Jingle Bell Rocks Dir. Mitchel Kezin

[Oscilloscope Laboratories; 2014]

Styles: documentary
Others: Searching for Sugar Man, Gates of Heaven, Comic Book Confidential, Battered Bastards of Baseball

I’ve often bemoaned the aesthetic and structural sameness of modern documentaries, but I’ve started to realize something: none of the stuff that typically gets on my nerves (talking heads, cute little animated bits, sentimentality) really bothers me that much when there’s actually a good story to tell. It’s certainly great, essential even, to see people stretch the formula, but perhaps it isn’t strictly necessary to make an entertaining film.

Jingle Bell Rocks, a new documentary about Christmas music collectors by Mitchell Kezin, doesn’t do anything new with modern documentary forms, but all the usual tricks are performed with aplomb and charm. The film is funny and moving, and if you’re a record collector or obsessive collector of anything, it’s also wholly relatable (one collector even echoes precisely my own reasons for record collecting: “It’s not a game where you can say, y’know, ‘here are the two hundred records that are the holy grail, find them and you are an aficionado.’ This is more about digging for the unknown”).

These men (and yes, Christmas music collecting seems to be about as male-dominated as record collecting in general, if not more so) scour record stores, flea markets, and the like, relentlessly dredging the bottom of the proverbial barrel in search of the most off-the-wall Christmas music ever made. There’s no glory to be had, and it’s unlikely to ever become hip: a superlative holiday mix and the thrill of the hunt are the only reward. That’s not to say that the hobby doesn’t attract luminaries: John Waters (of course), Wayne Coyne (of course), and WFMU’s Irwin Chusid (of course, unfortunately, but don’t get me started) all have a word or two to say on the subject, and bop legend/Schoolhouse Rock co-creator Bob Dorough and Run-D.M.C.’s Rev. Run even provide inside insights on Christmas music production. Still, the most interesting parts of Jingle Bell Rocks are about the dedicated, relatively anonymous collectors for whom collecting Christmas records is simply an integral part of their quiet lives.

Other than general dorkiness, the main thing that ties Jingle Bell Rocks’s subjects together is an ambivalence regarding holiday sentimentality. As collectors, they’re all seeking Christmas music that has either a knowing wink or a complete disregard for tradition; at the same time, though, they’re drawn to Christmas music for achingly personal, often nostalgic reasons. In this light, the hunt for oddball Christmas music looks not unlike Charlie Brown’s hunt for the holiday spirit: rather than looking to undermine Christmas, these collectors long to peer through the bullshit all the way to the other side, to gain access to a mystical winter wonderland where Christmas can be as joyful for them as it seems to be for everyone else.

Kezin, a Christmas music collector himself, plays heavily into the film’s narrative. Obviously, it’s dicey territory for a documentary filmmaker to worm his way in front of the camera, but unlike Michael Moore or the “protagonist” of this year’s Finding Vivian Maier, Kezin’s presence is endearing, more a reflection of enthusiasm than ego. He knows that his hobby is one of the nerdiest things imaginable and making this film seems almost like a tool for coming to terms with that.

Getting into the holiday spirit is hard for a lot of people. Let it be said that, in its enthusiasm and nerdiness, Jingle Bell Rocks has helped me do just that. No mean feat… get your jollies (pun intended) where you can, I guess.

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