Chatterbox! (1977)

I’m currently watching Sex and the City for the first time without ever having much interest in it until now, and it’s instantly become an all-time favorite show.  It turns out it makes a lot more sense once you hit your thirties. Who knew? In the last episode I watched, Charlotte confesses to her brunch buddies that her gynecologist prescribed a mild antidepressant to help get a vaginal infection in-check, pouting in a hushed panic “My vagina is depressed!”  That kind of candid sexual humor was a large part of what made the show such a cultural phenomenon in the early aughts, when it was a lot less common to hear women openly joke about their genitals on national television.  Before then, you had to go digging in smut to find that kind of ribald women’s humor, as evidenced by 1977’s (incredibly well-titled) talking vagina comedy Chatterbox! being directed by gay porno auteur Tom DeSimone.  Chatterbox! only qualifies as a softcore porno if you squint at its AM Gold soft-rock lovemaking scenes with the most puritanical eye. Its main-attraction talking vagina never even makes an appearance on-screen, whether to avoid an X rating or to avoid the practical mechanics of gynecological puppetry.  Still, it’s got a mildly naughty pedigree as an out-of-time, post-hardcore nudie cutie.  It wasn’t until the early 2000s that you could hear women joke about their vaginas having minds of their own on the HBO sitcom equivalent of Seinfeld.  Before then, you had to go see a dirty movie, even if not in the same sketchy theaters where they played DeSimone’s true trenchcoaters.

Most contemporary reviews of Chatterbox! dismissed it as a low-brow, juvenile sex comedy and a masturbatory fantasy for men.  They were only half right.  Yes, the jokes are idiotically crude, like when Virginia the Talking Vagina greets her mother with the zinger, “You didn’t even kiss me hello!” or when a potential sex partner responds to her propositions with “You didn’t even move your lips!”  It’s all harmless schtick, but it’s schtick all the same.  Still, the hapless hairdresser who happens to be attached to Virginia, Penelope, reacts to her supernatural genital predicament with such embarrassed horror that it’s difficult to imagine someone treating the film as pure masturbation fodder.  As much fun as Virginia is having seducing every man (and most women) in their presence, Penelope is mortified that her crotch is getting so much attention, especially by the time the pair become late night talk show regulars as a kind of side show act.  The film is pitched more directly to the women in the audience than you might expect, playing less like a macho fantasy than an adolescent stress dream about showing up to school naked.  Its closest comparison point is The Peanut Butter Solution—a childhood nightmare about rapid hair growth—not the rearranged-female-body misogyny of Deep Throat.  Penelope’s talking, misbehaving vagina is presumably voicing her sexual id, but it does little to bring her out of her shell as a sexual person.  The two are mostly at odds with each other and struggle to find an equilibrium they’re happy with, much like Charlotte York whining about her depressed vagina to friends at brunch.

Chatterbox! is the kind of ramshackle production where the boom mic is onscreen so much it deserves its own character credit.  At one point, Rip Taylor—a total pro—stealthily swats it out of the frame in annoyance for stealing his moment.  The film’s sub-mainstream production values and other titles director’s back catalog (including gems like Swap Meat and Confessions of a Male Groupie) might raise questions of why it didn’t go full-porno, but I personally admire its decision to launch directly into its premise with no funny business.  Virginia starts talking immediately in the first scene, complaining about Penelope’s longtime boyfriend’s lovemaking skills because Penelope would never voice those complaints herself.  It’s not long before they make their debut on stage & television, after Penelope quickly manages to convince her friends & psychiatrist that Virginia really does have a mind of her own.  That efficiency leaves room in the tight 70min runtime for Virginia to launch a star-making career as a disco singer, including multiple performances of her nonsense hit single “Wang Dang Doodle.”  This is an aggressively silly, unsexy sex comedy about a woman’s war with her own body, like a Doris Wishman prototype for How to Get Ahead in Advertising – one with a lot less to say but a much more interesting place to say it from.  I’m sure there are so-bad-its-good cult movie obsessives who think they’re laughing at the movie’s expense—the A Talking Pussy!?! jokes write themselves—but it appears to know exactly how silly and misshapen it is, to the point where it’s always in on the joke. In a word, it’s a hoot.

