While the success of the average movie is certainly based upon inspiring in the viewer a suspension of disbelief, great works from the camp genre succeed in their suspension of other qualities. Namely, good taste (what ever the hell THAT is) and the rule that most films are nothing but ball-less scrotums that give you exactly what you expect, but rarely what you want.
A coke-fueled disco-atrocity like 1980’s Can’t Stop the Music unashamedly gives you exactly what you want and need in large doses. What other film has the brass testicles to open with over six minutes of Steve Guttenburg (who here has the manic energy of a speedfreak) giddily roller skating through the streets of New York? What other film would dare to flaunt male US Olympic gold medalist, and ’70s apple-pie-darling Bruce Jenner in Daisy-Duke hotpants and a skintight cutoff tee? The list goes on and on as the legend slowly grows.
The story is a flimsy one concerning the popular Hollywood musical theme of the fabled “meteoric rise to fame,” and isn’t really worth going into any serious detail about. Guttenberg is Jack, who has sworn off sex until he realizes his dream to become a music industry big-shot, and now languishes as a long term platonic house-sitter for Sam (Valerie Perrine). Sam is a former model who mysteriously spends ALL her time in an effort to help Jack “make it,” presumably so he can once again partake in sex and leave her the fuck alone.
So yeah, Perrine discovers the Village People, basically just while walking around town and grabbing what ever freaky looking guy she can find and asking him if he likes “to sing.” She presents Steve with his new band, and sends him on his way to work his neurotic brand of magic, and whoop-de-doo: Super Disco stardom. Fabulous, dahling!
The Village People were six dudes famously defined by their costumed stereotypes (The G.I., the Construction Worker, the Biker, the Cowboy, the Indian, and the Cop) who went from their first recording, to filming a 20 million dollar all-singing-all-dancing celebration of 1970s glitter-coated hedonism — in a span of only two years. Director Nancy Walker (she was the Bounty paper towel lady, and Rhoda’s mom on TV’s RHODA) was unexpectedly put in charge of this, one of 1980s biggest productions, and she and her film were the subject of plenty of media hype and exposure because of it. There was even a tie-in flavor at Baskin Robbins locations across the country called “Can’t Stop the Nuts”.
It’s a totally enjoyable film, and a memorable one, but that’s not to say that some of it isn’t completely unhinged. For example, when one takes note of how heavily a film is relying on lasagna for humor, you know they’re in trouble. There also seems to be a problem having to do with the fact that the Village People themselves are background characters in their own movie, and the first V.P. song doesn’t arrive until the first hour is over. With the guys getting only a few lines of dialog outside of their endless singing and parading, it’s a good thing another wooden non-actor like Bruce Jenner was there to pick up the slack as a tax attorney who realizes that he is also powerless to stop the music.
It’s rather hard to figure out who this film was being marketed to. The enthusiastic banality and gee-whiz-ery seems best suited to pre-teen girls or the Family dollar, yet the disturbing yet thrilling gay subtext kinda snubs them out. Take for instance, the “Milk Shake” number where little boys are decked out in the V.P’s unmistakable gay-stereotype outfits in a jaw-dropping display that was actually utilized by the advertising machine for the milk industry. I mean — never mind that this was a song with lyrics that were merely instructions for enjoying a kick-ass ice cream-based beverage — I’m torn over whose retarded idea it was to have a 10-year-old leather-boy take part in the action. And let’s not forget the laughable Arlene Phillips choreography. Was this woman the single worst choreographer in the history of the musical? Sigh, it’s an argument that rages between all my gay friends to this day.
This film is so surreal, that at some point one simply has to give up trying to critique it and just understand that the movie is first and foremost a swishy, glitzy, fairy tale. After you take that baby step, this 123 minute ass-slapper envelops you like a virus — and implores you to thrust your fist in the air along with Guttenberg as he roller-boogies and celebrates his freedom from the working class. It’s a theatrical experience that transcended it’s time, and seems (in retrospect) to be the one movie that encapsulates they whole death of the ’70s and birth of the ’80s thing better than any other. Valerie Perrine’s offhanded quip of “This is the ’80s honey, you’re gonna see a lot of things you never saw before,” now gives an eerie chill as if Perrine was (in a idiot-savant way) predicting the onslaught of AIDS. As Matthew Kiernan noted in the Anchor Bay DVD release liner notes, “Can’t Stop The Music is a film from another time, another place, almost another universe.”
