Day 578: Rockin’ With The Ludicrously Tragic – Worst Films Part 6

originally published July 31, 2013

Back in the day when news was printed on paper and I wasn’t too tired to even lift my head in the morning let alone read something, I was a huge fan of movie reviews. I’d look forward to Friday, when all the week’s new releases would get treated to the passable but sometimes bang-on opinions of my local paper’s film buffs.

I’d usually scan the week’s offering, making note of the five-star reviews to read later, then dig into the one-star movies. A well-written review for a horrendous movie should find itself peppered with comedy, with a dash of hyperbole and just enough quality metaphor to allow the mind’s molars to masticate its meaning. A five-star review is full of raves and praise and flowery gushables, but you can get your hands dirty with a one-star blurb. That’s where the literary swords can go Inigo Montoya all over someone’s ass. That’s where the fun is.

Every so often I’d find a zero-star movie. Those are the ones worth writing about here – the films truly deemed the worst. And today I’m adhering to a theme – miserable music movies.

I’m going to pick on Wild Guitar because I just watched it, beginning to end. Fun fact: Turner Classic Movies occasionally airs terrible films on Fridays and Saturdays around midnight – it’s a marvelous way to enjoy the weirdness of Hollywood’s past.

Wild Guitar stars Art Hall Jr., who appeared in my last Worst Films article for his role in Eegah, which was released the same year – 1962. As I’d mentioned last month, Arch Hall Sr. was trying to launch his son to stardom as a young Elvis-like teen idol. Wild Guitar is a straight-up Elvis movie, but without the talent.

Not to take away from Arch Hall Jr.’s musical offerings. His brand of teen-aimed rock ‘n roll isn’t exactly an ear-phrodisiac, but it’s far from the worst part of this movie. The acting takes center stage in the spotlight of awful, from love interest Vickie’s stilted delivery to the three comic-relief goons who kidnap Hall Jr.’s character then don’t know what to do with him. As for Arch Hall Jr. himself – imagine if John C. Reilly’s character from Stepbrothers had chosen acting instead of drumming as his dream profession. That is the precise performance Arch Hall Jr. gave us. Thankfully, he left acting in 1965 and spent the bulk of his adult life as a commercial airline pilot.

Worse than the acting is the director’s belief that his audience is fundamentally stupid. The musical performances – the first of which is meant to be live and impromptu on the soundstage of a variety show – don’t sync up at all. Arch is supposed to be playing lead guitar, but he’s strumming chords. At one point a Hammond organ can be heard, but there is none to be seen.

The musical director is Alan O’Day, who later wrote “Angie Baby” by Helen Reddy, “Train of Thought” by Cher and “Rock And Roll Heaven” by the Righteous Brothers, all of which were hits in the 1970’s. If you know any of those songs, you’re probably older than me and listened to some mediocre pap back then. O’Day also wrote much of the music for the Muppet Babies TV show in the mid-80’s.

Having never actually seen the Village People’s Can’t Stop The Music, I can only say from pure speculation that this movie truly stinks. But I’ve got some backup on this – the 1980 movie won the first ever Worst Picture Razzie award, and was one of two films to have inspired John J.B. Wilson to start celebrating horrible movies on an annual basis. The film was the debut performance for a post-Olympic Bruce Jenner, and therefore the first foray of anyone from this family (which would eventually spew the Kardashian brood from its hellfire loins) into a medium where they don’t belong.

Also appearing are Steve Guttenberg, Gypsy Rose Lee’s little sister and Sammy Davis Jr.’s wife. The film’s release was perfectly timed with the American public’s sudden loathing of disco. An almost unanimous thrashing of the movie among reviewers helped to bury Can’t Stop The Music deep in the annals of camp, and probably assisted in capping the box office earnings to around $2 million, roughly a tenth of the film’s total budget. Oh, and thanks to a gratuitous shower scene, this may be the only PG-13 movie to feature full-frontal male nudity. So there’s that.

Of all the disco-heavy, The Wiz-like special effects-laden roller skating movies, Xanadu may actually be one of the finest. Perhaps the hardest thing about watching this movie is trying to imagine a time when ultra-bright glow-traces around people didn’t look dated and cheesy. Perhaps Don Bluth’s effects work on Xanadu was a necessary step before Tron, and eventually CGI that doesn’t completely suck, I don’t know.

Not surprisingly, this was the other inspiration for John J.B. Wilson to start up the Razzie Awards, and it won the inaugural Worst Director prize. But let’s not be too hard on director Robert Greenwald – he later became an important left-wing activist. And Olivia Newton-John, she was so adorable in Grease, right? And how about Gene Kelly? What in unblemished hell was Gene Kelly doing in a movie this awful?

Someone needs to be blamed. Maybe producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver. No wait – they also produced Die Hard. They get a pass. Dammit.

Setting the standard for bad movies – now there’s an achievement. If you want to explain to someone that a particular film is so awful, it’s actually enjoyable to sit through and laugh at, just tell them it’s Showgirls bad.

After blowing up a massive hype-balloon of explicit sex and oodles of nudity, Showgirls became the first NC-17 film to attain wide release. Critics weren’t kind, and before the 1990’s had subsided, the movie was getting shown in midnight screenings as a campy classic, ripe for mockery and derision by its audience. Yet some critics have returned to the film and actually praised its satirical qualities, with the Chicago Reader calling it “a low-rent version of All About Eve.” So perhaps beneath the eye-rolling screenplay and bizarre acts of simulated sex, there may be something worth sitting through.

When guest voice actor (and acclaimed director of his own brand of celluloid weirdness) John Waters was explaining ‘camp’ to Homer Simpson, he called it ‘tragically ludicrous’ or ‘ludicrously tragic’. “Like when a clown dies,” was Homer’s response.

To me, that sums up these four movies perfectly.

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