The world of rock & roll cinema is chock full of colorful titles, cult favorites, creative hits (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR) and misses (DU-BEAT-O, SGT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND), but yet few are as strange and equally as obscure as Herbert Curiel's 1979 film, CHA-CHA. Starring late Dutch rock star/painter Herman Brood as Herman and his then lover at the time, the ethereal inter and outerstellar singer Nina Hagen as Nina, CHA-CHA has all the earmarks of being part of that more rare meta-subgenre of musical film. Having Nina's friend, occasional collaborator and anima-animus-of-sorts in the form of the fabulous Lene Lovich as Lene, as well as Lene's constant musical partner and guitarist, Les Chappell as Les, only further lends itself to that. Sensing a pattern?
The idea of a surrealistic documentary involving these really dynamic and unique artists alone is actually quite great, but CHA-CHA and the forces behind it went for the road less traveled here. One the creative wrenches thrown in is the strange subplot involving Brood, Nina and Lene committing a bank robbery in the name of vague political activism. (Les is manning the getaway car, naturally.) There's also footage off and on of Herman committed in some type of hospital out in the country, including a slow-motion dream sequence of him being chased and taken down to the ground by orderlies, while Nina runs towards him, wielding a syringe and injecting him in the buttocks after his pants have been pulled down.
As the film progresses, we see more of the rock & roll side of things, with Herman visiting The Meteors (the Danish band, not to be confused with the British rockabilly group) during rehearsal and jumping in and playing with them. After this, CHA-CHA shifts more away from the half-cocked crime subplot and more into live music, mad surrealism and strange love. The music portion naturally has quite a bit of footage of Brood with his band at the time, Wild Romance, including a great version of “I Love You Like I Love Myself” with Lene and Nina on backup vocals. (It's the best song Springsteen never wrote in the 70's.) Speaking of the ladies, the real musical highlights, if not the twin absolute shining moments of the film, are Nina and Lene related. Lovich, along with Chappell and the Wild Romance band, perform her catchy yet soberingly haunted “Home.” That alone would have been the capper but then Nina comes in with “Herman ist High” and even if you have no patience for this film, if you have any soft spot for the fabulously eccentric cartoon character that is Nina Hagen the performer, this will be the one to take your head off. (In a good way of course!)
There's also a great dream sequence where four older women in wheelchairs are singing along with their respective nurses, including Nina, while Herman gives each one of them a spiked drink. As they finish, Nina tries to kiss one of the nurses who immediately slaps her face, making the singer squeak and squawk. Speaking of Ms. Hagen, her and Herman have one of the strangest on screen romances. There's some brief kissing, a really silly bathtub scene including Nina playing with a toy frog and then a pretty awesome and awesomely staged wedding. The latter features Brood looking Dapper as usual and Hagen resplendent in a black rubber catsuit and screaming pink hair teased everywhere. The Meteors perform “It's You Only You (Mein Schmerz)” which would later be covered by Lene Lovich in 1982 for her “No Man's Land” album. Then there's the reception, which is resplendent with grilled meat and the Danish chapter of the Hell's Angels.
Any film that is experimental in its nature is going to be extra prone to being flawed, not unlike the first time you try to make a recipe from scratch that you're purposefully trying to remember from a fuzzed out memory. CHA-CHA is no exception and there are long sequences of Brood walking around the city as he narrates in voice over. Actually, the latter might be alright except since my import copy of the film does not offer English subtitles and since my Dutch is neit zo goed, there might be some amazing poetry I am missing. The fragmentary "plot" will definitely throw some off, but then again, if you're looking for a film that is linear, what are you doing picking up a film starring Nina Hagen and Lene Lovich called CHA-CHA ?
Given how big of a star Brood was at the time of CHA-CHA in Europe, especially in his homeland, it feels like such a ballsy move to do a films like this. The fact that he purposefully went for something really outside any safe parameters for a popular rock star, is pretty admirable. His boldness also surfaces with the continual references to his drug habits, especially heroin. Brood, more than most, was always open in real life about hard drug use, so the fact that it comes up again and again here is no surprise. But what is interesting is that there are no IV-use money shots or any visual signs of him using at all. It's like his addiction is a tonal ghost. (There is a scene backstage of Herman's band cutting up some coke and sniffing it, though curiously, you never see Brood directly participate.)
In an interesting move, both of Nina's main numbers, “Knocking on Herman's Door” and “Herman ist High,” both revolve around drug use. The former is the bastard child of Dylan's standard with the lyrics being about Nina hanging out with Sid Vicious as they are trying to find Nancy Spungen. Sid's freaking out, thinking she is dead until they finally find her, passed out and “full of heroin, ja.” With “Herman ist High,” it's more of direct song about the darker realities of Brood's own drug use. The English translation of the first line is “Herman shits on life,” which sets the bleakly honest mood of the song. (Though you wouldn't know it from the hard rock meets dub sound of the actual music.)
My only real complaint was that there is not enough Lovich and Chappel. Lene Lovich was and still is such a fascinating artist, whom, like Hagen, is wholly individual. She looks and sounds great here, not to mention some of the humor both her and Les bring. There's one especially great shot of them at the bar while Brood and the Wild Romance are playing this fairly lengthy blues-bar-rock jam of a song and they look for all the world like “Oh God. This again???” Bored apathy hasn't been this funny since Missing Persons' cameo in the dumbass T&A 1981 film, LUNCH WAGON.
CHA-CHA, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a financial disappointment of a movie. Brood tried to crack the US market with only marginal success shortly after the release of CHA-CHA , but kept performing in Europe and went on to find a new creative niche as a painter. Sadly, years of dealing with drug abuse and addiction led to him committing suicide in 2001 via jumping off the roof of Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam. All of this makes parts of the film a little more subtly uneasy. Lovich went on to raise a family but has resurfaced musically in the 2000's and even appeared on stage with the Dresden Dolls in 2006. Hagen has remained active in music and has a European tour coming up later this year. CHA-CHA the film has yet to see a legal release in the United States and floats around on a legit but fairly cheap DVD release in the Netherlands. Something is better than nothing, but with Lovich, Hagen and Chappell still active and alive, the idea of those three doing a commentary track or at least a supplemental interview is the stuff holiday wishes are made of.
If Rock & Roll cinematic oddities are your thing or you just really love Herman Brood, Nina Hagen and Lene Lovich (and really, you probably should just a little), there is only film that will fit that specific list of need and it is CHA-CHA .
Copyright 2015 Heather Drain