Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Can't Stop the Music (1980)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Time to state the obvious: there are a lot of "bad" movies out there. Cinephiles - myself included - easily get wrapped up in discussing the works of auteurs, filmmakers that are considered geniuses and seek out their masterworks. These films prove our belief that film is an art, and that they are worthy of dissection and interpretation just as much as the symphonies of Beethoven and the paintings of Monet. Oscar geeks - again, myself included - obsess over completely subjective labels of "best" by awards bodies that treat film as an art, but trend toward "comfortable" over "difficult" when presenting their honors. We bicker endlessly about whether The Artist was really better than The Tree of Life, or debate the merits of American Beauty topping films that weren't even nominated. But for every one of these films that makes the official "great film" canon, or has its named etched on the Academy's historical record, or places on the decennial Sight & Sound poll, there are hundreds of other films that simply come out, are seen by people, perhaps are even enjoyed, but then disappear into the ether. Most simply suffer the fate of indifference; these films, like the Usher-starring In the Mix, vanish from the collective conscious, only remembered when they surface in a Wal-Mart five-dollar-DVD bin. But every once in a while, one of these films goes down in infamy: it's a work that's so bad, either in quality or reputation, that it becomes a source of fascination. These are the Showgirls, the I Know Who Killed Mes, the Caligulas; these are the films that were made to be discovered late at night on basic cable, then seen again with friends who don't believe it could be real.

More after the jump:

There's an important distinction to be made here: films like this week's selection for Hit Me with Your Best Shot, 1980's pseudo-biopic of Village People Can't Stop the Music, are great "bad" movies. There are bad movies that are just awful (Delta Farce, for example, or I Am Sam). But then there are films that are bad, yet manage to fall upwards into becoming something great. A few years ago, music critic Steven Hyden defined a great "bad" album as such:
"It's a record where the creators are clearly not fully engaged with the project, which is reflected in the degraded quality of the songwriting and musicianship and an overall feeling of boredom, detachment, or extremely undisciplined self-indulgence that's palpable in the music. That makes it 'bad.' But instead of making the record less enjoyable, this 'badness' actually makes the album more fascinating - so long as the artist in question is a genius - because it provides insight into what makes the artists' 'great' records great, and demonstrates how functional he or she is even when operating on a lower level of artistry/sobriety. That makes it great."
A great "bad" film can be judged along a similar rubric. These are films in which either the talent involved seems to be removed from the reality of what the film is becoming, or are giving so much to it that they can't see past their hubris at the folly their project is becoming. There could be a lack of narrative cohesion, or performances that are all-over-the-place, or direction that seems to be done by someone who has just discovered what a camera is. These things make the film "bad." But everyone is so committed to what their making, and truly believes that they are making a high-quality film, that it somehow transcends formal criticism and becomes something truly entertaining and extraordinary. That is what makes it great. Where Hyden reserves the "great 'bad' album" treatment for artists that can be considered geniuses, great "bad" movies really come from filmmakers who believe that they are geniuses - or at least believe their film is a true cinematic treasure - while the rest of us think the opposite. That's why it's nigh-impossible to consciously create a "cult classic:" these are movies, more often than not, born of delusions of grandeur, not intentional "badness." The Room wouldn't be as astonishing as it is without director/writer/star Tommy Wiseau's belief that he's created a masterpiece. That's what makes it a great "bad" movie.

The 1970s and 1980s, for all the celebration around their big movies, produced a number of great "bad" movies. And boy, does Can't Stop the Music fit the bill. This really shouldn't come as much of a surprise: this is a movie about disco group Village People, starring the non-actors of Village People alongside professionals Valerie Perrine (Lenny far behind her) and Steve Guttenberg in one of his earliest roles. Oh, and Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner (not yet shell-shocked by years of Kardashians) makes his acting debut as the group's lawyer. Guttenberg plays Jack Morell, a loose Americanization of Village People founder Jaques Moreli, while Perrine plays Jack's former-model roommate Sam, who uses her connections to help the ragtag group land a record contract.

On paper, the film is a perfect storm of "bad" elements. Hoping to build on the popularity of Village People and the disco craze, the film began principle photography mere weeks after the infamous "Disco Demolition Night" incident, which spelled the quick downfall of the genre. By the time the film came out in 1980, disco was "dead," and the group had seen its popularity sink precipitously. On top of that, the film took significant liberties with the story it was telling, and packed it full of moments that feel thrown in just because they didn't want to waste any idea. Director Nancy Walker was a television star (Rhoda) who had never directed a feature film, and Guttenberg was relatively untested as a leading man while Jenner had never acted before. It was a project that seemed destined to fail.

