No Dogs Allowed 

A flick lauding local faves the Frisky Frolics leaves a few Frolics frazzled.

Rick Quisol lives in 2004 Alameda, but on screen he embodies, and seems to idolize, 1924 New York City.

"Nostalgia," he muses. "Where does this nostalgia for a time I didn't live in come from? Hmm. How is that possible?"

His jet-black hair gorgeously pomaded, his wardrobe lifted almost entirely from the early twentieth century, his trusty ukulele presumably just outside the videocamera's field of vision, Rick means that question rhetorically, and self-deprecatingly as well. A blueberry iMac looms behind him.

As the charismatic frontman for Bay Area quintet the Frisky Frolics -- a group dedicated to preserving the good-old-timey virtuosity of Tin Pan Alley jazz -- he traffics in a certain amount of wide-eyed nostalgic idealism, though exactly how much wide-eyed nostalgic idealism is subject to debate. Hence the intraband disagreement regarding The Frisky Frolics, a full-length documentary three young filmmakers just wrapped up and publicly unveiled.

The central argument revolves around whether a little dog in a funny hat really has a place in the movie.

"A little dog in a funny hat really has no place in the movie," insists lead guitarist Steve Merritt. He's chatting over the phone a few days after the inaugural Frisky Frolics public screening, held on an early December Sunday in a small SF space packed with friends, family and, most importantly, the band itself, literally seeing themselves for the first time.

Having done so, Steve is not amused. "For me, my personal take on anything I do is I want to be very good, and I work really hard at it," he says. "When someone tries to dismiss it as being a joke or a novelty, that's kind of an insult. I want people to have a good time, of course -- I want people to enjoy themselves. But I don't want people to be like, 'Oh, this is funny.' Oh no, it's not funny. It may be fun, but it's not funny."

"Narratively, I think I'm really influenced by documentaries that are character-driven, rather than informative or issues-driven," explains Alejandro Adams, who splits editing, producing, and directing credits for Frolics with Sharon Beaulaurier and his wife, Marya Murphy. They spent this summer tailing the band at gigs (at El Cerrito's Down Home Records, as well as Oakland's Parkway and Mile High Club), in addition to rehearsals, radio show tapings, and impromptu picnics. Every member consented to lengthy one-on-one interviews as well. And it all began when Marya and Alejandro, a 31-year-old Mountain View resident, caught a Frisky Frolics set earlier this year at SF's Purple Onion and found a character they liked: Rick.

"I had one guy a few years back say, 'Hey, you guys are corny, but I like it,'" Rick recalls of his band. "I knew what he meant, for want of a better word -- straw hat, ukulele, 'What's this kinda stuff? Some kind of comedy thing?' But when we do certain ballads, people hear the beauty of that."

Rick, who looks about 22, is actually 46, which is just offensive. His wardrobe is impeccable, a cavalcade of elegant shoes, jaunty hats, and snappy suits. He shows up for the SF screening in a pinstriped number and a fancy hat set at a self-described "rakish tilt," jutting cheerily to the left, as always. The other Frolics generally dress in dress shirts, ties, and overalls -- "hillbilly executive," they call it -- but Rick stands out by creating a whole period-accurate persona, "The Dimestore Dandy," a smooth-talking huckster "with more flash than cash," a homemade tin can/harmonica/kazoo contraption (he calls it a Can-Zoo) strapped to his chest. He sings "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None o' This Jelly Roll" with glee and zeal. Acoustic guitars and mandolins and ukuleles and upright bass romp behind him.

And here we tread the fine line between persona and outright gimmick. The East Bay is overloaded with old-timey nostalgic types infected with an excruciatingly high kitsch factor, playing flaming pianos while juggling cats and making out with porno clowns, that sort of thing. The often-impressive musicianship is buried in layer after layer after layer of dimestore-cheap irony.

