Thursday, June 05, 2014

The White Elephant Blogathon: Can't Stop Won't Stop

It lives!

Screenshot (1).png

Hi, everyone. Because Facebook wag Philip Tatler IV invited me to participate in this year's edition of the White Elephant Blogathon, here is my review of Nancy Walker's Can't Stop the Music, produced and co-written by Grease's Alan Carr, and starring Steve Guttenberg, 1976 Olympic Gold Medal winner and future reality TV oddball Bruce Jenner, Oscar nominee Valerie Perrine, and of course, the film's raison d'etre, the Village People. Released d of the disco era, the movie was a huge commercial flop, and, along with Richard Greenwald's Xanadu (also released in 1980) one of the inspirations for the creation of the Razzie Awards.

Walker was best known for playing Rhoda Morgenstern's mom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff, Rhoda. She directed a few episodes of the latter series, but this was her only foray into feature films. Xanadu director Greenwald, on the other hand, went on to a successful career in Hollywood.

Now let's take a short break and confront the fact that I have no idea how to review this movie. If the point of the White Elephant Blogathon is to stymie your fellow critics, I lose and you win, chooser of Can't Stop the Music. It's not that the movie isn't interesting, in its way. For a film that aims for such relentless euphoria, it's a dismal failure, and not just by the traditional metrics by which we measure such things. In effect, the effort to turn them into movie stars destroyed the Village People. Victor Willis, co-founder of the group with Jacques Morali (not to be confused with Jack Morell, the disco dreamer Guttenberg plays in the film), and co-writer of many of their biggest hits (including "Macho Man," "In the Navy," and "Y.M.C.A.," the song which accounts for the idiotic movie's one genuine highlight) was heterosexual, and wanted audiences to know it, so he demanded that Phylicia Ayers-Allen, his girlfriend at the time, and the future Clair Huxtable, be cast as his girlfriend in the movie. Willis ended up leaving the group while the movie was in development, and they never had another hit.

I suppose I could tell you about my own personal connection to Can't Stop the Music, but the truth is I don't have one. I was a very repressed adolescent when the film was released. I was in the midst of discovering new wave and punk. My sad and lonely disco phase was ending. There must have been other kids on Long Island who listened to disco in the late 1970s. I never met them. I never met anyone. The cool kids liked Van Halen and Aerosmith, slightly cooler kids might have liked Led Zeppelin or Skynyrd. It all seemed debauched and ugly to me. No one listened to the music I liked: Loudon Wainwright, Harry Nilsson, my parents' copies of the Original Cast Recordings of Jesus Christ Superstar and Sweeney Todd, Broadway shows I'd never seen. But for a while, escaping the daily torment of junior high school, of being beaten up, robbed, called a faggot and a pussy on a daily basis, to me meant getting home, turning on the TV or the radio for the Mets (it gets better, right around 1984) or turning on AM radio and listening to disco and R&B. Sitting on a stool in the kitchen by myself, eating peanut butter and jelly and listening to Chic, Raydio, Donna Summer, Earth, Wind and Fire, that fucking Blue Magic song, and the Bee Gees.

But not the Village People. It's not that their music wasn't fun and catchy. It was. But it was also dumb. Plus, its gayness was front and center in a way that gave me the heebie-jeebies as a teen, as, I guess I should point out, any inkling of sexuality in popular music, of any variety did at the time. For example, now I can appreciate that Walter Egan song, "Magnet and Steel," but back in 1978 it gave me the creeps. That line in that Steve Forbert song about "bring me southern kisses from your room"? I was pretty sure I knew what he meant. Yuck.

Also, back then, music was almost entirely a solitary pursuit for me, but movies were decidedly not. The only thing more humiliating to me than having to ask my parents to take me to see the movies I wanted to see (and subsequently sitting with them and watching, say, Paul Schrader's Blue Collar) would have been going alone. And as I had no friends back then, and my parents were not interested in disco, it was unlikely that I'd see this movie.
But gayness also had something to do with it. Every day, my peers would make mean-spirited assertions about my sexuality and as uncertain and frightened about all that as I was, I knew from the way they said it that it was something I did not ever want to be. In a sense, gay panic prevented me from going to see Can't Stop the Music, which is maybe a shame, because back then I might have enjoyed hating it.

Screenshot (9).png

These days, I can't muster any genuine contempt for its ineptitude; the best I can do is puzzlement. Look at that opening credit sequence, as Jack, having just quit his job in a huff, joyfully rollerskates through the streets of Manhattan -- through the city of his future -- with his newfound sense of freedom. I watch that opening credits sequence, and the song is about New York, and Guttenberg is ecstatic, and all I want to see is what New York City really looked like in 1980. But Walker decides to split the screen in three, as though she was Brian DePalma or something, and it spoils the view. So I'm left with questions. Why do the shirts of those three young women spell out "San Francisco?"

How does that Construction Worker (David Hodo) work in the sewer wearing mirrored shades?

