Tiny Tim and the Moody Blues dominate the opening moments of Charlie Says. That’s pretty neat shorthand for how the ’60s were already teetering pretty precariously when Charlie’s homicidal hippies slaughtered Sharon Tate and her partying pals on August 9, 1969. The shocking murders helped to turn the ‘60s into the rare decade that actually ended chronologically.
The fascination over Charlie, however, was just beginning. That’s why we’ll be spending a lot of time talking about Manson in late 2019. with Charlie Says stepping in as the first of a 50-year anniversary onslaught. It’s a promising start, too. Mary Harron – who followed up 2000’s American Psycho with a pretty dull take on Bettie Page – helms a much better look at a cultural icon here, and the director crams in plenty of deep thoughts in an exploitive running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes.
Her look at The Manson Family also crams in plenty of social consciousness. Charlie Says is officially “inspired by” Ed Sanders’ creepy 1971 book The Family, which revved up the public with dirty tales of “Charles Manson’s dune buggy attack battalion.” The script, however, is really about real-life social worker Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever) and her efforts to liberate the glassy-eyed Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins through 1972’s preferred brand of hippie indoctrination.
That includes reading from Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful, while Leslie – played with riveting intensity by Hannaj Murray sporting Alita: Battle Angel eyes – looks back at her happy hippie life on the Spahn Ranch with Charlie before she signed on to kill Rosemary and Leno LaBianca on August 10, 1969.
That angle leads to a few painful moments, including an anachronistic prison inmate declaring herself an “awesome female warrior.” But the political stance also sets up Charlie as a proper creep in flashbacks. Matt Smith – still best known as a former Doctor Who – is too tall and charismatic to realistically portray Manson. He’s also handsome enough to convincingly recreate the chauvinist exploitation of young girls that was happening all over America in the ’60s.
That also helps to make Charlie Says a fine rock ‘n’ roll movie. The film gets close to self-parody in establishing its prime players, with Manson proclaiming to his Beach Boy pal Dennis Wilson that “now all you have to do is get your friend Terry Melcher to come out here.” The clunkiness also clarifies how the aspiring rock star’s sexist bonafides were honed by capitalism: “Terry Melcher is coming to hear me play…the guy who can get me a record deal…Make this place look spotless!”
The film’s only real misstep is that Charles nails his audition. He berates three topless followers into some fine backup vocals while knocking out “Look at Your Game, Girl.” It doesn’t make sense for Terry to quickly dash Charlie’s dream. The primitive “Mechanical Man” would’ve been a disaster. “Game” sounds perfectly at home on the album by Love that keeps popping up on the soundtrack because it’s not easy to get Beatles songs for an indie movie about Charles Manson.
At least the filmmakers can afford another great end-of-the-decade moment where a biker gang stops by to throw some knives to the sounds of Roky Erickson. The dreamy men of the Straight Satans even break one of Charlie’s rules by breaking out some cocaine. The script shies away from how some white powder would’ve safely jumpstarted Manson’s Girls straight into the Me Decade.
Instead, Leslie, Patricia and Susan get imprisoned in a macramé wonderland where Karlene keeps trying to “just give them back themselves.” Plans for a poetry workshop go awry when the prisoners show up with freshly-shaved heads. Karlene has better luck with a black pal who listens to the starry-eyed disciples explains Charlie’s vision for world peace, and then explains why it’s all “a deeply racist idea.”
Not that Charlie Says dwells on the tragic twist of the Manson Girls facing a second brainwashing. That’s just the facts, ma’am. There’s still enough harrowing fun for this to be the director’s best movie ever – even if Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner couldn’t make anything as grueling as Sanders’ original sordid tell-all.
It would’ve been nice to have gotten a really bombshell dirty hippie epic based on the original book that provided all the dirty hippie sex left out of Vincent Bugliois’s Helter Skelter. At least Harron avoids really rewriting history while making her perfectly legit feminist points. She’s done worse. This is the same gal whose I Shot Andy Warhol ended by assuring audiences that Valerie Solanas became a respected feminist.