The otherworldly insanity reaches epic proportions during the infamous “Y.M.C.A” number, as Village People prance around an actual YMCA hooting “You can get yourself clean/you can get a good meal/you can do what ever you feel,” while naked men lather one another up in the shower. Male wrestlers pin each other during freaky camera effects that turn them into geometric patterns, and much fancy slo-mo pool-diving and pirouetting boxers are put on display while our stars make Y’s and other letters with their bodies. You’ll howl and wonder aloud if this beats the S+M fantasy sequence featuring the Construction Worker Village person, or if the grand finale of “Liberation” performed in blinding sequined-bedazzled outfits stands as the ultimate performance on display.
Most obviously because of all the winking locker room homo-erotic shenanigans going on, this movie was as close to gay porn as many suburban closet cases got in 1980. But in some ways, C.S.T.M. had its cake and ate it too, presenting the V.P. themselves as being non-sexual, or even stranger, hetero.(!!?!) All the while other characters are tossing out lines like “They ought to get down on their knees!”, and other none-to-subtle entendres concerning “swallowing two sno-balls and a ding-dong.” Leonard Maltin wrote; “Gay subtext abounds, despite eye-boggling profile shots of Perrine.” And critic Steven Schurer lamely chimed in, “Village People are a gay disco group for straights.”
Felipe Rose’s (he was the Indian) greatest memory of the entire Village People experience took place while on the set of the film. He had dropped acid (as he was wont to do) and started dancing around like a jackass, completely stoned. Some one yelled “action!”, and Filipe, tripping, realized that he — in that moment — was actually living out the song that he was dancing to. “In Hollywood (Everybody Is a Star)”.
But by the time filming was completed, Felipe wasn’t a star anymore. None of the Village People were. Disco was “so OVER”, and America had hastily turned is back on them. Instead of an Oscar, C.S.T.M. was the recipient of the “Worst movie of the year” award at the first ever Razzie awards night, a gala evening honoring the worst in Hollywood entertainment. In Nashville, they were burning Village People records on TV, and Chicago’s Comisky park threw a “Disco Demolition Night” where rock fans were invited to come and trash their unwanted LPs. (The game was canceled as a near riot broke out as fans stormed the field) In the end, this 20 million dollar “Musical event of the ’80s” only managed to squeeze a pathetic 2 mill out of a few die-hard fans.
But don’t take this film lightly. This shit can melt your brain from your skull like a chocolate-gobbling toddler’s teeth. I’m bored of horror fans and death-video geeks babbling on to me about how hardcore they and their “sick” and “twisted” movie collections are. Pffftt. You wanna impress me? Spend 6 hours in front of a TV taking in a triple-bill disco-musical fest made up of this bad boy, Olivia Newton John’s saccharine-sweet Xanadu, and the 1980 German futuristic-religious-disco-mindfuck The Apple, and then get back to me about being Hardcore, you little pussies.
Guttenburg — who called this film “an overlooked masterpiece” — was just an up-and-comer at the time it was made, and managed to move on somewhat unscathed into his career as an actor, although never really taken seriously from then on. Co-star Valerie Perrine didn’t fare so well, being a highly-touted Oscar nominee pre-Can’t Stop The Music, and a washed-up has-been in its wake. Bruce Jenner wisely canceled his acting career and stuck to his day job of running around in short-shorts.
The Village People didn’t last too much longer as the leaden effect of this film washed over them. They desperately attempted a new-wave album called “Renaissance” which also (Surprise!) bombed horribly. By the mid ’80s, the group had split and a couple of members had tragically fallen victim to HIV. Fortunately for the group, the early ’90s disco revival breathed life into the group’s rapidly cooling corpse while a new generation of spandex-clad booties were shook in mirror-balled clubs. Bookings are soaring once again for the faggy fivesone, and I even spotted the ol’ V.P. on Entertainment Tonight last year, performing at Ozzy and Sharon’s wedding vow renewal ceremony.
According to my sources, rumors of a Can’t Stop The Music 2 have rapidly swirled as of late, with a cast headed up by Jennifer Lopez, Meat Loaf, Toni Basil, and Chris Rock…. When the Cowboy (Randy Jones) found out that British pop sensation Robbie Williams was expressing interest in donning the hat and cowboy boots, he giddily posted on his website that “If there’s anyone who can fill my jeans, it’s Robbie and his bodacious bum!”.
Who can say? Perhaps bringing a halt to the music will prove as tricky as previously predicted after all.