A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964) – A beautiful cinematic scrapbook of The Beatles

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The following is my first of two entries in The 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by the blog A Shroud of Thoughts. Click on the above banner, and read some great critiques of a wide range of British and Britain-related movies!

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I’ve seen a lot of great movies in my time, but there are very few that mainline me with joy from their very start. A Hard Day’s Night is one of them. After a half-century in which Beatlemania has survived and thrived — if not in its physical state, then surely as a state of mind — there’s not much new that can be said about this delightful movie.

If you’re any sort of pop-music or movie fan, you’d have to have lived under a rock not to know by now that the movie is: (a) a virtually plotless melange about 24 hours in the harried life of The Beatles, culminating in a TV concert performance; (b) cutesily sub-plotted with a side story about Paul’s cantankerous grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell); and (c) filled end-to-end with early-era Beatles songs at their simplest and catchiest.

So, besides (c) — which speaks for itself if you’re a Beatles buff, and should rightfully convert you if you’re not — about all you can do is list the movie’s virtues, of which there are many.

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* Among the people who have been credited for the high quality of this movie — including The Beatles, playwright/screenwriter Alun Owen, and director Richard Lester — one name I never see is that of Gilbert Taylor, director of photography. This movie has the uncanny, simultaneous effect of appearing as though every shot was caught on the run while looking shimmeringly beautiful at the same time.

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* I find it interesting that any of the movie’s characters who don’t recognize The Beatles can’t stand them. The stodgy train passenger (above, center); the people who encounter Ringo (other than the truant schoolboy) when he goes off on his own; and most notably, the man who owns the field that The Beatles “hurt” (in the movie’s most famous sequence — imagine how much money that guy would try to fetch for that Beatles-trodden land these days!). Small wonder that this movie spoke to a generation that was tired of intolerant old fogeys trying to tell them how to run their lives.

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* The movie has that delightful quality that most great comedies have, of saying things that ought to be said. All of The Beatles have such moments in the movie (Don’t mess with Ringo’s drums!), but the best such moment is when George tells off the ad spokesman who thinks he knows what’s hip. Even Paul’s grandfather gets off a great line about how all he has seen so far on his trip is “a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room” — which pop history tells us was actually an observation of The Fabs themselves when they were trapped in their hotel rooms between shows.

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* For a movie whose main reason for existence was its soundtrack album, it’s amazing how much of its comedy is visual — everything from the aforementioned scene where The Beatles briefly escape their routine and cut loose in an open field; to a non-sequitor where a TV actor, portraying a bloodied soldier, pours some ketchup on his lunch, looks at his fake wound, and adds ketchup to the wound to make it look more realistic. And then there are the chase scenes, which are practically Richard Lester’s love letters to his hero Buster Keaton (whom he later employed in his movie version of the play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum).

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After The Beatles broke up, John Lennon forever dismissed Beatlemania as high school hi-jinks. He told one interviewer, “You have all the old records there if you want to reminisce,” and when fans would ask if The Beatles would reunite, he’d counter, “Do you want to go back to high school?” You can’t go back, of course, but you can always watch A Hard Day’s Night, enshrined just as you’d want your early glory days to be — beautifully photographed, and with joyous memories that continue to reward future generations.

(If you enjoyed this blog, please click here to read my second British Invaders Blogathon entry about The Beatles’ movie Help!)

George Harrison’s videos for “This Song” and “Crackerbox Palace” (1976)

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The following is my contribution to my Beatles Film Blogathon, being held on July 5-7, 2015 in honor of Ringo Starr’s 75th birthday (on July 7) and his recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies starring the Beatles and of Beatles-related movies and videos!

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“Nobody knew it then…but 1943 was a good year for rock and roll.”

This was a tagline used to promote the 1976 album Thirty-Three and a Third — in my humble opinion, one of George Harrison’s best-ever albums. For this blogathon, I have chosen to discuss music videos based on two songs from that album: “This Song” and “Crackerbox Palace.” (I regret only that Harrison did not create a video for the album’s “Dear One,” one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard in my life. Click on the song’s title to listen to it on YouTube.)

