Let's share a moment of holiday season realness: Your favorite Christmas song sucks. Maybe not the song itself, but there's not a lot of artistry in the cookie-cutter recordings that surface year to year. Jingle Bell Rocks! — screening this week at the Brooks Museum of Art — is a big-hearted documentary film haunted by the ghost of Christmas music past. It features interviews with an eclectic group of artists ranging from soul legend Clarence Carter and trash filmmaker John Waters to Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips and Rev. Joseph "Run" Simmons of Run DMC. But the film's most interesting subjects by far are a ragtag group of vinyl-obsessed music collectors who sift through tons of old Christmas LPs and 45 rpm records, searching for lost classics, irresistible oddities, and the secret history of holiday music.
Director/producer Mitchell Kezin's drive to collect Christmas music is uncomfortably obsessive. He drips with sweat as he digs through record bins, filling up his shopping baskets, moaning because there's so much vinyl and so little time. Kezin was raised by his mom in a single-parent home, and Nat King Cole's "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot" is a bittersweet relic of childhood and the place where his drive to find better holiday music begins. It ends — for the sake of his film, anyway — with tears of joy in calypso promoter Rawlston Charles' Brooklyn recording studio.
Obviously, there's one big reason to check out Jingle Bell Rocks!: The soundtrack is fantastic. It covers the waterfront from commercial hits to song poems. Choice tracks include "Christmas is Love" by James Brown, "Fat Daddy Claus" by Fat Daddy Johnson, "Long Way Around the Sea" by Low, "Merry Christmas Pretty Baby" by Jessie Mae Hemphill, and a new calypso version of "The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot" by the Mighty Sparrow.