Movie podcasts are not hard to come by these days. Just about every film-centric website has its own weekly get-together, where the writers and guests hash out new releases and noteworthy anniversaries and the like; most of my favorite film writers have shows of their own, with a similar, discussion-and-review format. But from its inception just over a year ago, Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This has separated itself from the pack not only in terms of quality (though many of those shows are very good), but in terms of style.
Most film podcasts are something of a hybrid of talk show, Sunday morning panel discussion, and Siskel & Ebert. YMRT, an exploration of “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” has the crisp editing and production value of a This American Life or Radiolab, coupled with some of the best film writing anywhere, on or off the page. It’s beautifully produced, but simultaneously a writer’s show; if Longworth just ran her text as a column somewhere, you’d read it every week. And she’s entering her show’s second season with a tricky, ambitious series that hangs her subject matter on that most enduring of pegs: a true crime story.
“Charlie Manson’s Hollywood” is a ten-episode cycle on “the life, crimes, and cultural reverberations of Charles Manson.” The first episode, “What We Talk About When We Talk About the Manson Murders” (which went up yesterday), lays down both Longworth’s theses and the blueprint for the series. In the former category, she acknowledges that the Manson story is, as is often acknowledged, a story about the ‘60s, and how their idealism “curdled, amidst a series of disasters”: the 1968 assassinations of MLK and RFK, Nixon’s election that fall, Altamont the next year, and Vietnam throughout. Manson was “more than a 1960s phenomena,” Longworth says; he “helped to invent the ‘70s.”
And to that end, she puts this oft-told tale into a new frame. “Charlie Manson’s story is a Hollywood story,” she says, the “fulfilled revenge fantasy” of so many showbiz hopefuls who, like Manson, were so close to the dream of fame that they could touch it, yet saw it ultimately exceed their grasp. But unlike most of his fellow starry-eyed dreamers, Manson chose to reach back with a knife in his hand.
Thus, in her inimitable brainy yet conversational style (and with the usual assortment of film-clip drops, period music, and well-chosen quotes), Longworth sets the scene in Los Angeles, ca. 1969, where the film scene was “a literal wasteland” that eventually had to be rescued by the city’s rock scene (especially the Sunset Strip), which was everything the movie industry wasn’t: edgy, vibrant, and sexual. Longworth makes particularly savvy note of the most-buzzed movie of that Manson summer: Easy Rider, directed by and starring Dennis Hopper. And when Longworth draws the line from Easy Rider-era Hopper to Manson — well, it’s the kind of thing that you’d never think of, but totally makes sense once she connects the dots.
Hollywood, as many have written, is an oddly small town, with unexpected connections and bizarre through-lines. So the six-degrees-of-separation nature of the Manson story — with tentacles that reach out to such seemingly unconnected figures as Roman Polanski, The Beach Boys, Kenneth Anger, and John Waters — lends itself to the miniseries structure that Longworth developed over the course of You Must Remember This’s first season. It culminated in the 17-part series of stories about movie stars’ activities during WWII, which Longworth cheekily dubbed “Star Wars.” The approach is ingenious, allowing the the writer/editor/narrator to approach big subjects under a wide umbrella, while still spinning off on fascinating little detours.
The first episode concludes with a section that explains the Manson murders in detail — a necessary but grim bit of table-setting for what will follow. And sure, this “who died and how” segment is tricky, but Longworth handles it both tastefully and, in an odd way, cinematically; she really turns the vice while describing the Tate scene, as the crime gets grislier and the minimalist music gets legitimately frightening. If all that sounds a little, y’know, murder-y for something that goes into your earbuds during a workout or comes out of your speakers during a commute, let us not forget the biggest podcasting sensation of the past year. And if that show was some kind of precedent, then here’s hoping You Must Remember This will ride the true crime podcasting wave into the popularity it so richly deserves.
New episodes of You Must Remember This debut every Tuesday. It’s available on iTunes and other podcast platforms.