Friday, November 1, 2013

5 Q Movie Review: Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

Q: Do you have to be a fan of The Morton Downey Jr. Show" to enjoy this movie?

A: I don't believe so, but if you did watch the show, you will absolutely love this. If Mort drove you crazy back in the day, you still might appreciate the behind the scenes on the guy and the short-lived phenomenon that was his confrontational WOR tri-state area (then syndicated nationally) talk show. If you liked Mort then, well...(See #4)

Q: Do we get the real story on Mort's persona and the "Skniheads attacked me" incident?

A: You don't exactly get footage of the late Downey himself saying, "Yeah, it was all an act, and I made up the Skinhead attack for publicity," but there are enough key interviews with, say, show producers, that reveal that stuff. One of Mort's oldest friends and songwriting partner confirms the hoax thing, and the movie doesn't necessarily outright say the political slant on the show was whatever would get ratings, but it does establish that the host was basically doing a character. I'm not sure the fact that Downey was a big friend and follower of Ted Kennedy in the sixties is as important or as revelatory as the documentary seems to think it is, but there is a lot of evidence to that as well, most courtesy of a former Kennedy aide who knew Mort ("Sean"back then) back in the day. The movie isn't a hatchet job, though, and it presents a balanced, insightful look at a character who went way over the top. Some of the cartoon segments are a little over the top, too.

Q: Wait, is there animation in this?

A: There is, and in fact, the animated sequence at the beginning made me think, "Uh-oh..." I feared that "style" would overwhelm substance in this documentary. To the contrary, stylistic flourishes like the cartoon segments enhance the story. More conventional documentary aspects like old footage and talking heads are also used well. Hey, anyone who watched WOR 9 or any New York TV  in the eighties will enjoy appearances by the likes of Alan Dershowitz, Al Sharpton, Richard Bey, Chris Elliott...

Wait, Chris Elliott? Yep, he's a talking head here, which alone is almost enough to recommend the documentary.

Q: So does the movie make you want to see some old episodes?

A: I don't know. Part of me does want to dig up some of the shows and see them again, but another part of me thinks, "How did I get into this stuff in the first place?" The documentary shows just enough to get a real taste of what the show was like, and I do want to see an episode or two, but I don't think I'd shell out for a bootleg set of multiple episodes. If someone wants to put them up on YouTube, I won't complain! The other thing to remember, and a point that "Evocateur" makes clear, is that even in the show's heyday, it burned out really, really fast.

Q: Most importantly, do we get to hear any of "Hey There, Mr. Dealer"?

A: Yes! Hey, folks, remember when an album called "Morton Downey Jr. Sings" came out and MTV actually played a music video from it? Well, if you don't, you get some snippets here. Sadly, I can't find the whole video of "Hey There, Mr. Dealer" online, and we only see a bit of it here. You have to see it, though. We just don't get enough reactionary folk rock anymore. I mean, singing about the evils of drugs doesn't make you a right-wing nut, but I don't recall Peter, Paul,. and Mary crooning, "hey there, Mr. Dealer, you drug-pushing son of a bitch, messing up the minds of the kids of America, just to make a fat-ass rich"

Be thankful we don't hear "Zip It," though,


Mike Doran said...

This was back in the early '80s.

Oprah Winfrey was doing a strictly-local show called AM Chicago on the local ABC affil.

It was usually a half hour, 9:00 to 9:30 am, followed by Edge Of Night, one day delayed from the network feed.
But when EON was preempted for some reason, Oprah got the full hour.
This was one of those mornings.
The theme was "Controversial talk-radio hosts". OPrah's guests were four such hosts from around the country:
Alan Burke from New York;
Jerry Williams from Boston (who'd been on in Chicago some years earlier;
Warren Freiberg from Chicago;
and Mort Downey Jr. from Cleveland (then).
Williams was left-of-center, Downey right-of center, and Freiberg very right-of center, and these three went hot-and-heavy through the first half-hour, with Oprah trying to control things however she could (Burke, the veteran of the group, just sat there and smirked).
About midway through the hour, Freiberg took exception to something Williams said on a sexual topic, taking a bottle out of his pocket and spraying Williams in the face with it.
Williams was out of his chair immediately, and was about to address Freiberg directly (closed fist directly) when Oprah called for a commercial.
After the break, Oprah announced that Freiberg had been asked to leave.
But then something interesting happened:
Mort Downey, the guy from Cleveland (whomI'd never heard of before this morning) took center stage and heartfeltedly decried what had just happened to Williams.
It was deplorable and disgraceful and a buch of other things ,and Downey was appalled at Freiberg's bad behavior.
A minute or so later, Williams returned to the stage, and Downey gave him a Great Big Hug (which I strongly suspect Williams wasn't expecting - or welcoming).
Burke sat there and smirked.
Anyway, Oprah brought the show to its conclusion, and everybody went home.
Warren Freiberg lost his Chicago radio show almost immediately.
Mort Downey's Cleveland contract ran out, and a local Chicago station (not the one that canned Freiberg) took him on; he called himself "Dr. Morton Downey" (I don't recall the rationale behind this, but his Chicago listeners called him Doc Downey), and he ran his show for about a year or so, before he got the call to NYC and TV stardom.
I don't know if this incident is even mentioned in this documentary; I guess I'll have to see it myself one of these days.
But after all these years, I still remember that morning in Chicago (I was taping Edge Of Night daily at that time, so I was able to watch it several times; I might still have the VHS somewhere - or maybe not).
Just think - I might have had a moment of history ...
... naahh, I probably taped over it ...

Rick Brooks said...

Tremendous story, and thanks for telling it! It was not in the movie, and in fact, the documentary--understandably, I think--really compresses his radio career.