About THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and its unconventional conventionists

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As I’ve mentioned frequently on this blog, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was a mainstay of my late-high-school and college years. In 1977, some high school friends took me to a Saturday midnight showing of the movie, and it ended up supplying most of my (limited) social life for many years afterward. (I don’t have to tell you how the movie infiltrated American pop culture long ago.)

Last night, The Florida Theatre had its annual Halloween screening of the movie. My son suddenly expressed interest in seeing the movie, so I took him to the showing. I must say, it was my least-ever-favorite screening of the film. The theater was semi-auditorium size, and we ended up with seats in the “nosebleed” balcony section. The movie was blasted out in hydro-stereophonic sound, and any shout-outs from the audience amounted to little more than white noise. But that was not my takeaway from the screening.

After we left, my son said to me, “This movie must have been outrageous when it came out in the 1970’s. They never had LGBT groups or anything like that back then.”

From the mouths of 22-year-old babes.

For decades, I had seen the movie as a raunchy but generally harmless take-off on the Frankenstein’s-monster story, with references to seemingly every sci-fi and horror film ever made. It had never occurred to me to take a really good look at the “unconventional conventionists” (the main character’s take on his onlookers). There were plain, plus-sized, African-American, wildly dressed and underdressed persons of every kind cavorting on the screen. Plus, the movie’s hero (“That’s right — the hero!” screamed the movie’s promotional poster) was a mascara-laden guy in fishnet stockings who created a new male person out of scratch, not to defy the conventions of science, but simply so that he could get laid to his heart’s content. And all of this was presented matter-of-factly, as though the movie was about Andy Hardy instead of some bisexual who couldn’t find any ordinary societal output for his passions.

In all those years, I’d seen this movie solely from my own self-obsessed viewpoint. When I first saw the movie (and for several years hence), I was a disenfranchised, socially inept nerd who had finally found a movie that I could enjoy on my own terms, unapologetically. And now I realize that the movie was saying, “There’s nothing wrong with that — but let some other disenfranchised people enjoy the show while you’re at it.”

At this point, some of you might be saying, “Well done, Captain Obvious.” But seeing the movie through my son’s eyes suddenly showed me how much it had shaped my life’s philosophy of “Live and let live.” I don’t begin to understand the lifestyles of bisexuals or transsexuals, and I don’t plan to become one, but in the end, all of it is really none of my business, any more than they should feel threatened by my heterosexuality.

In this country, there is an inordinate number of people who take it upon themselves to denigrate and threaten others who are “not like them.” Maybe they need to do some self-examination and realize that none of us are like the others. And isn’t the celebration of individuality an unspoken cornerstone of this country’s values?

For that, I’m grateful that a crazy, unassuming movie musical had the foresight to give me a little insight into a part of culture that I had never before experienced, and to say, “We’re just here to have fun. Come and join the party!”

And besides all that, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a well-done, damn enjoyable movie.

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Stars of the movie, 40 years later. Clockwise from top: Patricia Quinn, Meat Loaf, Susan Sarandon, Tim Curry, and Barry Bostwick.

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THE RUTLES – The closest we ever got to a Beatles reunion in 1978

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“Saturday Night Live’s” creator-producer Lorne Michaels made no bones about taking the British comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” as an inspiration for his show. In 1978, fans of both shows probably wished that the two comedic styles could be combined as fervently as Beatles fans hoped for a Beatles reunion at that time. Combine all three of those concepts, and you get The Rutles.

Of course, The Rutles wasn’t strictly a Monty Python project. Its main progenitor was only one Python member, Eric Idle, who co-wrote, -directed, and starred in the TV-movie. But it certainly had Python’s fingerprints all over it. Michael Palin played a small role in the movie, and Python “guest contributor” Neil Innes performed in the film and wrote all of its songs in ersatz Beatles style. As a Python/”SNL” collaboration (Michaels and cast members of the original “SNL” appear), it satisfied comedy fans and Beatles buffs quite handily.

The Rutles charts the rise and fall of the movie’s titular, Beatles-like rock group, and the movie’s greatest success is in its uncanny creations of high points in the Beatles’ career. Innes, Idle, one-time Beach Boys member Ricky Fataar, and John Halsey serve as adequate stand-ins for John, Paul, George, and Ringo. As fake Beatles, the first two provide the biggest laughs. Idle captures Paul McCartney’s infinite cheeriness wonderfully, and Innes definitively captures John Lennon’s acid wit.

But despite the wealth of Beatles myth to satirize, the movie is actually at its funniest when it pokes fun at the documentary form itself. Idle also plays the story’s on-screen narrator, and one of the movie’s best bits is at the start, as Idle is photographed from a van that keeps moving faster and faster away from him, so that Idle has to run to stay on-camera while telling the story. Another great bit is when Idle interviews an elderly African-American blues singer who claims that The Rutles stole their style and music from him, only to have the man’s wife berate him and tell Idle that her husband tries to make the same claim to every documentarian who visits him..

