Thursday, February 13, 2020

THE APPLE 1980

The BIG Science Fiction Romantic Rock Opera of the 80's
                                                                           Movie poster tagline

It comes as a bit of a surprise to me when I realize that after so many years heralding the relative merits of often inarguably awful movies (and we're talking MAJOR bombs, mind you); this piece on Cannon Films’ dystopian glam-rock musical The Apple will be my first hate-watch movie post.

What do I mean by hate-watch? Well, when it comes to bad movies, whether unabashed camp-fests like Girls Town, Kitten With a Whip, and The Oscar, or pedigreed stinkers like Audrey Hepburn's Bloodline or Barbra Streisand's A Star is Born; there’s not a single terrible film I’ve disparaged and poked fun at on these pages for which I don’t also harbor simultaneous feelings of affection. Even if said affection is only gratitude to those films for all the hours of fun they've given me at their expense.
Call it an affinity, call it a connection…but if I'm going to watch a movie for the sole purpose of laughing at its ineptitude and wrongheadedness, I have to feel at least a tiny bit of a soft spot for it in my heart. Otherwise, the experience feels joyless and bordering on mean-spirited.
I call it hate-watching when I'm masochistically drawn to and intentionally watch a movie that, for whatever reason, I already know I don't like all that much. What I'm after in doing so is hard to parse out, but I'm gonna guess self-flagellation, schadenfreude, and misanthropy play into it.
Well, all of the above and more are to be found in schlockmeister director Menahem Golan's notorious 1980 musical misfire, The Apple.
"First you sell it, THEN you make it. That's marketing!"
A line delivered in the film by Shake, Mr. Boogalow's personal assistant, but also the credo of Cannon Films under the auspices of the producing/directing team of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. There's a very good chance this trade ad began appearing (cobbed from the wishful-thinking likeness of John Travolta's 1978 Time Magazine cover) long before a screenplay was written or a dime of funding secured for this $8-10 million miscalculation

The Apple, if known of at all, is widely considered to be one of the worst musicals ever made. A credential it exhaustively earns and defends in every sequin-encrusted, spandex encased frame. But movies dismissed by the masses invariably end up as prime candidates for cult adoration, and The Apple is no exception (although it took some 24 years to bring that about). Today, The Apple is enthusiastically embraced for the very things that, in 1980, brought the World Premiere audience at the Montreal Film Festival to its feet in a chorus of boos. When its very limited American release yielded a groundswell of less-demonstrative, no less unfavorable critical response, The Apple swiftly disappeared. The film's you've-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it glittering awfulness becoming the stuff of myth.
In spite of my fondness for cinema dogs and movie turkeys (fittingly, The Apple's L.A. release was a week before Thanksgiving), I failed to catch The Apple during its initial theatrical release. Not because I missed it... I just had no interest in seeing it. Which seems grossly out of character for a guy who dotes on disco, is mad for musicals, and who ordinarily can't get enough of craptacular cinema. 
Catherine Mary Stewart as Bibi Phillips
George Gilmour as Alphie
Vladek Sheybal as Mr. Boogalow
Grace Kennedy as Pandi
Allan Love as Dandi
Ray Shell as Shake

The Apple is a pseudo-Biblical Faust allegory set in a hyper-futuristic vision of America 1994 that occasionally betrays itself as actually being 1979 Berlin. Taking major liberties with the Book of Genesis, the film presents us with an unreasonable facsimile of Adam and Eve hailing from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (a beige, folksinging duo with the Teletubby names of Alphie & Bibi) tempted by fame and lured into the Mephistophelian clutches of one Mr. Boogalow, the head of an entertainment megacorporation known by the acronym BIM (Boogalow’s International Music).

