Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Queerest Thing I Found on the Internet This Week

odd, strange, unusual, curious, bizarre, peculiar, weird, uncanny, eccentric, unconventional...

I consider it a compliment.

Swedish Marines & "Greased Lightning"

Over the last few years I've posted a couple of videos of U.S. military personnel lip-syncing and dancing to popular hits, like Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" and Lady Gaga's "Telephone." They typically rack up millions of views on YouTube and bring the smiles. There are, however, some perpetually constipated individuals who are not amused by these videos, apparently believing that the men and women serving our country in places like Afghanistan should lead miserable, fearful, uncreative lives and be content to clean guns and read the Christian Bible in their downtime. Let's be honest, there are far worse things they could be doing off duty than learning the lyrics to a pop tune and teaching themselves some funny choreography for a video. If this kind of thing keeps them sane, I'm all for it.

Earlier this year, a group of Swedish marines in Afghanistan -- I didn't even know Sweden had marines -- produced a video of their own. It's a smashing version of "Greased Lightning" from the 1978 film (and guilty pleasure) Grease. The idea came to marine Boris Zelada, who also directed, after his unit watched the film together one night. Impressed with star John Travolta's showstopper musical moment, they all decided to put something together in their free time. They've substituted camo gear and a military vehicle for leather jackets and a classic car, but pretty much taught themselves most of the film's original choreography. With a few additional hip thrusts. And a couple of simulated bro sex moments surreptitiously planted in the background. Like the car in the film, this video is systematic, hydromatic and ultramatic... and the queerest thing I found on the Internet this week. Just watch.

If this is any kind of representative sample of Swedish men, then the country must be filled with good-looking dudes. I was already grateful to Sweden for giving us ABBA. This is just icing. Also, I want to live in a world where wars are settled by dance-offs.

If you'd like to see how close these guys got to the original, have a look.

Want to see some other entries in this series? Go here or here.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Cruel Summer Music Mix 2014 - Vol. 4

As a southerner, I've been listening to these seven words all my life: "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." I call that southern science. And it's not particularly comforting when the sweat is rolling down my back into my underwear. Anyway, it's going to take more than sunscreen, shade, AC or lots of citrus-kissed blonde ales to get me through the season. Summer needs a soundtrack! In part four of this 7-part series, I'm featuring earworms from The Heartbreaks, Ingrid Michaelson and Prides.

The Heartbreaks. They're a British alternative pop/rock quartet from Lancashire. At first glance it's tempting to dismiss them as just another boy band, but that would be a mistake -- these are serious musicians. Matthew Whitehouse handles lead vocals, accompanied by drummer (and songwriter) Joseph Kondras, guitarist Ryan Wallace and bassist Christopher "Deaks" Deakin." NME, the weekly British music journalism publication, has called them one of the "most exciting bands in the UK today." Their sophomore release, We May Yet Stand a Chance, dropped in June of 2014.

The Heartbreaks, left to right:
Christopher Deakin, Joseph Kondras, Matthew Whitehouse & Ryan Wallace 

Song & Video: "Absolved" -- The song is unapologetic, uplifting, bombastic pop (and a pretty brilliant little single). The video is a goofball homage to those nattily suited, all-male groups of the 1960s (think The Four Seasons), complete with admirably cheesy choreography. Also, Sideburns Guy (Ryan Wallace) is my musician crush of the summer.

The chorus, for those interested...

Absolved, I am
From the guilt of all the feelings
that you don't understand

Absolved, I cry
From the guilt of all the feelings
that hit me when I catch your eye

Ingrid Michaelson. This indie-pop singer-songwriter has been around for about a dozen years now, crafting songs of impressive emotional range. Somehow, she's managed to be successful by being charming instead of controversial. Her latest album, Lights Out, proves she not afraid to dabble with a more mainstream pop sound, complete with catchy hooks and a little more lushness in the production than usual. Her website is here.

Ingrid Michaelson (from her Facebook page)

Song & Video: "Girls Chase Boys" -- Its a disarmingly sweet breakup song complete with hand claps and... wait, is that a harpsichord I hear? Whatever, it's damn seductive pop. Even better, the video is a terrific homage to Robert Palmer's clip for his 1988 smash, "Simply Irresistible." Yeah, the one where he's surrounded by a bevy of gorgeous, enigmatic supermodel types. Michaelson's video is a gender-remixed take on things. In other words, she queered it up. Very successfully.

