Colorado Springs Independent 11.09.2008
Strips and Stratocasters
Gears, Grease and Guitars
By Bill Forman
The history of drag racing and rockabilly aren't exactly esoteric subjects in these nostalgia-laden times, but Colorado's contributions to those subcultures have yet to find their way into the annals of pop history.
Denver filmmaker Mike Olafson makes a significant step toward changing that with Gears, Grease and Guitars, which will have its local premiere as part of the Mile-Hai Motorfest on Saturday, Sept. 13. In addition to the screening in the downstairs theater, the celebration will include a hot rod car show, burlesque performances and a live set by rockabilly revivalists the Mezcal Brothers.
The film, which was conceived in 2006 as a short-subject documentary on the local rockabilly revival scene, grew exponentially as Olafson began to be referred to musicians and promoters from the music's original era. From there, it was a small step to the closely related hot rod scene, both then and now.
"It turned out to be real challenging," Olafson says of writing and editing a two-hour film that essentially tackles four different subjects. "It really started taking an historical angle, and then I knew guys in the greaser scene who had rat rods - or hot rods - but I originally didn't have any plans of including that."
The appearance of a 1931 white coupe outside a show changed Olafson's vision.
"It was like a light shone down from heaven, and the angels starting singing, and I'm thinking, 'I need to incorporate hot rods into this film to complete the picture.'"
Gears, Grease and Guitars should appeal to fans of music or racing or the subcultures that have grown up around them. Olafson shot extensive interviews as well as shows and races - most on actual film - and neatly combined it all with archival 8-millimeter footage.
Hot rod highlights range from 1950 scenes of Denver's Willie Young breaking 200 mph in a futuristic twin-engined rod to a young contemporary enthusiast taking us on a tour of an auto junkyard.
"I really wanted to introduce people to hot rodding and try to give them an idea of what it's all about," says Olafson. "And I kept getting all these comments from the old-timers, saying how they did it all themselves by going to junkyards."
Olafson also introduces us to numerous musicians, including vintage surf band the Astronauts (who were recently featured on a Starbucks compilation) and Chris 'Jonny' Barber, whose "Mama Said" is a surprisingly poignant ballad from a guy who often performs as the Velvet Elvis.
We also learn about a less contemporary Elvis-affiliated artist, Dean Reed, who grew up in Denver, then left the United States to become a massive star in Europe, where he became known as the Red Elvis due to his American origins and Communist sympathies.
The reverse route was taken by Denver immigrant Vicky Morosan, one of the film's most memorable subjects. Originally from Transylvania, she founded Columbine Records (later changed to Band Box after a hassle with Hollywood-based heavyweight Columbia). Unfortunately, Morosan, who was 97 when Olafson interviewed her, passed away before the film's completion.
In addition to documenting a cultural history that's fast slipping away, Olafson had the satisfaction of bringing back memories to the people who had lived that history.
"I think I was asking a lot of these people questions they hadn't thought about in years," he says, "decades, even."
Gears, Grease and Guitars, with Mile-Hai car show, burlesque and the Mezcal Brothers