A movie that qualifies as both a horror film and an overstuffed Thanksgiving turkey is the perfect way to see out October and welcome in November. Said turkey being Allan Carr’s notorious, Can’t Stop the Music, a longtime guilty-pleasure favorite that, unlike most camp films in my “favorites” cannon, grows increasingly less fun to watch as time goes by.
A highly fictionalized account (and I stress fictionalized) of the creation of the gay-themed disco singing group, the Village People, Can’t Stop the Music, released in the summer of 1980, hit theaters at the worst possible time and under the worst possible circumstances. If Xanadu, that other 1980 summer musical release that tanked at the boxoffice, suffered from too much 80s faddism (roller skates, spandex, and leg warmers), Can’t Stop the Music looked and sounded like a disco relic that had been gathering dust on the shelf since 1978. So significantly had the music and cultural landscape shifted from the time of its August 1979 start date to its June 1980 release, that Can’t Stop the Music opened at theaters a literal, antiquated period-piece. Thankfully, someone saw the writing on the wall early enough to jettison the film’s original title mid-production (Discoland: Where the Music Never Ends), but not early enough to tone down its already anachronistic glitter and amyl nitrate “shake your booty!” overzealousness.
|Valerie Perrine as Samantha Simpson|
|Steve Guttenberg as Jack Morell|
|Good, Clean, Wholesome Fun|
At a time when it would have made a powerful statement to have a really out, “We’re here, we’re queer” mainstream movie in the theaters (along the lines of The Ritz or The Rocky Horror Picture Show) to counter the wave of homophobia that arose in the wake of the “gay cancer” scare of AIDS in the early 80s, Allan Carr, one of the most high-profile and powerful gay men in Hollywood (especially after Grease), instead gave the world a movie so self-negating, so deeply in the closet and in denial about itself, Liberace could have been its technical adviser.
|We know, James...we know|
Although it didn't hit me as strongly in 1980 as it does now, Can’t Stop the Music, to an almost contemptible degree, suffers from a distasteful undercurrent of homophobic self-loathing and ideological selling-out running through it. In an effort to keep its many corporate sponsors happy (Dr. Pepper, Baskin-Robbins, Famous Amos Cookies, American Dairy Association) and to court the mainstream boxoffice that made Grease into such a mega-hit, Can’t Stop the Music systematically and schizophrenically undercuts every bit of the film’s laid-on-with-a-trowel gay subtext with an unpersuasive overlay of bland heterosexuality. Honestly, in spite of Can’t Stop the Music being about a gay-themed singing group formed in New York’s Greenwich Village; the numerous coy allusions; the acres of male flesh on display; and the multitude of homoerotic double and triple entendres, I don’t think the word “gay” is uttered even once in the whole film.
|Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner, making his film debut, here achieves the impossible |
by actually managing to look more ridiculous than the Village People
|Male starlet Victor Davis showing Steve Guttenberg and Bruce Jenner |
just how "not gay" Can't Stop the Music is.
|70s gay porn "star" George Payne jogs by (twice!) in the excruciating |
Guttenberg on roller skates credits sequence
Because all else for me was eclipsed by the end-of-summer release of Xanadu, I tend to forget that the summer of 1980 saw the debut of several musicals that have become lasting favorites. First and foremost was the splendiferous Xanadu, but I also enjoyed Alan Parker’s Fame, and loved the use of iconic R & B artists in The Blues Brothers. The heavily-hyped Can’t Stop the Music wasn’t very high on my list of must-see summer films mostly due to my general antipathy towards Grease (I know it’s considered a classic and all, but I just find it clunky) and my lack of fondness for the Village People (their anthem-like songs always sounded like Romper Room marching music to me, and, having grown up in San Francisco, their costumes suggested nothing more to me than a your average ride on the Market St. F streetcar). However, being the devoted disco maven I was (and remain), just the idea of a multi-million dollar disco musical was too tantalizing a prospect to dismiss. Which brings me to the reason I was most excited to see Can’t Stop the Music: choreographer Arlene Phillips.
The Fan) first came to my attention through her work in a series of fantastic TV commercials for Dr. Pepper. The top photos are from the 1975 Sugar Free Dr. Pepper commercial, "Penthouse" (see storyboard here), which bears a strong resemblance to Can't Stop the Music's "Milkshake" number. Even down to sharing the same set designer, Stephen Hendrickson
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
While my enjoyment of Can’t Stop the Music’s non-musical sequences has diminished significantly over the years, my affection for Arlene Phillip’s deliciously awful/wonderful musical numbers has increased, tenfold. I absolutely love them. Her cheesy “Las Vegas showroom by way of aerobics class” choreography fairly oozes with late-70s sleaze, and her “What WAS she thinking?” staging has the staggering, jaw-dropping lunacy of Busby Berkeley at his most demented. That these musical numbers are also monumentally tacky, done with a great deal of wit, and, like the film itself, possess an almost surreal lack of self-awareness, only adds to their appeal. Each time I have a chance to revisit the industrial glitter factory of “I Love You to Death,” or that wholesomely raunchy paean to homoerotic health & fitness, “YMCA,” my heart soars and a smile comes to my face. Well, maybe it’s more like a giggle and a smile. OK, let’s say it’s a kind of a chuckle and a grin. Oh, let’s face it, I’m usually laughing my ass off.