Also, in case you’re wondering, Penelope is a Charlotte but Virginia is a textbook Samantha. And, yes, I plan on ending every review with this exact analytical lens until I get this show out of my system.

-Brandon Ledet

Disco Dancer (1982)

I love a good copyright infringement free-for-all.  In the cheap-o Brucesploitation picture The Dragon Lives Again, “Bruce Lee” (i.e., Bruce Leong) teams up with Popeye the Sailor Man to beat up James Bond, Dracula, The Exorcist and “Clint Eastwood” in Hell.  In The Seventh Curse, a James Bond-styled super-agent goes on international Indiana Jones adventures into ancient temples, ultimately teaming up with a Rambo-knockoff sidekick to defeat a flying Xenomorph with batwings; it’s somehow just as thrilling as it sounds.  At first glance, the Bollywood Saturday Night Fever knockoff Disco Dancer doesn’t appear to share the same free-flowing creative collage approach as those post-modern Hong Kong actioners, but as its collection of “borrowed” pop culture ephemera builds (especially on its soundtrack), so does its disregard for the real-world details of its disco nightclub setting.  Disco Dancer ultimately ends up being a huge improvement on Saturday Night Fever—actually delivering the delirious, retro fun audiences misremember the somber American film as—precisely because it feels no fealty to borrowing from just one inspiration source, nor sticking to just one tone.  It’s made entirely of pre-existing building blocks, but it manages to arrange them in new, exciting configurations that out-entertain the wholly “original” (i.e., more subtly derivative) creations it resembles.

In case its Saturday Night Fever inspiration source was not crystal clear, Disco Dancer is careful to include a scene where its dancing, fighting disco hero Jimmy (Mithun Chakraborty) dance-struts across a nighttime bridge in flared pants to a rolling Bee Gees bass line.  In the very next scene, he’s shown dancing alone in his bedroom under an actual Saturday Night Fever poster to underline the connection.  Most of Disco Dancer‘s other copyright oversteps are limited to its soundtrack, give or take a rival disco gang menacingly snapping in-rhythm like extras from West Side Story.  An instrumental backing track mimics the melody of Grease‘s “You’re the One that I Want,” scrambling the film’s Travolta reference points beyond recognition.  More importantly, the first big disco number, “Auva Avua” opens the story with a spectacular discofied rip-off of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which should be all you need to know to understand that this film is great.  To be honest, most of the soundtrack’s other borrowed melodies from French disco & Indonesian rock legends soared miles over my head; it was the familiarity, recognition, and delight of that opening Buggles-inspired dance track that put me in a great mood, and the movie never let me down from that high.

If defining Disco Dancer by its collection of loose, disparate influences is making it sound creatively bankrupt, I’m doing a poor job selling its charms.  As a cultural artifact, it’s a wonderful snapshot of disco’s absurdity as an international export, with large, seated crowds watching disco performers from stadium benches as if they were watching an orchestra, not a participatory dance fad.  As a rags-to-riches, rise-to-fame story for a street musician climbing the ranks of the then-burgeoning Bombay disco scene, it’s a winning melodrama – especially in his mission to musically smite the wealthy bullies who publicly shamed his mother when he was a helpless, borderline-homeless child.  As a martial-arts action epic, it’s got plenty of deliciously over-the-top details, like the hero’s third-act development of “guitar phobia” zapping his ability to perform on stage, thanks to a guitar lethally weaponized by his enemies.  Disco Dancer was a huge international hit in its time (especially in the Soviet Union & China, oddly enough), and that success had nothing to do with its familiarity to pre-existing works.  It’s its own uniquely beautiful, deliriously unhinged novelty, often reaching a disco-scored, light-up-dancefloor euphoria you won’t find in any of the better known works it vaguely resembles.  I just also think its willingness to freely borrow from those works—totally unconcerned with accusations of theft—is an essential part of its appeal.  This kind of free-association borrowing is an artform in itself, not something to be ashamed of.