The movie’s highlight is definitely Innes’ uncanny recreation of the Beatles sound in the movie’s ersatz Rutles songs (e.g., “Ouch!” being his version of The Beatles’ “Help!”, “Get Up and Go” in place of “Get Back,” and so on). Many of Innes’ songs, while certainly not as legendary as The Beatles’, are equally as toe-tapping. (The movie’s soundtrack album received a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Recording.)

As it did 40 years ago, the question remains whether the movie’s comedy plays well, if at all, to anyone unfamiliar with the Beatles mythology. (To that end, the 1984 spoof This Is Spinal Tap deals with a completely fictional group and is far more effective in satirizing musical styles in general.) However, the real Beatles enjoyed it (none more so than George Harrison, who even does a cameo in the movie). So if you’re in the mood for Beatles-approved Beatles satire, The Rutles is surely your ticket to ride.

A NEW LEAF (1971) – It’s never too late to turn over

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A New Leaf is the best movie W.C. Fields never made.

That is completely intended as a compliment, and it in no way belittles Walter Matthau, who delivers a fine lead performance. But there is no mistaking the spirit of Fields in Matthau, whose body language and voice inflections deliver most of the laughs that writer/director/co-star Elaine May doesn’t steal away from him.

The movie is a whimsical black comedy, if there is such a thing. Matthau plays Henry Graham, a pampered man who has depended all his life on the kindness of rich not-quite-strangers (his well-off uncle and his accountant, among others) and his trust fund for his livelihood. Henry has now run through his trust fund and the goodwill of said strangers, and in a very funny scene (one among many), his accountant (William Redfield) has to meticulously and repeatedly explain to Henry why and how he has no more money to burn through.

Having no particular skills or drive in life, Henry concludes that he must find a rich woman to marry and enable him to continue the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. Eventually he finds the easiest of targets — heiress Henrietta Lowell (May), a nondescript botanist and teacher who practically trips over herself with her every move.

Through a rapid series of machinations, Graham takes charge of Henrietta’s life and bank account, nonchalantly planning to eventually off Henrietta and continue to live off her riches. But gradually, a funny little thing called conscience slips into Henry’s crevisses, and having never previously had such feelings — in himself, or for anyone else — he is at a loss at how to cope with it.

This was May’s writing-directing movie debut, and she never strikes a wrong note. The dialogue is crisp, and every loving shot is held just long enough to make its comic point.

May also gets wonderful performances from the entire cast, including herself. As with the heroine in her later The Heartbreak Kid, at first we seem meant to laugh derisively at mousy Henrietta and her uncouth ways. But just like the flora she catalogs, Henrietta begins to blossom under Henry’s (reluctant) tutelage.

The rest of the cast similarly blossoms under May’s direction, including Redfield, James Coco, Jack Weston, Doris Roberts, and most notably George Rose as Henry’s Jiminy Cricket of a butler. They all underplay beautifully and deliver a smashing comedy almost nonchalantly. A New Leaf was initially a box-office flop but has long since become a cult classic, its comic bloom never fading over the years.

THE HEARTBREAK KID (1972) – Beauty and the nebbishy beast

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Why do we always want what we can’t have? And what would happen if we actually got it? Director Elaine May, working from a script by Neil Simon based on a story by Bruce Jay Friedman, examines the answers under a harsh microscope in the bitter black comedy The Heartbreak Kid.

In this instance, the “we” is Jewish nebbish Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), a getting-by sporting goods salesman. Shortly after his Jewish honeymoon with the former Lila Kolodny (Oscar nominee Jeannie Berlin) begins, he is alone on the beach when he meets what he can’t have — a perky WASP blonde named Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd). Having endured a road trip from New York with his newlywed bride — during which the thought of 50 ensuing years with his less-than-perfect wife has solidified in his mind — he sees idyllic freedom in the form of flitting, flirty Kelly. Now all he has do is ditch his new bride to get what he thinks he has always wanted. Simple, right?

Far from it. He does his best to talk his way out of everything pre-Lila and seems to have snookered everyone — except for Kelly’s rich, tough-as-nails father (Eddie Albert).

It’s definitely a black comedy, with hardly a likable person in it (except, perhaps, for naive Lila). But the movie never pushes for its effects. May simply examines this roundelay of people in long, rich takes, documentary style.

