The Guttenberg School or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Gutte (in Just 5 Easy Steps)

While we were discussing September’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s The Boyfriend School, it was amusing to me that no one around here could muster anything cruelly negative to say about the film’s male lead, Steve Guttenberg. Once upon a time Guttenberg starred in a relentless onslaught of successful, but mediocre comedies (including Short Circuit, Three Men & a Baby, and far too many Police Academy sequels), amounting to a high profile on the Hollywood landscape that felt at best incongruous with the man’s modest level of talent & low-key natural charisma. Perhaps feeling that the Hollywood machine was pushing an undeserving everyman down their throats, moviegoers eventually reduced The Gutte to a sort of a fad & a punchline. Guttenberg has never been able to recreate the success streak he achieved in the 1980s & the mention of his name is more likely to elicit a mild chuckle than any more desirable reaction. Being slightly too young to remember a time when Guttenberg was a disingenuous cinematic omnipresence, I’ve always had a sort of mild ambivalence to the actor, but more recently I’ve discovered that I’ve grown to actually love seeing him pop up in unexpected projects. Nostalgia has been kind The Gutte. After enjoying his performances in a few of his stranger, off-the-beaten-path roles, I genuinely get excited whenever he’s involved in something worth watching. Detailed below are the five performances that shaped my personal path to learning to stop worrying and start loving The Gutte, hopefully serving as a guide to those who want to leave their Guttenberg hate in the distant past where it belongs.

1) Collaborations with Rob Thomas: Party Down (2010) & Veronica Mars (2005)

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The first time I can recall having a strongly positive reaction to Steve Guttenberg was in an episode of the (sadly defunct) television show Party Down titled “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday.” Within the episode, the titular catering service (featuring such talented comedians as Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally, Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, etc.) arrive at the swanky mansion of Steve Guttenberg (playing himself, of course) only to discover that he had already celebrated his birthday & forgot to cancel the catering. Not wanting the food to go to waste, Guttenberg improbably invites the crew inside to enjoy a wild night of drinking (fine vintage wines from his personal collection), philosophy, workshopping, and frank discussions of art. It’s an incredibly funny & endearing performance from Guttenberg, one that makes for one of the best episodes of the entire series (no small feat, that). I later discovered that this was not the first time Guttenberg had worked with Party Down‘s producer Rob Thomas. The Gutte was also a major figure in the second season of Thomas’ cult television show Veronica Mars, playing mayoral hopeful & monstrous reprobate Woody Goodman. It’s difficult to discuss much of Goodman’s story arc without spilling  the beans on a few of the season’s surprises (it was a mystery show, after all), but I will say that it gave Guttenberg a chance to play cold & sinister notes that aren’t normally afforded his normal roles as affable goofballs. In fact, both of Guttenberg’s collaborations with Thomas revealed aspects to his onscreen presence that suggest a depth of talent that’s gone shamelessly unmined (no offense to fans of Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol). It would be great to see more of this subversion of The Gutte’s usual schtick in the future, even if it only amounts to a cameo on Thomas’ current project, the far-better-than-it-should-be iZombie.

2) Can’t Stop the Music (1980)

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Thanks to a sublimely silly review by our own Britnee Lombas, I eventually discovered that one of Steve Guttenberg’s strangest roles was also one of his earliest. In 1980, The Gutte starred as a DJ/rollerblade enthusiast in the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music. Although as a musical act the Village People were designed to be a cynical cash grab aimed at the popularity of disco among homosexual audiences, the Village People movie is almost completely scrubbed of anything non-heteronormative (something Britnee & I discussed at length in our Swampchat on the film) and Guttenberg was used as the central bait & switch. Although the promise of Can’t Stop the Music is a film starring The Village People, it’s actually a film starring a then-nobody Steve Guttenberg, with The Village People (along with celebrity athlete Bruce Jenner) serving mostly as accessories & much needed dance breaks. Guttenbeg’s performance is mostly just serviceably dorky (and sexually incongruous) in Can’t Stop the Music, but he does hold one of the film’s best moments in the opening sequence. I dare you to watch The Gutte rollerskating to maddeningly repetitious lyrics about “New York, New York, New York” at the beginning of the film & not love the goof just a little, little bit. It worked for me, at least.