But much like Disney or The Kardashians, BIM has very little actual interest in entertainment itself. It's primarily in the business of mind-control and the deployment of its far-reaching pop culture tentacles for the purpose of global domination. Mr. Boogalow's fiendish plan--as far as I could make out, anyway---has something to do with weakening the will of the people through the forced exposure to tacky, Vegas-style glitter-rock-cum-disco revues performed by substandard talent. Enter Alphie & Bibi. 
The Bland Leading The Bland
Flavorless heterosexual folk music in a Eurovision-style face-off against spicy, gay disco 
 

Boogalow schemes to hornswoggle the naive, soporific duo into a restrictive recording contract, replacing his current BIM Stars Dandi (Allan Love) and Pandi (Grace Kennedy). After the high-minded Alphie has a premonition of disaster (the film’s premiere, no doubt) he refuses to sign with Boogalow but is unsuccessful in persuading the soft-headed... I mean, soft-hearted Bibi to do the same. So, while Alphie beats as hasty a retreat as his extraordinarily tight pants will allow, Bibi signs away her soul for stardom, a crimped hair makeover, and a pair of perilously high, pointy-toed thigh boots.  
I've Seen the Future and it's Starburst Filter Lenses
The Apple frequently looks as though it were shot by a film school student given
an assortment pack of camera filter lenses they're dead-set on making use of 

Leap ahead an indeterminate amount of years (or is it days?): a despondent Alphie is learning that sanctimonious soft-rock doesn’t sell; Bibi has become a literal howling success (“Speeeeed!”); and “America” has fallen under the despotic, fascist way of BIM and Mr. Boogalow. Beset by state-mandated dancing, compulsory mylar sticker-wearing, and the micromanaging of individual behavior, the country has been transformed into a soul-killing, dystopian glitterscape oddly reminiscent of some six months I spent back in the mid-‘90s working for Richard Simmons.
The National BIM Hour of Exercise

But in 1994 the power of love proves stronger than bad music, so it isn’t long before Bibi starts questioning her fashion choices and Alphie embarks on a quest to rescue his lady love from the evils of multiethnic nonbinary pansexuality. It's at this point that, for reasons known only to the drug suppliers of The Apple's creative team, Alphie and Bibi’s musical odyssey takes an abruptly ecclesiastical turn, complete with superannuated hippies, rapid-growth offspring, and a celestial visitation that made me think Janis Joplin was way ahead of her time when she asked God to buy her that Mercedes Benz.
BIM pop stars Dandi & Pandi (the one dressed like Ami Stewart)
Seriously, what's with these names?

Adding further to The Apple's compendium of crazy: undistinguished songs, a pop-up-out-of-nowhere character named Mr. Topps: dance numbers performed with all the precision and technique of a Dolly Dinkle dance recital; future BAFTA-winning actress Miriam Margolyes as a chicken soup-wielding Jewish stereotype; and costumes and sets that evoke memories of the Dolly Parton quote “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”
Yes, every descriptive detail pertaining to The Apple confirms its reputation as a Grade-A, four-star disasterpiece.
BIM Headquarters
Alphie forgets to check his package at the door

Following the success of Tommy (1975), Grease (1978), and 1977’s Saturday Night Fever (not a musical, but its #1 soundtrack album revolutionized the movie marketing tie-in), studios everywhere rushed pop/rock musicals into production. The megabudget flops of The Wiz (1978) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) signaled a potential shift in public tastes, but by then the soundtrack-driven musical juggernaut was underway.

1980 alone saw the release of FameThe Blues Brothers, Can’t Stop the Music, Xanadu, Coal Miner's Daughter, The Jazz Singer, and Popeye. Hit hardest were Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu, two high-profile musicals that went into production at the height of disco-mania and hoped to capture its white-hot, up-to-the-minute urgency. Of course, by the time they hit the screens both movies looked hopelessly dated and old-fashioned. The Apple (which would have had its work cut out for it no matter what the cultural climate), was originally slated for Easter release, which would have given it the jump on most of the year's other youth-oriented musicals. Alas, The Apple arrived at the very tail-end of the year, by which time movie musical oversaturation and public impatience with disco, legwarmers, shiny fabrics, and glitter had reached the point of no return.
Harbinger of Doom: The Apple opened in Los Angeles on November 21st, 1980 at the Paramount Theater on Hollywood Blvd. The same theater where Can't Stop the Music flopped so resoundingly just six months earlier. This newspaper ad promotes the opening day soundtrack giveaway that is said to have resulted in less-than-thrilled patrons hurling the LPs at the screen like Frisbees.