Prides. This Scottish synthpop trio will surprise you with their big, earnest, passionate sound. They aren't holding back, making the kind of music that will probably get crowds to chant their anthemic lyrics. As of this writing, their first EP is already available in Europe; coming soon to U.S. iTunes. You can also find them on Spotify. Their website is here.

Prides, left to right: Lewis Gardner, Stewart Brock & Callum Wiseman

Song & Video: "Messiah" -- It's exuberant, soulful power pop. The kind of stuff you can imagine your slightly drunk self singing too loud at a party with friends who love you anyway. The video features two very hot, joyriding priests that have apparently gotten themselves involved in a disturbing (and perplexing) scheme. There's a sentence no one could ever anticipate writing. (I think celibacy will drive men to do some pretty awful things.) Anyway, the trio of bandmates appear only briefly as hitchhikers -- a cool enough way cameo in your own video.

To check out volume one in this series, click here; volume two is here; volume three is here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #25: Do the Right Thing

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Do the Right Thing
 (released June 1989)

Roger Guenveur Smith as Smiley in Do the Right Thing

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The knockout four-minute opening credit sequence of Do the Right Thing features "Fight the Power," a confrontational and anthemic song by Public Enemy, the legendary hip hop group. It's a protest song filled with rhetoric calling on the oppressed to "fight the powers that be," as well as dismissive references to Elvis Presley and John Wayne. As it plays, Rosie Perez (her first film role) does a mesmerizing angry-erotic interpretive dance on an ominously theatrical New York City street set. It's an audacious, in-your-face kickoff that immediately suggests you're in the hands of a fiercely ambitious filmmaker -- that would be Spike Lee, who wrote, produced, directed and stars.

Do the Right Thing takes place on the hottest day of the year in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. As the movie begins, the neighborhood's residents -- a diverse mix of African Americans, Italians, Puerto Ricans and Koreans -- go about their business, intersecting in alternately funny and adversarial ways that play out somewhat like an edgy, super-adult version of Sesame Street. The film's ostensible protagonist is Mookie (played by Spike Lee), a delivery man for a popular pizzeria run by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons, Pino and Vito. One of Mookie's friends, an instigator named Buggin' Out, decides to confront Sal about the "Wall of Fame" in his restaurant -- a space devoted to framed photographs of famous Italian Americans, like Frank Sinatra and Al Pacino (even Liza Minnelli!). Buggin' Out argues that since Sal's pizzeria is in a predominantly African American neighborhood with primarily African American patrons, there should be some brothers on the wall. Sal responds by saying that it's his pizzeria and he gets to honor whomever he chooses. The dispute intensifies, but Mookie escorts Buggin' Out from the premises before things get too ugly. It's a slyly prankish but perceptibly tense scenario that adroitly forces you to have a quick conversation in your head: Am I supposed to take sides? Who's right and who's wrong here? What would I do in the same situation? Moments later, Mookie's first pizza delivery of the day is interrupted by his neighborhood's affable old alcoholic, Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). He imparts this advice to Mookie: "Always do the right thing."

As the sweltering hot day progresses, a rich cast of characters appear. A droll cop and his macho partner. A stuttering, mentally-challenged young man selling photographs of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The impatient Korean grocers who just want you to buy something and move along. A boom box toting dude who's determined to share his music with the inhabitants of his small world. A Greek Chorus of black men who occupy one corner all day, discussing, among other things, the fact that the two most successful businesses in the neighborhood are run by Italians and Koreans. An old woman who's seen it all and is exhausted by it. And then there's Mookie's girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez), who just wants him to grow up and take an interest in their toddler son. As the heat affects everyone to varying degrees, amusing bits are juxtaposed with flaring tempers, seething frustrations and blatantly racist rants.

There's a deceptively loose, almost episodic structure to Do the Right Thing, but all those raw nerves and expertly drawn racial tensions are building to something. And when that something comes, it's a visceral moment that culminates in a shocking death on the street. A crowd gathers, stinging confrontations escalate and then Mookie makes a decision that will either confound you or rouse you; chaos ensues. The entire sequence is 15 minutes of harrowing, hold-your-breath filmmaking. Spike Lee pulls no punches. He gives you an unflinching, closeup view of the kind of incidents that most people only know about from tendentious snippets on the evening news.