3) The Boyfriend School (1990)


By another suggestion from Britnee, I of course re-encountered The Gutte in the 1990 romcom The Boyfriend School. Well, “romcom” might be a little bit of a misnomer there. Long stretches of The Boyfriend School (aka Don’t Tell Her It’s Me) play like a horrifying exercise in cringe comedy, one that subjects Guttenberg’s protagonist to a long list of indignities that include Hodgkin’s lymphoma, being pressured into living a false identity, and getting goaded into committing an act of sexual assault. So much unsightly suffering is piled on Guttenberg’s protagonist (especially for a romcom) that I felt as if the film were somehow a punishment a producer was putting Guttenberg through to atone for the sins of his mid 80s omnipresence. As I put it in our Swampchat earlier this month, “Throughout the endless parade of embarrassments (especially in the first half of the film), my brain was screaming ‘This is Hell! This is Hell! Set him free!’ The Gutte may not have been exactly deserving of his ludicrously overblown success, but surely this punishment was a little rough for even him.” Guttenberg’s performance in the film is amusingly silly at times, especially in his post-cancer Uncle Fester makeup & his New Zealand biker alter-ego Lobo, but what really rings loudly in the film is a distinct sense of sympathetic suffering. I ended up liking The Gutte more after The Boyfriend School, if nothing else, just because I felt so sorry for him.

4) P.S. Your Cat is Dead! (2002)

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More than a decade after his 80s omnipresence, but years before his subversive turn on Veronica Mars, Steve Guttenberg found himself wrapped up in a personal passion project, P.S. Your Cat is Dead!. Much like with his turn as himself on Party Down, there’s a meta aspect of Your Cat that makes the film interesting as a Guttenberg oddity. Throwing on some nerdy glasses & unshaven Gen-X grime, Guttenberg plays a struggling stage actor & playwright who has recently reached a professional low with the failure of his one-man production of Hamlet. Following this blow, he loses the sole copy of a manuscript he’s been tirelessly working on & his girlfriend leaves him on New Year’s Eve. That’s not even to mention that his cat is deathly ill & currently receiving overnight treatment at the vet. All of this tension leads to The Gutte’s long-suffering artist to capture a burglar (& frequent uninvited visitor) in the act for a long night of psychological torture & surprisingly poignant exchanges that eventually leads to, surprisingly enough, deep-seated questions about his own sexuality. As far as labors of love go, P.S. Your Cat is Dead! is an interesting glimpse into what makes The Gutte tick. A small indie picture with homosexual connotations was never going to reignite Guttenberg’s career as a leading man, but it was still a picture he decided to star in, produce, and direct (his sole feature credit as a director), presumably because he was such a fan of the material’s origins as a play. P.S. Your Cat is Dead! is by no means a knockout, phenomenal picture (and honestly not all of the homosexual content has aged very well), but it is a low-key look at a different side of The Gutte, one that possibly could’ve enjoyed a career as a mediocre Woody Allen devotee. It’s likely to be the closest you’ll ever see the actor actually fulfilling the genteel artiste characteristics he’s assigned in Party Down, something I’ve honestly come to cherish.