-Brandon Ledet

Prom Night (1980)

Is Jamie Lee Curtis the original scream queen? There were multiple generations of femme horror legends who preceded her (including her own mother in Hitchcock’s pivotal proto-slasher Psycho), but the “scream queen” designation specifically feels like a product of the first-wave slashers of the early 80s. Curtis was a central figure in that initial crop of body-count slasher films thanks to her starring role in John Carpenter’s Halloween, which (along with Black Christmas) established many of the tones & tropes now associated with the genre. Previous femme horror legends like Barbara Steele, Karen Black, and Vampira would often be typecast in horror films for their naturally spooky looks, while Jamie Lee Curtis’s generation were better known for their reactions to the horrors of the world – their screams. Curtis was a frequent go-to for the Final Girl Next Door archetype in the earliest crop of formulaic slashers (Halloween, Prom Night, and Terror Train specifically), establishing a scream queen career template that near-future horror actresses like Barbara Crampton, Heather Langenkamp, and Linnea Quigley would later transform into lifelong convention-circuit celebrity. Her mother’s stabbed-in-the-shower scream may have echoed much louder throughout horror history than any of her own on-screen scares, but one isolated fright does not make a Scream Queen. As of last year, Curtis was still extending her Final Girl status in the ongoing Halloween franchisefour decades after its debut. If she’s not the originator, she’s at least the one with the most follow-through.

Prom Night is a significant episode in establishing this scream queen status for Curtis, but only because it faithfully repeats a pattern initiated by Halloween a couple years earlier. If anything, it repeats that pattern a little too faithfully, as its initial gimmick is essentially a mashup of Halloween & Carrie with nothing especially novel to add to either side of the equation. Curtis stars as a suburban high school goody-two-shoes who finds herself the target of two dangerous adversaries: a hot-girl bully who wants to steal her thunder as prom queen (like in Carrie) and a maniacal killer who’s stabbing her friends to ribbons one by one (like in Halloween). When Curtis is gabbing about boys with her more promiscuous friends, walking just out of earshot of reports of an escaped mental-patient maniac, and stumbling blissfully unaware into a cruel prank just as she’s being crowned prom queen, all the audience can think about is Laurie Strode and Carrie White. There are a few key deviations here, to be fair. Instead of the escaped maniac being the assumed killer like Michael Myers, there’s a murder-mystery set-up involving a past wrong when the victims were children – calling into question the masked killer’s identity & motivation. Also, not for nothing, Curtis possesses no telekinetic superpowers here and must survive her bullies’ pranks with good old-fashioned Final Girl purity & wit. Prom Night also tosses in the menacing phone calls from Black Christmas to spice up this Halloween & Carrie mash-up, further emphasizing its adherence to first-wave slasher tradition (and Jamie Lee Curtis’s prominence within that milieu).

Thankfully, Prom Night eventually does come into its own as a unique object & an admirably stylish feat in low-budget filmmaking. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, this turnaround arrives during its titular high school prom dance. Working with a glorious Disco Madness theme, the prom sequence is a pulsating teen dance party where the hormone addled dum-dums we’ve been following all movie show off their best Saturday Night Fever choreography on a light-up dance floor, then file away one at a time to be brutally murdered by the masked killer. In a welcome deviation from a typical first-wave slasher, these kills do not directly correlate with whether or not the teens in question drink, screw, or revel in sin; the kids simply suffer the consequences for a past act of cruelty they’ve kept under wraps since they were tykes. The mysterious executioner sports an unusually glittery ski mask to protect their identity and wields a unique murder weapon—broken mirror shards—instead of the glistening kitchen knife of slasher tradition. Between these gruesome kills and the dance floor glam of the disco prom, Prom Night eventually emerges from its formulaic slasher chrysalis to become its own beautiful specimen of cheap-o grime. Its earliest stretch is guaranteed to test the patience of audiences generally bored with by-the-numbers slasher ritual, but I find that sturdy plot template can be exceptionally useful in providing structure for over-the-top aesthetic & tonal choices like, say, a Disco Madness theme. It also helped build Curtis’s legacy as the genre’s first genuine scream queen; she just also had to be crowned prom queen to get there.