As an exploration of racism, Do the Right Thing has nothing in common with Hollywood claptrap like Crash or Driving Miss Daisy, two unremarkable films that undeservedly won Oscars for Best Picture. Crash is undermined by a series of implausible coincidences that add up to nothing more than the non-revelation that racism is a bad thing. And Driving Miss Daisy, despite two fine central performances by Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, is terrified of offending anybody. In contrast, white critics literally feared that Do the Right Thing would incite violence in black moviegoers simply because the movie depicts violence in an excruciatingly real way. It must have really surprised these critics when African Americans all around the country saw the film and left the theater without setting it on fire or killing an usher. Side note: Spike Lee rightfully criticized reviewers and op-ed writers for implying that black audiences were incapable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional motion picture. (Leave it to white people to think that a movie would incite riots, as opposed to centuries of institutionalized racism.)

Released 25 years ago, Do the Right Thing has become one the most debated films ever made. But beyond the unprecedented treatment of the subject matter, it's an amazing, kinetic blend of theatricality and shattering realism. Ernest R. Dickerson's cinematography is outstanding. Spike Lee makes consistently interesting directorial choices, including provocative camera angles and having many of his actors deliver portions of their dialogue directly to the camera in a way that feels completely natural. There are some notable veterans in the cast  -- Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Danny Aiello in an Oscar-nominated role. Spike Lee is convincing as Mookie, wisely refraining from making the character ingratiating. And there are some standout performances among the eclectic mix of newcomers, too. Roger Guenveur Smith is affecting as Smiley, a mentally-challenged resident of the block; Giancarlo Esposito goes big and gets under your skin as the reactionary Buggin' Out, and John Turturro is bristling and loathsome as Sal's aggressively racist son, Pino. I especially admire Turturro's performance because a lot of actors would have looked for a moment to soften the edge's of a character this contemptible -- he doesn't.

Considering the low budget, location shooting and the fact that Spike Lee was directing, producing and acting, this production had to have been a high-wire act. Do the Right Thing was only Lee's third feature film, but he's in full command of his craft. Plus, he managed to get a major studio (Universal) to release a film that completely ignores any traditional Hollywood template in the summer, which is not exactly the time of year when people go to movies that might make them think. He never interjects any cheap preachiness about these characters or their actions, and the denouement doesn't tidy up a single thing. He didn't even have to change the film's final images:  two conflicting quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the most prominent civil rights leaders of their time. As far as I could tell, Spike Lee made only one definitive assertion with this movie: "always do the right thing" is easier said than done. Unfortunately, Do the Right Thing got no love from the Academy Awards. It lost in both categories for which it was nominated (Supporting Actor for Aiello and Original Screenplay for Lee). The Academy took a safer route by selecting Driving Miss Daisy as the year's best picture.

Stray Gay Observations: Well, leave it to a big homo like me to notice what the characters in a movie like Do the Right Thing are wearing. Ruth E. Carter's costumes suggest the late 1980s without making it seem as though the film is permanently stuck there. That couldn't have been easy.

While it's surely true that Spike Lee inspired a lot of African American filmmakers, what does it say about us (and by us, I mean Americans) that the most successful black filmmaker today is Tyler Perry, a man who makes godawful melodramas (Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor) and so-called comedies that involve him getting into drag to play a large, overreactive, randomly vindictive, gun-toting elderly woman named Madea. Jesus. Seriously. Jesus.

Should You See It? I picked Do the Right Thing because I noticed it was the film's twenty-fifth anniversary and I wondered if all the original controversy about it would still make sense. Aside from a few cultural references from the era, Do the Right Thing does not feel dated at all. It may depict the fictional events of one day in one neighborhood a quarter of a century ago, but it all feels like something that could have happened somewhere last week and will certainly happen in America's future. I grew up in the South and have lived here almost my entire life, so I've witnessed a lot of overt racism. Yet, Do the Right Thing was a genuinely startling, enthralling and unsettling experience; I was surprised by the grief it brought up for me. It's easily the most worthwhile movie I've ever seen about race in America.

With Do the Right Thing, I'm halfway through this series about movies I've never seen before. I've really enjoyed many (in fact, most) of the films I've already watched. But this is the first time I've sincerely regretted not getting around to a movie sooner. I wish I'd seen it 25 years ago in a theater, surrounded by an audience. I'll bet it was electrifying.

Also... If this movie came out today, I can't imagine it being any less polarizing and controversial than it was 25 years ago. Conservative radio hosts would be apoplectic. Every Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives would blame Obama for its existence. And there'd be some serious pants pissing over at Fox News.

Next Week: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Queerest Thing I Found on the Internet This Week

odd, strange, unusual, curious, bizarre, peculiar, weird, uncanny, eccentric, unconventional...

I consider it a compliment.

