Okay, all you students of singular cinematic experiences. This latest case file opens with a pop quiz. Paper and pencils are not required, and no cheating off the person sitting next to you. Ready?
1. What movie won the very first Golden Raspberry (Razzie) Award for Worst Picture in 1981?
2. What was the first and only movie to be directed by a TV paper towel spokeswoman?
3. What movie did a post-Olympics, pre-Kardashians Bruce Jenner allegedly turn down the lead role in 1978′s Superman to make his first big-screen appearance in?
4. What was the first movie musical to feature a number where an actress sings to a gymnasium full of scantily-clad he-men, oblivious to her charms, as they work out?
The answers are, of course, Can’t Stop the Music, Can’t Stop the Music, Can’t Stop the Music, and…er, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Jane Russell (Really. Check out the “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” sequence). Yes, if our last subject, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, wasn’t quite enough to send the Hollywood musical genre into a tailspin it would take years to get over, then the 1980 disco-driven debut of everyone’s favorite costumed singing sextet, Village People, was just what the doctor…by which, I mean me…ordered.
Just in case some younger readers are familiar with “Y.M.C.A.” solely as that bouncy sing-along song from halftime shows and seven-inning stretches at sporting events, Village People (no The) was a group of six men who dressed as stereotypical male fantasy figures (biker, construction worker, cop, cowboy, American Indian, and soldier) and who sang dance number with lyrics that were a tad suggestive of what we at the time called “alternative lifestyles” (“Macho Man,” “In the Navy,” and their ode to the Young Men’s Christian Association and its many recreational opportunities for fun-seeking single guys). For some inexplicable reason, their music caught the ears of the late ’70s American public, especially young girls, and the lads soon found themselves on top of the pop charts, on the cover of Rolling Stone, and in the sights of the caftan-clad co-producer of Grease, Alan Carr, who wanted to repeat that film’s success with a movie chronicling the “true story” of their rise to music superstardom.
One of the first hurdles Carr faced in making his disco dream a reality was that the aforementioned “true story” had to have as little to do with the group’s actual beginnings–and original target audience–as possible. And so it is that Can’t Stop the Music opens with a pre-Police Academy Steve Guttenberg roller-skating along the streets of Manhattan. He’s aspiring songwriter, part-time danceclub DJ and full-time human chipmunk Jack Morell (the safely Anglicized version of real-life Village People guru Jacques Morali), looking for the right voices for his “innovative” new sound. To quote the Stonecutters’ anthem from The Simpsons, “Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star”? This film sure didn’t.
Luckily for Steve, roommate/platonic gal pal Valerie Perrine is happy to help out. Perrine’s character is a newly-retired supermodel eager to eat all the junk food denied her during her days in front of the camera, so perhaps the sugar rush she gets from a Baskin-Robbins visit (hello, product placement!) explains why she and stuffy tax attorney/romantic interest Bruce Jenner (thus giving the film its desired boy-meets-girl love story) round up “Indian” Felipe Rose, “cowboy” Randy Jones, “construction worker” David Hodo, “cop” Ray Simpson, “soldier” Alex Briley and “biker” Glenn Hughes–whose audition is a rendition of “Danny Boy”–to be Guttenberg’s singers. Even Barbara Rush, as Jenner’s visiting mother, pitches in when her off-hand comment “Didn’t Greenwich Village-people-types go out with the ’60s?” gives the combo its name.
Before you can say “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!,” the costumed crooners are making a demo recording in Guttenberg and Perrine’s apartment; limbering up and rehearsing at, of all places, the YMCA (more about this in a moment); auditioning for Valerie’s ex-boyfriend, record company boss Paul Sand; and shooting a TV spot that features a group of kids dressed like Village People while the fellas themselves dance around Perrine, who lounges in a giant champagne glass filled with what we hope and pray is milk. All this leads up to the film’s big finale, a benefit performance in (where else?) San Francisco. The sextet gets a standing ovation from the crowd–many of whom acutally paid $15 to attend the show and be part of Hollywood “history”–and gets with Guttenberg a recording deal, Perrine and Jenner get each other, and those of us who just sat through this overly-glitzed and unintentionally funny mix of campy ’40s musical clichés and ’70s gay innuendo get up and wonder who was responsible for what we just watched?
Well, after Carr and Grease screenwriter Bronte Woodard (Bruce Vilanch penned an early script but was dismissed from the project. Way to dodge a bullet, Bruce!), the blame can be laid at the feet of its rookie director, TV mom (Rhoda), housekeeper (McMillan & Wife) and commercial regular (Bounty paper towels) Nancy Walker. Why Carr thought Walker was the person to helm Can’t Stop the Music is a riddle lost to the ages, but her small-screen background would explain the film’s static sitcom look. Nothing, however, can explain its musical sequences, particularly the aforementioned “Y.M.C.A.,” where the Villagers, Guttenberg, Jenner and Perrine cavort while naked (at least in early video versions) men lather up and shower, wrestlers grapple with each other, and swimsuit-clad studs dive into a pool in the best Busby Berkeley manner. This scene could have made Middle American audiences rise up in protest…had any of them gone to see the film, but a similar reaction did come from gay patrons during “I Love You to Death,” Hodo’s solo number where he fantasizes about dancing with beautiful women.
As to the actors themselves, Village People’s line readings range from adequate to atrocious, with Olympian-turned thespian Jenner leaning more to the latter, and the movie pretty much curtailed Perrine’s ’70s career momentum from such films as Slaughterhouse-Five, Lenny and Superman. Matters weren’t helped by the casting of several older screen divas (Altovise Davis, Tammy Grimes and June Havoc, along with Rush) that only those same-sex audiences mentioned earlier would care about in supporting roles.
Had Can’t Stop the Music opened during the late ’70s disco peak, it might have seen reasonable box-office success in the footsteps of Saturday Night Fever or even Thank God It’s Friday, but its summer 1980 release amid the “disco sucks” backlash meant the $20 million film would earn only a tenth of that at U.S. theaters. Carr would go on to make such ill-received projects as Grease 2 and Where the Boys Are ’84, and oversee the infamous 1989 Academy Awards show with the Rob Lowe/Snow White duet, before passing away in 1999. Meanwhile, in the three decades since its debut his tribute to Village People (whom yours truly was lucky enough to see perform “Y.M.C.A.” at the 2009 All-Star Game in Yankee Stadium) has gone on to earn a minor cult following. While the film is currently unavailable on home video, there’s still plenty of time for some enterprising studio to snatch up the rights and put out a glittery 30th anniversary edition…maybe with little buckskin, denim, khaki or leather jackets on the case to match your favorite “Macho Man.” E-mail petition, anyone?