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DVD Review: Can’t Stop the Music

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You think you’re brave because you’ve seen movies which have won the Golden Raspberry Award for worst film? Feh. I just sat through the film which inspired the Golden Raspberry Awards, after their founder saw it on a double bill with Xanadu.

Can’t Stop the Music, a megabudget disco musical starring the Village People, is one of the worst-timed movies of all time. (Only Space Camp, in production when the Challenger went down, comes close.) Had it come out in 1978, it might have been a hit. It came out in 1980, and ended the careers of nearly everyone involved.

Of course, even if the film had been released when the Village People were still popular, this movie might have flopped anyway. It’s not bad in the normal Joel Schumacher sense, but bad in an alternate-universe kind of way, as though it was produced on another planet where hamburgers eat humans and people wear their underwear on their heads. It’s just wrong – so wrong that it’s strangely fascinating and even entertaining, albeit in ways the producers never planned.

The plot is a fictionalized version of how the Village People became successful: Steve Guttenberg (yes, that Steve Guttenberg) quits his job at a record store, roller-skates down New York’s busiest streets without getting his ass kicked, and gets his ex-supermodel roommate (Valerie Perrine) to use her record-company connections to put together a singing group to showcase his disco compositions. There’s also an uptight record-company lawyer (Bruce Jenner – yes, the same Bruce Jenner who won a decathlon gold medal at the Montreal Olympics), introduced in one of the most awkward meet-cutes in cinematic history, who becomes Perrine’s love interest. And Valerie Perrine’s best friend, a dead ringer for Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Poor thing.)

The movie needs 123 minutes to tell this story, as you might expect when it’s directed by a sitcom actress (Nancy Walker, from Rhoda) who had never directed a movie before. Along the way, we get some of the most poorly choreographed musical numbers ever filmed, lots of feeble slapstick and in-jokes about the recording industry, and plenty of scenes where the actors obviously blew their lines or dance moves, but no one could be bothered to shoot a second take. (Check out the construction worker’s big number, in which one of his backup dancers knocks his hard hat over his eyes. You can tell it was unintentional, but they kept it anyway.)

And, of course, there are gay references. Lots and lots of gay references. People were more innocent in 1980, darn it, so they couldn’t come out and say the Village People swung that way, but the subtext isn’t exactly hard to figure out – especially during the infamous “YMCA” dance number, which shows naked men lathering each other down in the shower. (The Internet Movie Database says Bruce Vilanch wrote the first draft of the script, but he probably left the project because it was “too gay” for him.)

There are a lot of non-actors in the film, but their performances really aren’t much worse than those of their “professional” co-stars. The Village Persons’ performances range from competent (the cowboy) to hopeless (the Indian), but they have so little dialogue that it almost doesn’t matter. Bruce Jenner, with his goofy, bug-eyed appearance, might have had a future in comedies had he chosen a better debut role. Perrine, on the other hand, looks embarassed, and all I can say for Guttenberg is that he had to make 5 Police Academy movies to regain his dignity after this one.

It’s all bad. Real bad. So bad that I have genuine affection for the thing. Anyone can make a bad film, but it takes a kind of genius to make something like this. I didn’t so much watch the movie as stare at it in (literally) slack-jawed amazement, but I was never bored.

Can’t Stop the Music, available on DVD with fully remastered video and sound (but only a few extras, including a trailer and a candid text biography of the Village People), came out in 1980, but it’s a 1970s project at its very core. There’s no other decade in which anyone could have thought something like this was a good idea, and watching it will tell you more about the era than the most well-researched scholarly dissertation.

People say movies have gotten worse since the seventies, but I prefer to think they’ve just gotten more mediocre. Some classics of the era would probably never be made in 2004, but neither would something like Can’t Stop the Music.

At least, I hope not. I haven’t seen From Justin to Kelly yet.

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