The late, great Jerry Leiber along with Mike Stoller will be remembered for writing dozens of rock and roll hits, practically inventing that written art form. Many contributions ended up in Elvis Presley’s films, most notably the title tune “Jailhouse Rock.” Despite the massive success of the film and the landmark hit single, however, the pair was only able to contribute songs and not score entire films.
The duo was already frustrated with the music industry, claiming record execs didn’t adequately pay royalties for tunes like “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown” and other million-sellers. This conflict prompted them to form their own record labels, Red Bird (for more pop-oriented tunes) and Blue Cat (for blues/R&B). For a few years in the mid-60’s the labels exploded on the charts with massive hit tunes from The Shangri-Las, The Dixie Cups and The Ad-Libs among others. Despite the great success of the girl group pop rock sound, Leiber and Stoller were, by some accounts, not thrilled with that genre.
The onset of psychedelia, funky soul and an ever-growing youth dissension found Leiber and Stoller floundering a bit in the late 60s. Rock and roll had grown from rebelling against teachers and parents to a profound questioning of much broader authorities, such as governments, corporations and religions. Leiber and Stoller were old school and left to write hit songs performed by artists like Leslie Uggams and Peggy Lee (“Is That All There Is?”)
Imagine then getting the chance to score an entire rock and roll movie? Great idea, no? Actually, no, it wasn’t.
The movie they were allowed to write all the music for–The Phynx–turned out to be a massive misfire. It was a rock musical comedy about a band created to infiltrate Albania, where dozens of “world leaders” (such as Xavier Cugat, Colonel Sanders and Ruby Keeler) are detained, and bust them out of that commie country. In order for the rock group (The Phynx) to be formed, its individual members are “drafted” by the U.S. government and given training by characters played by Clint Walker, Richard Pryor and Dick Clark. With intelligence agency backing, The Phynx then set out to become the greatest selling rock band in history, so they can eventually be invited into Albania and pull off the daring rescue plan. Huh?
The Phynx is a case of the wrong film made at the wrong time with the wrong people. But it’s an incredibly fascinating train wreck of a movie that to this day remains unreleased (I’m not even sure it made movie theaters). Director Lee H. Katzin (Le Mans) tries but never makes the material rise above the level of a TV movie. The story developers were Bob Booker and George Foster, who produced political and Jewish comedy albums in the 1960s. They wrote the gags for the fantastic “The First Family” in 1962, the only comedy album ever to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. They continued producing important political comedy discs during the 1960’s. But by 1970, much of the world had changed and their gags lost whatever edginess their earlier comedy albums had. Still, the mix of rock music and politics held promise.
The person to really sink The Phynx was screenwriter Stan Cornyn, whose only other screen writing credit was…nothing. He wrote liner notes for 2 of Sinatra’s record albums and was an exec at Warner Brothers Records (very convenient since Warner Bros./Seven Arts produced the movie). While riots and political assassinations were going on in the real world, Cornyn tried to create a goofy Monkees-style gagfest where the government pre-fab four eventually becomes agreeable with their kidnappers (pre-Patty Hearst). With The Monkees already trying to change their image on the big screen with the movie Head, The Phynx‘s attempted innocent charm looks embarrassingly outdated. Indeed, the result was that the movie became the most pro-establishment rock movie of the late 60s or perhaps ever.
Leiber and Stoller’s music, unfortunately, seemed to contribute to the naivete of The Phynx. Not that the tunes were bad. In fact, some of the charming songs were recorded by the likes of Peggy Lee, Mandy Patinkin, Nancy Wilson and The Boys in the Band. Songs like “I’ve Got Them Feelin’ Too Good Today Blues” and “What is Your Sign?” are nice pop tunes deserving more attention and performance.It would be a good idea to reissue the soundtrack of The Phynx without the encumbrance of the movie. This happened a few years ago with a reissue of the soundtrack for Skidoo, the 1968 Otto Preminger disaster, allowing the listener to hear the great score by George Tipton and Harry Nilsson. Who knows? Perhaps there’ll be a newfound understanding, a strange sort of subversive element to The Phynx I’m missing.
The Phynx Soundtrack:
(Let’s Have a Hand for) The Boys in the Band
They Say That You’re Mad
Trip with Me
You Know the Feeling
What is Your Sign?
M.O.T.H.A.’s Theme (Mike Stoller only)
Phantasy for Phynx (Mike Stoller only)
Here’s the opening credits for the movie. Notice Leiber and Stoller’s credit right at the start.