While these videos might seem obscure choices for a Beatles film blogathon, they contain a number of elements that are dear to my heart. As I mentioned, both songs come from one of my favorite Beatle solo albums; they both reflect Harrison’s dry sense of humor; and each one even has a trace of Monty Python in them. (Both videos were premiered on the Nov. 20, 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live, on which Harrison served as a musical guest.)

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“This Song”

In November of 1970, Harrison released the song “My Sweet Lord” as a single from his smash triple album All Things Must Pass. The song charted at # 1, and shortly thereafter, Harrison and his publishing company were sued by Bright Tunes, the publisher of the song “He’s So Fine.” That song was recorded by The Chiffons in 1962, and Bright Tunes accused Harrison of plagiarizing their song due to similarities in the melody. After years of legal back-and-forth, the suit went to trial in a New York courtroom in 1976.

According to Harrison, the plaintiff went to such elaborate lengths to show how the musical notes in question belonged solely to “He’s So Fine” that Harrison “started to believe that maybe they did own those notes.” In any case, Harrison lost the lawsuit.

When life gives lemons to an ex-Beatle, he squeezes musical lemonade out of them. “This Song” was Harrison’s satirical take-off on his own litigious mess, with Harrison singing that the song “has nothing [B]right about it” and “as far as I know, don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright, so…” At one point in the song, Monty Python’s Eric Idle (a close friend of Harrison’s) does a riff as the voice of two Pepperpot women arguing about the song’s tune: “Could be ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch’!” – “Naah, sounds more like ‘Rescue Me’!”

The hilarious video milks every last bit of humorous potential from the already parodic song. Look for Harrison’s drummer friend Jim Keltner as the judge, and Rolling Stones veteran Ron Wood as the second “Pepperpot” who mouths Idle’s aforementioned musical critique.

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“Crackerbox Palace”

At the 1975 Midem Music Festival, Harrison happened to meet a man named George Greif. Harrison remarked to Greif how much he resembled one of Harrison’s idols, the late comic Lord Buckley. As it happened, Greif was Buckley’s former manager, and he invited Harrison to visit Buckley’s old Los Angeles home, which Greif called — you guessed it — “Crackerbox Palace.” Harrison scribbled down the name and later wrote the song, which contains references to Greif and “the Lord.” Other than those inside references, the song is a cheery, thoughtful tune about the span of one’s life.

Left to right: George Greif; Lord Buckley; Harrison and a friend on the set of

Left to right: George Greif; Lord Buckley; Harrison and a friend on the set of “Crackerbox Palace.”

Here’s where the Monty Python references get really thick. The video for the song was directed by Eric Idle, and it begins with erstwhile Python member Neil Innes pushing George in a baby carriage (don’t ask, just watch). The video also has a John Cleese look-alike (Wikipedia says it’s really him, but I wouldn’t swear to it), as well as appearances by look-alikes from the Pythons’ Pantomime Queen and Graham Chapman’s “This is getting too silly” Colonel.

(Other trivia: The video was shot in and around the grounds of Harrison’s home, Friar Park. Also, blink and you’ll miss an appearance by Harrison’s future wife, Olivia Arias, in the video.)

In any case, the video is a souffle-weight piece that does perfect justice to the song’s philosophy-lite motif.

THE FRENCH LINE (1955) – Jane Russell’s “Lookin’ for Trouble”…with some censors

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The following is my entry in the “…And Scene!” Blogathon, hosted by the ethereal Sister Celluloid at her blog from June 25-28, 2015. Click on the banner above, and read bloggers’ critiques of their favorite single movie scenes!

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For this blogathon, I have chosen to write about “Lookin’ for Trouble,” a musical number performed by Jane Russell in a notorious Howard Hughes production, The French Line. This scene has always stuck with me for many reasons — a number of which will seem obvious once you actually view the number (embedded below), but for some subtler reasons as well.

