I watched this documentary — part of PBS’s “Independent Lens” program — on Netflix streaming the other night and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’m sure at some point everyone has seen those ads in the backs of magazines offering to set your poems or lyrics to music, and probably never gave ’em much thought — surely it’s just a scam, right? Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story explores the people behind those ads and the people who send in their poems, and the results are almost hypnotic.
The musical hopefuls we meet include Caglar Juan Singletary (“Non-Violent TaeKwonDo Troopers,” “Annie Oakley”) and Gary Forney (“Three-Eyed Boy,” “Chicken Insurrection”), and among the tunesmiths who turn the words into music are Art Kaufman and Gene Merlino (who won a Grammy in 1966 as part of the Anita Kerr Singers). The songs they (and the other folks we meet) come up with are sure as hell never gonna land on the Billboard Hot 100, but they’re freakishly listenable, and I’ll say this — in comparison to the gibbering-simpleton lyrics of Lady Gaga, these guys are Lennon & McCartney.
It would’ve been very easy for the film to fall into mean-spirited sniggering at the expense of the people it profiles, but it doesn’t come off that way at all. Gary Forney has gone on record complaining that the filmmakers deliberately made him look like a chump, but it didn’t seem that way to me. If anyone in the movie seems goofy, that isn’t through the magic of editing — some of these people are kinda goofy, but that’s part of the charm. In fact, the movie really comes off as an affectionate look at a funky little slice of Americana.
Off the Charts: The Song Poem Story is available on DVD and, as I mentioned, Netflix streaming — but thanks to the miracle of the Internet, you can also see the entire film embedded right here (or visit the PBS website).