Although I wasn’t all that crazy about its dull poster art and no-name cast, the main reason I didn’t want to see The Apple had to do with my familiarity with Cannon Films. Even before its purchase by Golan-Globus, the studio had a longstanding reputation as a purveyor of low-budget schlock. And not the good kind. Later, when I read the flood of terrible reviews The Apple received, it crossed my mind that perhaps I'd missed out on one of those once-in-a-lifetime "I was there!" experiences of the sort cherished by folks who saw the original theatrical releases of legendary fiascoes like The Swarm or Lost Horizon. But mostly I just felt like I'd dodged a bullet.
I finally got around to seeing The Apple some 25 years after its release, not long after it had resurfaced on the midnight movie circuit and emerged a surprise cult hit. But the circumstances surrounding my watching The Apple for the first time were not the most advantageous for a film this off-the-rails: I was in bed with a particularly nasty bout of the flu when my partner surprised me with a DVD copy of The Apple to cheer me up.

Maybe it was my very real flu-induced fever colliding with the movie’s fever-dream weirdness, but The Apple not only failed to cheer me up, it genuinely made me sick.

I got a headache from trying to make out if the endlessly-repeated chant in the opening number is “BIM’s on the way,” “BIM’s the only way,”BIM all the way” or whatever the fuck.

The jewels glued to Shake’s front teeth looked less like glitter rock bling than grossly neglectful dental health, so that kinda turned my stomach.
My fluey stomach synced with the film's clumsy choreography and started turning sympathy flips.

The script was so rushed, chaotic, and nonsensical it created the disorienting impression that I had been dozing off at intervals, missing pertinent plot points. (I hadn't.)

This is a musical that clocks in at only 90 minutes. That's fast!  (A butchering, finance-based decision for squeezing in more screenings per day). So why did it feel as long as Hello, Dolly!?

Did my feeling so lousy at the time ultimately influence my first impression of The Apple? Yes. Was The Apple still pretty lousy without any help from me? Oh, most definitely. 
What's it all about, Alphie?
I hope you like George Gilmour's expression here, 'cause it's the only one he's got 

That should have been the end of my having anything more to do with The Apple. And it was. That is, until Christmas 2019 saw the release of a film that threatened to unseat The Apple as The Worst Musical Ever Made: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats
The critical drubbing those CGI kitties received got me to thinking of how it had been 15 years since I last saw The Apple, sparking the nagging question of whether I had really seen the film at all, what with feeling so terrible at the time. So, with the added inducement of a recent Blu-ray release, I decided to give The Apple one more try.
I have to admit, it was a considerably better experience. 
The passing of 40 years has been kinder to The Apple than perhaps it deserves. It’s just as silly as it ever was, but much of what I once found annoying has been softened a bit through the distancing filter of time. 

I still think the music is pretty terrible, but the songs “BIM,” “Showbizness,” and especially “Speed” actually make me smile (OK, laugh out loud). They may be tacky, but they are also a lot of fun. In fact, the first half of The Apple is its the most enjoyable, the second half is bogged down by one too many lugubrious ballads.
The musical number "Coming", staged as Pandi's choreographed date-rape of a drugged Alphie,
is not only hilariously crass, but takes bad taste to Springtime for Hitler levels

None of the performances gave me a headache the way they did the first time around, although from the start I thought Grace Kennedy was a little too good for this film (her discomfort in that "Coming" number is palpable) and would have made a wonderful Lucy in the Sky in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band---a case of going from the frying pan into the fire, I know. And I discovered it's really not possible to dislike Catherine Mary Stewart, coming across as she does like the spunky, well-intentioned understudy shoved at the last moment into the star role.