-Brandon Ledet

How a Japanese Anime Theme Song Found Way into an Italian Romcom Set in Greece

When discussing our current Move of the Month, the horned-up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon, one of our major fixations was on the chaotic nature of its soundtrack. This early-aughts romcom, set in the Spring Break-style hedonism of the Grecian island Ios, features a jarringly eclectic collection of tunes that seemingly have nothing to do with each other: romantic sitars, pop music from Culture Club & The Village People, post-punk from Wire, a lengthy homage to musicarello star Mina, and every other spur-of-the-moment indulgence the film wishes to entertain itself with. The track that really stood out to me, though, was a very short disco number that the two main characters (a heartbroken aunt who’s recovering from a breakup and her lovelorn teenage niece who’s aiming to shed her virginity) walk down the street to, singing along with every rapid-fire syllable. Given the disco-flavored rhythms of the tune and the film’s setting, I assumed the track was an Italian entry into the wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest. As such, I was shocked to learn later that it was titled “UFO Robot” and was, in reality, a theme song to a 1970s anime television show.

Running for 74 episodes from 1974 to 1975, the Japanese sci-fi action cartoon UFO Robot Grendizer was only a brief blip in the overall output of the country’s long-running success in exporting animation abroad. Arriving as Force Five: Grandizer in the US, the show never quite found the domestic cult following other properties like Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and Sailor Moon enjoyed here. However, it was a massive hit in other countries – including France, French-speaking Canada, across the Middle East, and—wait for it—Italy. Packaged as UFO Robot for the Italian market, Grendizer was retrofitted with an Italian-language soundtrack from the (seemingly fictional) disco group Actarus, who provided several dance-beat themes for the series, including the titular one featured in Ginger & Cinnamon. While the original Japanese theme to the show has a serious, militaristic tone, all the Actarus songs I can track down on YouTube are much more fun & playful, which I’m sure helped make the show iconic for the Italian kids who grew up with it. That would at least help explain how the titular “UFO Robot” track was treated with the same nostalgic weight as major hits like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?,” “Y.M.C.A.,” and Mina’s “Ta Ra Ta Ta.”

Nostalgia actually seems to be the unifying force behind Ginger & Cinnamon’s chaotic soundtrack choices in general. The “Ta Ra Ta Ta” sequence directly recalls the traditional musicarelli the wistful, nostalgic aunt character would have watched on television as a young child. The “1.2.X.U. “ cut from Wire (along with the more traditional 80s club hits) evokes the more rambunctious era of her teen years, when she was just as dangerously young & horny as her niece. In that way, “UFO Robot” fits right in with the rest of the collection. The aunt is the exact right age where UFO Robo would have been her standard Saturday Morning cartoon viewing as a child, making it a song selection just as primed for nostalgia as a Village People single – as long as you grew up in Italy at the exact right moment.

It turns out she’s not alone. Just last year, for the 2018 Record Store Day, a vinyl LP collection with all of the Actarus disco tracks for UFO Robot was printed for collectors on red, numbered wax. It’s enough of a nostalgia trigger for a specific group of people that it’s freshly back on the market in the most nostalgia-friendly format around. Even if for some reason you don’t want to personally invest in a physical copy of an Italian soundtrack to a Japanese television show you’ve likely never heard of before, though, you should still at least check out the “UFO Robot” track below. It’s a bop, and it’s one of the highlights of the Ginger & Cinnamon soundtrack.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the horned up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its musicarello inspirations.

-Brandon Ledet

Cross-Promotion: Xanadu (1980) on the We Love to Watch Podcast

I was recently invited back as a returning guest on an episode of the We Love to Watch podcast to discuss the ELO-scored disco musical Xanadu. In our recent Movie of the Month discussion of Cool as Ice, the rap-oriented Vanilla Ice reimagining of the Marlon Brando classic The Wild One, I rambled loftily about the beautifully absurdist space where art & commerce collide in the precious few cult classic movies that actually live up to their “so bad it’s good” designation. Xanadu is a perfect example of the exact dynamic I was getting at in that conversation, the sublimely strange accidents where cinema is nakedly exposed to be both art and commerce, cynically so. Instead of selling Vanilla Ice as a tough guy leading man material, however, Xanadu is tasked with marrying the spectacle of Old Hollywood musicals (represented in the film by Gene Kelly) with a then-fresh sense of disco futurism (represented by Olivia Newton John & ELO). As you’ll hear in the episode, the results aren’t consistently cohesive or competent, but they are always memorably bizarre. More importantly, they also point to a very specific kind of movie magic where blatant commercialism accidentally stumbles into the territory of fine art.

