The New Jersey Film Festival’s opening night on Saturday, January 31, promises to jolt audiences out of a midwinter funk with the screening of two documentaries that celebrate the exhilaration of live music.
First up is “Fur Peach Ranch: It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This” by Ohio filmmaker Andie Walla. The film explores a music camp founded by Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. There Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jorma Kaukonen and other notables teach weekend camps to aspiring musicians and bring music to life in the hills of southeast Ohio.
The second focuses on music closer to home: “Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of Randy Now and City Gardens.” Here New Jersey-based director Steve Tozzi reopens the doors of the legendary City Gardens in Trenton, letting out all the grit and glory trucked in by the remarkable club promoter Randy Now (also known as Randy Ellis). This mailman-turned-super-do-it-yourself promoter brought in the Thompson Twins, Nirvana, UB40, and other groundbreaking bands to an abandoned corner of Trenton in the 1980s. The memories still live in many.
The 33rd New Jersey Film Festival, running through March 1, is showing more than 50 films chosen from 338 local and international submissions and judged by media professionals, journalists, students, and academics. After many of the screenings, the audience has an opportunity to meet with the filmmakers and ask questions.
Al Nigrin, curator of the festival, thematically links independent features, experimental films, classic revivals, and documentaries to engage the audience. In a way, he and his colleagues bring the same kind of energy and vision to the New Jersey Film Festival as promoter Now brought to City Gardens.
“Randy reminds me of what we’ve been doing with our own programs as well. We’ve been in the trenches doing the same thing in a cinematic way. There is a lot of kinship between these two entities that are destined for each other,” says Nigrin about the decision to have “Riot on the Dance Floor” screen on opening night.
When rock star and City Gardens performer Joan Jett says in the film, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something — make your own victories, make your own mistakes,” she also could have been speaking about Now.
The promoter — who currently produces shows and events at Randy Now’s Man Cave in Bordentown — was always putting together shows. He was a Cranbury mailman by day and a musician/DJ by night. He seems to have brilliantly blundered into his role as promoter, persuading emerging bands to stop in Trenton en route between New York and Philadelphia.
Now did it all: promoting on radio time, sending out flyers, setting up the sound, and even letting bands sleep at his home. In the process Now developed a reputation for treating the performers with respect and treating them fairly. It paid off with groups and artists returning again and again: the Ramones appeared at the club 22 times, and Dead Kennedy put on a number of performances with none shut down by the police — a record of sort for the infamous band.
The common thread that binds people’s shared City Garden experience was the idea that anything could happen at the venue. The bouncers miraculously kept anyone from severe injuries, and performers sometimes had to stop playing to break up altercations.
“It’s funny, from what Randy told me the club had the geographical luck to be sitting on the border between Trenton and Ewing. So when the Trenton police were called they would say this is a Ewing problem because the fight happened behind the club, and they only had jurisdiction up to the front of the club. The Ewing police did the same thing,” says director Tozzi. “I think they were only lucky that someone didn’t get killed or at least seriously injured stage diving. But those are the risks you take or took back then. It never seemed risky doing it.”
The film offers similar testimony. “The people who came to City Gardens were people you really wanted to please because they were so willing to take a chance on a band,” says Peter Courtner of Dag Nasty about the allure of coming to a cinder block warehouse in the back corner of Trenton. Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys describes the spot as being “punk and rock ‘n’ roller proof.” And Todd Weakley, a past WTSR 91.3 DJ, says, “City Gardens was way ahead of its time, and it is sorely missed in Trenton. It exposed many of us to what real live music was and should be.”
“I think it’s wonderful that City Gardens is finally getting the attention and respect it deserves. There were clubs just like it all over the country, in small cities, so it’s important to document that aspect of music history,” writes Amy Yates Wuelfing, producer of “Riot on the Dance Floor” and co-author of the book “No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens.” (see U.S. 1, March 5, 2014).
To make “Riot,” Wuelfing — who grew up in Bristol and was a regular at the club — took four years to interview more than 90 performers, DJs, bartenders, bouncers, and fans, and then wove that information with archival footage and photographs provided by New Jersey photographer Ken Salerno, a contributor to alternative publications such as Thrasher magazine.
Tozzi — a film visual effects artist and design director — marks his directorial debut with the film that used a grassroots approach to funding. “Kickstarter was pretty incredible, how the entire site is structured is very inviting and once you launch your campaign. It really cements your project into production. You have backers — so you better finish it,” he says.
Now a Columbus, New Jersey, resident, Tozzi grew up in Old Bridge. Though his parents were research scientists — his mother at Rutgers and his father in the allergy department at Schering Plough — Tozzi has a BFA in communication design from Parsons School of Design and works in advertising.
“My parents were pretty trusting and gave me my space to try things out. I’m sure City Gardens would have scared the shit out of them if they saw it. I was never old enough to drive myself there, so I luckily was always with my older brother or three or four guys from school. We were pretty safe, I think. The club was in a pretty dead area so that might have helped,” says Tozzi.
In addition to City Gardens the film also highlights the shared rise and fall of Trenton and Randy Now.
“Family businesses helped grow that city to what it was, and the city basically ruined itself, which in a lot of ways was the story of City Gardens and why it closed. The city was once a place for people with big ideas who were willing to take risks to make those ideas happen, much like Randy and the club. For me, getting an understanding about what the backdrop was for the club was important for the viewer to experience.
“Luckily the city now has a new wave of business owners and event promoters that are bringing life back to Trenton. It’s wonderful to see new energy in the city,” says Tozzi.
Film co-producer Peter Tabbot has a similar thought about energy. “I interviewed (Black Flag band member) Henry Rollins last out of 93 people and put that at the end. Only then I realized how wistful he was about the club and what it meant to him. It really was the perfect way to turn the lights off on the story and close the doors. The metaphor for the film and City Gardens is the independent spirit. Randy was all about that,” he says.
“Riot on the Dance Floor’s” final frame says, “Support your local scene — it’s the only one you’ve got.” This slogan also works to promote the efforts of the New Jersey Film Festival in bringing independent, groundbreaking films to our area for 33 years and counting.
New Jersey Film Festival, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, Saturday, January 31, through Sunday, March 1. $8 to $10. Films shown at both Voorhees Hall and Ruth Adams Building. For a complete schedule visit www.njfilmfest.com or call 848-932-8482.
Other NJFF Highlights
Thursday February 5: “Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer,” about the forefather of cinema.
Friday, February 6: “El Mar Y El,” a comedy about a man’s quest to flee Cuba during the Mariel Boatlift; “Fishing,” a Chinese documentary on fishermen and their families; “Girls’ Show,” a documentary about a New Jersey high school’s annual high-stakes competition that is bigger than the Super Bowl.
Saturday, February 7: “Wildlike,” a story of two strangers who cross paths in the Alaskan wilderness.
Sunday, February 8: Horror film “Expressway To Your Skull.”
Friday, February 13: “The Gospel According To Bart.”
Sunday, February 15: Documentary “Heartbreak and Healing After Sandy.”
Saturday, February 28: Coming of age story “Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie.”
Sunday, March 1: Super 8 Film and Digital Video Festival.