You haven’t lived until you’ve seen “Dika: Murder City,” Michæl D. Moore’s jaw-dropping 1997 tribute to septuagenarian punk rocker Dika Newlin. For those who subscribe to the notion that rock music is the exclusive domain of the young and old age is the bailiwick of sedate seniors, “Dika: Murder City” offers a topsy-turvy journey into acoustic insanity fueled by a wacky lady who crashes through all known barriers of good music and good sense with the power of a runaway train.
It is impossible to compare Dika Newlin to any other performer — there is no one even vaguely close to her. A tiny, somewhat elfin figure, she can assume the mantle of grandmotherly charm in her off-stage persona. Indeed, she holds a high degree of respect at a professor of classical music at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and she is also a gifted raconteur in recalling her years as a student of Arnold Schoenberg. On-stage, however, Dika turns into a raving maniac. Clad in black leather and blessed with a voice that sounds like the Tasmanian Devil imitating Lee Marvin’s warbling from “Paint Your Wagon,” Dika tears into songs in the manner of a wolverine tearing into a carcass: full of visceral energy and hungry recklessness, with no thought whatsoever to the polite theories of grace and euphonies. Coming to a Dika performance for the first time, it is easy to mistake her act for a joke. As the performance carries on, however, it becomes horrifically obvious that there is no joke and Dika is completely serious in her insane approach to all things melodic.
“Dika: Murder City” reaches a cinematic epiphany with a concert sequence featuring the lady in performance at a Richmond club. Backed by her band Apocowlypso (young men junior enough to be her grandchildren, offering a surplus of enthusiasm to compensate for a deficit of talent), the leather-clad Dika comes into the spotlight with her hair swept into a pompadour and Roy Orbison-style sunglasses shading her eyes. Clutching sheet music in her hands (hey, not everyone can remember lyrics), Dika barrels furiously into a wild rendition of “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” Barking the 60s pop anthem like a Marine drill sergeant and frequently losing her tempo with the band for a self-satisfying journey into the musical ether, she creates an image that is simultaneously ridiculous and sublime. It all culminates in the extraordinary spectacle of Dika purring the classic send-off, “Ya ready boots? Start walking!” and then launching into a clomp-clomp dance which looks as if she is stamping out fires. Dika was 74 when this footage was shot and God love her…any notion that this particular song was exclusive to Nancy Sinatra is completely erased in this crazy smash-up that ends with a wildly enthusiastic audience cheering and chanting her name with religious fervor. This is performance art taken to a zany extreme.
How can she follow this up? Dika, never acknowledging the adoration of her audience, blithely announces “Heartbreak Hotel” with the serenity of a train conductor. Losing her place in the sheet music after the first stanza (she covers with an extended ad-lib of “Oh, yeaaaaaaaaah!”), she recovers and offers a hula-hoop-style hip-swing during an extended acoustic interlude. Another challenge to The King emerges with a version of “Jailhouse Rock” that offers the gravelly invitation, “Let’s rooooooooooooooooooooooooooock!”
During the course of the film, Dika casually announces her ability to play two dozen instruments. Of course, there is a huge difference between playing an instrument and playing an instrument appropriately…and Dika has a curious habit of inserting kazoo solos where they are least expected. The film’s funniest moment is a TV appearance when Dika, in the midst of a Dylan-style protest song, suddenly whips out her trusty kazoo and turns the once-serious socio-political number into a soundtrack for Heckle and Jeckle. The TV show’s host is captured viewing the performance with an expression that is equal parts amazement, humor and cardiac arrest.
Later in the film, Dika achieves an apotheosis when she takes charge of a keyboard to perform an obscure Rossini aria for cats…and proceeds to meow the entire piece without pausing to take a breath. The spectacle of watching a 74-year-old woman meowing an aria for five straight minutes is clearly a highpoint in sado-masochistic cinema. The film’s title number, “Murder City,” is her magnum opus and is saved for the end of the flick. An apocalyptic tone poem of a violent society gone haywire, Dika chants the lyrics like one of Macbeth’s witches, as clips from “Night of the Living Dead” pop up on screen.
“Dika: Murder City” won a few awards on the festival circuit, but was never theatrically released. Although it is available on Michæl D. Moore’s small Moore Video label, it is a shame that moviegoers never had the opportunity to look up in the darkness at the big screen and fall prisoner to the blare of Dolby stereo speakers blasting Dika into their ears and souls. Dika and her film are truly one-in-a-million, and it is refreshing to know that honest-to-goodness iconoclasts like this Saint Dika still prowl the world.