Besides having the chance to further explore this idea of cinema’s dual role as art & a product, it was super fun to return as a guest to a show I listen to regularly. Aaron & Peter were incredibly kind to invite me back after we discussed The Fly (1958) last October. Their podcast is wonderfully in sync with the sincere & empathetic ethos we try to maintain on this site (especially when covering so-called “bad movies”), so I highly recommend digging through old episodes & clips on the We Love to Watch blog & YouTube page. And, of course, please start by giving a listen to their episode on Xanadu below.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lure (2017)

Synths! Sequins! Sex! Gore! What more could you ask for? The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty. This debut feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, alcoholism, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and (forgive my phrasing here) fluid sexuality all while feeling like a nonstop party or an especially lively, glitterful nightmare. It’s astounding.

Two young mermaid sisters, Golden & Silver, join us legged folk on land after curiously spying on some drunken revelers from just under the surface of the water at a cityside beach. Fascinated with the mermaids’ siren song duet & apparent ability to temporarily sprout legs (but no human genitalia, much to everyone’s dismay), the beach-side drunks adopt the sisters into their band: an adult-themed nightclub act that sounds something like synthpop act Berlin gone disco. Soon they’re the most popular act at any disco burlesque in all of Warsaw, first providing the backing track for other topless performers and then quickly becoming topless performers themselves. The club makes no effort to hide the fact that these are fantastical creatures, making their gigantic, muscular mermaid tails a central part of the act. The problems that break up this sexed-up reverie arise when Silver & Golden aren’t performing. One falls in love with a human, both grow frustrated with their over-controlling band mates, and neither are sure what to make of Triton, who leads a similar life on land fronting a wildly popular punk band at a nearby club. All of these conflicts come to a head the way they also did in Poland’s last significant international horror release, Demon: through a drunken wedding celebration that ends much, much later into the night than it should.

It’s possible that some of the cultural significance of themes lurking just under the surface of The Lure might be going over my head as an American outsider (a concern I also had with Demon, to be honest). Inscrutable dialogue like, “Do you live in some old monkey’s ear?” occasionally threw me off-balance in that way, but that open-for-interpretation oddness lends itself well to the universality of pop music lyrics’ subjectivity. Lines like, “Bitter tastes can be delicious,” “We’re all gloomy as hell,” and “Put your hand deep inside me and drag me to shore,” cut through the language barrier of the pop lyrics translations to feel significant despite their enigmatic nature. This dynamic also plays well into how the sisters relate to the outside world in ways we don’t fully understand as an audience of land-walkers. Sometimes their dolphin-noise communication between one another is subtitled for our benefit, but often we’re left completely in the dark. This not only maintains the suspense of whether Golden or Silver are about to strike out in another act of animalistic, flesh-eating violence (or equally animalistic acts of sexual perversion), but also supports the film’s necessary distinction of their unknowable inhumanity. As Triton puts it, “We are not human. We are just on vacation here.” Any tragedy that befalls the mermaids or the humans who desire to interact with them is a direct result of losing track of that basic truth, which is an easy enough narrative through-line to hold onto, even if some of the details in the phrasing present a communicative struggle.

Of course, the lure of The Lure isn’t entirely dependent on the film’s dialogue or thematic weight. From a filmmaking standpoint, my favorite aspect of the movie is just its value as a stunning collection of sights & sounds. Every scene in the film looks either like a music video dream sequence or a flashlight-illuminated crime scene. The costuming & old school musical sound stage imagery is impeccable. Its The Knife-esque synths & vocal distortions had me tapping my foot for the entire length of the runtime. I could ramble on forever praising The Lure for the way it handles themes like the infantilization & casual dismissal of women after their commodification loses potency or its admirably blasé attitudes toward bisexuality or feminist revenge narratives. That kind of highfalutin critical praise would be somewhat dishonest to what I most fell in love with in the film, however. Smoczyńska’s major accomplishment is in how she captures the grand scale spectacle of a Baz Luhrmann musical within the context of a slick, modern horror film that’s both comically light on its feet and chillingly brutal in its gore-heavy cruelty. It’s an incredible love-at-first-sight debut that already has me willing to give the director a lifetime pass just one entry into her career.

