Now entering its 16th year, the Tallgrass Film Festival is a Kansas event that has brought in films and filmmakers from all over the globe for all of us movie geeks to get psyched about. Each year they feature a large number of foreign films, documentaries, narrative features, and a special highlight for female filmmakers. This year’s opening event film was Bathtubs Over Broadway.
We’ve all got a unique thing we’re interested in, something we study or collect that doesn’t make sense to anyone else. My own personal collection of film scores and films about death have always weirded people out but…I just like that stuff. Some people like bobbleheads, some collect particular items of clothing or multiple editions of the Harry Potter series. We’ve each got our own bit of weirdness stashed somewhere most people haven’t stumbled across anything that crazy yet.
Steve Young, comedy writer formerly of The Late Show with David Letterman, has stumbled on one of the strangest things ever known.
Bathtubs over Broadway is a brand-spankin’-new documentary from first time director Dava Whisenant that covers a sprawling, hidden bit of Americana that went undiscovered for a generation. Working for David Letterman, he helps with a segment that involves random and unintentionally hilarious records. After stumbling upon several that seem like one-time pressings of Broadway-style musicals about corporate jobs and products, he dives deep into this hidden world. Upon discovery of “the industrial musical” he realizes that he has found a world that wasn’t meant to be seen, something that was highly paid but hidden away and only supposed to play one night at a trade show for company employees. Talented writers and singers belting out songs about bathroom fixtures and diesel engines cross from the strange to the unbelievable. As Steve himself points out, you can’t tell if you’ve found the best thing ever or the worst thing ever but it exists right in that sweet spot, a bizarre bit of Americana.
He claims that Europe has the opera while America has the musical, and taking it further and creating corporate-sponsored song-and-dance routines represents the ultimate form of American culture, with our original art form combined with our economic representations to form a strange hybrid that is oddly endearing. Writers like Sid Siegel penning tonally gorgeous songs about how the bathroom can be your special, private place to preen and cream or young starlets dancing suggestively while singing about bidets moves through near-Lynchian levels of terrifying hilarity as audience members around me shook their heads or cried laughing in equal measure (some of us did both).
It’s hard to even describe this film to anyone, and I tried afterward multiple times, but the best way to convince someone they’ll love it is just to show it to them. There’s nothing quite like this and it grants access to a whole new world that most Americans did not know they had hiding under the surface. Steve Young brought this to the attention of many people in the television and entertainment industry (David Letterman himself appears in the film) and hunts down celebrities that participated in these musical magnate vehicles (Martin Short also appears in the film, apparently as a former performer) to let them know that they’re remembered. Part of the beauty of this weird little story is that at its core we’re looking at artists, people who faded into obscurity after this practice collapsed, and it’s about reminding them that their art is not forgotten. Steve Young hunts these people down, making calls and sending tons of emails, and he eventually connects with many of them on such a profound level that he becomes integrated into their lives. It’s a lovely statement about human connection and how unexpected it can be.
It’s telling that this story is told against the backdrop of Letterman’s retirement as Steve is researching the collapse of an industry while feeling the end of another himself. Late night talk shows aren’t industrial musicals, but they’re slowly becoming less prominent and his awareness of that drives his integration into that world. He writes a book about the subject, he begins to pen new songs with the songwriters, and his supportive family smiles and shakes their heads in amusement while happily pushing him to become part of this whole…thing. And it really was a thing for a while, a strange one that we shouldn’t have been gifted but Young’s accidents, his studying and effort with hunting down whatever he could find on this stuff, is a treasure that we should be overjoyed about.
Steve Young’s book, Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals, can be purchased here.