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« DVD Review: Wind of Change (1961) | Main | DVD Review: Man of Violence (aka Moon) 1970 »

Reviewed: Joanna (1968) at the NFT


In their quest for the offbeat, outlandish and downright weird, Vic & Will Flipside routinely ransack the lesser-visited corners of the archives. This particular presentation of Joanna intrigued me not only because of the irresistible 60s Swingin’ London setting, but also because I had not heard of it before. The promise of a Q&A with the film’s director, Mike Sarne, guaranteed my attendance.

After a relaxing early evening on the South Bank, we made our way over to the NFT, meeting our friends M & K, regular Flipsiders themselves, ready for the 60’s film that appears to have got away.

As we learnt from Mike, the basic idea for ‘Joanna’ came from a true story, about a notorious shoplifter and party girl, who used to keep her ill-gotten gains in a left luggage locker at a central London train station. The script was pitched to potential backers on the back of the reflected success of Mike’s previous feature, which played support to the popular ‘Our Man Flint’. 20th Century Fox picked up the option on Joanna, awash with the staggering success of ‘The Sound of Music’ and duly handed Mike $1m, and carte blanche with it. This may have been a rash decision in retrospect, as the end product is lengthy, rambling, alternately joyous and pathetic, and sometimes a little difficult to swallow.

The scene is set with our heroine (Genevieve Waite) arriving by train and moving to her aunt’s house in London, ostensibly to treat the place like a hotel. She goes about her business, studying art during the day and getting in some serious partying at night, along the way meeting a familiar collection of stock contemporary characters as doomed aristocrats, thuggish club owners and upper crust eccentrics, all of whom possess a great deal of charm, but few of them exactly the marriage material she craves.

Musically, the film is a mini treasure-trove for fans of slightly left-field 60’s music, with Scott Walker’s beautiful ‘When Joanna loved me’ and some specially written songs by Rod McKuen, a personal favourite.

This being a 60’s film, setting and costume are paramount, but the shots of a rather quiet- looking London (Sunday filming schedule?) and some suspiciously conservative outfits for the young characters come as a surprise. This isn’t to say that there is a lack of 60’s pizzazz, however. With Genevieve Waite’s model-girl figure (Twiggy was mooted as the lead, according to Mike) any outfit would be a stunner, receiving no competition from her dowdy student pals, posh beatniks all of them. It is however the men in the film who are the true peacocks (nothing changes) and Joanna’s Sierra Leonian boyfriend, Gordon (Calvin Lockhart) has a selection of bold suits (one in white!) frilly shirts and dandyish hats that would have easily passed muster in one of the following decade’s Blaxploitation epics. Gordon’s style is very much the urban pimp, even if his real job is in the comparatively respectable world of nightclub management.

Joanna and Gordon have a mutual friend, in the shape of Lord Peter Sanderson, played by the great Donald Sutherland and so far over the top, he’s practically in the stratosphere. Mike explained that they could not coax an aristocratic English accent out of Sutherland for the role-and considering the character’s and the actor’s name, they might have been better off with an aristocratic Scottish one-but they did not have time to lip-sync a substitute, so the ‘flirty John Betjeman playing Pooh Bear’ enunciation remained. What Sutherland may have lacked in the vocal department was more than made up for in the characterisation, with his hilariously camp manners and magpie appreciation of every pleasurable experience his privileged life could throw at him. We learn that his butterfly like lifestyle is soon to come to an end, as he is suffering from a wasting illness that lays him to rest, just as Joanna is beginning to fall for him.

Joanna’s chaotic journey thorough her young life takes her to many places, among them an abortion clinic, where a friend is receiving the tender mercies of the staff  for a second (third?) time, and many art gallery openings and parties populated by more unsuitables who ultimately leave her wanting to settle down with her now fugitive club owner boyfriend. The film ends with, of all things, a chorus line (sadly without Donald Sutherland) doing a traditional style show-stopper on the railway platform, as Joanna leaves for home.

As I think you can probably tell, I wasn’t overly impressed with this meandering film, and its value, as a time capsule of 60’s style and manners, is also a little suspect. However, without these works, made in the heart of the moment, and without the censorious voices that often ruined larger productions, we would all be a lot poorer for entertainment. Our co-travellers on the engine Flipside, M & K, seemed to be of the same opinion, none of us in a great hurry to see it again.

Mike Sarne fielded some questions from Will & Vic and the audience afterwards, cheerfully recalling how critics and public alike hated his next film, Myra Breckinridge, almost as much as they hated ‘Joanna’. More interesting, was Mike’s stories of his background before making films, in the world of commercials, and I think there is definitely scope for a new Mod parlour game, guessing which 60’s adverts were his work. I have my eye on a particularly silly gangster pastiche, advertising butter, I saw on a DVD compilation. Mike was more than willing to talk about the process of pitching a film, and his earlier success with ‘B-pictures’ set him on the road to a full-blown directorial career. No mention of ‘Come Outside’, however.

I’ll have to turn in a slightly negative verdict on this one, but I’m looking forward to the Flipside’s next screening, ‘Penny Points To Paradise’, in a couple of days’ time, and of course their regular monthly slots at the NFT.



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