|Given how so many of Arlene Phillips' dance tableaus resemble photo shoots from Eyes of Laura Mars, it comes as little surprise that the late Theoni V. Aldredge, the designer of all those slit-skirt ensembles for Faye Dunaway, also contributed the costumes to the musical numbers in Can't Stop the Music|
Where to begin? What can be said about performances in a film where the amateurism of the neophytes and professionals is evenly matched? I like Valerie Perrine a great deal, and she seems like an awfully sweet woman, but her (and there’s no other word for it) fag-hag role requires a personality, not an actress. Ms. Perrine splits the difference here by being neither.
And then there's Steve Guttenberg. Prior to this I'd always considered Todd Susman's underground newspaper journalist in 1971s The Star Spangled Girl to be the most annoying performance ever committed to film. Guttenberg wins by a landslide. Trying for boyish exuberance, he gives a performance of
such overarching hyperactivity that a mere lack of talent can't be the only answer (its like he's on crack). Never speaking when he can shout, always moving, eyes popping like Eddie Cantor, cords in his neck bulging, forming his words and using facial muscles as if to make himself understood by lip-readers on Mars...Guttenberg appears perpetually on the brink of popping a blood vessel.
|No, that's not Tim Curry's Dr. Frank-N-Furter making a cameo appearance.|
That's actress Marilyn Sokol attempting to channel Bette Midler's bawdy,
"Bathhouse Betty" persona, but mostly just succeeding in embarrassing herself
|Personal fave Jack Weston shows up briefly as disco proprietor, Benny Murray|
THE STUFF OF FANTASYThese days, when I watch Can't Stop the Music, it's with my remote close at hand, finger poised over the FFWD button, moving swiftly from one delightfully garish musical number to the next. They are totally awful, but I swear, I love them to pieces.
|I Love You to Death|
The number that perhaps most resembles Arlene Phillips' work with her dance troupe, Hot Gossip. A staple of the 70s UK TV program, The Kenny Everett Video Show, you can see a slew of Hot Gossip videos on YouTube. Not surprisingly, they all look like outtakes from Can't Stop the Music.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Can’t Stop the Music is kind of a strange film to include in this blog because, in many ways, I find the film to be rather cowardly and reprehensible. I want to just enjoy the movie on a Showgirls level…just escapist, mindless, campy fun…but as a gay man, I find myself unable to get past the fact that Can’t Stop the Music is such a colossal sellout. A bunch of rich gay men make a movie full of gay people, gay references and gay music, and yet it spends all its time trying to avoid the issue. Or worse, covering it up. This movie is like a microcosm of every closet-case individual in show business.
|Paul Sand (the David Schwimmer of the 70s) plays record executive Steve Waits|
They covet your money so badly they’re willing to sell themselves down the river to get it. I watch this movie sometimes and all I can see is gay self-hatred. And as an ostensibly “family-oriented” entertainment that thinks it’s being racy by slipping in coy and winking gay references at every opportunity, Can’t Stop the Music is a homophobe’s dream (nightmare) of the subversive cult of a “gay agenda” being secretly foisted upon unsuspecting straights. (Look, a red bandana! Look, men playing innocent grab-ass in the shower! And subtle dialog like, “Anybody who can swallow two Sno-Balls and a Ding Dong shouldn't have any trouble with pride!”)
The only reason I still rank Can’t Stop the Music among my enduring favorites is because, as I review my career as a dancer, I have to admit that my biggest influences have been choreographers Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, David Winters (growing up, I was a big fan of Hullabalo), and Arlene Phillips. Which should give you a pretty good idea of how scary (and fun) my dance career was.
Can't Stop the Music is so bad that it's unimaginable that it would have been a hit even at the height of the disco craze. But there's a possibility that it could have grown into an affectionately-remembered, cult hit among gays, had it at least acknowledged the community that both created the Village People and gave the group its initial success.
In the terrific Christopher Guest Hollywood satire, For Your Consideration..., there is a scene in which the makers of a film centered around a Jewish holiday - "Home for Purim," are told to "Tone down the Jewishness" in order to appeal to a broader market. This scene satirically pokes fun at Hollywood's legendary lack of backbone, but putting a gay spin on it, it's a scene one can easily imagine played out in reality while bringing Can't Stop the Music to the screen.
This attitude severely undercuts the film's sense of fun for me, and as it stands now, Can't Stop the Music is a little like an off-color joke you initially laugh at, only to regret it later.
Can't Stop the Music Addendum:
11/11/13 Yay! After I first posted this essay critiquing Can't Stop the Music on its closeted gay, mainstream agenda and total lack of a single (acknowledged) gay person in the film; my eagle-eyed sweetheart spotted what may be the film's sole gay couple!