In 1977, at the height of punk, Richard Burton came to Bristol and made the punkiest of Bristol films (yes, even punkier than Radio On!). I’m talking about The Medusa Touch. Okay, it’s possible that Burton himself didn’t come to Bristol, or that if he did, he spent all his time in the pub (which pub, I wonder) because you only get to see a few shots of the Cathedral on College Green, but it’s still a BRISTOL film, and, more to the point, one which brings the roof crashing down on a motley collection of local dignitaries, who would have included the Queen, if the scriptwriters hadn’t bottled it.
Burton is to blame. He plays a “telekinetic catastrophe magnet whose party tricks include crashing a passenger plane into a tower block more than two decades before 9/11” (not sure where I got that quote) while French actor Lino Ventura, no doubt brought in to attract some continental co-production finance, plays the policeman in charge of stopping him, and is called Brunel, possibly a nod to local sensibilities, but more likely just a coincidence.
Disgusted at the world (punk!) Burton wants to kill the Queen (punk!) while she is visiting “Minster” Cathedral (i.e. Westminster) but “no amount of Routemaster buses shipped in to drive up and down can disguise the fact that Minster is actually Bristol,” as the website Bristol 24/7 says. Presumably, our fair city was cheaper and/or posed fewer logistical problems). Bits are falling off the roof even before Burton begins. The deacon, concerned about the state of the building, says they should ban the lorries passing by, which the council duly did You can see the Council House and the bottom of Park Street, although not the Banksy mural on the wall behind the bridge over Frogmore St. That would have to wait a few decades.
But apart from having its climactic scene shot in Bristol, is The Medusa Touch an authentically Bristolian film? Well, yes – there is something endearingly Bristolian about the Cathedral agreeing to let the film-makers wreak such fictional havoc on its building. Lots of people die under a hail of rubber and foam masonry, just as they did in the Stokes Croft riot. And it gets even more nihilistic at the very end, when Burton – bed-ridden and brain-damaged after Lee Remick has stoved in his skull – wills disaster upon the nuclear power station at Windscale, or Sellafield, or whatever they now call it to throw us off the scent.
Even better/worse is the Bob Dylan disaster that is Hearts of Fire (1987). For reasons best known to the location manager, they too decided to shoot in Bristol, in this case filming a couple of concert scenes at the Colston Hall. Alas, Bob’s singing and acting wasn’t quite bad enough to bring the evil slave edifice crashing down, as R Burton did so successfully in The Medusa Touch. It’s entirely possible that Dylan (PBUH) didn’t stop at Bristol either, and they just cut the shots of him shuffling around the stage together with shots of eager Bristolian fans. At least my mum got to be an extra, playing one of those fans, a role that a Dylan-worshipping flower child like her would normally have paid good money for.
Hearts of Fire concerns a wannabe singer, Molly, hooking up with a washed-up rocker, Billy Parker (guess who?) and travelling to London, where they meet a reclusive “new wave” star (played, improbably, by Rupert Everett in a mullet). Both men take an unhealthy interest in the much younger Molly but it is Everett who sleeps with her. They embark on a tour of the US, but at only their second show, one of Everett’s fans kills herself, bringing the tour to a premature end.
In much the same way, the film’s disastrous UK opening killed off any hopes of success it had. The script was by Joe Eszterhas, who had already penned Flashdance and Jagged Edge, and would go on to write Basic Instinct and Showgirls, so you have an idea where Hearts of Fire is coming from: “Eszterhas’ grubby little fingerprints are all over Hearts Of Fire,” says film.avclub.com, while “Dylan stops just short of rolling his eyes and continually making jerk-off motions with his hands to illustrate how little he’s invested in the film. Who could blame him? He’s Bob Dylan delivering words written by Joe Eszterhas.”
Eszterhas, perhaps in an effort to deflect attention from his part in the whole sorry mess, argues that it’s precisely this kind of criticism and the subsequent disappearance of the film which killed director Richard Marquand at the age of forty-nine. The film was pulled from UK cinemas after only two weeks, went straight to video in the USA and has never seen a DVD release anywhere, so unless you pick up a second-hand VHS copy, it’s unlikely you will ever see it. Truly, Hearts of Fire was touched by Medusa. Even seasoned Dylan fans disparage the movie. The everything-Dylan blog Long and Wasted Year says “sometimes you get to the point with a Bob Dylan blog where your faith is genuinely tested… this is not a good film.” Nonetheless, there ARE interesting touches. The movie theatre which Billy goes to with Molly is showing Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, an earlier Dylan movie in which he plays the mysterious, knife-throwing Alias to Kris Kristofferson’s Billy, and for which he wrote Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. You gots to watch the WHOLE of the three-and-a-a-half-minute clip below to get the full effect, or skip to the 1m 40s mark if you’re under forty and have a short attention span. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes in cinema, running the destruction of Bristol Cathedral mighty close.
Hearts of Fire boasts a cameo from another of my mum’s heroes, Richie Havens, while Ron Wood plays the part of an incompetent guitarist at a London rehearsal, a role which must have come easily to him. Dylan does okay during his twenty minutes of screen time. “It doesn’t hurt that he’s essentially playing a version of himself – the mysterious, mercurial old musical superstar” says Long and Wasted Year. There are even (courtesy of Eszterhas?) some great, unintentionally ironic, lines (“I guess I always knew I was one of those rock and roll singers who was never going to win any Nobel Prize”). Hey, if it worked for Bob… I always knew I was one of those bloggers who was never going to win the Nobel Prize either.