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At the time of this movie, Howard Hughes owned RKO Radio Pictures and was in the process of running the studio that had produced King Kong, Citizen Kane, and some classic Astaire-Rogers musicals into the ground. Hughes had been obsessed with Russell’s (admittedly impressive) bustline ever since he’d first met her and did his best to exploit it — first in The Outlaw (1943, Russell’s movie debut), and now in this movie.download

Here, Russell plays Mary Carson, a wealthy Texas oil heiress who is unlucky in love. Her suitors either want her for her fortune, or they get intimidated by the thought of a woman with power. Determined to find herself a man, Mary poses as the model of dress designer Annie Farrell (Mary McCarthy) while onboard an ocean liner heading for France. On the ship, Mary meets Pierre (Gilbert Roland), and complications ensue, primarily because Pierre seems to want her for her body in the same way as previous men wanted her for her money.

At one point, Annie holds a fashion show on the ship to display her clothing designs. Mary appears in the show very demurely at first, wearing a white gown that covers her from head to toe. But in record time, Mary sheds the gown to reveal herself in a barely-there bathing suit that New York Times movie reviewer Bosley Crowther aptly described as “a seven-ounce glorified bikini.”

Toing!!

Toing!!

From there, Mary goes on to display and shake everything God gave her in a rousing musical number titled “Lookin’ for Trouble.” Unlike Russell’s charming number “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (the movie which inspired Hughes to create this musical), here there’s no subtext whatsoever. Like Russell’s physique, the song is in-your-face; Mary makes it quite clear, albeit in 1955 terms, that she’s out to get laid.

Russell spent two pages of her autobiography describing the, er, trouble involved in getting this number committed to film. Initially, Hughes tried to get her to do the number while wearing only a real two-piece bikini. At the time, bikinis were worn only in France.

Russell wrote that when she tried on the bikini, “I stood before my horrified camera crew, feeling very naked.” (However, Russell’s embarrassment over the bikini did not extend to her autobiography, which contains the following photo of Russell wearing (a) said bikini, and (b) a s**t-eating grin.)

Does this look like an embarrassed woman to you?

Does this look like an embarrassed woman to you?

In any case, Russell refused to film the number until she was given wardrobe that covered her up a little better; hence, the seven-ounce bikini substitute.

The bikini photo is a perfect metaphor for the musical number that inspired it. In her book, Russell explains how her conscience bothered her while performing this number:

“The only problem, as I saw it, was that it was never made clear in the story that the millionairess did the naughty number to get even with her fella [sic], to make him mad. I begged them to put in one short scene to show some motive for it. They all looked at me like I was bananas…Finally, a scene was shot. No film was in the camera, I’m sure, for I never saw it, nor did anyone else.”

And yet, watch Russell perform “Lookin’ for Trouble.” This does not look like a woman who is ashamed to be throwing her fulsome body all over the screen (and the movie was originally released in 3-D). Even though the number is not as sexually explicit as anything in modern-day cinema, it quite clearly makes the point that Russell’s character is looking for…well, dare we replace the word “trouble” with S-E-X?

Ehh...could be.

Ehh…could be.

It seems to me that this number, like much of Russell’s movie career, is trying to have it both ways: Getting men to go popeyed with lust, while Russell tells us not to read anything nasty into her enthusiastic shimmying and hip-grinding. In any case, the only way Russell could display any more of her sexuality in a movie is if she had gone all the way and gotten…very naked.

MONKEY BUSINESS (1931) – The Marx Brothers bust loose

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Monkey Business is where the Marx Brothers legend really begins. It’s as if the Marxes in Animal Crackers were wind-up dolls that Hollywood grabbed and ratcheted up their pace a few notches. Viewing the two movies in chronological order is like being Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, going from a nice, homey starting point to a Technicolor land of comedy.

The Marxes are stowaways on an ocean liner, passing the time singing “Sweet Adeline” while hiding in herring barrels, after which they take off the barrel lids and are even polite enough to bow for a non-existent audience. (They love applause in this movie. At one point, the four of them interrupt their own chase to noodle around on some instruments for thirty seconds, which gets them more audience response. And don’t even get me started on Harpo’s attempts to get undue attention.)