"American Gurl " -- The Bearody Version. You may not have ever heard of singer/songwriter Bonnie McKee, but you've probably heard something she's co-written for artists like Katy Perry ("Teenage Dream," "Roar") or Britney Spears ("Hold it Against Me"). In fact, all kinds of artists have recorded her songs, from Adam Lambert and Kelly Clarkson to Kei$ha and Lea Michele. Back in the summer of 2013, McKee released her own bouncy single, "American Girl." It made it to #25 on the Billboard pop chart. But then a San Francisco-based video jockey named Bill Dupp created an all-male lip dub version. Let me be more specific: this video contains all shapes and sizes and hairy men. It's giddy good fun that takes "American Girl" in a whole new direction... and easily qualifies as the queerest thing I found on the Internet this week.

Personal lust might have something to do with it, but I think this guy steals the video.
Pure exuberance and that awesome t-shirt. I'm calling him Kern Cub.
Bill Dupp, the man behind the project.
And here's openly bisexual singer/songwriter Bonnie McKee.
To see her original music video for "American Girl," go here.
Wanna check out some other posts in this series? Go here or here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #24: How to Survive a Plague

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

How to Survive a Plaque
 (released September 2012)

ACT UP member Peter Staley dragged away from the scene of a demonstration

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: This 2012 Best Documentary Oscar nominee begins with a thirty-second montage of five hospitalized people literally wasting away to skin and bones because of AIDS. Their deaths are inevitable and imminent; it's an inescapable conclusion. Those thirty seconds are a painful reminder to those of us who lived through the worst of the AIDS pandemic, and a startling introduction to anyone who did not. Director David France does not linger on these images. Instead, he wisely chooses to plunge directly into a riveting six-minute sequence that introduces you to New York City's ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. An unidentified speaker describes it as "the diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis." It's March 1989. Footage of an actual ACT UP protest planning meeting are juxtaposed with the nonsensical press conference ramblings of the city's mayor, Ed Koch. Then, thousands of ACT UP members and supporters descend on City Hall for the largest demonstration in the group's two-year history -- a condemnation of the city's inadequate response to the AIDS crisis. Police arrive. Hundreds are arrested. There are no reenactments or talking heads soberly describing what happened. This is what happened.

One of the most remarkable things about How to Survive a Plague is that the majority of the film consists of footage from over 30 different videographers who recorded all kinds of meetings, demonstrations and unguarded personal moments as they were happening back in the 1980s and '90s. Combined with mainstream news footage and interviews with people who were there, this elucidating documentary reveals how ACT UP coalesced, strategized and chose its targets: politicians, religious leaders, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies. ACT UP and the members of its treatment and data committee (who essentially had to become scientists), questioned everything from the National Institutes for Health's research priorities to the Food and Drug Administration's sluggish medication approval process. ACT UP members infiltrated government committee meetings and demanded to know, "Who represents the patient on this panel?" ACT UP presented the uncommunicative, byzantine labyrinth of U.S. health agencies with a national AIDS treatment and research agenda and even developed a glossary of AIDS treatment terms -- because the bureaucrats couldn't come up with these things themselves. The film is a blistering indictment of institutionalized indifference and government apathy.

The demonstrations -- influential and infamous -- are here, like the siege of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration building, including the hanging of a "Silence = Death" banner over the entrance, as well as the controversial die-in inside New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, organized in direct response to Archbishop Cardinal O'Connor's public condemnation of safer sex education and flagrant lies about condoms. In contrast, but certainly no less controversial, was ACT UP's ingeniously mischievous decision to drape the North Carolina home of virulently homophobic senator Jesse Helms with a giant condom as his confused and bewildered neighbors watched. The large-scale protests are compelling, but there are so many powerful smaller moments, like when ACT UP's Bob Rafsky forced 1992 presidential hopeful Bill Clinton to speak about AIDS for the first time in public. Or, before introducing Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of AIDS Research for the National Institutes of Health, to a packed room for a town-hall type treatment meeting, the moderator reminds everyone this isn't a free-for-all, it's a "working confrontation." And the first thing Dr. Fauci hears is definitely not, "Thanks for being here today."

The monumental challenge for a film like this is arranging footage for maximum narrative impact while sustaining context. So many documentaries try to do too much, going broad and inevitably undermining cogency. Not here. The producers, editors and director David France have made impeccable choices in assembling this film; it never loses focus. Nor do the filmmakers sanitize or sugarcoat anything; ACT UP's own internal conflicts, fractious meetings and organizational split are included. To keep things grounded, there's sparing but effective use of new interviews involving a handful of the original activists and allies, like Larry Kramer and Ann Northrup. But if the film has one evident through line, it comes by way of Peter Staley, a former Wall Street bond trader who joined ACT UP not long after its inception and became a key player. He looks like the kind of guy you take home to meet mom, so it's fascinating to watch him scrambling up the side of a building to hang a banner, then later deliver a stirring speech to hundreds of people at an AIDS conference. There was clearly an alchemy between Staley and ACT UP that released his inner audacious warrior.

