Thursday, October 19, 2023

Big Time (1988): A Review



I am neither a Tom Waits fan or a Tom Waits hater. Truth be told, I think I know the name more than the music. That is, until I saw Big Time, his combination concert film experimental performance piece. It is a good introduction to Waits' music, though perhaps a bit odd for most people.

Divided into three acts, Big Time intercuts Waits performing two concerts in Los Angeles and San Francisco with some performances as a kind of oddball Master of Ceremonies. As he performs on stage, one sees a surprisingly magnetic performer. We get a good variety of songs, which are in my view quite good. Down in the Hole, for example, makes him sound and look like a ragged Jim Morrisson. Innocent When You Dream (Barroom), which closes the concert (Big Black Mariah plays over the credits) is a good song, albeit a strange one. 

Waits' gravelly, growly voice mostly speaks a lot of his lyrics versus singing them. Waits is scratchier than say Leonard Cohen but surprisingly softer than late Bob Dylan. His performance style is also curiously like Joe Cocker, almost flaying about with slightly possessed glee. Waits is also quite theatrical in Big Time when performing either on stage or in filmed sections directed by Chris Blum. 

Whether you think Tom Waits is artistic or crazy is up to you. His performance style seems to have him perpetually hunched over when he is not sitting at the piano. The aforementioned Down in the Hole intercuts his song with him doing a faux-preacher manner on a stage. It works well, though it does also come across as slightly bonkers. 

His dialogue at times makes a case that he is crazy. As he attempts to be some kind of barker to attract men to a strip club, he calls out that the women went beyond XXX to being girls without skin. That kind of almost outrageous manner lends Big Time a bit of a kooky manner. It is watchable, if a bit odd for some people. 

Questions on his sanity continue when he performs a song under an umbrella on fire. One watches, if not in shock, at least in mesmerized puzzlement. It does give one an idea of what a Tom Waits concert would be like, though it is hard to know if all the theatricality he had.

Big Time is a pretty lost film, having never been released on DVD and rarely screened. I understand that at one point, no prints could be found. I think Tom Waits fans will enjoy Big Time. Those of us who have barely a passing acquaintance with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member will find things to like though be warned: it can be a bit oddball. 

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