The 1968 United States Presidential Election was chaos. Less than five years after the assassination of John F Kennedy, incumbent president Lyndon Johnson backed out of the primaries, making way for Robert Kennedy as the likely Democratic presidential candidate. Robert Kennedy is assassinated in June, two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Riots and Vietnam War protests raged, and two-time loser Richard Nixon was enacting his “Southern Strategy.” Chicago Mayor Richard Daley made a show of force as tear gas and police brutality were nationally televised at the Democratic National Convention and anti-war protestors shouted “THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING.” We wind up with a race between Nixon and underdog Hubert Humphrey while brutal racist George Wallace is making waves as a third party candidate. The nation was reeling (you might remember the feeling from 2016) and American International Pictures couldn’t have been more in sync with the national tone when it dropped Wild In the Streets onto screens in May of 1968.
Wild In the Streets is a culture war satire about all American boy Max Frost (played by Christopher Jones) as he ascends from childhood troublemaker to revolutionary rock star and eventually to President of the United States. Little Max is shown getting into boys-will-be-boys trouble like playing doctor, cooking LSD, and blowing up his parent’s car. Next time we find Max he’s living the life of a rich, eccentric rock star surrounded by his band (The Troopers) and their girlfriends, kids, and groupies. When Senate candidate Johnny Fergus (played by a youngish Hal Holbrook) runs on a platform attempting to lower the voting age to 18, he asks Max to perform at his rally. Max has a headstrong arrogance that can only be borne out of an environment of radical politics and self-made wealth; he surprises Fergus with a song called “14 or Fight,” advocating for a voting age of 14. Max successfully expands his brand out of the teeny bopper crowd and onto the political page of national newspapers. From there Max’s girlfriend is elected to the Senate, the entire floor of congress is dosed with acid, Max’s estranged mom (the force of nature that is Shelly Winters) shows up, and peppered throughout the film are countless demonstrations and rallies. Once in the Oval Office (as a Republican), 24 year old Max turns out to be a unique type of fascist and the film ends with a stinging line delivered by a young boy that you’ll quote for the rest of your life.
Written by Robert Thom and based on his 1966 Esquire short story, “The Day It All Happened, Baby,” the film was one in a handful of AIP’s youth revolt movies – the kids that paid to see Beach Party in 1963 had grown up – and with a budget of $1 million, it was their most expensive film at that point. The issue of lowering the voting age had been a topic of discussion since the 40s, but the explosion of youth population brought the topic to the forefront of the political conscience in the 60s. Eventually the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution is ratified in 1971, lowering the voting age to 18. Wild In the Streets represents the (as it turns out legitimate) fears of what would happen if the Baby Boomers were allowed to vote. The film may have been marketed to a youth market, but it was written from the perspective of Thom and Holbrook’s generation. While each generation must bear the burden of their own actions in the film, there is a guilty introspection surrounding the middle aged characters, still able to affect change, but ultimately seeing change as radical or unwise. The hilariously paranoid idea of a horde of kids electing their favorite rock star is also obviously from a middle aged mind.
AIP is often accused of making low-budget fare (and they certainly have been guilty of putting out more than a few quickies), but the only moments in Wild In the Streets where the seams show are during crowd scenes where it’s clear that the mobs of teens we’re supposed to be seeing are either stock footage or they simply don’t exist. The performances of Holbrook and Jones speaking in front of crowds patches this deficiency, however. The practice of hiring talented performers either ahead of or just past their peak pays off here, particularly with Shelly Winters as Max’s mother. If it seems that everyone is injecting an overboard intensity into their performance, it’s probably only an effort to match Winter’s casual frothing madness. It’s hard to say where Christopher Jones would have landed if he had stuck with acting; his Max Frost performance is part Neil Diamond and part Jim Morrison. He quit acting after the Manson murders (he was having an affair with a pregnant Sharon Tate just before the murders), but it would be easy to imagine him appearing on Columbo or competing against Russ Tamblyn for the role of Dr. Jacoby in Twin Peaks.
The beating heart of Wild In The Streets is the surprise hit soundtrack produced by Mike Curb. The fictional Max Frost and the Troopers are as colorful a presence as you could hope for in a hippy rock and roll film from 1968, the bass player is a 15 year old attorney (played by Kevin Coughlin), the trumpet player named Abraham Salteene (played by Joey Bishop’s son Larry Bishop) sports a hook in place of his left hand, and Stanley X, the drummer, is played by Richard Pryor. The band performs a number of songs during the film, but the (uncredited) bulk of the recording duty was performed by Mike Curb’s hired hands Davie Allan and the Arrows. You might know that name as the group that performed all of the fuzzed out instrumental rock from all of those AIP biker movies, notably Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966). The song “Shape of Things to Come” was written by hitmakers Cynthia Weil with her husband Barry Mann and it became popular enough to prompt a soundtrack LP (featuring music from Les Baxter) and a full Max Frost album. As an important side note, the liner notes for the Max Frost album feature a poem written by the Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm.
Ultimately, Wild In the Streets was an extension of the counterculture films AIP had been making since The Wild Angels. Of course, it wound up making a bunch of money for AIP, but political satire was not a theme they would explicitly court the way they did other successes. The studio may have even been disappointed with the box office totals which were far less than Roger Corman’s hit LSD film The Trip (1967). Looking at the other films being released in 1968, it’s no wonder AIP essentially ditched the hippies; Lindsay Anderson’s If…, Paul Morrissey’s Flesh, even Bob Rafelson’s Head starring The Monkees seemed more in touch with the youth of the time. Maybe the squares at the top saw Otto Preminger’s flop Skidoo or Christian Marquand’s disaster Candy and knew it was good time to pull out. Or maybe they knew dirty hippies just don’t spend money on movies.