Because of the remarkable archival footage available to the filmmakers and their clear-eyed treatment of the subject, it is impossible to overstate the significance of How to Survive a Plague. It is an unflinching depiction of what an improbably diverse group of people had to do in order to successfully reverse the tide of an epidemic. And what they had to do was this: refuse to be ignored, engage in fearless acts of civil disobedience and literally shame their own government, and the country's medical establishment and pharmaceutical industry into moral, ethical and compassionate behaviors. It wasn't going to happen by asking politely.

On the Personal Side... I put off watching How to Survive a Plague innumerable times. My longtime activist friend, Terri, asked me repeatedly since the film's release if I had seen it yet. "No," I'd tell her. "I'm just not ready." What I instinctively knew, but never told her, is that How to Survive a Plague was probably going to be an endurance test for me. I became sexually active with other men around 1983, so my entire adult life has involved  HIV/AIDS -- dating, testing, condom negotiations, working at CNN during the worst years of it, becoming infected myself, experiencing countless deaths, and jumping into a second career developing and facilitating workshops for people infected with or affected by the virus. I feared this documentary would take me through an overwhelming range of emotions. And frankly, I have already been through an overwhelming range of emotions.

Around the Summer Solstice, Father's Day and my birthday -- events that coincided with the 21st anniversary of living with HIV in my own body -- I decided to watch this documentary and review it for this blog series. I had to stop the DVD repeatedly and breathe. At one point I got up, paced around my loft and sobbed for ten solid minutes until I literally felt dizzy and dehydrated. I was not crying because How to Survive a Plague is a sad movie that dwells on death. It does not dwell on death, though the film never lets you forget that ACT UP emerged because people were dying. And there was only one scene that I personally found to be devastatingly sad beyond words. How to Survive a Plague affected me profoundly, as I expected it would, but I finally realized what those tears were really about: catharsis. You can only repress three decades worth of sorrow for so long, and this film gave me permission to release a whole lot of stuff I didn't even realize was pent up inside of me.

One last thing. Sometimes I have to listen to people who've never been to a demonstration in their lives dismiss the actions of ACT UP as "too extreme," or "bad for the image of the gay community." So, for the record, here's my response to them: Fuck you. I'll get back to you when I want to have an in depth conversation about Madonna. In the meantime, why don't you try to wrap your mind around a couple of facts. First, activism is not for the faint hearted or people who find loud talking in public spaces uncomfortable. ACT UP's response to the widespread American antipathy and fear about AIDS was exactly right. They got people to hear and see them without waving guns, planting bombs or crashing planes into skyscrapers. You might want to get some perspective around what constitutes extreme actions. Furthermore, the only reason there are over 30 drugs approved for the treatment of HIV in 2014 is because of the explicit and reasonable demands made by the men and women of ACT UP back in the day. The truth is that many of my friends -- and probably some of yours --  are only here because ACT UP infiltrated government agencies and the pharmaceutical industry with the inarguably laudable goal of helping to identify promising medications and getting them into expanded drug trials quickly. I'm fiercely proud of the confrontational methods of ACT UP and grateful for their dogged determination. ACT UP is the reason I am alive today and can go off on an invigorating rant like this. 

Should You See It? I worried that my personal history with HIV/AIDS would make it difficult to write objectively about this documentary. So, let me say a little something about my process here. I watched it once and had my emotions. A few days later, I watched it a second time with a deliberately critical eye. The filmmakers behind How to Survive a Plague had the daunting and meticulous task of distilling down an epic ten-year period into something not only comprehensible but engrossing. Mission accomplished; this is expertly paced, searing storytelling. If you're unfamiliar with ACT UP, How to Survive a Plague will most likely be an absorbing -- and shocking -- American history lesson. This is not just essential filmmaking -- it's very likely a seminal work.

If you would like to see a short interview with director David France, in which he describes his impetus for the film and a little bit about the process of putting it all together, go here.

Next Week: Do the Right Thing (1989)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Queerest Thing I Found on the Internet This Week

odd, strange, unusual, curious, bizarre, peculiar, weird, uncanny, eccentric, unconventional...

