion project. An avid vinyl lover and collector of all kinds of music, he has particularly shown an affinity and fondness for Christmas music, and his crate digging finds from Holland are reflections of his most recent work on the documentary Jingle Bell Rocks (opening this Friday at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, where we conducted our interview on a not-so-winterish feeling and rainy December morning).

A couple of obscure Dutch records showing kids huddled around controversial holiday icon Zwarte Piet, a record with a really sensitive looking acoustic guitar troubadour that looks minimally like a Christmas album but has a giant pop-up book manger on the inside, and a hip-hop single that neither of us had ever heard of with three really shocked looking guys on a sled that, taken out of context, looks hilarious. These are the kinds of things that draw Kezin to collecting albums, surely. But his love and specific affection for Christmas music goes far deeper and requires a more personal explanation.

Using his childhood love and personal feelings towards a little known, but really great Nat King Cole holiday tune, “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot,” award winning filmmaker Kezin decided to take a look at the world of alternative and often overlooked Christmas anthems. Talking to fellow collectors, fans, naysayers, and a highly diverse range of musical artists, Kezin looks not only at the history of holiday music, but why the nostalgia one gets around the holiday is such a personally specific experience.

We talked to Kezin about creating a look at holiday nostalgia – both bright and dark, why some songs are able to endure, and more about this Yuletide labour of love.

Dork Shelf: This is the first thing this year that actually got me excited for the holidays, and I think there’s something deeper going on here than just the study of Christmas music and the people who collect it. It’s a film that focuses on what I think is this really personalized nostalgia that people love about Christmas, and you get into that in the film when you talk about that Nat King Cole song and what it means to you around the holidays. And that one thing that brings people into the holiday season doesn’t have to be a song, it could be some movie, or annual event, or get together. I know you’ve shown the movie in a couple of places now, but that is sort of the sense that you’ve been getting from people who have seen the movie so far?

Mitchell Kezin: For sure. I’m so happy for you to share that insight because it’s so true. Over the course of the four years of making the film and talking to people about it or to who were in it, there was always this touchstone moment or song or event that announces the holiday season for them. It’s not Christmas for them until they hear that song or attend that particular event or what have you. That is what makes it special. It’s that nostalgic return back to the season itself that attracts people to it, and people have really been seeing that in my story. Even though my story with the Nat King Cole song is so personal, they can attach their own meaning to that song and what it means to them. It’s very relatable.

I learned so much from people who would just start sharing so many personal feelings and talking about family or their good or bad holiday experiences within minutes of them finding out I was making this film, even if they knew it was specifically about the music. I was amazed just how quickly people opened up. It seemed to allow them to let their guard down and express those things that people otherwise wouldn’t have shared.

But finding that nostalgia was again part of the goal. I didn’t want to make it too sentimental, but there are certainly those moments in there. It is still a Christmas movie. (laughs) I did want to make a happy Christmas film, though. I wanted it to have a happy ending, but I wanted it to have depth to encompass that whole range of emotions that we all go through during the holidays.

Jingle Bell Rocks - Interview - F2It was interesting having just had the world premiere in Amsterdam and showing it to Dutch audiences because Christmas over there doesn’t quite have the same baggage that it does for us here in North America, and it was funny seeing how some scenes didn’t resonate the way I thought they would, and then how others did. It was interesting how a different culture perceives that work. I think certainly for a North American audience, though, Christmas is all about nostalgia and memories from the past.

It’s such a fraught time for some folks. It’s a time filled with sometimes such expectation, hope, desire, and worry, and I think people look to the music, especially, to find solace and comfort. Some of those songs, especially one that means a lot to someone for whatever reason, can kind of have a soothing effect. It brings them back to a time when Christmas was special and wondrous and full of hope. Whereas now…

You know, I hate talking about the commercialization of Christmas, because that’s become such a trope that it’s officially a tired thing to complain about. In the film, I really don’t agree with what Wayne Coyne [from The Flaming Lips] says about what the holiday has become. I agree more with Sandy Dendrick [from The Free Design] that there could be something a bit more meaningful, and not as cynical coming from the music.

DS: I think a lot of that comes from the holidays being the time of year where you get out of them as much as you put into them on any level.

MK: Absolutely. Exactly. If you can remain sincere, you’ll have a better time. Erin Moran from A Girl Called Eddy, who I love, I wanted in there so we could have dissenting voice to say that the holidays aren’t always so fun and joyous, and that they can be brutal and people don’t want to do anything except avoid it. We had those same sentiments expressed by two other people who ultimately didn’t end up in the film, but that needs to be included. I wanted it to be a well rounded film and for it to have some depth in the other way.

Because, let’s face it, the holidays can be dark, too. It could be lonely and terrible at points. There are songs that speak to those emotions for when we’re doing less than well. And that’s why we kind of open the film in the way we do. I wanted the movie to come full circle.