-Brandon Ledet

ABBA: The Movie (1977)


three star


In our recent conversation about the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music, I asked Britnee if it’s possible to make a legitimately-great disco musical or if the two genres were fundamentally irreconcilable. Britnee answered with a resounding “Yes!” but I remained somewhat unconvinced. The repetition inherent to disco makes a musical film’s plot feel like its idling in a way that a more narrative-intense music genre wouldn’t. Can’t Stop the Music’s musical numbers were strange Village People music video-type interjections that barely interacted with the film’s completely unnecessary plot involving Steve Guttenberg’s DJ career and some out-of-place heterosexual shenanigans. The movie’s disco & plot mixed just about as cohesively as oil & water.

ABBA: The Musical brilliantly sidesteps the problem by not even attempting to mix its plot with its disco. The movie does tell a half-assed story of about country music DJ assigned to interview the Swedish pop group on their Australian tour, but it’s entirely inconsequential. Early conversations between the DJ and his station manager are periodically interrupted with crowds chanting “We want ABBA!”, voicing exactly what the audience is thinking. The movie delivers the goods early on, full live performances of the band’s hit songs running almost continuously from about ten minutes in. ABBA: The Musical is essentially a concert film in disguise, the Australian DJ’s story arc serving mostly as filler. Between the live performances, he conducts street interviews with fans, reads about the group member’s individual personalities in magazines, and struggles to make his way backstage at their concerts. Where Can’t Stop the Music made the band it was marketing second to its superficial plot, ABBA: The Movie is smart to do the exact opposite, always putting the band first & the fiction second.

Honestly, Can’t Stop the Music is a much more interesting film (especially in its choice to obscure both its subject’s homosexuality and the disco scene’s rampant drug use), but ABBA: The Movie isn’t without its own strange subtext. There are some questionable inclusions in the film’s attempt to push its product. If they were trying to make the group seem hip to kids, it may not have been the best idea to include street interviews where parents praise the music as “nice & clean”. In direct contradiction, there’s a lot made of singer Agnetha Faltskog’s award-winning ass, which is talked about & filmed so much it’s easy to think of her as the Nikki Minaj of her time. My favorite oddball choice is the endless parade of ABBA merchandise (hats, socks, buttons, beer mugs, picture books, etc.) on display while the group sings the anti-capitalist anthem “Money Money Money.” Then there’s an early press conference in which ABBA complains about the grueling ordeal of touring in a movie that glorifies their life on the road. For the most part, though, the film really does live up to the parental-friendly “nice & clean” image the band intentionally cultivated, making little attempt to mine anything under the surface.

There’s not much going on here besides the idea that ABBA is awesome and people who paid to watch their movie mostly just want to watch them play their music. It’s a honest concept I can get behind. Although the film may lack the more bizarre connotations of Can’t Stop the Music, it’s very easy to get swept up in its straightforward “ABBA is awesome!” sentiment when the group is performing killer pop tunes like “Waterloo”, “S.O.S.”, “Mamma Mia” and, of course, “Dancing Queen”. It’s downright fascinating how thick the 70s cheese is here, considering it was released the same year punk starting poking its head out from dive bars and terrified parents across the world. It’s a flawed, corny film, but it’s one that delivers the product it promises. Of course the Australian country music DJ asides are mostly inconsequential, but they don’t overpower the band the same way the plot did in Can’t Stop the Music and they also help to break up the more laborious task a full-on concert movie from the group would’ve presented. All I really wanted from an ABBA movie was some great ABBA musical performances, which it delivered in abundance.

-Brandon Ledet

Swampchat: Can’t Stop the Music (1980)


Sometimes it takes more than one of us to tackle a film. Those are the times when we need a Swampchat.