I consider it a compliment.

The Bronx. Formed in 2002, this Los Angeles-based punk rock quintet has released four albums and toured around the world. Lead vocalist Matt Caughthan is a sexy little beast with a versatile voice and cocky stage presence. There's a tendency for bands like this to make dark and humorless videos, but The Bronx went a different direction for "Youth Wasted," a kick ass cut from from their fourth album.

Here's what happens when punk rockers meet a trio of models from Playgirl, that purveyor of bro bods. It's a party, dude! And something fabulous enough to qualify as the queerest thing I found on the Internet this week. (The song is a damn good swaggering anthem, too.) Enjoy...

"Youth Wasted"
With Steve (a.k.a "The Hammer"), Jim (a.k.a. "Double Gunz") and Mike (a.k.a. "The Meat Wagon").

The men of The Bronx...

The Bronx, left to right: Ken Horne, Joby J. Ford, Matt Caughthran, Jorma Vik & Brad Magers

And believe it or not, they also perform as Mariachi El Bronx, their Mexican folk alter egos. Check out their video for "Holy."

The band's website is here.

Wanna check out some other posts in this series? Go here or here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #23: Can't Stop the Music

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Can't Stop the Music
 (released June 1980)

Village People (circa 1980), left to right:
David Hodo, Randy Jones, Alex Briley, Ray Simpson, Felipe Rose & Glenn Hughes

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: After the phenomenal worldwide success of Grease in 1978, producer Allan Carr could have made any movie he wanted. He decided to make a biography about Village People, a popular disco group with a distinctive sound and a couple of gold records. The real history of Village People is pretty interesting. French music composer/producer Jacques Morali wrote four songs about locales with big populations of gay men -- San Francisco, Hollywood, Fire Island and Greenwich Village -- then recruited struggling singer/actor Victor Willis to provide lead vocals and added a bunch of anonymous background singers in the studio. The music hit big in dance clubs and gay bars. Suddenly, Village People were in demand for public appearances. But aside from Victor Willis, there was no group. The first Village People EP cover featured mostly models!

Village People EP, released July 1977
Jacques Morali and business partner Henri Belolo set up auditions for real singer/dancers to accompany Victor Willis and decided that the group should embody six masculine American archetypes. After some tweaking, the lineup for the first full-length album became Willis (policeman), David Hodo (construction worker), Felipe Rose (Indian), Randy Jones (cowboy), Alex Briley (G.I.) and Glenn Hughes (leatherman). Those are the voices you hear on hits like "Y.M.C.A." and "In the Navy."  

When Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard sat down to write a script for Can't Stop the Music in 1979, they essentially abandoned everything but those six archetypes and concocted an insanely fictionalized origin story. Their goal appears to have been two-fold: deemphasize the gay elements of the biopic for mainstream audiences while simultaneously throwing as many male bodies and winking double entendres at gay viewers as possible. The result is that Village People, easily one of the most unconventional and provocative groups to emerge from the disco era, become secondary characters in their own movie. The main character is Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg), an Americanized version of Jacques Morali. Jack's a composer who needs to get his music heard by somebody in the record industry. As the guest DJ at a club called Saddle Tramps, he plays one of his own instantly forgettable tunes, "Samantha," but it impresses his retired supermodel friend Samantha (I kid you not) so much that she decides to use her connections to get Jack's demo tape heard. Samantha (Valerie Perrine) loves Jack's music, but not his voice. "It sounds like a cry for help." New voices are needed.

Samantha literally wanders the streets of her neighborhood, New York's Greenwich Village, looking for singers. She recruits Felipe (who's always dressed like a Native American, complete with elaborate headdress, skimpy loincloth and jingle bells), Randy (in cowboy garb), and David (an actor friend who's dressed like a construction worker for a commercial.) David really wants to sing: "Fame, fortune, platinum records -- it's every boy's dream." Then there's a fantasy sequence where he sings "I Love You to Death" surrounded by hypersexual female dancers in blood red costumes on some kind of futuristic factory brothel set. It's a terrible, vaguely creepy song that kind of makes you think he could be a disco serial killer.

