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With: Tom Waits, Michael L. Blair, Ralph Carney, Greg Cohen, Marc Ribot, Willie Schwarz
Written by: Kathleen Brennan, Tom Waits
Directed by: Chris Blum
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 87
Date: 09/15/1988

Big Time (1988)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Tom Waits for No Man

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Some non-fiction films attempt to teach people about new things, but a few others preach only to the converted. The 1988 concert movie Big Time, starring Tom Waits, falls solidly in the latter category. In other words, if you're not a Tom Waits fan already, Big Time will not help you. If you are a Tom Waits fan, Big Time is a treat. It opens today exclusively at the Rafael Theater.

Big Time encompasses a chunk of Waits' career that many fans consider seminal, the period covering the classic albums "Swordfishtrombones" (1983), "Rain Dogs" (1985), and "Franks Wild Years" (1987). While the earlier, smoother Waits sounded like a poetic, slithery lounge lizard, crooning over too much late-night smoke and booze, this Waits became more of a stomping, wheezing, snorting lunatic. Fans prefer the latter Waits because he sounds like no one else on earth.

Indeed, there's something exciting about the way he snakes his grumbled and screeched words in and around the stomping, pounding beats. When you can catch a few lyrics here and there, they're unfailingly brilliant bits of beautiful poetry, like "the moon left teeth marks across the sky."

But Big Time is no mere concert movie. As directed by local filmmaker Chris Blum, Big Time (partially filmed at San Francisco's Warfield Theater) attempts to put Waits in many other lights besides performer. In little in-between sequences, he plays an usher at the theater, a light operator, and Tom Waits in bed. He also takes time out to play a second-rate cabaret comedian, tickling the ivories while he tells odd jokes ("It took me a while to get here because we missed LAX and landed at Bob's Airport. Which is sort of cool because Bob is there all the time.")

Some folks have managed to make little stories out of these scenes, but they seem pretty random to me. One lovely sequence has Waits waking up groggily, pounding his pillow, and causing feathers to fly out. A quick cut to Waits on stage reveals feathers drifting down from the heavens onto his head.

Nonetheless, Waits is such a compelling performer, both as an actor and as a musician, he's imminently watchable no matter what he's doing. Witness his pure acting performances in such films as Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King (1991), Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), or Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993). He even held his own against no less a talent than Jack Nicholson in Hector Babenco's Ironweed (1987). This star power helps him immensely in Big Time.

The movie's big finale is a blowout rendition of perhaps Waits' most beautiful song, "Innocent When You Dream," only he sings it in a bathtub (he dramatically parts the shower curtain at the beginning of the song and closes it again at the end). Some may complain that Waits doesn't reveal anything of himself during this wacko performance. Others will argue that Waits' poetry is enough, and it doesn't matter what he does on stage. Either way, I think everyone can agree that Big Time is one hell of a show.

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