Found soundtracks: Zachariah

By Daniel Spicer

The psychedelic period of the late 1960s/early 1970s produced a number of movies that sought to incorporate youth music with film. From the elegiac tragedy of Easy Rider to the Monkees’ Day-Glo comedy Head, the best of these represented and reflected the era’s curious mix of turbulence and naïveté.

And then there was Zachariah. This head-scratcher from 1971 was directed by George Englund (who’d previously worked with Marlon Brando on 1963’s The Ugly American) and featured a script by cult US comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre, with a storyline loosely based on Herman Hesse’s hippy-pleasing novel of spiritual discovery Siddhartha. It tells the tale of the improbably beautiful and white-toothed Zachariah (played by John Rubinstein) who, with his equally dreamy young friend, Matthew (a 21-year-old Don Johnson, later of Miami Vice fame), sets out to pursue the glamorous life of a gunfighter. Clearly, the film broadly falls into the genre of Acid Western, alongside classics such as Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, released the same year, and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid from 1973: movies that attempted to address countercultural concerns (Zachariah and Matthew’s first scene together has them sharing a joint), within the Western milieu. But, while most films of this genre explored serious themes and maintained an element of verisimilitude, Zachariah blasts off somewhere else entirely. Almost singlehandedly creating a new genre, the publicity blurb excitedly trumpeted it as ‘the first and only Electric Western.’

In this instance, ‘electric’ essentially means ‘psychedelic rock.’ The opening scene captures power trio The James Gang rocking-out in the desert with huge amps plugged right into the sand, while Zachariah runs around firing a pistol into the air. It’s the kind of temporal incongruity you might find in Thomas Pynchon’s epic Western novel Against the Day, in which dynamite-chucking anarchists get bombed on peyote and hallucinogenic explosive putty. But Zachariah becomes still more disorientating as its protagonists’ adventures lead them into surprising encounters with a range of real-life musicians. San Francisco’s psychedelic pioneers, Country Joe and the Fish, play The Crackers – a gang of inept outlaws whose performances induce unrestrained go-go dancing in respectably attired frontierswomen; fiddler Doug Kershaw – aka The Ragin’ Cajun – makes a lightning cameo with a yodelling piece of plot exposition; and, strangest of all, Elvin Jones, arguably the greatest jazz drummer of all time and veteran of the late John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet, turns up as the suave gunslinger, Job Cain, shooting a man dead before bashing out a drum solo.

The result is oddly surreal – but not in the way that Jodorowsky’s nightmarish Western allegory, El Topo (released in 1970) is surreal. In tone and execution, Zachariah seems closer to the closing scenes from Mel Brooks’ screwball Western spoof, 1974’s Blazing Saddles, in which the cast spills off the set and into the bustling streets of downtown 1970s Burbank. Zachariah’s fairly negligible storyline makes a half-hearted lunge at profundity – clumsily advocating pacifism and brotherhood – but it’s so flimsy that, in the end, all that’s left is the music: an eclectic mix of rock, pop, folk and jazz that fails to hang together with the conviction of the equally wide-ranging soundtrack to Antonioni’s 1970 countercultural lament Zabriskie Point.

Ultimately, the fact that the soundtrack to Zachariah has been out of print and unavailable for so many years hardly seems to matter. You probably had to be there.

Daniel Spicer writes for The Wire and Jazzwise magazines. He presents a weekly radio show, 'The Mystery Lesson', on Brighton's Radio Reverb FM, playing new releases in improvised music. He also performs in the chaotic electro-acoustic improvising sextet, Bolide.

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