Big Time

  • 1989
  • Movie
  • PG
  • Musical

Musician and occasional actor Tom Waits first achieved prominence with a series of albums in the 1970s in which he adopted the persona of a late 1950s hipster, sleazy and jazzy. By the 1980s, however, he sought to break away from those limitations and incorporate other influences (described in the press notes for BIG TIME as avant-garde composer Harry Partch,...read more

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Musician and occasional actor Tom Waits first achieved prominence with a series of albums in the 1970s in which he adopted the persona of a late 1950s hipster, sleazy and jazzy. By the 1980s, however, he sought to break away from those limitations and incorporate other influences

(described in the press notes for BIG TIME as avant-garde composer Harry Partch, Howlin' Wolf, Frank Sinatra, Astor Piazzolla, Irish tenor John McCormack, Kurt Weill, Louis Prima, Mexican norteno bands and Vegas lounge singers; how that list managed to exclude Louis Armstrong is anyone's guess).

But while those influences can all be heard, Waits built a wholly unique musical landscape for himself to inhabit on the three albums he released in the 1980s: Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Frank's Wild Years (1987). The genesis of BIG TIME is a bit confusing: In 1986, Waits and

his wife Kathleen Brennan developed a play, Frank's Wild Years, from the song of the same name on Swordfishtrombones. The play was produced in 1986, with Waits in the lead role (the beginning of his interest in theatrical productions), by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater. Waits devised new music for

that show, which became the basis for the album Frank's Wild Years. BIG TIME is not a film adaptation of the play Frank's Wild Years, but a concert film from Waits's tour following the release of the album Frank's Wild Years.

BIG TIME consists primarily of live performances at two concerts, one in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles, near the end of Waits's tour. Several of the musical numbers were shot separately from the live performances. In addition, director Chris Blum, who worked carefully with Waits to design a

show with filmic elements in mind, intersperses scenes with Waits as a theater employee who dreams that he has become a success in show business, echoing the theme of the three albums. The audience is never seen and seldom heard; even applause at the ends of songs is sometimes cut off from the

soundtrack. (Waits wanted to use a specially costumed and staged audience, but couldn't afford it.) Blum does everything he can to keep the film from seeming like a straight concert documentary, including editing separate performances together, but it neither adds not subtracts from the music.

Waits appears as a number of personae--as a fire-and-brimstone preacher, a wisecracking piano-bar player, a smarmy Sinatra wannabe, and simply performing while playing the guitar. The backing musicians are a small but tight ensemble who supply a broad range of sounds to flesh out Waits's tales of

small-time life. In the realm of concert films, BIG TIME more closely resembles Laurie Anderson's HOME OF THE BRAVE (1986) than say the Talking Heads's STOP MAKING SENSE (1985); more performance than music, but in either case, work that demands to be taken on its own terms. The songs performed are

"Sucker on the Vine," "Frank's Wild Years," "Shore Leave," "Down in the Hole," "Hang on St. Christopher," "Telephone Call from Istanbul," "Cold Cold Ground," "Straight to the Top," "Strange Weather," "Gun Street Girl," "9th and Hennepin," "Clap Hands," "Time," "Bride of Rain Dog/Rain Dogs," "Train

Song," "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six," "I'll Take New York," "More Than Rain," "Johnsburg, Illinois," "Innocent When You Dream," and "Big Black Mariah." (Adult situations, profanity.)

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  • Released: 1989
  • Rating: PG
  • Review: Musician and occasional actor Tom Waits first achieved prominence with a series of albums in the 1970s in which he adopted the persona of a late 1950s hipster, sleazy and jazzy. By the 1980s, however, he sought to break away from those limitations and inco… (more)

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