DS: I do like how you are focusing on these lesser known and generally more off beat and irreverent songs and albums, and that’s because right off the bat you make it known and you establish that a great deal of Christmas music from the past is decidedly sombre and down in the dumps, and I think that might be what turns a lot of people off just as much as an insincere cash-in album might. You do strike that balance, but what’s it like going back and looking at music that might be a little less fun or even emotionally resonant? Because you seem like someone who likes to actually have fun around the holidays.

MK: (laughs) Yes! Definitely I want it to be a joyous time. Not only do I make my own annual mix every year, but I also host a Christmas luau. I haven’t been doing it the past several years because I was off making the movie. I managed to do it the first two years, but the last few were just too insane. It was kind of a bummer, too, because I haven’t even been able to really enjoy the holidays the past few years because while we were in production, sometimes we would be filming through the holidays. One year I did get to stay in New York and my girlfriend came to meet me there, and we had a lovely time that year.

But getting back to the songs, I had to run the gamut of all the music that I own and that I’d heard, and then find that one tune that I thought expressed those aspects of the holiday, and I guess somewhat unfortunately the example that I use to show that in the film is from one of the greatest doo-wop bands in history because it’s a really pretty heavy song about being lonely. It’s a beautiful song, and definitely sad, but for me I guess I always remained hopeful. Every year as I went along making it I would meet more and more people who would become kindred Christmas spirits. It was very heartwarming amidst all the doom and gloom and bad songs who could introduce me to new and different music, and they could share their collections with me and bring a more unique musical perspective on the holidays.

But my focus was always to move towards a happier ending. But when you have something like the Girl Called Eddy version of that Nat King Cole song, I guess you could call it “sad,” but I don’t really think it is. I think it’s beautiful and haunting and rather emotionally stirring. And I think making the movie helped me work though a lot of my own feelings towards some of these songs, too.

DS: I think you touched upon another reason why a lot of these songs survive, which is because you can have different versions of those songs and the variety of voices you can have. And there’s something that can be said about how people can ascribe different meanings to the same songs. Part of why your movie is so happy because it’s ultimately about reclaiming some of these songs and giving them happier meanings. Just by changing the melodies doesn’t change the song or the content. It still comes from the same place, but it’s a different way of looking at things.

MK: That was great, and defining it as “reclaiming the music” was a term and phrase that I had in my early production notes while we were trying to raise money. “What was this all about and why is this guy so obsessed? What’s motivating him?” Well, it was about trying to reclaim the entire Holiday, and not turn it on its head but turn it into something nurturing and palpable and joyous and help people have some fun and connect to other people.

That’s what it’s really all about, the connection. It’s amazing year after year how much music is being shared, and how many blogs are out there or people who are contacting me. It seems like the timing of this movie is perfect, because it seems like the pop music world is starting to pay more attention and record fewer of the tongue-in-cheek, ironic Christmas tunes that I think so many people struggle with, and doing more sincere, heartfelt, meaningful, and often fun records.

I guess a lot of that coincides with how this is a singles’ market again thanks to iTunes, and you can squeeze a lot out of a well done single. To me I think there have been a lot of really great singles produced by indie pop bands whereas from the late 70s up until a few years ago, it was just full of terrible songs throughout that 25 year period. Most of the greatest ones I have come across are from more recently or from the 50s, 60s, and early 70s.

DS: And the internet allows those few songs from those 25 years that are interesting and worthwhile to have a longer life. I think lately the two most trotted out holiday tracks among my friends are the Bing Crosby and David Bowie cover of “Little Drummer Boy,” and Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” which you talk about a bit in the film. These are songs that stood out so well because they were never allowed to get lost because they were the most original things that were tied to the holidays. It’s those kinds of songs that capture traditional feelings and emotions that give people the most warmth and joy around the holidays, especially when they are done so playfully.

MK: Well, they are the most bridge building songs recently that could cross generations and genres. And “Christmas in Hollis” is just a stone cold classic. Of all the songs on that first Special Christmas compilation, it’s the only original. It’s the only one that’s not a cover of a chestnut, and I love that Run agreed to do it.

DS: It’s one of the few songs that actively gets people excited for Christmas.

MK: It does! And I was so thrilled that we actually got to include Run in the film. We got to be with him at Christmas time, which was great because his house was all done up. He was amazing. We got there and he was totally relaxed, and he talked with us for two and a half hours. There was a bunch of stories that he had that we couldn’t fit them all in. He was one of those people who really opened up really wide for us. He talked a lot about his childhood, and he has a great line that comes at the end of the credits here that I just love and I thought was just beautiful. I actually asked everyone as my final question if they believed in Santa Claus, and while some of the answers were unique, his was by far the best.