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'You Can't Do That On Film': A Performance Documentary Without Performance Footage

The box for the DVD of the film You Can't Do That On Film.
Shout! Factory

You Can't Do That On Film, an independently made 2004 documentary about Nickelodeon's '80s-afternoon staple You Can't Do That On Television, comes out today on DVD. It's got a treasure trove of interviews from an impressive number of the show's kid stars (Alasdair! Hey, Moose!), now adults who, almost to a person, look back on the sketch show with nothing but affection.

There are also some enlightening discussions of the show's origins with creator Roger Price and director Geoffrey Darby, who explain how their respect for their young charges (and disdain for most children's television) resulted in an happy anything-goes environment. The DVD extras include highlights from the 2002 and 2004 fan conventions, including a montage of people happily lining up to be slimed.

Just about the only thing that it's missing is footage from You Can't Do That On Television.

That, as it happens, is a problem. For all of the fan's passion that director David Dillehunt put into the movie, the absence of clips from the show in question (thanks to rights issues, one would presume) leaves it only half-finished. It's a violation of the "show, don't tell" rule, requiring that Dillehunt talk around a topic that he's unable to approach directly.

The result is former castmember after former castmember telling stories connected to specific incidents, sketches and entire shows that are left up to the viewer's imagination. Most egregious is hearing everybody extol the comic genius of the late Les Lye (the primary, and for a time only, adult performer on the show), when all that the movie can offer up to illustrate it is a slideshow of still photos of the many characters he played. It's not sufficient.

The project was clearly a labor of love for Dillehunt, whose effort in uncovering information about his subject and tracking down the people involved in the show for thorough, lively interviews is evident. But without sitting side-by-side with the show he loves so much, Dillehunt's legwork might have been better served as research for a book, rather than a film. As it stands, anybody who grew up watching the show is forced to struggle to remember the episodes in question with scant help from the movie. Anybody who never saw the show at all is left completely adrift. "You'll have to take our word for it," is what You Can't Do That On Film seems to say.

This practice actually isn't all that uncommon among a certain class of documentaries that show up on DVD. Music documentaries are especially vulnerable, since it's far easier to rope some talking heads together, drop in some non-performance footage (contemporary interviews and the like) and wrap it up with narration that fills in the gaps than it is to clear the legal and financial hurdles necessary to include the music that demonstrates why anyone cares about the story to begin with.

(As a side note, Beatles DVDs in particular seem to be the most extreme example of this phenomenon, due to both Apple Records' tight grip on how it allows their music to be used and the abundance of cameras and microphones directed at the lads even when they weren't on stage. Many of the documentaries in question try to work around this by using background music designed to ape the Beatles as closely as possible, even going through the various phases of their songs' evolution, without outright plagiarizing. It only highlights how flat the attempts fall, like a musical equivalent of the Uncanny Valley.)

That's one reason why Bob Dylan And The Band: Down In The Flood, which came out at the end of September, is such a jolt. It has interviews with folks who were in the trenches during that collaboration – including Band keyboardist Garth Hudson, drummer Mickey Jones from the 1966 English tour, Band producer John Simon – as well as Dylan scholars and rock critics who know what they're talking about.

It also starts out with Dylanesque instrumental tracks underscoring the footage and talking heads, which isn't promising; it implies that it's possible to illustrate the importance of something with an inferior copy. (It's not.) Some TV and concert film of drummer Levon Helm's early band and pre-Dylan Band cohort Ronnie Hawkins follow, but those are background, not the story itself.

And then suddenly, a quarter of an hour in, we're looking at – and hearing – Dylan's famous clip for "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and it generates a palpable sense of relief. From there, Down In The Flood confidently tells the story it wants to tell, complete with the songs necessary to tell it, from footage from the famous 1966 concert at Manchester's Free Trade Hall (complete with the infamous "Judas!"/"Play [really quite] loud" moment, about which Jones has his own theories in the DVD extras) to songs from the loose recording sessions that would result in The Basement Tapes. At one point, it seems like the movie includes Johnny Cash performing "Big River" just to show off.

While Down In The Flood doesn't offer the same amount of music as, say, Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home, it includes enough to make the points that it wants to make without having to resort to fakery or simple description. That's precisely where You Can't Do That On Film falls down. Without examples of the footage being discussed, the best a performance documentary can hope to be is a framework waiting for the rest of the story to be filled in.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Hirsh lives in the Boston area, where he indulges in the magic trinity of improv comedy, competitive adult four square and music journalism. He has won trophies for one of these, but refuses to say which.

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