Population: 1: DVD

May 14, 2009

If you’re looking for high end, big budget entertainment, you ain’t gonna find it here. Most of this film was cribbed together from prior attempts at making a full-length feature, assorted music videos, and bits of new footage the cast and crew were able to crank out whenever funding permitted. It is disjointed, waaay too long on dialogue, and it has the feel of something that was done on the fly in some studio with people just discovering the joy of Chroma key, which makes sense because it was made three decades ago and that’s pretty much what was happening.
What makes this film totally worthwhile is its principal player, Screamers lead singer Tomata du Plenty. In an accompanying interview with director Renee Daalder, he says he chose Tomata because he projected an all-American quality, and he’s totally right. He appears so meek and, well, normal when he first arrives onscreen that he’s almost unrecognizable. Like a chameleon, though, once he starts singing, that face burned into so many iconic photos is right there, half-mad and totally focused. The man was consummate showman, throwing himself so wholly into its premise—he is the last man on Earth, locked in a bunker and recounting his life, love, and extolling the virtues of late 20th century American culture—that he makes what could’ve been yet another piece of low budget, arty dreck into something that can capture the viewer’s attention for the hour or so he’s onscreen.
If you look closely at some of the other players that get screen time, you’ll see other music and art luminaries like Blasters/Los Lobos sax man Steve Berlin, most of the other Screamers, Tequila Mockingbird, a pre-adolescent Beck and his dad David Campbell, Beck’s grandpa Al Hanson, Vampira, Cherie the Penguin, Avengers singer Penelope Houston, and a young(er) El Duce as some of the people in Tomata’s reminiscences. The thing that makes this two-disc set a bona fide must-have, however, is a forty-minute Screamers live set from a 1979 show at the Whisky. The sound alone is the cleanest I’ve heard of the band to date, and the band is in fine form. Also included are the aforementioned conversation with Daalder, snippets from documentaries about Al Hansen and Vampira, bits of the earlier films that were strip mined to make Population: 1, and some music videos, most interestingly one for a Penelope Houston song called “Girls,” which appears to be the third version of a tune originally done by the Avengers as “Second to None” and post-Sex Pistols band The Professionals as “One, Two, Three.” –Jimmy Alvarado (www.cultepics.com)