Britnee, I took your recommendation on watching the Steve Guttenberg/Village People vehicle Can’t Stop The Music for its value as a camp fest and I gotta admit: it was thoroughly insane. The weird-ass costumes people wear to the disco, the Rock & Roll High School dance number at the YMCA, the impromptu backyard disco concerts (which are not a thing), Steve Guttenberg rollerskating to maddeningly repetitious lyrics about “New York, New York, New York”: the movie’s got a lot of weird energy. I’m not saying everyone was on cocaine, but c’mon, everyone was on cocaine. The characters talk incredibly fast, rapidly moving on from task to task like little chatty raccoons. When one character offers Guttenberg’s goofy DJ a joint it seems so out of place because marijuana is most definitely not these people’s drug.

The cocaine use isn’t the only thing that’s swept under the rug either. I find it so strange that The Village People, a pop group so conspicuously catered to fit disco’s gay audience, would star in a movie that pretends to be so fiercely heterosexual. I realize that it’s unrealistic to expect a PG comedy from 1980 to display its homosexuality openly, but this was also the year of Friedkin’s Cruising, so I’d at least expect something a little more than just offhand details like a flaming-baton twirler who proclaims “I’m James and flame’s my game.” I wonder if even the straight audience was rolling its eyes at the central “Are they gonna get together?” heterosexual romance the film didn’t need or deserve. As the story jumps around from one insane, loosely tied together scene to another I got the feeling that I was watching less of a professionally-made movie and more of a coked-out drag show trying its damnedest to come across as the heterosexual dance party it definitely is not.

Britnee, does the movie’s refusal to acknowledge its subject’s inherent homosexuality hold the film back or does it make for a more interesting viewing experience as a time capsule of a 1980 bias?

Prior to my first viewing of Can’t Stop the Music, I really expected it to have a good bit of homosexuality. The Village People were brought together to target the gay disco scene by French disco producer, Jacques Morali (sounds a bit like Jack Morell, right?), so they’ve always been a big deal to the LGBT community. Until this day it’s hard to go into a gay club and not hear “Go West” or “Y.M.C.A.” blaring in the background. Needless to say, I was disappointed by the amount of heterosexual romance in the film. It sort of made certain scenes difficult to watch, knowing that this was the time for homosexuality to shine. I guess the crew behind the film didn’t want to take a chance by going in that direction, which is a complete and utter shame.

The absence of much needed homosexuality really did hold the film back from being almost revolutionary. I have yet to see Cruising, but I remember reading about how much the gay community really disliked the film. If only a film that really celebrated homosexuality would’ve came out around the same time as Cruising, but no, Can’t Stop the Music didn’t have the balls to do so. As we all know, films that are daring and ahead of their time are the most memorable, so I can’t help but think about what the film would be known as today if the producers and writers were braver. I’m not saying that it would have Gone with the Wind status, but it would probably have a much larger cult following like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Well, maybe not that large, but it would be way much bigger than it is today.

Brandon, do you think that the film is ok as just a campy classic or with better writing, acting, directing, etc., that it would’ve had a chance at being a memorable movie musical?

Honestly, I don’t think the movie ever stood a chance. Its basic premise required two things: rushing into production while both The Village People (and disco in general) were still hot commodities & also offering a product that was appealing to the widest possible audience. There was obviously a lot of pressure to clean up their act for discerning, “wholesome” movie-going families, which is why you get Steve Guttenberg, Bruce Jenner, and a flirtatious party girl eating up the runtime while The Village People themselves take a back seat. The writers still obviously had a little bit of fun sneaking naughty dialogue into the script. Lines like “You rotten pussy,” “Nice box,” “You sure get up quick,” “What were you doing? Cruising down Times Square?” and “Anyone who can swallow two snowballs and a dingdong shouldn’t have trouble with pride” stand out as writer’s room mischief. Then there’s the nudity in the “YMCA” dance-number, which you pointed out in your review. Either the censors were willing to let a lot more slide in 1980 or they fell asleep during the opening “The Sound of the City” number. It’s a shame the writers weren’t set free from the sanitized worldview presented in the film, but the film would never have been made otherwise. Turning The Village People into a cash grab meant making them as commercially-viable as possible & stripping them of any countercultural tendencies.

