The musical as a genre is fairly unique. It often takes the audience on a surreal, extravagant and lavish journey through its stories, which tend to focus more on expression than subtlety. From The Love Parade (1929) to La La Land (2016), musicals have always had a certain magic to them, and none more so than Jodie Mack’s criminally underseen Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project (2013): a film that stitches together stop-motion animation, biographical filmmaking and, most peculiarly, rock opera. It focuses on the rise and fall of Mack’s mother’s poster and postcard business, with narration detailing the shop’s journey in the style of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The film takes place over 41 minutes, perfectly timed to the classic album, and makes for a wholesome and visually kinetic experience.
Having grown up around the poster shop in Florida, Mack was thrown headfirst into the signs and signafiers of pop culture – seeing celebrities as faces, rather than a name or achievement. Che Guevara, Bob Marley, and of course Pink Floyd, for example. However, due to the rise of the internet, local poster stores including the one owned by Mack’s mother saw a downturn in profits, leading Sharon Marney (Mack’s mother) to contemplate shutting the shop. Mack, on the other hand, had ideas. Her films often feature textiles or paper used to create striking kaleidoscopes, and the vast amount of deadstock collected at her mum’s store presented her with an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. Using stop-motion animation of the posters as well as having her mum pose around the shop, Mack created a heart-warming tribute to her mum’s shop, as well as a hard to pin down yet incredibly powerful entry into the musical genre.
Dusty Stacks of Mom lands itself in an odd sub-genre of musical: the aforementioned rock opera. When we think of rock operas, we either think of albums like The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, or perhaps films that have doubled as albums such as Tommy (1975) or The Wall (1982). The genre is somewhat of an offshoot, perhaps a more commercial one, of prog-rock, the genre that features the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Characteristics of the genre include longer songs, long albums, heavy guitars and an obsession with musical skill (in some cases over talent). The genre is, to put it bluntly, very male. Songs often linger for longer than welcome, in the search for a deeper truth. Simple, more accessible lyrics are discarded and replaced with what some describe as poetry. Long gone is the catchy melody; this is the genre of the prolonged guitar solo and, because of this, one would perhaps worry that Dusty Stacks of Mom indulges some of these tropes. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The film flips pro-rock – and the idea of the rock opera – on its head, using simple, twee instrumentation in its songs to bring a delightfully pop-infused element to its homage to Pink Floyd. This twee-pop style perfectly complements the striking cornucopia of colours we see on screen as posters are crumpled and folded, and fly before our eyes.
The film not only manages to subvert its prog-rock and rock opera roots, but also blurs the lines between musical and documentary, fusing the two as a way of igniting the hidden love behind this dusty old poster shop. The way the film uses the magic of the musical manages to tear away the damage done by the internet, refreshing the shop and reminding us of the charm of the past in an entirely unpretentious way. Mack’s own personal link to the shop even manages to guard the film from becoming overly nostalgic. Yes, the posters of our youth have a particular appeal when presented as they are in the film, but we are never invited to long for these objects. They are firmly placed as objects of a past life, almost like memories in physical form, left to go dusty on the shelf of Marney’s shop.
Due to its visual pizzazz and abstract animation, Mack’s film is often discussed in terms of the experimental animation canon. Films such as Walter Ruttman’s Opus (1921-25) series, or Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic (1957), however the film is less often spoken about in terms of its qualities as a musical. The film manages to stick together a commentary on the digitisation of commerce and a pastiche of prog rock, as well as a heartfelt tribute to the filmmaker’s mother. The film pays homage to the laser light shows and the melodies of the classic album on which its songs are based, however completely turns its heavy, male sound on its head with a beautiful pop infused sentiment.
Although relatively hard to see, Dusty Stacks of Mom is a must watch for all fans of musicals, rock operas, and wholesome personal filmmaking. It’s a film that manages to both redefine, as well as provide spoonfuls of the magic of, the musical.