5) Lavalantula (2015)

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Speaking of meta content, Guttenberg plays yet another actor in the recent Asylum mockbuster Lavalantula. I first heard of the 2015 CGI creature feature from our contributor Erin Kinchen in the Boyfriend School Swampchat, where she said, “[Guttenberg’s] latest credit seems to be for Lavalantula.  If you are thinking that this is a move about giant and horrifying lava spewing tarantulas, then you are absolutely correct.  Could it be a hidden gem in the land of self-aware, poorly produced B movies?  Could it be the movie we’ve all been waiting for to watch at 3:00 am while eating a whole bag of pizza rolls?  Maybe.  But probably not.” She’s not wrong. In a lot of ways Lavalantula is no better or no worse than other subpar Syfy titles like Piranhaconda or Sharknado 3. I will contend, though, that despite the quality of the film, Guttenberg comes across as oddly likeable in Lavalantula. His role as a washed up actor who used star in 80s dreck like Clown Cops (poking obvious fun at Police Academy) and nonexistent superhero movies like Red Rocket (a SuperGutte movie could actually be fun, now that I think about it), is a pretty amusing exercise in self-deprecating humor, especially considering exactly how washed up you have to be to star in a move about volcano-born spiders that drool lava & spit fireballs in the first place. Extended cameos from people like That Red Headed Kid From The Sandlot (Patrcik Renna, who looks more or less exactly the same as he did 20 years ago) & The Guy Who Does the Voices in Police Academy (Michael Winslow) only hammer the point home how far The Gutte has fallen. Yet, you can tell Guttenberg is having a blast poking fun at himself & his reputation.

The idea of fire-breathing spiders getting ejected from a volcano is mildly amusing at first, but wears thin at a feature length, so what stands out most about Lavalantula is how effortlessly likeable Steve Guttenberg really is. At this point, I can easily sit through an entire Syfy Original stinker just to spend more time with the goof, which is something I never could have done comfortably in the past. In just five projects or so, my conversion to a Guttenberg fan is alarmingly thorough, complete. Now, all I have to do is hope that someone out there is willing to put these odder, dare I say loveable aspects to his personality & range to good use on a worthwhile project, preferably something that doesn’t tease a Sharknado crossover in a throwaway “gag” or curse The Gutte with the visual tolls of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It could happen. It could!

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s The Boyfriend School, check out our Swampchat discussion & last week’s comparison of the film to another horrific romance novelist romcom, 1989’s She-Devil.

-Brandon Ledet

Swampchat: Can’t Stop the Music (1980)

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

Brandon:
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?

Britnee:
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?

Brandon:
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?

Britnee:
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!

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Britnee:
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?

Brandon:
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

Can’t Stop the Music (1980)

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I’ll never forget the first time I discovered Can’t Stop the Music and all of its tacky goodness. My best friend and I were searching for a Friday night movie at Major Video, a great local video rental store that has sadly closed up shop, and we hit the jackpot. Waiting on the bottom shelf of the comedy aisle was Can’t Stop the Music. Deciding to rent it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. This film’s got everything: an amazing soundtrack with loads of Village People tunes, bizarre dance routines, tons of exposed chest hair, and Bruce Jenner in his prime.

The film starts out with one of the greatest roller-skating scenes ever, and it’s personally my favorite part of the movie. Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg) is skating around the streets of New York like a pro to the David London’s “The Sound of the City” after quitting his job in order to take a DJ gig at a nightclub. This scene is the reason I own a pair of roller skates; that’s how inspirational it is. Another unforgettable moment is the dance number the cast performs to the Village People’s mega-hit “YMCA.” There’s a bit of nudity (no surprise there) in this scene, which really makes me wonder how this received a PG rating. What was the MPAA thinking? I could list all my favorite parts of this movie, but that would probably take forever because the whole movie is just so bizarre.

Even though I’ve seen this movie a million times, I still don’t understand what it’s about. I guess that’s the magic of it? It’s basically supposed to be a movie about the formation of the Village People, but it’s really just a mess of terrible acting, a bad script, musical numbers that make no sense whatsoever, and crappy special effects. It’s no secret that the film didn’t achieve much success. Also, releasing a disco-themed musical in 1980 wasn’t the best idea since disco was pretty much dead. Can’t Stop the Music actually won the very first Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture and inspired John J. B. Wilson to start what is now known as the Razzies. If that’s not reason enough to see a film, then I don’t know what is.

Can’t Stop The Music is currently streaming on Netflix & Amazon Prime.

-Britnee Lombas