For much of America, the holiday season is one of the most music-centric times of year. Ironically, that makes it a torturous desert for hard-core music fans: recorded Christmas music becomes inescapable from Halloween to New Year’s, and it’s a playlist that’s largely frozen in time. Even when new holiday music is released, it struggles to compete with those evergreen records by Bing, Mariah, and Alvin—and it’s usually just new recordings of the same standby songs anyway.
The record collectors who are the focus of Mitchell Kezin’s documentary Jingle Bell Rocks—having its Minnesota premiere Wednesday at the Trylon Microcinema—are obsessed with Christmas music, but not with the Christmas music you know and love/hate. These guys (and, at least in the film, they’re all guys) seek out the jetsam and flotsam of seasonal recordings: the oddities, rarities, and absurdities that you find when you visit the holiday sections of used record shops. When one of these collectors finds a holiday record he’s never seen or even heard of before, he puts it in the buy pile.
Obscure Christmas music is a potentially fascinating topic, especially since it taps into questions of class, race, and visibility. One of the sub-sub-genres spotlighted in Jingle Bell Rocks is holiday music made by and for African-Americans—from “Santa Claus is a Black Man” to Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis,” a track built on a sample from Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa.” We meet Rev Run, Carter, and the woman who as a young daughter of a black father and an Asian mother sang “Santa Claus is a Black Man.” John Waters shares his memories of growing up in Baltimore fascinated with African-American culture. “I just thought, what a good idea,” he shrugs. “Santa Claus is a black man, I hope.”
Kezin, however, loses focus amidst a flurry of celebrity cameos and distracting animation interludes. Wayne Coyne is allowed to go on at tedious length with his reflections on the meaning of Christmas music, and Kezin’s fascination with 60s cult heroes the Free Design really should have been its own movie. (Low make an appearance via radio interview.) The film’s repeated attention to the pathos of a music collector who has painful memories associated with “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot” is also excessive; a calypso recording of the song, presented in the film as a cathartic apotheosis, just feels awkward.
If you do hunker down for the documentary, you will leave the theater with a new appreciation for the lesser-known cuts in the Christmas canon. Some of the collectors depicted in the film pride themselves on their painstakingly curated annual mix CDs featuring choice rarities; you might just be inspired to make your own. Be careful, though: to keep up with these guys, you’ll definitely have to feel the Christmas spirit all year long.