Wolpaw’s the Reel Deal

Published in Senior Digest on September 2015

When planning the 2nd Annual S.A.M. Fest, in conjunction with the Pawtucket Arts Festival, Slater Mill’s Executive Director, Lori Urso scheduled a showing of Jim Wolpaw’s “Complex World.” Urso, also a professional musician, knew featuring the film at her event last month was a great way to promote a local Providence filmmaker and give homage to The Young Adults, a popular rock band playing at the nonprofit’s weekend festival.

 Rediscovering a Classic Film at S.A.M. Fest

On Aug. 30, more than 80 people gathered early evening under the large white tent at Hodgson Rotary Park to watch on a big outdoor screen the 81-minute offbeat cult rock ‘n’ roll comedy filmed at Providence’s Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel. While the film attracted the curious, many adoring fans of The Young Adults came to check out the flick, too, says Urso.

The story captures one night at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, with its zany plot involving terrorists, political conspiracy, 100 pounds of explosives in the bar’s basement and drugs, with music from iconic Providence bands such as the Young Adults, NRBQ and Roomful of Blues. The “Complex World’ had a two-month run in a Boston and one week in New York City, and it garnered good reviews. However, a distribution deal with Hemdale, a major film distributor that released “The Terminator” and the “Last Emperor,” fell through, ending up in a lawsuit. Even though Wolpaw won his case and a small settlement, the legal suit sealed the fate of the film. The filmmaker’s DVDs are sold on a website, and the last public showing was in 2010, for two days at the Cable Car in Providence to raise money for a charity.

Urso, 51, remembered being an extra during the 1987 film shoot, “a biker chick hanging out in the bar’s parking lot” at 79 Washington St.  “Quite a few people that I knew showed up to be extras that night. I’m glad I was able to be part of it,” she said.

Rudy Cheeks one of the founders of Young Adults and co-writer of the Phillip & Jorge column published in “Motiff Magazine,” was in attendance during the S.A.M. Fest screening, and he observed people of all ages in attendance, many of whom watched the film for the first time.

Even though the film was produced about 25 years ago, “it’s held up pretty well over the years,” says Cheeks. “The strongest part of the film was its ‘mise en scène,’ the capturing of the inside atmosphere of the bar.”

 The Making of a Classic Film

While it took about two-and-a-half months to shoot the film in 1987, it took more than two years to bring “Complex World” to the screen of the Cable Car Theatre in 1990, says Wolpaw, noting that it ran for a record four months. The veteran filmmaker, who was nominated for an Academy Award for a 1985 documentary, was brought into this film project by Rich Lupo, the owner of Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, who just happened to be his roommate at Brown University and later a bartender and manager at the Providence bar.

According to Wolpaw, the efforts to create and fund a film began a year before the bar was going to be torn down to make way for condos. The film was to use Lupo’s as a basis for the movie to “explain the spirit of the bar,” he said, noting that it would be shot like a documentary film.

Lupo invested the most to produce the film, but with increased costs, other friends chipped in, said Wolpaw. The unique film stood out among films that were produced in Hollywood, he said, “noting it was not the typical movie.”

Two years of editing and reshoots would later result in the final film, says Wolpaw, noting that over the years and even at the Slater Mill screening he “had trouble watching it.” Shooting the film like a documentary just did not work for the plot, he said, but it captured an early era of the Providence music scene.

Even after more than two decades since being released, orders for “Complex World” keep trickling in, says Wolpaw, who has worked as an adjunct film professor at Emerson College in Boston, the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island School of Design. He is pleasantly surprised that orders come in from such faraway places as British Columbia and France.

 A Prolific Filmmaker  

Besides his Classic “Complex World,” Wolpaw is known for innovative approaches in considering artists and issues in the arts, and he has an impressive number of films under his belt:  “Cobra Snake for a Necktie” (Showtime 1980), a portrait of rock ‘n’ roll legend Bo Diddley; “Loaded Gun: Life, and Death, and Dickinson” (PBS 2003, INPUT 2004), a quirky look at poet Emily Dickinson that was chosen by “The Library Journal” for its list of Best Poetry Films; and “First Face: The Buck Starts Here” (PBS 2011), an accounting of the dollar bill portrait of George Washington

Even at 60, Wolpaw, who has won awards at more than a dozen film festivals worldwide, has not slowed down. He is still working on three projects, a film about Cleveland poet and activist Daniel Thomson, one detailing the history of Rhode Island’s Ladd Center and a fictional narrative film about poet Dickinson. Hopefully, they will have a long shelf life and audience like “Complex World.”

“Complex Word” can capture viewers who wish to relive their experiences at Lupo’s, and purchases of the DVD benefit the Gloria Gemma Foundation and Advocates in Action. For details, go to www.complexworldthemovie.com.

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