I don't really have any more questions, and then the plot kicks in and I have to try to say funny things about it. This is a mug's game. I mean, there's campy fun to be had here, I suppose, but it gets to be heavy slogging over the course of its two-hours-plus runtime, and there really isn't anything particularly interesting about bad sitcom level gag-writing and mugging. Beyond nostalgia for a time when you could greet your female friends on the street by slapping them on the ass, and asking if they were "fattening up for the Miss Piggy lookalike contest," its odd little quirks are the only thing that hold your interest. Maybe it helps if you're high, as I'm guessing the great character actor Jack Weston was when he filmed his small role as a sleazy club owner with notably bloodshot eyes. Or maybe that was just after too many takes of that shot where Perrine hip-checks him in the head.

Jack (Guttenberg) housesits for Samantha (Perrine), a retired supermodel, who hears one of his songs, and tells him she'll use her music biz connections (mainly fast-talking ex-boyfriend Steve (Paul Sand)) to find him a record deal. But it turns out that Jack can't sing, so he has to hire singers. He eventually settles on a Construction Worker (Hodo), a Cowboy (Hodo -- oops, no sorry, I was thinking of Game of Thrones; I meant Randy Jones), a G.I. (Alex Briley), a Police Officer (Ray Simpson, who replaced Willis), a Leatherman (Glenn Hughes, whose facial hair is a highlight of the movie),  and Sam's upstairs neighbor Felipe (Felipe Rose), who wears a Native American headdress and occasionally makes Michael Winslow-like siren noises. (Rose's father was reportedly Lakota Sioux, so I guess that explains the getup.)

Ron White (Jenner) is a tax lawyer, new in town, and while delivering a cake to Sam (?), he's mugged by an elderly woman (Paula Trueman, who co-starred with Guttenberg on the short-lived sitcom Billy, but is probably better known by you types for her role in The Outlaw Josey Wales) who fakes getting hit by a moped, because apparently that's more effective than simply walking up to people with her gun and taking their shit. This is the first of the film's many eccentric older woman characters. Is the movie's apparent obsession with scornful father and nurturing mother figures a question of gay stereotyping, or does it mark director Walker's efforts to get her peers some screen time? Do I care? And is the answer to that question insultingly obvious?

In any case, we have Tammy Grimes as Sydney Channing, Sam's snooty, overbearing former boss, who's determined to lure her back to modeling, June Havoc as Jack's overbearing, son-worshipping but notably not Jewish mother, who, when the boy's dream of stardom looks like it might fail, saves the day with kreplach, and Barbara Rush trying to class up the joint as White's overbearing, WASPish, but surprisingly with-it midwestern mom. Marilyn Sokol plays Sydney's indiscriminately boy-crazy assistant Lulu, and Sandra Bernhard probably studied this performance in preparation for playing Masha in The King of Comedy. Sure, Sokol's a mugging machine, but if everyone in the film played to the cheap seats with that kind of manic energy, at least it wouldn't ever get dull.

Make no mistake. Everyone overacts. Sitcom pros Sokol and Sand are a little better at selling the material than most of them. Jenner, as the straight-laced heterosexual love interest (I should say, the only love interest) just comes off as lost and desperate, but really, I mean..

How many actors, gay or straight, could pull off that outfit?

Guttenberg was just a couple of years away from the role in Diner that would make the rest of his career a disappointment. He's exuberant and manic, and it gets old right around the time he takes off his rollerskates. Perrine does what she can, but in the end, she's saddled with being the straight man to this motley crew. The Village People themselves, most of whom aren't given much to do in the way of acting, remain the stars of the show despite all the nonsense going on around them. They're each fun and appealing in inverse proportion to how many lines of dialogue they have.

Since it runs two hours and it's about a disco group, you'd expect plenty of musical numbers, and you'd think that's where the movie would really shine. No, no, no. There are only a handful of musical numbers, one featuring The Ritchie Family, another Jacques Morali creation. Not showing any bias, Walker uses the same upskirt camera angles to shoot them that she uses with Felipe.

And it's probably not completely fair to judge how competently these numbers are shot, because the version showing on Netflix has been cropped down to TV dimensions, when the movie was originally shot at 2.35:1. So while it has the look of a cheap TV commercial, and some of Walker's visual effects choices are certainly questionable…

The bottom line is, there isn't enough disco in this movie. Notable numbers include a botched demo where the boys "comically" screw up Lulu's crap choreography, and a final stage number to the title track that features too many lackadaisical images of the band shot from the cheap seats.

There's one exception, though. There's one musical number that gives the audience everything it wants from a Village People movie. I'm not going to bother trying to explain how they shoehorn it into the plot, but eventually the gang ends up at the local Y. From the moment that horn fanfare begins (you know, the one you're hearing in your head right now), the energy level picks up, and from there it's embarrassing references to past hits...
Screenshot (19).png

enjoyably idiotic spin choreography...

And perhaps most importantly, gratuitous soapy full-frontal male nudity (in a PG-rated movie, no less)...

With inexplicably gratuitous equal time for Perrine…

And that's easily the highlight of Can't Stop the Music. For a brief, shining moment, it acknowledges that the Village People and their songs are extremely gay. It celebrates that fact. The unconvincing rags-to-riches story and the weak hetero romance, neither of which have much to do with the group, are finally cast aside in favor of the fetishistic ogling of male flesh in various states of undress. More scenes like this might not have made the movie a hit, critical or otherwise, but it might have made this misbegotten thing feel like it had a reason, other than miscalculated financial interests, to exist.