Junkie CIty Life (Billy Gray) negotiates the purchase of a car stereo in Dusty and Sweets McGee

For many years, director Floyd Mutrux’s 1971 feature Dusty and Sweets McGee was as good as lost. Buried beneath a mountain of lawsuits revolving around music clearance issues (and hardly a good commercial proposition to begin with), it spent most of its days resting comfortably in a climate-controlled studio vault. It was a film few expected to see again outside the confines of a Warner Brothers’ screening room.

Then it stirred: an expurgated print of Dusty and Sweets McGee aired in 2004 on Trio, a now defunct cable channel competing for a share of the Bravo demographic. Though the film’s ‘fucks’ were carefully edited out, and its scenes of nudity and heroin use blurred to protect channel-surfing innocents, this print was still better than nothing. (Thankfully, DSM’s frequent ‘shits’ remained intact: otherwise, the film’s Trio airing would have been virtually silent.)

It wasn’t until 2010, however, that the film’s legal issues were finally resolved. Dusty and Sweets McGee quietly appeared on the home video market via Warner Archives, the studio’s ‘made to order’ DVD-R imprint. Now the film returns to the big screen at 7:00pm on Thursday, September 15th as part of Pacific Film Archive’s current series The Outsiders: New Hollywood Cinema in the Seventies.

Dusty and Sweets McGee is a plotless, episodic look at one weekend in the lives of a group of Los Angeles junkies (including one originally from Oakland). Neither documentary nor drama, the film is a mournful, elegiac and unique feature, its cast of real life hopheads (plus Father Knows Best actor Billy Gray, then still struggling to find employment after his 1962 marijuana conviction) lending the proceedings a bittersweet tinge offset by the accompaniment of a marvelous selection of solid gold oldies.

“Blue Moon”, “Duke of Earl”, “The Loco-Motion”… the film’s ‘characters’ grew up listening to such songs in happier, simpler times, and now they’re the soundtrack of their rapidly disintegrating lives. In addition to the oldies there’s also a contemporary Van Morrison tune, the narcolepticly paced “Into the Mystic” (according to the BBC, a song much favored by on-the-job surgeons), and “So Close”, a superb baroque pop piece by the unfairly neglected Jake Holmes. And for those of you who remember the band Blues Image, they’re here, too, briefly seen performing their top ten hit “Ride Captain Ride”.

Is there more to the film than pop songs, profanity, and drug abuse? Yes, there is. Cinematographer William A. Fraker (who briefly appears onscreen playing a member of the Glendale Symphony Orchestra) perfectly captures the smoggy days and neon-lit nights of the Los Angeles landscape, as well as the car culture for which the Southland is famous.

While it’s obvious that later films such as Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989) were influenced by Dusty and Sweets McGee, one also suspects that Martin Scorsese scoped it out during its all too brief one-week general release in 1971. A brief scene of dapper good fellas discussing their drug smuggling business is redolent of similar moments throughout Scorsese’s gangster canon, including his 1973 breakthrough hit Mean Streets. (Of course, it’s also likely that Mutrux had seen Scorsese’s 1968 drama Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, a feature which pioneered the use of rock oldies in narrative film.)

Unless you’re particularly squeamish about needles or are spooked by dead, vacant stares, and despite the fact that none of the film’s characters are named Dusty or Sweets McGee, this is essential viewing for anyone interested in the films of the 1970s.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...