And, to be sure, it has its failings, namely in Walker's direction (she never directed another feature after this one). Walker seems to have a fascination with visual tricks that seem random and obnoxious. It starts with the very opening scene, the "New York - Sound of the City" sequence that features a triple split-screen, the far left and right sides being mirrors of the same image with a different one squeezed into the middle, all of them featuring Jack blissfully roller-skating through a utopian New York seemingly devoid of traffic and bad vibes. During Jack's stint DJing at Saddle Tramps nightclub, she utilizes a strange electricity-type outlining of the crowd that gives it the feel of a bad music video:

And when it comes to actually framing the dance sequences, she never seems to be able to capture the extent of what's happening. More often than not, parts of the action are cut off, giving the big dance numbers a claustrophobic feel that makes them feel more like advertisements than actual musical set pieces. Somewhat appropriately, this is best seen in two sequences that are actually for commercials: the "I Love You to Death" number…

…and the "Milkshake" number, where the group gets its first big break selling milk by intoning audiences to "do the shake…the milkshake."

Walker's biggest failing as a director, though, is that she doesn't seem to know when to end a scene. Now, this isn't entirely her fault; as I stated above, the writers of this film seemed to decide that no idea was a bad idea, and greatly pad out the film's narrative to the point where Village People are often supporting players in their own story. But Walker lets these scenes go on far too long, and the result is a pacing that can be quick and peppy that immediately derails into languid and dragging, especially when the jokes aren't landing the way everyone involved seems to be thinking they are. But that's part of what makes this film great: despite all of this, everyone involved is absolutely committed. Guttenberg playing Jack like he's been marinating in Red Bull and cocaine for 24 hours is treated like a brilliant acting choice. Having Jenner, in his first scene, get mugged at gunpoint by an old woman with an accomplice on a motorcycle? "Why not, it's hilarious!" "Let's have Jenner spill something hot on himself, so we can get him in his underwear and sitting in a recliner:

There's your eye candy." And the dialogue, oh man, the dialogue:

The filmmakers go for it like they're making the disco musical-comedy to end all disco musical-comedies. And, as it turns out, they really did.

There are actual great aspects to this film, too. Namely, Village People themselves. None of these guys are great actors, but they are endearing for their commitment to their trademark kitsch. Felipe (Felipe Rose) prances about in his Native American headdress and skimpy shorts, David Hodo brandishes his trademark Aviator glasses and lightning-bolt hard-hat, and Ray Simpson (then the newest member of the group) never takes off his strapping police uniform. It's all patently silly, but when they finally start performing together, there's little wonder why they became one of the biggest disco groups in the world: they're genuinely terrific performers with real talent. When the film actually focuses on them, and let's them do their thing, it comes alive with giddy, goofy electricity.

The best example of this is the "YMCA" sequence, which comes in the middle of the film. Following the film's gonzo logic, this sequence does nothing to advance the plot or further develop the characters; no, this is here because "YMCA" is the group's best-known hit, there's an Olympian in the cast, ergo big music sequence featuring muscular male bodies in skintight clothing performing incredible athletic feats. In making the film, producer Allan Carr was determined to cut back on the group's connections to the gay subculture that it emerged from, either making the group members more heterosexual or simply desexualizing them, period. Now, Carr didn't exactly succeed in this mission. Even when neutered, these guys can't help but be themselves and proudly embody an out-and-proud verve. But the "YMCA" sequence feels like the most obvious example of the film fully embracing the spirit of Village People, making the scene a campy, high energy celebration of camaraderie in male flesh. From Sam donning a "Macho Woman" shirt and leading the guys through a high-stepping jog through the men's locker room (complete with full-frontal nudity, a rarity for a PG-rated film):

*best shot*

To the guys doing a simple, colorful choreographed aerobic routine:

To the busy, over-the-top finale, with all kinds of activities happening in every portion of the frame:

This sequence best captures the goofy, let-your-cares-go-and-just-have-fun message that turned Village People from just a novelty act to one of the biggest novelty acts in the world. That energy is also what enlivens Can't Stop the Music and makes it the great "bad" movie that is.

Other great shots, presented without commentary because you should just relish them for exactly what they are.


Shane Slater said...

Great writeup, Jason. The film really is quite enjoyable, despite being so obviously bad. Steve Guttenberg especially is so amusingly earnest and excitable.

Jason H. said...

Thanks Shane! Guttenberg may be the truest believer of them all: everything about his performance screams "I'm going to be a star, baby, a real big star!"


steve guttenberg's dancing, all little boy enthusiasm with ONE motion like a forward head thrust with "excited" arms, is joyous to behold.

the discussion of what makes great badness is fascinating for sure but i think it's a mistake that the music critic frames it as only geniuses. i think your definition is spot on, from Ed Wood on down.

Jason H. said...

Thanks Nathaniel!

Yeah, I don't like the assertion that only geniuses can make great "bad" art. Give me "Plan 9 from Outer Space" over "Hook" any day!