“If They Move… Film ‘Em”: In 1984, Sam Peckinpah directed Julian Lennon’s “Valotte”

By on December 29, 2017

In Night Flight’s “Visions of Platinum: Part 1,” which originally aired on June 12, 1985, record producer Phil Ramone told us about working with Julian Lennon, whose “Valotte” music video was, somewhat surprisingly, directed by the legendary Sam Peckinpah. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus!

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“I just fell in love with the music,” says Ramone in our Night Flight interview.

“I fell in love with the idea of him, and not a commercial project of John Lennon‘s son, although I knew that we were going to be carrying that as part of the packaging of what Julian is about. He is the natural son of a guy who was a great talent.”

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In 1984, Lennon’s UK record company, Charisma Records, decided that the best way to introduce Julian Lennon as a new artist — showing him having grown beyond the influence of his father — was to make him the focus of an hour-long, behind-the-scenes documentary.

They hoped that MTV would air the documentary special — showing Lennon at rehearsals, recording sessions and in intimate concert settings — during primetime.

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According to David Weddle’s If They Move… Kill ‘Em!: The Life & Times of Sam Peckinpah, British humorist, TV personality & film producer Martin Lewis was brought aboard the project as a producer.

One of his first tasks was to find a director for the project, and Lewis thought that a seasoned feature filmmaker — and not a young, fresh-out-of-film-school music video director — could add, in his words, “some texture, some perspective.”

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Lewis first approached the great director Robert Altman, who wasn’t available, and then approached an Altman protégé, writer-director Alan Rudolph, but he wasn’t available either.

A friend of Lewis’s — L.A. Weekly film critic Dennis Delrogh — suggested Sam Peckinpah, the occasionally controversial director of a handful of western classics, like The Wild Bunch (1968), and contemporary crime dramas, like The Getaway (1972).

(Be sure to read Night Flight contributor Chris Morris’s blog about Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid).

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Lewis  thought his friend was joking, since Peckinpah’s films were noted for their brutal and often shocking violence, saying: “Are you kidding me? I can just imagine what he’d do, open the film with a slow-motion recreation of John Lennon’s murder.”

Delrogh pointed out that Lewis was thinking about the clichéd image of Peckinpah, and Lewis then remembered that Peckinpah’s 1970 western The Ballad of Cable Hogue — a poetic, melancholy non-violent story about a failed prospector who finds water in the desert — was one of his favorite films.

Lewis realized that Delrogh was right, Peckinpah was a great choice, and was astonished when the veteran film director expressed great enthusiasm for the project and agreed to direct the film.

Read more about Sam Peckinpah and Julian Lennon’s “Valotte” below.

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The deal for a Julian Lennon documentary film was soon delayed, however, due to the fact that Lennon was reluctant to be filmed performing live in concert.

Lewis then decided that Peckinpah should instead direct two videos, one each for the first two singles from his debut album, Valotte: the title track and “Too Late for Goodbyes” (watch that one above).

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“Valotte” was named for the Manoir de Valotte in the remote hilly region of Saint-Benin-d’Azy, described by Lennon as a “beautiful little run-down château in the middle of France.”

Lennon spent three months at the château, where he did little else besides writing songs (“Sitting on a pebble by the river playing guitar”) and recording demo tapes.

He later completed the song with two of his school pals, lead guitarist Justin Clayton and Jamaican-born guitarist Carlton Morales (they share songwriting credit with Lennon).

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Peckinpah — who was paid just $10,000 — was not overly familiar with music videos and had never seen MTV, and thought the idea of making a two-minute short film of Lennon lip-synching to his songs was a ridiculous idea.

Nevertheless, he stuck with the project and shot 35mm footage of Lennon for three days in a small studio in upstate New York, mostly showing Lennon in a recording studio, playing the piano and singing while being supervised by producer Phil Ramone.

“My biggest moment of pride was to see him in person,” Ramone says later in our interview. “Here’s a guy who wouldn’t sing in front of an audience before, he was too shy, and he’s standing out there and galloping all over the stage, and having a great time and being himself. He’s a great talent, and I’m very fortunate that we’ve met, and I’m thrilled to work with him. “

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As David Weddle writes in his Peckinpah biography, “the videos exhibited a quiet lyricism and subtle eye for nuance that [Peckinpah’s] critics would never have thought him capable of.”

The videos also proved to be Peckinpah’s final work as a director, however, as he died on December 28, 1984, from heart failure. He was 59.

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Sam Peckinpah, Julian Lennon and Phil Ramone

Five months after the release of Valotte in October of ’84, Lennon finally performed in front of audiences for the very first time.

Valotte — peaking at #17 on the Billboard 200 — eventually went platinum on the strength of two Top Ten singles: “Valotte” (#9) and “Too Late for Goodbyes” (#5).

Lennon was later nominated for a Grammy Award for Best New Artist, and Best New Video Artist at the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards.

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Martin Lewis’s documentary film, Stand by Me: A Portrait of Julian Lennon, was eventually released on VHS in 1985.

Lewis had decided not to include either of the Peckinpah-directed videos, choosing instead to focus on Lennon’s first American tour, including his last concert in San Francisco, as well as including candid offstage footage of Lennon in airports, hotels and backstage.

Watch Part One of this special 1985 “Visions of Platinum” episode on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.