What emerged clearer on second viewing is just how good Vladek Sheybal is. Playing a character saddled with a name no two individuals in the film ever pronounces the same way twice, Sheybal is the only actor in the film to hit the right tone of over-the-top without the effort showing. He reminds me of Karen Black when she began appearing in all those low-rent horror movies. She "got" and understood the weird...she didn't need to strike attitudes.
Vladek Sheybal appeared in the films Casino Royale From Russia With Love,
and Ken Russell's Women in Love and The Boy Friend

I enjoyed The Apple more on second viewing, but finding out that I didn't loathe the film isn't the same as saying that I actually like it. I'm afraid I still don't.
And just why that is, boils down to this: I wouldn't like a John Waters movie in which Donny and Marie triumphed over Divine and Mink Stole. Nor would I like an Auntie Mame in which the Aryans from Darian scare away the free-thinking bohemians.
Playing Alphie's cliche-a-minute Jewish landlady, Miriam Margolyes' character doesn't
have a name, but her performance is so full of ham she should be labeled not kosher

I like my cult movies subversive. Mainstream films always have people who look like Bibi and Alphie triumphing over the forces of evil (i.e., anyone who doesn't look like Bibi and Alphie). What I like about underground films and cult favorites like the films of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, John Waters movies...The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Lord Love a Duck, Xanadu, and Rock and Roll High School--is their anarchic attack on the status quo: they celebrate the misfits.
They advocate for the outsiders, the socially shunned, and the ones society brands "different," "strange," and makes no room for. In these films, the power balance is upended and the underdogs of the world...those who don't fit into heteronormative boxes and non-inclusive social structure...are celebrated for their beauty and uniqueness.
In The Apple, Alphie's rejection of Boogalow's world feels as rooted in homophobia as much as in professional distrust. When I watch Rocky Horror, I relate to Dr. Frank N. Furter and his "unconventional conventionists," not Brad and Janet (who, even as the vapid hero and heroine, are still written with more complexity than Alphie and Bibi).
The Age of Aquarius
Menahem Golan takes a page out of An American Hippie in Israel (1972)

The Apple, for all its outrageousness and rock & roll posturing, has always struck me as being staunchly middle of the road and conformist in its worldview; like one of those preachy faith-based films celebrities with faltering careers gravitate to these days.
Anti-fascist, anti-corporate, anti-consumerist, to be sure, but it never sat well with me the way all of the interesting, queer, and iconoclastic people in The Apple are chiefly associated with subtextual negatives (degeneracy, depravity, evil, fascism), while the white-bread hero and heroine are symbols of innocence and good.
Much in the way Can't Stop the Music has never been an all-time cult fave for me because of the self-repudiation inherent in its closeted take on The Village People, as much as I'm glad I've finally come to find some things in this loopy movie to enjoy, in the end I know I can't get past the mixed signals at the core of The Apple.
Apparently, Hell is like Chippendales on a Friday Night


BONUS MATERIAL
Before they were Dandi & Pandi, Allan Love (he got the "L" out before the film) and Grace Kennedy had professional recording careers. Love, who was most recently in the restaurant business, can be seen in a 1978 musical video HERE. Kennedy, who had her own BBC variety show for several years, pays homage to that other 1980 musical flop Can't Stop the Music HERE
Before he was Alphie, Scottish singer George Gilmour
(center, hands folded over his famous camel-toe area) fronted the band The Bo-Weavles.
Ray Shell went on to have an extensive career in theater. Seen here (in considerably less makeup than Shake) he originated the role of Rusty in the 1984 London production of Starlight Express. He's also a producer, director, and author (among others, a book on director Spike Lee).
The Apple's lyricist George S. Clinton (l.) and composer Kobi Recht (r.) appear throughout the film as
different characters. Co-lyricist Iris Recht appears as the receptionist in the "Showbizness" number.


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2020