The ship’s captain is oddly wishy-washy about finding these stowaways. After spending the first few minutes of the movie declaring his vengeance on these guys, Groucho and Chico come into his quarters and blithely eat his lunch, at which point the captain declares his suspicion (twice) that Groucho might be one of the stowaways. The captain’s relationship to the stowaways turns out to be like Tom’s relation to Jerry; he acts like he wants to catch them, but he really doesn’t, because then the fun would be over and he’d have to go back to running the ship.

As always, the ostensible plot is in the movie mainly for the purposes of getting tossed aside. Seems that two rival gangsters are on board, and each needs a bodyguard. How do we first get a hint of this? It’s when Groucho, trying to escape the captain, ducks into the room of one of the gangsters, who is so macho that he doesn’t even let this intrusion break the pace of his ongoing argument with his wife (Thelma Todd). Groucho eventually makes whoopee with Todd in one of the finest courting scenes that doesn’t star Margaret Dumont. Then Groucho’s supposed to be all scared when the gangster returns and points a gun at his kisser. Hey, big fella, you didn’t notice this guy slipping into your closet earlier?

Later, the Marxes trump the captain’s apathetic attitude by being cavalier about the possibility of getting caught. When the ship is ready to unload the passengers, Zeppo discovers that Maurice Chevalier is on the ship and takes his passport. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico take this news blithely, as though Zeppo had just announced that the morning paper had arrived. How often do celebrities go around waving their passports to get them stolen, anyway?

As if that affront to reality isn’t wacko enough, the four of them decide that the only way they can possibly make it off the ship is to present Chevalier’s passport to the clerk and then present themselves as Chevalier by singing one of his songs. It’s not enough for one person to impersonate a celebrity. All four of them decide to play the same celebrity, and to do so by singing a song to some disinterested passport clerks. Offhand, I’d say that the Marxes don’t really want to get off that ship anymore than that captain really wants to catch them.

Monkey Business is like a great freeing of inhibitions, not the least of which are the Marx Brothers’ own hang-ups. You’d never guess these were the same guys who politely walked through Animal Crackers. If there’s any single scene that symbolizes the movie’s spirit, it’s that of Harpo dreamily exiting a Punch-and-Judy show on a kid’s cart — a beautiful long shot observing his wheeling away, as though the cameraman can’t believe it anymore than we can.

(Trivia: Arthur Sheekman, a good friend of Groucho’s who is credited in the movie with “additional dialogue,” was married to 1930’s actress Gloria Stuart, who made a memorable impression six-and-a-half decades later as the woman with a past, in James Cameron’s Titanic. Good thing the Marx Brothers weren’t stowing away on that ocean liner.)

MY FAIR LADY (1964) – A lively “classical” movie musical

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

My Fair Lady won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1964 — deservingly so, and I say that as a huge fan of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, which came out the same year and wasn’t even nominated. Film history tells us that the Beatles film was a beloved influence for generations of moviemakers to come, while the former film was one of the last gasps of the “classical” movie musical.

But My Fair Lady is certainly nothing to sneeze at. It too seems to have influenced some filmmakers. (Think of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall or Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, with male leads who condescendingly “educate” their women and then discover that the women have minds of their own.) And like the flowers that poor Cockney girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) tries to peddle for a meager living, My Fair Lady has subtle joys that spring forth from out of nowhere.

The story — musicalized from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion — is that of Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a self-satisfied bachelor and phonics professor who bets his sidekick that he can take a nobody and turn her into a high-society woman. Enter the nobody: Eliza Doolittle, asking to take phonics lessons.

Of course, turning a low-life into a dandy isn’t precisely what the movie’s about, though it has a lot of fun with this plot point. The trouble — for Higgins, at least — begins after he succeeds at his quest and then belatedly discovers that Doolittle has more on her mind than just remaining Higgins’ trophy.

And small wonder — Doolittle’s own dad Alfred (the delightful Stanley Holloway) hasn’t exactly been a male role model for her. In fact, Alfred’s two great numbers — “With a Little Bit of Luck,” about his best efforts to escape work, and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” about his resignation to marriage — are a story of male ego run amok in themselves.