Before they ever get to that demo tape, there's an excruciatingly long sequence where a bunch of other major and minor characters have to be introduced, including Samantha's agent (Tammy Grimes), who wants her to return to modeling, Jack's mother (June Havoc), a Broadway veteran who thinks her son is a musical genius, and Alicia, a plot device who just happens to be friends with a singing cop named Ray Simpson. Remember how I said that the original Village People policeman was Victor Willis? He left the group for a solo career shortly before principal photography began. So they just hired another African American singer with facial hair, put him in a cop uniform and assumed no one would notice. Yeah, that happened. And finally, before we get to that goddamn demo tape, Samantha has to have a love interest -- uptight tax attorney Ron White, played by 1976 Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner, who's only previous acting experience was appearing on the Wheaties breakfast cereal box. After a lasagna dinner involving all of the above and some people who don't even have names, Felipe, Randy, David and Ray make that demo tape. In Samantha's backyard. They've all just met for the first time, yet miraculously manage to perform a fabulous, unrehearsed first take of a song called "Magic Night" after reading the lyrics off some napkins. But uptight Ron can't handle the magic, telling Samantha, "Your friends are too far out for me!" That's this movie's way of suggesting that Ron is a homophobic asshole. It's resolved by having Samantha sleep with him.

Never satisfied, Jack wants a "big sound," meaning more voices. A ridiculous open audition is held at Ron's law offices -- featuring everything from a stripper to a flaming baton twirler -- but then Alicia the plot device shows up again with yet another friend, national guardsman Alex. He doesn't even have to audition since he's already wearing a G.I. uniform. Finally, at the one hour and ten minute mark, Glenn the leatherman shows up, hops on top of a piano and belts out the Irish American ballad "Danny Boy." He's hired, too. It's a sextet. But what are they going to call themselves? Don't worry, Ron's socialite mother (!) is there to provide some inspiration by wondering aloud, "Didn't Greenwich Village people types go out with the '60s?" "Village People!" shouts Samantha. "I can sell that."

Sufficiently loosened up enough now to strut through Greenwich Village in a crop top t-shirt and short shorts, Ron arranges rehearsal space for the boys at the Y.M.C.A. No, that doesn't make any sense, but it does lead to the film's best and gayest production number, a homoerotic extravaganza of male bodies, some bare asses and even a blink-and-you-miss-it glimpse of full-frontal nudity. It's like somebody unconnected to the film made a decent music video of Village People's biggest hit and they just spliced it into the middle of this fiasco as a reminder of what made them famous in the first place. Side note: They had to re-record "Y.M.C.A" for this sequence to feature Ray Simpson's voice on the soundtrack. Another side note: The best thing I got out of the Y as a kid was trampoline lessons.

Samantha arranges for her record executive ex-boyfriend, Steve (Paul Sand), to hear the guys perform. He takes one look as them and mutters, "I hate Halloween." (We're an hour and twenty minutes into the movie now and I finally laughed at something that I think was intentionally meant to be funny.) They sing "Liberation," a not-too-subtle pro-gay anthem, but screw up the choreography... probably because there were just too many distractions at the Y.M.C.A. for them to concentrate during rehearsal. Steve says he's not interested in the group even though secretly he is and only wants to trick them into signing crappy contracts. Samantha, somehow their manager now, decides to make a commercial for the American Dairy Association with the guys. She's positive a milk commercial will have everyone clamoring for Village People. And then they make the longest commercial in history -- four freakin' minutes -- featuring children, dancers, giant prop glasses, balloons and all-white costumes. This time, the choreography is perfect, at least in the sense that no one bumps into anyone else. It's all staged for a song called "Milk Shake," which has the distinction of being not only the worst song in the movie, but also one of the most execrable things ever recorded. The Dairy Association doesn't want to air "Milk Shake" because it may be "too controversial for their American family image." I'm going to have to side with the Dairy people on this one; it makes their product seem like some kind of magical unicorn juice that'll turn kids into tacky, hyperactive, Broadway-bound diva-urchins.

How will Village People ever catch a break? Turns out Jack's mom, the Broadway veteran, knows how to negotiate a contract. And Ron's socialite mom, also coincidentally/conveniently an event planner, has a big San Francisco charity fundraiser concert that needs performers. "Would it be possible for the boys to sing a few songs?" Ron's mom queries. And then the entire cast goes to San Francisco, where the movie grinds to a complete halt so that The Ritchie Family, another disco group from the same record label, can sing a song that has nothing to do with anything. Steve shows up with contracts for the boys -- despite having never seen them perform for a live audience, ever -- and the group suddenly starts fretting about the fact that they've never performed for a live audience, ever. That tension lasts long enough for Glenn Hughes to emote, unconvincingly, "Leathermen don't get nervous... leathermen don't get nervous." David Hodo combs his mustache one last time, and just before Village People take the stage, Samantha's agent pronounces the audience "bizarre and chic," which it most decidedly is not. It's a bunch of bland, blindingly white, middle-class people who look like they were bused in from Utah.

Finally on stage, Village People sing "Can't Stop the Music," a banal tune that sounds like it was written for one of those Disney Channel shows, and then they reprise it -- even though they were asked to sing a few songs. The mothers, Samantha's agent and even Alicia the plot device join them on stage, flailing about enthusiastically as a blizzard of glitter oppressive enough to cause permanent respiratory damage engulfs them all. Credits roll... and you get to hear an instrumental version of "Can't Stop the Music." Your total time listening to "Can't Stop the Music" is eleven minutes. For comparison, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" is only eight minutes.

Can't Stop the Music was promoted as "The Movie Musical Event of the 80's." Yes, just like that, with the grammatically incorrect possessive apostrophe. It was directed by Nancy Walker, a Broadway and TV veteran best known for her role as Rhoda's mother on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and it's spinoff, Rhoda, plus her long-running commercial pitchwoman gig as Rosie the Bounty paper towel lady. She had directed some sitcom episodes, but Can't Stop the Music was her first (and only) film. There's really no sensible explanation why producer Allan Carr would ask 58-year-old Nancy Walker to direct a disco musical. I guess the voices in his cocaine-addled head made a convincing argument: "Listen Allan, Martin Scorsese is busy with Raging Bull." "And Robert Redford is directing Ordinary People." "Maybe you can get Nancy Walker, the paper towel lady." "Yeah, see if she's available!!!"

Nancy Walker on the set of Can't Stop the Music
Can't Stop the Music is an ill-conceived, witless mess. Bad direction. Bad script. Bad acting. Steve Guttenberg's performance is so manic, it's like he chugged a couple of Red Bulls before every scene. Proposed drinking game: take a shot every time you can see the veins in his neck pop out. You'll be drunk in about 30 minutes. Poor Valerie Perrine (a 1975 Oscar nominee for Lenny) wrestles mightily with stupid pratfalls and fatuous dialogue, but she never really has an unaffected moment. In his first movie role, Bruce Jenner gives a drama club performance, hitting his marks like a hammer and saying the correct words when it's his turn to talk. You wouldn't necessarily expect the members of Village People to be good actors, but they are, in fact, no worse than the professionals. Felipe Rose has the biggest part, spends virtually the entire movie in Native American drag, but manages to project a genuine sweetness. Both Randy Jones and Ray Simpson have a natural presence on camera. David Hodo works a slightly jaded groove pretty well. Alex Briley has virtually nothing to do outside the last four production numbers, but he appears to be a pretty good sport about that. And Glenn Hughes arrives late, brings an endearingly goofy charm that transcends his amateurish performance and steals the picture. Frankly, Village People weren't half bad at playing homogenized versions of themselves. Ironically, the final credit of the picture is this: The persons and events in this film are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons or events is unintentional. Yup, this movie is extraordinarily stupid from beginning to end.

Stray Gay Observations: I own a vinyl copy of the Can't Stop the Music soundtrack. Someone gave it to me as a birthday gift back in 1980. I think I played it a couple of times and then it just became one of those kitschy things you save. The album contains 10 songs, only six by Village People. "Liberation" sounds like vintage VP, and would likely have been a club hit if it had been released about two years earlier. But Can't Stop the Music was released after disco had peaked and a palpable backlash was underway. The timing was way off and the soundtrack was a schizophrenic endeavor filled with kid-friendly junk like "Magic Night" and "Milk Shake" and the four unremarkable songs by other artists. Play the Saturday Night Fever or Grease soundtracks, then listen to Can't Stop the Music. The contrast in quality is astounding.

About thirty minutes into Can't Stop the Music, a gay male couple, arm in arm, stroll briskly past the camera. That's the film's single unequivocal nod to homosexuality. No one ever uses the word gay in this movie. Not even once. At all times, Village People are presented as non-conformists, as if their homosexuality was undetectable, or moot. And that's the biggest problem with this movie: the filmmakers didn't have the courage to tell to the truth. They made a ludicrous effort to put these men in some kind of a universe where gay isn't really a thing and accidentally created the cinematic equivalent of the most flamboyant, roller-skating, disco-dancing, glitter-blush-wearing elephant in the room.

Should You See It? You know how 1959's sci-fi disasterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space is considered to be one of the worst films ever made? Can't Stop the Music is the Plan 9 From Outer Space of movie musicals. What more of a recommendation could you need?

Next Week: How to Survive a Plague (2012)