originally published July 31, 2014
It can never be said that I do not sacrifice for my art.
Just as my eyes have been manhandled by Manos: The Hands Of Fate, and later subjected to the probing fright of Deep Throat, I have once again endured one of cinema’s most masterful clusters of unmitigated celluloid sewage, strictly for the purposes of advising you, my dear reader, of what you’re missing. Last night found me roller bootin’, jive turkeyin’ and keepin’ on truckin’ through the film that arguably closed out the all-too-brief huzzah of disco musicals: Can’t Stop The Music.
This was a film that appeared too late to save a dying fad. And not just a dying fad, but one that was being actively butchered by anyone and everyone more than ten feet outside the protective sphere of Studio 54 (or whatever might have been your local equivalent). No trend has become so resoundingly reviled by its non-participants – and thus subject to spontaneous surges in nostalgic re-emergence. But in its immediate aftermath, disco was a ripe and easy-to-despise carcass.
And that’s where Can’t Stop The Music enters the scene: the Village People’s A Hard Day’s Night, without the charm, the wit, or the enduring tuneage. Battling for an audience who had mostly moved on to the next disposable trend (and also for any theater-goer who wasn’t headed to see The Empire Strikes Back). The movie was a career-killer for almost everyone involved. Well, except for one guy.
That’s right, The Gute himself – future star of Police Academy, Three Men & A Baby, Cocoon and Short Circuit – was catapulted to some level of glittery fame on the backs of the Village People, which is far less homo-erotic than it sounds. Guttenberg plays a thinly-disguised version of Jacques Morali, the composer who put together the Village People back in 1977. Throughout this insipid film, The Gute is perpetually enthused and 1000% committed to the role, displaying plenty of the charisma that would make him a star, all while delivering dialogue that resonates in the brain like a malnourished cat trying to deliver a monologue from the bottom of a laundry chute.
The rest of the cast is a veritable who’s who of who gives a damn: you’ve got Valerie Perrine, whom you might remember as Lex Luthor’s assistant, Miss Teschmacher – and if you don’t, then you probably don’t remember her from anything. Sammy Davis Jr.’s wife, Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister, and Billy Idol’s girlfriend all show up. Oh, and before he started becoming a woman, decathlete Bruce Jenner was cast in a significant role.
But the real treat here is watching the Village People act. Free from such encumbrances as ‘nuance’ or ‘talent’, each of the six singers displays a singular character trait, and for the most part they hover in the background until it’s time for them to sing. No explanation is given for their wacky costumes, except that they’re “from Greenwich Village”, which in 1980 parlance means they dress funny. That they all happened to land on such distinct and separate stereotypical costumes must simply be a coincidence.
How would one explain the Village People to the younger generation? They were a boy band – playing no instruments, only singing, and cashing in on the disco phenomenon. The costumes were clearly a gimmick, though they were chosen specifically as the embodiments of gay fantasy: the biker, the cowboy, the soldier, the cop, the construction worker and the Indian chief. This is a salient point: while my wife assures me that junior high girls sported Village People posters on their walls back when the group was relevant, it was the gay community that truly embraced them.
And it was the unspoken banner over their heads as a ‘gay group’ that almost derailed this film.
Principle photography for Can’t Stop The Music began in July of 1979, less than two weeks after Cleveland Indians fans had caused a riot in their home stadium whilst trying to explode every disco record in the city. Meanwhile, Victor Willis – the original Village People cop, and the group’s lead singer – wanted the screenwriters to shoehorn in his wife (Phylicia Ayers-Allen, later Phylicia “Claire Huxtable” Rashad) into the script so that he could assert a little old-fashioned heterosexuality into the band’s image. The writers refused; Victor quit.
Ray Simpson took over as the new face of disco law enforcement. The band is shown having zero relationships with women, as is Steve Guttenberg, whose real-life counterpart had been out of the closet for years. No mention is made of homosexuality in the film at all – sex is simply not mentioned, except during the trite “love story” between Miss Teschmacher and Bruce Jenner. It is certainly implied though.
While “In The Navy” and “Macho Man” never made the cut, there is an extended musical sequence to the tune of “YMCA”, the group’s biggest hit. Yes, that scene includes a little shower grab-ass and some of the only full-frontal male nudity you’ll find in a PG film. But where the movie could have elbowed in a message for tolerance and/or gay rights, instead it only wants us to believe that the Village People are the “sound of the 80’s”.
The soundtrack album did alright (possibly because there’s an entire song about making milkshakes), though it was the first Village People album that was never certified as RIAA Gold. Such was the curse of Can’t Stop The Music; it precipitated the group’s inevitable demise into irrelevancy. No one (except The Gute!) escaped this movie with more than a low-key career. Producer/writer Allan Carr, who had tasted glory with the 1978 hit Grease, scored a slightly less disastrous film with Grease 2, then drifted away from features completely.
The movie’s director? You might recognize her.
On the right, that’s Nancy Walker, who played the titular character’s mother on the 1970’s sitcom hit, Rhoda. She’s also the actress who, playing a New Jersey diner waitress in a series of Bounty commercials between 1970 and 1990, helped to popularize the slogan “the quicker picker-upper”. For whatever reason, she was tapped to direct Can’t Stop The Music, after which she was invited to never direct another feature film again.
Bruce Jenner’s next significant feature film appearance was as himself in 2011’s Jack And Jill, also revered as one of the most fetid films to ever ooze onto theater screens.
And that’s the legacy of Can’t Stop The Music. Publicist John J.B. Wilson saw a double-feature of this and Xanadu, and was inspired to develop the infamous Golden Raspberry Awards, more affectionately known as the Razzies. That’s right – this movie was so awful, it inspired a guy to devote the rest of his days to spotlighting just how bad movies can be. Can’t Stop The Music won Worst Picture in those inaugural awards. I can understand why.
Oh, and there’s a weird piece of trivia about Alex Briley, the group’s “soldier”. His brother was identified by several folks as The Falling Man who plummeted to his death from the World Trade Center in 2001. This has nothing to do with the film, but it’s such an unusual snippet of knowledge, I felt I needed to pass it on.
As for Can’t Stop The Music – I recommend it heartily if (like me) you share that squiggly affection for mocking hilariously bad movies. By the end you’ll want to stop the music. You’ll want to stop it and destroy it. Enjoy.