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- Published on Amazon.com
Have you ever heard of Caglar Juan Singletary (the man behind the song `Non-Violent Taekwondo Troopers')? No? How about Nilson V. Ortiz (The Thing), or Gary Forney (Chicken Insurrection)? Probably not...should you know these individuals? Not unless you're kin...so why am I bringing them up? Well, I think many of us have seen the tiny, little ads in magazines (usually in the back), tabloids, or comic books that entice readers to send in poems and have them translated into songs, with the inference of possibly entering the music business and/or reaping the accompanying rewards (be they in the form of recognition or financial, or both) only to dismiss them as scams and wonder just what kind of people fall for such foolishness? Well, the three I mentioned earlier are individuals who responded to such ads at one point or another, and have all had their words transmogrified into songs, for better or for worse...
In the documentary Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story (2003), Jamie Meltzer allows us a glimpse behind those ads I mentioned previously, detailing not only those with aspirations of having their words transformed into songs, but also those craftsmen who take on the responsibility turning someone's dreams into a vinyl reality, for a price, of course...as the film begins, Meltzer examines this rather extensive subculture, focusing on a relatively small, eclectic group within the whole, specifically the more inspired (or demented, depending on your view) elements. How it actually works is you would send in your poem to the advertisement listed, and they would respond telling you they will take your poem and turn it into a professionally produced song, complete with singer and musical accompaniment. All you have to do is send in some cash...and it's usually not a meager sum, but then what price can you put on stardom? Once the cash was received, the work would begin, and a record produced, with a copy of going back to you.
While watching this documentary, I think what surprised me most was seeing the level of professionalism and seriousness displayed by the individuals or companies who turn these submissions into music. They weren't especially high tech, and usually worked alone out of their homes, but they didn't appear to be in the business of scamming or fleecing these people of their money (although I'm sure some are). They truly seemed interested in providing what they advertised, despite the quality of the material they often received, and believe me, there is a level of awfulness that goes beyond comprehension (this seems sort of an absurd aspect, to have accomplished musicians work with generally such amateurish material). There was a very creepy element about some of these individuals who submitted their works, but you won't be able to deny the sincerity in their desires. They didn't appear to have delusions about stardom, but only wished to hear their words in a format that could be enjoyed by others...and as creepy as some of these people may seem, they really can't compare to those who actually collect this material, those who scrounge, scavenge, and pontificate the virtues of said music...these guys probably scared me the most (probably because I could identify with them more than anyone else in the film). I think the part I liked the most was when we saw, in a split screen, the artist performing a song, and the person who wrote the poem hearing the song for the first time. It's funny how these original writers react to hearing the songs created from their words, especially when they get something not quite what they expected. The film closes with one individual, now that he has his words translated into to music, deciding it's time to take his music to the people, and he and his son go on tour (all of one stop...you gotta start somewhere).
The actual documentary lasts about an hour, and the rest is made up of a plethora of special features including a director and producer commentary track, Sunburst Studio sessions (featuring the recording of six songs), deleted scenes (7 in all), a feature called the Iowa Mountain Tour, Live!, `Off the Charts' premiere party, Columbine Records Presents `America Sing!'(a variety TV show featuring a number of songs), and a song-poem advertisement gallery with commentary. If you enjoy this, I would also recommend the book/CD combo Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (I think someone already mentioned it), and another film titled Driver 23/Atlas Moth (2002), which doesn't so much pertain to `outsider' music, but is a great film about one mans dedication to his craft and the lengths to which he goes through in following his dreams.