Jumping on the "Hard Day's Night" bandwagon and featuring worse gags and production values than any episode of "The Monkees," the infinitely more ridiculous "The Ghost Goes Gear" follows the comedic exploits of The Spencer Davis Group in a haunted house. That's it. Even though that probably tells you enough to decide if you want to see it or not, more comments are in order. This was once a quite obscure film, but the fine people at Anchor Bay recovered it, cleaned it up, and added a wonderful commentary from Spencer Davis and humorist Martin Lewis. The film looks and sounds beautiful, and if you have ever wanted to see it, this will definitely satisfy you.
For a bit of full disclosure, I am a casual fan of The Spencer Davis Group and a bigger fan of Steve Winwood's later career, which is why this caught my eye. The plot begins when the group's manager invites them to his huge and haunted family estate, with his crazy mother and father and kooky servants in residence. Many shenanigans ensue: learn if drums float; see Steve Winwood push a wheelbarrow; get a load of some absolutely wretched physical comedy (particularly the painful "we're looking for a fish" scene); check out the groovy clothes; there's even a botany lesson and a pseudo-kidnapping (don't ask); and, of course, let's not forget the presence of the singing Elizabethan ghost with a guitar. Director Hugh Gladwish never made another movie after this one, and you will see why. (The joke on the commentary was that he had said all there was to say about the human condition here, so how could he top this?) Indeed, this became a dead end for many of the cast and crew members, although some continued on in sundry other projects.
Nicholas Parsons plays the manager, Algernon Rowthorpe Plumley ("Algie,") with vigor and understated panache in what is easily the best performance in the film, but nothing can really help the material, particularly given the directorial direction the film took. I had an especially difficult time taking Polly the maid's (Sheila White) endless mugging for the camera, not to even mention her singing and dancing (which makes Elaine Benes look positively graceful.) At least she's dancing to a Steve Winwood instrumental piece, so just close your eyes and enjoy the soundtrack. Speaking of the soundtrack, the film's musical director was John Shakespeare, who with his wife Joan, were largely in charge of the musical selections chosen. Interestingly, they stayed away from The Spencer Davis Group's hits, and went with more obscure songs from their then-contemporary set list, which is a mixed blessing. Some of the choices are tepid, while others are inspired: I especially loved Steve's somewhat country-bluesy version of "Midnight Special" which lyrically appears to substitute "Wooster" for "Houston," though even after listening three times I wasn't quite sure if it was his accent or a deliberate nod to the UK audience. Whatever the case, it's the highlight of the film. Understand, of course, that everything is lip-synched with no live playing present in the film. Not that it's a great loss, as the studio versions undoubtedly would sound better anyhow, but at least plug cords into the guitars. Speaking of gaffes, continuity was provided by Margot Vanderpant: watch out for minor but amusing continuity errors.
Sadly, most of the music is not provided by The Spencer Davis Group, and many utterly forgettable groups have their moment of fame singing at the concert at Rowthorpe Hall (actually filmed at Puttenden Manor, Lingfield, Surrey) when the plot degenerates entirely in the musical garden party designed to save Algie's childhood estate. This is, of course, just an excuse to showcase badly lip-synched cut rate pop songs at a haunted house. The good news is you can spot some really cool vintage electric guitars if you care. (It beats paying attention to the music itself most of the time.) The musical tedium is somewhat like a 1960s variety show, most of which happens in the courtyard of the home, though some artistically drifts further afield, which is particularly noteworthy in the wretched numbers from Dave Berry, who likes to hide in trees and behind things (note the oddest use of Queen Anne's lace ever in a music video....I hope he wasn't an allergy sufferer.) After acts like Acker Bilk, The Lorne Gibson Trio, The St. Louis Union (they get a lot of screen time,) The Three Bells, and M6 (yes, named after the English highway, and featuring a peculiar dual lead singer arrangement) have their say, the film ends in a decidedly silly and anticlimactic manner. If I had finished the DVD there I would have been generally disappointed, certainly unamused, and feeling profoundly ripped off from a musical perspective. I probably would have given the film two stars generously, and forgotten about it. Then I watched it with the commentary.
The commentary with the good-natured Spencer Davis, and exceptionally knowledgeable Martin Lewis totally made this movie worthwhile. Rarely has a commentary track been so much better than the underlying material: it was an absolute joy to listen to and was much more entertaining than the film itself. The two are very conversational, and recollect much about the film and people behind it. I was amused to listen to the discussion of Nicolas Parsons playing a pre-Python "Upper Class Twit" possibly inspired by Peter Sellers. Likewise the attitudes of the individual band members about the movie were insightful: drummer Pete York was wildly enthusiastic and was clearly the ham of the group; Davis was likewise enthusiastic; Muff Winwood less so, and Steve Winwood is described as the least interested in the project, which makes total sense given his subsequent departure for Traffic and career. The commentary frequently departs on wild and hilarious tangents such as Davis' good teeth and dental care regimen, a discussion of traditional Morris dancing (enjoy the otherworldly thread connecting it with the "Safety Dance"!), the history of speed limits in Britain, a recollection of Dave Berry as the most successful artist in the history of the Dutch pop music charts (!), and even a humorous analogy of The Three Bells as "an early 'Spice Girls' without the spice." To reveal more of their insight and wit would perhaps make it less enjoyable to hear firsthand, but believe me when I tell you this commentary is both fascinating from a historical perspective, and personally funny from a crucial participant in the 1960's music scene.
After watching the film and the commentary I recommend "The Ghost Goes Gear" to anyone with an affinity for 1960s music, and particularly for fans of Spencer Davis or Steve Winwood. The film itself is what you would probably expect from reading the first sentence of my review (maybe even a little worse,) but the commentary goes a long way toward redeeming this pop music oddity. Enjoy it for what it is, but whatever you do, don't stop without watching the commentary.