The most mesmerizing entertainment I’ve experienced lately isn’t a TV show. My most addictive recent summer “read” isn’t a book. As for movies, they’re short-term pleasures compared with the long aural soak that a well-turned podcast can provide. Since last year’s “Serial” finally and fully turned me and many others on to the format, I’ve been sampling these radio-as-you-go hybrids. Some are well-orchestrated keepers (“The Moth,” “Dinner Party Download”), while others are passing fancies (I’ll spare you the pain).
With “Charles Manson’s Hollywood,” coming up on its 12th and final installment next week, I’ve once again been sucked into a long-form history lesson designed for the mind by way of the ears. The creation of LA-based film critic Karina Longworth, the series represents what her regular podcast, “You Must Remember This,” is doing for its summer vacation.
Launched in early 2014, and available through iTunes or at youmustrememberthispodcast.com, “You Must Remember This” is an irresistible corner candy store for lovers of deep Hollywood history. Longworth has done episodes on the real story of troubled actress Frances Farmer, on why John Wayne avoided serving in World War II, on the starry love life of millionaire Howard Hughes.
She has dished the dirt on sex symbols of the 1990s (Isabella Rossellini), the 1970s (Barbra Streisand), the 1930s (Kay Frances) and the 1910s (Theda Bara). I do wish she’d stop hitting her “t”s so hard, the way the elocution consultant probably told her to. But her lack of broadcast polish also helps. Listening to Longworth spin her web of Tinseltown facts and factoids is like sitting on a midnight porch up in the Hollywood Hills while a know-it-all friend plays Scheherazade.
“Manson’s Hollywood” is Longworth’s version of a Gesamtkunstwerk — a sprawling, all-inclusive pop history that catalogs the strands and sicknesses of 20th-century America’s entertainment industry through the focused lens of one horrific event, the August 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the followers of cult leader Charles Manson.
You probably know the outlines of the story through cultural osmosis alone, if not from reading prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book, “Helter Skelter,” under your bedcovers with a flashlight. What Longworth does is widen and deepen our understanding of the Manson story by following each aspect back to its roots.
Episode 3, “The Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson, and Manson the Songwriter,” sketches in how the Manson family befriended Beach Boys drummer, baby brother, and surfer dude Wilson as part of Charlie’s campaign to become a rock star and spread his cracked message to the world; among the segment’s creepy nuggets is that the young Neil Young was one of those who thought Manson “had something.”
The fascinating fifth episode dives deeper into LA’s late-’60s music scene, through the story of Terry Melcher, Hollywood Golden Boy and son of Doris Day, who became a rock producer and brought the Byrds, among others, to fame. For a while, Manson believed Melcher was his ticket to stardom, and when the producer ultimately snubbed him — Longworth’s description of Melcher’s visit to Spahn Ranch for a Manson “audition” makes for great queasy listening — the cult leader took note of where the producer lived with girlfriend Candice Bergen: 10050 Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills. By the time Manson’s followers descended with knives months later, Sharon Tate was living there.
Longworth devotes an episode to Tate and her struggles as a very beautiful, very insecure woman in a business run by often-brutal men. She pulls apart the lyrics of the Beatles’ “White Album” to show how Manson read the songs as psychotic instructions. She details Family member Bobby Beausoleil’s relationship with Kenneth Anger, the San Francisco avant-garde filmmaker who influenced Martin Scorsese, pioneered deep showbiz dirt with his book “Hollywood Babylon,” and had his own sideline in Satanism.
Unexpected correlations are made: Day’s abusive marriage to jazzman Al Jordan (Melcher’s father) was a model for Scorsese’s “New York, New York.” Manson victim and Tate’s ex-boyfriend, Hollywood hairdresser Jay Sebring, was a model for Warren Beatty’s character in “Shampoo.” Tate’s dutiful parroting of her husband Roman Polanski’s men-are-dominant philosophy doesn’t sound that different from the Manson women’s brainwashed declarations that Charlie was God. If Tate had lived, Polanski might still be making movies in the United States. And we probably wouldn’t have “Chinatown.”
Most of all, “Manson’s Hollywood” takes place during an immense cultural shift, when youth culture had dethroned postwar culture, drugs were everywhere, and no one knew anything. Longworth touches on the Watts Riots of 1965, the Sunset Strip Riots of 1967, the release of “Easy Rider” in 1969, the utter confusion of music and film industry executives, and the way that the eruption of madness that the Manson killings represented found their on-screen equivalent in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 “Zabriskie Point,” a film that had its own apocalyptic aftermath. Only Episode 10, detailing Polanski’s career in the decades after the murders, feels over-familiar and off-topic.
The ninth episode, “August 8-10, 1969,” describes the Tate-LaBianca murders themselves, and even Longworth admits she got nauseous writing the script. Gorehounds will probably check in here first, but in doing so they’ll miss the larger point of “Manson’s Hollywood.” Damage — emotional and physical abuse — is everywhere in this series, a hidden cultural constant of which the murders served as the most gruesome evidence. Everyone here wants love, but they only end up used, or in jail, or dead. If they can’t get love, they want fame, but they’re damned for wanting that and damned for getting it, too; the portrait of Dennis Wilson as a sad alcoholic drifter is almost painful by that episode’s end.
The darkest irony of “Manson’s Hollywood” is unmistakable. The most famous person in this entire series, on name recognition alone, is probably Charlie Manson himself. Only nine people, more or less, had to get butchered to get him there.