Thus the movie immediately works to play up the band's instrumental acumen. Within the first fifteen minutes, the Frolics blow through nearly uninterrupted versions of classics such as "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Deep Ellum Blues." But this flick is 83 minutes long (even Rick finds that a bit long-winded), and it eventually backgrounds the tunes and focuses on the Frolics' wistful, reverent adoration of the era they re-create -- the music, the fashion, the lingo, the values. ("These guys are walking anachronisms," begins the pitch at FriskyFrolicsMovie.com)

So you get shots of mandolin expert Pierre Laik staring reverently at his record player as it spins classic bluegrass. ("Nice banjo accompaniment," he murmurs.) Rhythm guitarist Danny Santos, arm around his retro-coifed wife, praises the bygone era of "Wit as opposed to vulgarity, singing as opposed to sex." Steve sticks to his guns, playing up the band's artistic passion and notable lack of animal costumes or other kitsch signifiers. Rick shows off his shoes. And bassist Chris Green admits that "If I had a garage, I would go in it and build a time machine and go back to, say, 1927 or '31, when it seemed, from what I can tell today, that people seemed to have a different outlook toward life and other people. They seemed happier."

And then there's Lucky, the aforementioned dog in the funny hat. The movie's most inspired sequence cuts between Rick proudly modeling various headgear and Chris, Lucky's owner, proudly slapping various little beanies and sombreros on the poor fist-sized pooch's head. The SF screener crowd laughed uproariously, and a few days afterward, Rick is more than willing to let 'em. "I think you have to have some kind of entertainment value," he says. "If it comes off something fun for a viewer, than I'm okay with that. I didn't want to come off as, 'This is such a serious thing.' The bottom line is fun, to be fun, or I don't want to do it. I think some things you don't have to spell it out. It's implicit in your actions. You don't have to beat people over the head with it, 'I'm serious, please take it that way. '"

Steve, on the other hand, would've preferred a bit more head-beating. "As long as people have fun, that's fine," he says. "I just don't want people to come in and think it's a joke band. 'Oh look, they've got a ukulele, it must be a joke act.' We're not up there in animal costumes and juggling and like, with trained seals."

Alejandro politely defends the film's treatment. "There's almost a countervailing sensibility within the band," he says. "What are they trying to do? Are they entertainers, or are they serious musicians? I take them very seriously as musicians. But the story that seemed to come out of it for me was the looking backward, and the values. These people were eager to talk about their lifestyle. Rick says in the movie, 'Part of playing music is being able to dress this way, and use the lingo they used back then.' Steve's part of a band that's fronted by someone whose sensibility might not be the same as his, which makes it tricky. Funny hats, funny dogs -- that's part of it for at least half the band. I think the music is treated incredibly respectfully."

Rick admits that when he first spoke with Steve after the screening, the guitarist had thrown the word "boycott" around: "He might soften his stance on it," Rick adds diplomatically. Alejandro, meanwhile, aspires to hit the film festival circuit, in addition to screening Frolics at various local joints, and maybe inviting the real live Frolics to play afterward.

And then again, maybe not. "Obviously it's finished, so I have to live with it," Steve says. "Maybe my initial reaction was a little harsh. I'm a bit of an extremist and reactionary. I'm the first guy to throw a punch, and two days later, go 'Man, that was really dumb.' I may loosen up a little bit. I may have to rethink it, and really try and understand where they're coming from."

Still, he adds, "I thought a lot of the editing was pretty piss-poor, and honestly I don't know if it will be screened again, or if it will be ever taken as a submission to a film festival. I think it just was too long, and the general theme and the point was a bit convoluted."

Don't look for Frolics to storm Sundance -- the length is a bit much, and it definitely has Young Filmmaker fingerprints, from the awkward conversation to the swooping extreme close-ups on Frolics' faces, moles and all, that cracked the dudes up repeatedly during the screening. But it's also got undeniable warmth, a few honest-to-god laughs (controversy can't keep that dog-in-funny-hat scene down), and just as Alejandro desired, great characters, conflicted though they might be.

"I'm not trying to sell what I'm doing for everyone else to believe in," Rick says. "Maybe they were a little bit more naive back then. It's probably my own warped perspective on things. but for me, that's the way I see life, how it should be lived. Maybe it's a dream and a fantasy, but that's what I want. And there's nothing more satisfying -- there might be this hardcore person there, and she'll say, 'You know what, I was in a crappy fuckin' mood, and I listened to you guys, and I didn't know what to think at first, but I couldn't leave. And then all of a sudden I felt good and I forgot about my problems.' This woman told me that one night, and I thought, 'God, that's exactly what we're about.'"

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