Another reason why the film was doomed from the start: disco is not suited for the movie musical format. Disco is dance music. You sweat to it, forgetting where you are for long periods of time as the repetition thumps all around you. Musicals need the songs to further the plot line, to flesh out a character’s story arc as they dance out their emotions. The repetition of disco makes a movie feel like it’s treading water. It can be maddening in a musical context. Both Xanadu & Staying Alive suffered from a similar downfall at disco’s repetitious nature in the same era of Can’t Stop the Music’s release.

Britnee, I trust you as a greater authority on both disco & musicals. Are the two formats irreconcilable? Was a truly great disco musical an impossible dream?

Personally, I really do enjoy disco musicals. Disco music is upbeat, catchy, exciting, and fits in perfectly into the musical experience. Of course, disco musicals usually don’t do a great job of having deep, serious story lines, but I think that’s what makes them so much fun. Sometimes it’s nice to watch something just for the entertainment value and nothing more. They may not do very well in the movie format, but when it comes to the stage, they’re much more successful. For instance, the Xanadu film is considered to be a catastrophe, even though I absolutely adore it. I was in love with Xanadu before I developed an interest in reading movie reviews, so I was completely heartbroken when I realized that so many critics disliked it. In recent years, Xanadu has become an award-winning Broadway musical, and although the story was changed up a bit, disco was still present in the production.

I really think the same thing can be done with Can’t Stop the Music. The ingredients for an amazing musical are there, but the recipe is a little off. One of the biggest mistakes in the film was that just about all of the songs were presented in a music video/live performance format and seemed so out of place. They should’ve blended with the scenes and involved other members of the cast participating in the singing. If a couple of brilliant minds would get together and work on remaking Can’t Stop the Music, it has the possibility of being a great musical. The reboot might not do very well on the big screen, but it definitely has the potential to be a Broadway hit. That would be a dream come true!


Describing Can’t Stop the Music is a difficult task because nothing in the film makes sense, but it’s heaps of fun to watch. I wish I could go back in time to the late 70’s and put a stop to all of the film’s unnecessary heterosexual love. I would also demand more focus on the members of The Village People since the musical was supposed to be about them. If only time travel was more achievable! Maybe all of my wishes will be granted with a reboot in the form of a Broadway production?

I definitely think you’re onto something with the Broadway (or even off-Broadway) idea for a reboot. Hell, live disco musicals worked pretty well for both Mamma Mia! & (more recently) Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Why not Can’t Stop the Music? I absolutely adore the Xanadu film as well, but I’m not going to pretend it’s not an objectively bad movie and I’m sure a lot of the Broadway audience felt the same way. It’s one of those properties you love for their faults & I could totally see a live performance being the perfect way to celebrate that spirit. Similarly, Can’t Stop the Music could be a blast with a live atmosphere, maybe even with dancefloor breaks so you can groove with the glitter-coated performers and run to the bar for drinks. There’s even a built-in title waiting to go: Can’t Stop the Musical! Talk about a dream come true!

I’m glad the movie version exists as is, though, even if the songs could’ve been incorporated better. In some ways the movie might benefit from having so much subtext covered up with its half-assed heterosexual posturing. Sometimes the transgression of the gay movie under the surface aching to peak its head out makes for interesting energy the film wouldn’t have otherwise. For instance, there’s the scene where The Village People sing “It’s time for liberation!” (in a film where they’re far from liberated) and there are weird details in the set design at their impromptu disco concert (again, not a thing) that look eerily similar to the patio from Friedkin’s other controversial gay movie The Boys in the Band (which you really should see in addition to Cruising; time has been kind to both). I obviously still would’ve wanted to see Can’t Stop the Music if it were more open about its inherent sexuality, but it made for a more complicated, memorable experience in its self-denial. Maybe we’ll one day be able to write a more honest version with a Can’t Stop the Musical, but as a cultural document & a bizarre viewing experience Can’t Stop the Music is engaging enough in its current, compromised state.

-Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet