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)

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