REVIEW: Documentary: “The Life & Times of Mojo Nixon” Highlights Roman-Candle Personality


The Mojo Manifesto: The Life & Times of Mojo Nixon – Documentary

This documentary gets off fast on the purveyor of psychobilly Mojo Nixon (born Neill Kirby McMillan, Jr). A roman-candle personality who jump-started a wildly self-propelled musical career. He infused it with modern vaudeville & lampooned roots-rockabilly & punk. Was it all novelty? Junk music? Parodies? Nah, Mojo Nixon & his band could actually play & much of it was exciting even if their audience left a lot of beer on the floor.

The film The Mojo Manifesto: The Life & Times of Mojo Nixon (Freedom Records) dips generously into Mojo Nixon’s sticky live shows, videos, family photos, recollections, & insightful interviews with cohorts.

With the vibrancy of a speedy voiced but less poetic Neil Cassady manner, Mr. Nixon recounts with good, sometimes slovenly recollections. There are times Mojo talks more directly to the off-camera interviewer than the viewer themselves which is a distraction. Especially since Mojo is more direct in your face type talker.

Former musician friends contribute, but his original partner Skid Roper is notably absent. Some alluding stories from others fills the hole. John Doe (X), Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (Del-Lords), Pete Gordon, Mike Middleton, Bill Davis, Earl B. Freedom, the late Country Dick Montana & late producer Jim Dickinson.

The film jumps liberally between interviews, live clips & photos (as a kid, Mojo challenges a dog leash law. Funny). It then segues to present day. A less than lean Mojo seated comfortably in his home; still good-looking, speaking enthusiastically like an always spirited, caffeine loaded wild-eyed offensive Uncle. Mojo is a likable guy. But lock up the children & cover their ears.

The music is the exaggerated stuff of lambchop sideburns, Southern-boy hipster attitudes, outlandish curios, the Cadillac Ranch, big ice cream cone structures on Route 66, push-up missile bras, gaudy hula dolls on the dashboard, trailer park pink flamingoes, dirty cowboy boots with horseshoe taps, rusty buttons on old vests, drive-through chapels & harum-scarum personas. He brought that atmosphere; audiences ate it up. He held up a mirror that reflected themselves.

Mojo Nixon was an original not cut from latter-day Elvis. He’s more Elvis hood “Baby Let’s Playhouse,” & the final D.J. Fontana punk drumbeats of “You’re So Square, Baby I Don’t Care.” An effective R&R-blues singer, who could’ve sung for Canned Heat his performance is somewhat in the tradition of the eccentric: Deaf School, The Tubes, or The Cramps. But with more Americana authenticity. Mojo had a dynamic even ZZ Top may have tapped into.

A lack of major commercial success is touched-upon. The record business. The bean counters, the suits & ties. Record company out of business (Enigma). Controversy works. Pissing people off generates sales. Lipstick on the pig & that philosophy – Mojo was the professor. Record company lawyers & accountants don’t see it that way but Mojo’s button was always ON. Someday he’ll be a great manager to a lucky artist.

With his respect for Woody Guthrie & blues legends, it’s surprising Mojo never mainlined blues into the arm of his melodies. The documentary doesn’t explore or dissect the music in detail. Obviously, Mojo’s career was like the film Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman) when Luke kept getting knocked down by George Kennedy. Luke kept getting up. Even when he had nothing. Mojo couldn’t be kept down either & persevered.

The documentary doesn’t explore the possibility that excess may have played a role in limiting Mojo’s access to a wider audience. There may have been too much wild saloon humor, too little polish. Too much raunchiness, not enough serious satirical blues. God knows the brash Mojo Nixon had the piss & vinegar of a good rockabilly singer. The film spotlights successfully the vigor in the form of the hard-working dedicated performer that is Mojo Nixon. His rants bordered on the raps of Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley & the more suggestive Iceberg Slim.

It’s a well-paced music-documentary with good framing on its subjects & their conversations which were never dull. No moments dragged. Maybe more Country Dick Montana reminiscing. But that wasn’t in the cards. To appreciate this show you’d have to be a Mojo Nixon fan. The film is important more for its focus on the image & character that is Mojo Nixon than the music itself. However, an interesting nugget is a brief performance of “Jesus at McDonald’s,” where it sounds like Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground — had they originated in Memphis.

The film shows that to succeed it takes Testosterone & an adrenalin-fueled personality coupled with determination. Mojo Nixon was ballsy, aggressive & uncompromising. A runaway train, with no brakes. Frustration & disappointment — not in his DNA. From live clips, it’s clear their shows weren’t polished extravaganzas. The quality was more about how they sting an audience, get them excited, partake in the Mojo energy, so they can go home & remember forever that they had seen an outstanding rowdy show & had a great time.

Did the “novelty” of the songs undermine the relevance of Mojo as a musician? Never discussed in this study, but maybe in the eyes of serious artists. Yes. Classical musicians dismissed Frank Zappa, & jazz artists pushed back on Joni Mitchell. But no matter, Mojo Nixon’s repertoire was about his excellent showmanship. He delivered the goods rough & ready.

The concluding song during closing credits “UFO’s, Big Rigs & BBQ,” show Nixon’s got the mojo. He has the euphonious melodic detonation of The Dictators, The Beat Farmers & The Del-Lords. He has the Voice. It moves people’s feet, gets an ass to shift into high gear on the dance floor, the audience smiles raucously & is…satisfied.

The well-edited documentary targets favorably warts & all. No controversies, no conspiracies, & nothing illicit. Will the redoubtable Mojo coast on the frolics & reputation of past glories is an unanswered question? There are tricks left up his sleeve. This documentary exemplifies that he has thick skin & high-octane gas in the tank.

If James Brown was the hardest working man in show business — Mojo Nixon was the wildest & he hasn’t hung up his rock & roll shoes.

The 1-hour 24-minute film: Produced by Eva Radke & Sal Owen. Executive producer Paul Reilly. Directed & edited by Matt Eskey.

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