Canadian filmmaker Mitchell Kezin went on a five-year quest to decipher exactly why people listen to Christmas music, interviewing collectors, disc jockeys, record store owners, label executives, rock stars and world-famous Christmas obsessive John Waters. He had a couple of reasons why he listened to it: First, because since 1990 he’d been making Christmas mix tapes he called “merry mixes” which he gave out to his near and dear when he was an impoverished art student — never ever repeating a song. But there was a second reason that he discovered as he made these collections: He realized that almost every single Christmas music aficionado that he knew had one special song that was a signifier of the holiday, and when they listened to it, it was like a trip in a time machine, allowing them to revisit their own Christmas past a little like Ebenezer Scrooge.
Kezin’s “Eureka!” moment became the basis of the film, Jingle Bell Rocks!, which is part mystery story, part social history and part reality show. Despite the film’s seemingly light subject matter, its central question is profound and searching: Are you what you listen to? The answer in this case is: absolutely. Christmas music provides a psychic link to their earliest memories, allowing people to not only relive their childhoods, but to change their perspectives on it once they understand what their favorite Christmas song evokes in them. We spoke with Kezin about the creation of his film, and what he found out about himself while making it.
[Wayne Coyne, Joan Jett and other Christmas-music lovers also shared their favorite songs; check those out and listen to a few here.]
In the documentary, you interview several self-admitted Christmas music fanatics — people like John Waters, Wayne Coyne and Reverend Run from Run-D.M.C — and you mention the idea that people can reclaim Christmas for themselves once they understand why they like a particular tune and what kinds of things that brings up in them. Do you feel if you change your own personal Christmas soundtrack, you can change your life?
Absolutely. I firmly believe that. And I believe that’s most collectors’ [reason for] doing what they do. They may not want to come clean or acknowledge that’s what’s happening, but I believe completely that the holiday is what you make of it. If you’re someone who celebrates it, it’s really up to you to make it special or wondrous, or to recapture your childhood if that was a better time then than now. I hope that the movie makes people consider their own childhoods. Or reconsider them.
My personal story isn’t everyone’s story, but there’s something in it that resonates with people — the broken home, the failed marriage — that they can connect to. They can bring their own experiences to my story and go along with me on this journey and hopefully, by the end of it, feel better.
Do you get the sense that most, if not all, Christmas music collectors are wounded children, attempting to return to some idealized time when they were young?
I think everyone’s doing it to sort of help themselves get through the holiday, and nothing better than music uplifts us and make us feel joyous, and makes us go, “Wow, that is amazing, that is so beautiful, that is astonishing, that is just dark and twisted and weird but fuck, that hits me at my core.”
What else did you find out that was true of all the Christmas music collectors?
The most amazing thing I discovered was every single person had one Christmas song that announces the holiday for them. Until they hear that song — and it could be something really cheesy or really bad or whatever — the holiday isn’t really the holiday.
What’s that song for you?
“The Little Boy Santa Claus Forgot.” But I don’t think I’ve heard it in 15, 20 years. It’s not a radio friendly song. The other one is “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” from one of Nat King Cole’s lesser-known records, The Magic of Christmas Children. Maybe more importantly, that album has the first feminist Christmas song ever made. It’s called “Mrs. Santa Claus,” and talks about how she’s the one who does all the work and Santa gets all the credit. It was from 1959. Quite progressive, really.
Is there an official date that you start playing Christmas music every year?
Making the film, I had to listen to Christmas music all year long for four years. But prior to making this movie, I would start listening in September, because I want to start thinking about planning my annual Christmas mix.
Was there a time where you just listened recreationally, or has your obsession always been tied to making Christmas mixtapes?
It’s always been tied with making the mix tapes, and it’s always been close to the holiday. I would never find pleasure in listening to Christmas music from January to August. It doesn’t feel right. It turns out I wasn’t the only one. There really is a thing called Christmas spirit. We shot some of the interviews in the spring and summer for the film but they were just terrible. They just didn’t work. People just were not very giving; they just weren’t very thoughtful with their answers. The interviews were just lame. Then we shot some interviews in late October or November, December and they were much more vivid, much richer, much more thoughtful, much more soulful, everything. In the spring and summer, the last thing you want to think about is Christmas time. We ended up scrapping all those interviews and building our shooting schedule to only two months every year. So that’s why it took four years to shoot the film, because we had 10 months when we couldn’t really film anything.
Why do you think artists make Christmas albums?
I think back in the early days, it was actually considered sort of a musical rite of passage where you had to be an artist of some stature and have recorded some significant amount of work — five, six records that did well before you would even be approached to record a Christmas album. I think about Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald or Andy Williams or any of those artists, their Christmas album came after they’d produced a good 10 years’ worth of music. Nowadays anyone who’s even calling themselves a musician is putting out a Christmas single. So many of them are bad and they’re so bad because they’re rushed. They’re not thought through. They’re meant to try and cash in on the season. If you look at the number of records that are being released or singles released this fall from indie artists, it’s astonishing. I would say it’s verging on close to upper thousands.
Did you see this as a quest film? Did you find what you were looking for?
I think I did.
What song were you chasing specifically?
“The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot.” That song has haunted me for 40 years, and what happened over the course of the film was really miraculous, and was so redemptive and was so astonishing and almost otherworldly. It was truly like the same kind of magic that I remembered as a kid listening to those records. I never dreamt I would be responsible for recording a new, uptempo calypso version of “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot” with [calypso singer] Mighty Sparrow [as shown in the film]. That was a turn of events I could not have anticipated and I’m still pinching myself that it actually happened. That totally changed the song around for me.
I really hoped that somehow, through the making of the movie, I would kind of rid myself of the stigma of that song. I wasn’t sure how I would get there or how it would happen or what would occur. It just doesn’t make sense to me that that actually happened — that it worked out that way. Because I never really had a solid ending to the film. I’d written this crazy ending at the North Pole, Santa has a record room that no one knew about. We were going to build this big set, like but make it really obvious and cheesy and made of cardboard and cheap props and things, similar to the The Monkees: The Christmas Show, in which it’s all very fake. It was going to be this sort of climax where I would arrive and Santa would be this Black Santa and he would be playing the Nat King Cole version of “The Little Boy Santa Forgot,” and tell me I really hadn’t been forgotten. The idea of having Santa Claus address me as an adult in the scene was just preposterous. I mean that would just be so weird and ham-fisted and just awkward, and I didn’t want to confront that. I didn’t really want to have the movie end that way.
After having made the Jingle Bell Rocks! documentary, and solved the mystery of why people collect Christmas music, will you still go on collecting? Having made this documentary will go on collecting other Christmas music?
I definitely will continue to search for stuff, because I mean I’m happy that I made the film and that the film is reaching people far and wide, far more than my Mitchell’s Merry Mix ever could, because I only share that with about 100 people, whereas this movie has reached tens of thousands and eventually hopefully hundreds of thousands. But there’s no way that this is going to be the end of my collecting obsession. It’s just kind of the beginning. Hearing and coming across all the great music that everyone in the film has discovered, and the fact that every time we went on a shoot and we started to look and search for new old Christmas records we found them. It made me realize that there’s no end to this.
Finally, do you believe in Santa Claus?
Oh, absolutely. Always. I’ll never stop believing. And I loved what Reverend Run (of Run-D.M.C.) said at the end of the credits. “Do I believe in Santa Claus? What type of question is that? That’s not even a question. Of course there’s Santa Claus. I wouldn’t even be sitting in this house. Everything is Santa Claus.”