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Psychotronic NFB: WILLIAM SHATNER SINGS O CANADA (2011)

The National Film Board of Canada may be the nation’s venerable award-winning public film producer and distributor, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t weird gems lurking on the fringes of its impressive back catalogue. “Psychotronic NFB,” attempts to filter through the earnest docs on social problems, overserious animation and World War II newsreels to uncover the NFB’s weirdest works.

In honour of our recent CanFilm Five exploring the lesser known works of Canadian thespian, singer and incorrigible space captain Mr. William Shatner, this edition of Psychotronic NFB breaks with recent tradition and looks at a more modern treat from the National Film Board archives. When William Shatner was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from Canada’s Governor General this past March, he also participated in this strange and patriotic short video, playing off his iconic image.

While probably the first to admit he is not much of a singer, Shatner released his debut album, “The Transformed Man” in 1968. Even by the forgiving  standards of celebrity-sung albums of the time, his renditions of  ”Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” were odd–Shat’s talk/singing may not be very “musical”  in the strictest sense of that word, but at least his interpretations were unique. As a result, the album became something of a cult item in the 1980s, spurned by champions like Dr. Demento and Rhino Record’s groundbreaking “Golden Throats” compilations.

Since then, Shatner has embraced the modest, outsider art approach of his music,  releasing the 2004 album “Has Been” in which he played up the camp value of his talk/singing style in performing modern pop songs. He even has a new space-themed singing album called “Seeking Major Tom” due out in just a few weeks.

It’s this offbeat legacy that Shatner taps into for this short film, having fun with both his popularity and the notoriety of “The Transformed Man.” It’s obviously quite staged and scripted, but Shatner gives a likable and good off-the-cuff performance as he offers a politically correct rendition of our national anthem. Oddly enough, this intimate little piece is one of the NFB’s few flirtations with popular culture of any kind, and to make something so tied to Shatner’s, uh, unorthodox singing talents definitely qualifies this more recent addition to the NFB’s catalogue as “Psychotronic.”

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time that Shatner worked for the NFB–as Marty McKee pointed out in his guest blog post, he often did voice work throughout his career,  and had previously narrated “City Out of Time“, a  Venice travelogue directed by Colin Low in 1959.    

Bizarrest moment: “O Canada” becomes “Hey, C-Rock!”

Lesson learned: In an age where any non-musical celebrity can make an album that still sounds vaguely musical thanks to an army of  producers and software, it’s admirable that Shatner sticks to his phasers and continues to play off his public persona by “singing” in the same way he always has. That’s how you become a legend in this business.

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  1. canuckchuck says:

    Shatner covers “Mrs Major Tom” by (fellow Canadian) K.I.A. on his new album “Seeking Major Tom”. Sheryl Crow does the vocals.