Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story (2003)
Like a warped fun-house mirror, the song-poem industry has run parallel to the mainstream music business for close to a century; it’s estimated that over 200,000 song-poems have been recorded since 1900. The genre’s durability can be traced to three of our deepest American desires – to be in show business, to get rich quick, and to share and express our deepest feelings. We meet several of the “songwriters” – from an elderly woman to a young African-American man to a small-town Iowan with big-time dreams – each of whom has been in the “business” for awhile, churning out odd compositions that cover the waterfront of American obsessions, from Jesus to genitalia, from politics to Elvis. We also meet the producers (often known as song-sharks) who hold out the tantalizing promise of fame to their eager customers, and the has-been musicians who sit in studios, day after day and year after year, interpreting some of the weirdest lyrics ever written. Through fellow musicians and his son, Ellery Eskelin, one of the most eloquent fans of song-poem records, we learn about the life and tragic death of the man aficionados consider the greatest song-poem interpreter of all time, Rodney Keith Eskelin. Using a variety of stage names, this would-be classical composer brought an eerie beauty to many of the song-poems he recorded before ending his career and life by jumping onto a Hollywood freeway. As filmmaker Meltzer says, “The beauty of song-poems is that they are a result of the intersection, or collision, of ordinary people’s expressions and the desires of musicians/businesses to make a quick buck, making the music as fast as they can, usually in one take. When those two forces combine, they create strangely compelling songs that are unlike anything you’ve ever heard.” Shocking, funny and heart-wrenching all at once, OFF THE CHARTS is a fascinating look at one of the strangest subcultures in our American landscape.