You can easily believe that Lenny is some kind of salesman. He uses endless strings of almost-convincing lies to connive Lila while doing everything he can to convince Kelly and her father of his sincerity. Once Lenny starts on this quest of acceptance from the WASPs, he deludes himself into believing that the sincerity of his cause is enough to carry him through the rest of his life — a life for which he has no current plan, except to win over Kelly.

I have only a couple of quibbles with The Heartbreak Kid. The movie does all it can to uglify poor Lily — giving her character quirks to make her look shnooky, lathering her in sunburn makeup. I’m guessing that 1972 audiences derisively laughed at her in contrast to Kelly’s WASP perfection, but I found Lila’s quirks rather endearing, as any truly loving groom would. I suppose that’s part of the point the movie is trying to make, but I think the movie tries a little too hard to make Lila a slobbery house pet in Lenny’s eyes.

My other problem is with Mr. Corcoran, Kelly’s watchdog father. Eddie Albert (also nominated for an Oscar) is absolutely fabulous, subtly showing the dad’s simmering dislike for Lenny with only body language and a few well-chosen words (as opposed to Lenny, of course, who can’t shut up). It’s just a shame that the movie didn’t explore the father’s uncomfortable fixation on his daughter a little more deeply.

But in the end, these are minor faults. Without getting too deep about it, what The Heartbreak Kid is really about is how cinema (at least up to 1972) shaped people’s ideas of what true beauty really is, and how it made some people (such as stalker-y Lenny) want to go overboard in order to obtain it.

(My thanks to Debbie of the blog Moon in Gemini for her recommendation of this fascinating and funny movie.)

 

 

Happy birthday, John Lennon (1940-1980)

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One day in October of 1980, I happened to turn on the radio in the middle of a song that was being broadcast. After about 30 seconds, I shrieked with delight: “He’s back! He’s back!”

I immediately called the radio station and had my happiest wish confirmed — John Winston Ono Lennon, MBE (retd.), had a new single out, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” a teaser from his then-forthcoming “comeback” album.

Double Fantasy was touted as a “conversation” between Lennon and his much-maligned wife, Yoko Ono. The album’s pattern was that John would sing a song, and then Yoko would “answer” it with a song of her own.

(Post-era critique of the album: All of John’s songs are wonderful. Most of Yoko’s songs are tolerable, which is pretty good for her. And there are two Yoko songs which brook no middle ground: “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss,” in which the climax of the song is quite truly, er, the climax of the song; and “I’m Your Angel,” a guilty-pleasure piece of superb schmaltz that I rank as the best song Paul McCartney never wrote.)

At the time of its release, Double Fantasy was mostly sniffed at by critics who resented former rebel John’s newfound cloak of bourgeois respectability. Personally, I wasn’t interested in this “class struggle.” The Voice was back, and he sounded great. When John announced that he might actually do a tour to promote the album, even the thought of Yoko performing with him wasn’t enough to keep me from wanting to buy a ticket to the erstwhile concert.

I neither want nor need to recount the pointless tragedy that occurred two months later and snuffed out John’s voice and life.

At this blog, I have already recounted, ad nauseum, my lifelong love for The Beatles. But I gained a new respect for John long after he left the group.

As a teenager in the mid-1970’s, I decided to collect every solo Beatle album to date, just so that I could compare the good, the bad, and the ugly for myself. When I was 15, I purchased John’s first post-Beatle solo album, starkly titled John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

I swear to you, that album saved my life.

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I was quite the disenfranchised teenager at that point — gangly and quite socially inept. Listening to the Plastic Ono Band album was like having an intimate conversation with one of the popular kids who had suddenly let down his guard. Hearing John sing about his late mother and his painful growing-up years instantly stripped him of his Beatle veneer. (And having lost my own mother at age 4, it wasn’t difficult to identify with those harsh emotions.)

For me, the true kicker on the album was “Working Class Hero,” where he sang:

They hurt you at home,

And they hit you at school.

They hate you if you’re clever,

And they despise a fool,

‘Til you’re so f***in’ crazy

You can’t follow their rules.

My teenage years in a nutshell.

Indulging in all of the post-Beatles albums, I quickly discovered — as did most Fabs fans of the time — that the separated Beatles weren’t nearly as flawless as they were as a group, John included. (Try listening to John and Yoko’s Some Time in New York City, a tackily bourgeois take on the politics of the day.) But there was still enough of Excellent John to hold out hope, in 1975, that he’d return to recording, if not recording with The Beatles.)

Now that decades have passed, it’s easy to scoff at Rich Man John’s takes on socialism. Just today, a Facebook friend of mine posted a photo of John and Yoko from 1969, waiting for the maid to change their bed linens so that they could continue their “radical” Bed-In protest.

But at least John had the right spirit. I’d be amazed if any current politician dared to espouse his philosophy of non-violence and help for everyone on the planet. And he sure sang it in the right key.