One of filmmaker Mitchell Kezin’s earliest memories of Christmas wasn’t quite a happy one. Eschewing the sap and sentiment of typical holiday songs, he gravitated toward a heartbreaking one. Nat “King” Cole’s “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot” hit close to home for Kezin, whose own father was often absent around the holidays, and left his son feeling blue.
In “Jingle Bell Rocks!” — Kezin’s delightful new documentary, released this week on DVD and in digital formats, and streaming via video-on-demand services — Kezin goes deep into the world of obsessive Christmas music collectors, himself included. Taking a cross-country road trip, he also tells the stories of somewhat obscure holiday songs, interspersed with interviews with big-name artists.
The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne tells Kezin about the making of the band’s sci-fi film, “Christmas on Mars.” Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons of Run-DMC reminisces about the hip-hop trio’s classic “Christmas in Hollis.” Bob Dorough, the bebop jazz icon and creator of “Schoolhouse Rock,” waxes romantic about recording “Blue Xmas” with Miles Davis. Soul legend Clarence Carter practically blushes when discussing the double entendres of his Christmas hit, “Back Door Santa.”
In Baltimore, director John Waters shows Mitchell the electric chair featured in his 1974 film, “Female Trouble.” Waters, an avowed Christmas nut, has it decorated with candy-colored lights and festive greenery. “Christmas, you can love it or hate it,” Waters says, “but you can’t really ignore it.”
“Jingle Bell Rocks!” recalls the Oscar-winning “20 Feet From Stardom” in that its appeal is so universal, so heartfelt that it transcends its subject matter. It’s about the thrill of the hunt, sure, but also about the joy of revisiting something ingrained in most of our childhoods.
From his home in Vancouver, Kezin gave the Globe a behind-the-scenes account of the film, which marks his directorial feature debut.
Q. The world of Christmas music and its self-described “weirdo” collectors is not the most obvious topic. When did you know you had the makings for a dynamic film like this?
A. Originally the movie was going to be much smaller than it is now. Basically I was going to tell the story of the collectors, and learn about the music as we got to know them, and explore their collections. It was going to be much more oddball and narrower in its potential commercial value. Then I got to thinking about my own story, and I realized that I really wanted to talk about the people who created these songs and really get into where they came from.
Q. You got a lot of folks to talk for this film. Did you have easy access?
A. No. That’s why the movie took eight years to make. It took me three or four years to secure some of these people. With each of the artists, I knew that if I could get past the agents and managers that, although they’ve talked to the music press about their latest projects, no one had asked them about their Christmas songs. I knew those creations were important to them, and if I could get in front of them and explain my point of view, they would get it and want to talk with me. And that happened with each and every person: Wayne Coyne, John Waters, Rev Run. They were all business at first — you get half an hour or 45 minutes only — but once we got going, we ended staying sometimes for an hour and a half. It was amazing.
Q. Did you always know that you were going to steer clear of commercial Christmas music?
A. Well, I did, but I had a lot of resistance. In the early days of funding, I had a deal with Canada’s biggest network, CTV. They were interested in making the film, but they wanted Michael Bublé and Diana Krall.
Q. What surprised you as you burrowed into the subject matter?
A. What surprised me was how many people out there are doing this. Every city and festival I travel to, there are at least three or four people in the audience who say, “I’ve been collecting for 20 years, and I make a mix, too — I’m so grateful you made this movie.” There are a lot of people like me who are initially quite shy and reserved and don’t want to talk about it. People have a knee-jerk reaction when you tell them you like Christmas music, because they think you’re talking about Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” You feel like saying, “No, you don’t get it.” Eventually I stopped telling them about it and just sent them my mix and said, “Listen to this and then let’s talk.” Then they’d come back and be like, “Oh, my God. Now I get it. Cool!”
Q. Your own story gives the film its heart. Were you comfortable sharing that?
A. I knew my story was going to be in the movie. And I knew that it was important because it allows people into this universe. But I didn’t want it to be a Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock hamming it up kind of thing. That’s not me or my personality. I didn’t want to be an actor on camera or the star of the show. For a while, we were going to have voice-overs and leave me out of it, but I realized as soon as we started filming that it was much more interesting if we took the approach we ended up with.
Q. When do you typically start listening to Christmas music?
A. Because of the movie, I’ve tended to listen to it all year long for the past few years. Normally, I start in about early October because I have to start thinking about the Merry Mix [his annual mix of Christmas music]. Around Labor Day, I start organizing all the records I’ve purchased throughout the year, start listening to them, and making a short list of what I want to consider for the mix. Fortunately, I have a girlfriend who’s very accepting, but she doesn’t like me to play it a lot until December.