Friday, March 18, 2016

Disco Musicals: The Ultimate So Bad It's Good Genre

I am a sucker for what the hosts of The Flop House podcast call "good-bad movies." These are movies whose badness is so unique and fascinating that they elevate themselves into a realm of awful genius. No genre of film has produced a higher rate of good-bad movies than disco musicals. They were are sort of perfect for the role, combining the cashing in on a played out cultural trend, the interestingly wretched fashion of the period from 1978 to 1980, and a music genre that could produce maximum cheesiness.  If you, like me, enjoy these kinds of movies, I'd recommend all of them on the following list.

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

This is a film so transcendently bad that it prompted me to write a long blog post just to be able to process it. It stars the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton as the make-believe group from the famous Beatles album and perhaps the most asinine plot ever put on film.  Words cannot do justice to this. The brothers Gibb appear at the height of their disco period, and many of the songs get a disco-makeover. At the very end of the film a bunch of B and C-list celebrities do some terrible disco dance moves as the reprise of the title song. The YouTube video has been taken down, likely due to extreme embarrassment on the part of one of the participants. Here's what I said about it after my first viewing:

"At this point I didn't think the film could possibly go any lower or be any more ridiculous, but boy, was I wrong! It ends with a bunch of mid-level 70s celebrities singing the reprise of the title song, making poorly choreographed disco-by-numbers moves in the process. For some reason the camera keeps finding Carol Channing, whose eerie grin unfortunately distracts from a young Tina Turner standing right beside her. Many of the assembled celebs look bored, stoned, hungover, or all three. The hokey dancing, awful wardrobes, shaggy haircuts, and complete lack of taste on display manage to encapsulate all that was wrong about the 70s and put it into one coke-addled package.

When I finished watching Pepper, I then realized its disturbing implications. Is it actually so bad that it is beyond bad? That made me wonder if there is anything in the world that is as good as Pepper is bad. Can evil in fact sink deeper than virtue can soar high? Furthermore, does a truly horrible piece of culture leave a more lasting imprint on my psyche than a sublime one? Or is something this bad sublime in its own way? Needless to say, I think I'll have to see it again."


At least the Sgt Pepper film came out right when the Bee Gees were standing on top of the world (although the film would help knock them from their perch.) Xanadu came out in 1980, right as disco was playing itself out. It starred Olivia Newton-John, fresh off of Grease and at that time both a hit maker and object of desire.  The theme song was written by Electric Light Orchestra, still riding high on a wave of prog meets soft rock hits.  Xanadu could've been a contender, but like the other disco musicals, the writing is just downright awful.  Michael Beck, who had just played badass Swan the gang leader in The Warriors the year before, stars as a struggling artist who meets a muse, played by Newton-John. Disco and Greek mythology ensue. The plot has something to do with a nightclub called Xanadu, and Gene Kelly appears to boot, in what would be his last film.  I get the sad feeling that this one broke him.  There isn't just disco, but ROLLER DISCO here, people.  The theme song is actually pretty good as this style of music goes, and Newton-John is as appealing as always. The problem is, the song comes at the end, after the viewers have already longed for the sweet release of death to get them away from the film. The dance scenes in parts look more like an industrial film than Busby Berkley.  But hey, there's so much light-hearted cheese here that someone recently made this into an ironically bad musical and it was a Broadway hit.

The Apple

Also from 1980, The Apple truly one of those movies that has to be seen to be believed. I learned of it through the stellar Electric Boogaloo doc about Cannon Films. This musical was intended by Cannon impressario Menachem Golan to be his magnum opus and entree into Hollywood success. Instead, it was so bad that the premiere audience started throwing promotional copies of the soundtrack at the screen. The premise is so insanely awful that I feel like I lose IQ points just trying to type it. It is 1994, and an authoritarian regime keeps the masses in line through pop music and enforced dancing. A cute folk-singing couple are tempted to take the "apple" of fame in one of many convoluted Biblical metaphors. (In case this is all too hard to grasp, you can watch one of the tempters in a loincloth holding a giant apple.)  They eventually flee to a hippie commune and when the evil music exec/dictator/Satan named "Boogalow" comes to get them, they are Raptured as God appears in a translucent Rolls Royce. No, I am not kidding. Before we get there we witness the musical number for "Coming For You" (featured above), a piece of Donna Summer knock-off disco and the least veiled metaphor ever in the history of pop music. (The MPAA had to be asleep at the switch to give this one a PG rating.)

Can't Stop The Music

Just when you thought 1980 couldn't have been more saturated with bad disco musicals comes Can't Stop The Music, starring Steve Guttenberg and the Village People. It starts with Guttenberg on roller skates wearing flared trousers and an Izod shirt, and only gets worse/better from there. My favorite thing about the trailer is that it proclaims this will be "the movie that launches the 80s." Instead it feels like the last groaning gasp of the 70s, a decade now totally exhausted, its polyester torn and frayed. Don't believe me? Just take a look at the "Milkshake" number in the trailer. The Village People themselves had already reached their very short expiration date, I am sure no one in the film thought that Steve Guttenberg would emerge as the one star from this piece of dreck.

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