It’s a small world, that’s all I’ll say to start. This documentary, expertly crafted by filmmaker Joshua Wagner, has a lot of heart, just like its subject, Johnny Blaze. And, in our continued effort to help you, The Reader, sift through all the immense content available to you at home, we want to highly recommend Gong, But Not Forgotten: The “Original” Johnny Blaze Story, which is a fine documentary now playing on Amazon.
For quick context, Johnny was one of numerous contestants on the 1970s classic game show, The Gong Show. This epic, television comedy experiment was hosted by none other than the late Chuck Barris. You might remember Barris from George Clooney’s film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (our take on that film here – ronhamprod review – Confessions/Dangerous Mind). And, you might remember some elements of what The Gong Show encompassed on another popular show called American Idol?
Regardless, why did I say it’s a small world? Because I actually met The Johnny Blaze in May of 2016. That’s “the” pronounced, “thee” by the way. Anyhow, I was out and about in that mystical sector of Los Angeles known generally as, The Valley. The Pals and I had been busy, and karaoke was suggested. As karaoke goes, the mere suggestion shifted towards definite plans, and at 10PM on a balmy Saturday night in May, in “The Valley,” I found myself in an armpit flavored joint on Van Nuys that featured a real variety of acts. We were there early and got our singing out of our system. Now, did I perform a Beastie Boys selection? Maybe. OK, yes. Rapping is hard.
But, as you can no doubt guess, my botched Beastie act was not the evening’s karaoke highlight. No, instead it came from a gentleman in his late 40s, I would guess, who wore a black leather jacket reminiscent of Brando’s in The Wild One. The thing is, it didn’t exactly look like it fit him. Seemed a bit big on him. And, the gent had a kind of curly afro going on, some very basic sneakers, not exactly stylish blue jeans… But, he had this energy, this confidence that was hard to deny. I couldn’t help but observe him as he took a seat front and center, and patiently waited his turn to perform. He was casually greeted by several regulars who obviously knew him, and he said hello in return. But, he had a focus going on. Guy was dialed in.
When he performed, we were all a little surprised, at least those who hadn’t seen him sing before. He sang classics like Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” and did his best to bring the original performer’s bravado to his act. But, he kept working in these Elvis type kung-fu moves that were just.. entertaining? The moves certainly punctuated those moments in the song that he wanted to capitalize upon. So, he earned definite points for showmanship.
Cut to months later, early last November – and I attend Wagner’s Gong But Not Forgotten premiere in downtown L.A., only to realize the very subject of the film is this same man I organically saw perform last May. And most importantly, you, the viewer need no preview to appreciate the subject of this superbly crafted doc. In fact, what Wagner’s film does is it captures that moment we have in L.A. traffic. That instance when there is no movement, and you have a chance to look around and wonder, “what the hell are all these people doing here?” There are actual scenes shot in Johnny’s car in the film as he’s headed to an agent, or to get more copies of his business cards, or to pick something up for his Mom. And if there’s one bit of credit you can toss towards Blaze, it’s this – he has championed himself as a dreamer, and he doesn’t care who believes in that dream because he already does. I think there are plenty of folks, whether or not they live in Los Angeles, who can take this page out of Mr. Blaze’s playbook.
Despite Johnny’s personal limitations and what some would consider an attitude that suggests a disconnect with reality, this performer has earned the respect of other actors, singers and niche Los Angeles performers. That’s where Wagner’s work really resonates. The film navigates from scenes that demonstrate Blaze’s behind-the-scenes efforts to launch his own talk show that are then juxtaposed with interviews from talent in and around LA that have that tone of, “I hope Blaze never changes.” So, even when we’re watching Blaze’s difficult interviews with talent agents and disappointments at bad news, we’re still rooting for him.
It’s true – the world needs The Johnny Blaze. Could he use some new material? Maybe. Could he use a dose of reality, as in, he probably will never have a talk show that airs after Kimmel? Again… maybe. But, your opinion on that matter comes only from watching the film on Amazon… The film does a great job of capturing an L.A. personality and his day-to-day reality, but also tugs at your heart strings. And, the vintage footage that is mixed in is appropriate in its showcase of how outrageous The Gong Show was – but the footage is not overboard as it is in some documentaries. Despite the fact that old 70s show is Blaze’s primary calling card, he’s going to use it for all it’s worth.