That’s probably why My Fair Lady is still so enjoyable — because everyone in it has a story. (Observe Higgins’ petulance in the brief scene where he’s humbled by his mother, who immediately takes Eliza’s side in the ongoing argument.)

In its own way, My Fair Lady is as radical as The Beatles. Rex Harrison wasn’t much of a singer, so he “talks” his way through the movie’s songs, creating a song style of his own. And Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice was dubbed by the famous Hollywood “alternate” Marni Nixon (who also sang uncredited in the movie version of The King and I).

But Harrison and Hepburn’s grin-inducing performances overcome all impersonalities. And with the movie’s 30th-anniversary restoration, it’s as much a delight to look at as to listen to. My Fair Lady is a prime example of the kind of movie “they don’t make like that anymore.”

RENT (2005) – A pleasant surprise, despite (or because of?) its outre manner and themes

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In his review of Rent, Roger Ebert claimed that the famed Broadway musical does not work as a movie because it needs, and is lacking, a live audience. Having come to the movie of Rent with no emotional stake (haven’t seen the B’way show, barely wanted to see the movie), I found it one of the most satisfying movies of 2005.

Yes, it is unquestionably melodramatic. I am told that Rent is the opera “La Boheme” (another cultural touchstone to which I claim ignorance) updated for the AIDS generation, and there are definite moments where the movie is doing little but pulling your strings. By the same token, one could claim that Goeth, the Nazi commandant in the fact-based Schindler’s List, is played by Ralph Fiennes as too conventionally evil. Doesn’t matter, though – his character gives you a chill. And Rent‘s characters are so heartfelt, and the movie so on-target (did Harry Potter‘s Chris Columbus really direct this?), that even the sappier moments are effective.

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The setting is New York City in 1989, when America finally started to come to terms with AIDS. The characters are close-knit friends holing up in a tenement run by their former friend Benny (Taye Diggs), who now wants to kiss up to his wealthy father-in-law by evicting his former pals. They include Mark (Anthony Rapp), an aspiring film-maker; Roger (Adam Pascal), a musician who has grown distant since becoming HIV-positive; Tom (Jesse L. Martin), who falls in love with the drag queen (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) who aids him after he is mugged; and a stripper/heroin addict named Mimi (Rosario Dawson, in the first movie where the filmmakers seemed to know how to use her fiery talent).

If anything, the movie’s primary point is to show these people existing on their own terms, and the movie shows this admirably. When, in this movie, we see same-sex people sharing a kiss or a hug, it’s presented matter-of-factly; and because the characters actually have some dimension to them, it feels earned.

Chris Columbus, after laboring for many years in Home Alone-type movies, finally seems to know where to put his camera. Musicals, in particular, have trouble striking a balance between looking static and frantic; here, the camerawork really soars, moving gracefully and closing in just enough to let the actors finish the soaring. And unlike most modern-day Broadway musicals, Jonathan Larsen’s score is one that you can hum and that hums on its own, nicely elucidating its characters and doing so with genuinely catchy songs.

Besides the actors listed above, who are all splendid, there’s a fresh-faced powerhouse named Idina Menzel, who plays Maureen, a self-styled, unapologetic lesbian. When caught in a flirt by her Significant Other (Tracie Toms), who tries to chastize her, the two of them spar in a great number, “Take Me As I Am.” And a viewer just knows that, however flighty Maureen is, her lover will just have to come back to her, because she’s darned well worth it.

That’s the treasure of this movie – genuine, heartfelt characterization. Rent is, on all levels, emotionally devastating.

 

 

SWEENEY TODD (2007) – Shave and a haircut, two slits!

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I came to Sweeney Todd with a clean slate, as it were. I’d never seen any of the previous stage or screen versions, and I’m generally adverse to the archly ironic style of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim.

All of that said, I was thoroughly delighted by director Tim Burton’s version of the story. As with Burton’s best work, it’s moviemaking at its Grand Guignol finest.

For those even more ignorant of the story than I waws, Johnny Depp plays the title role, or should I say evolves into it. Initially, his character is named Benjamin Barker, and he’s a happily married father in Victorian London.

But an evil judge named Turpin (Alan Rickman at his oil-slick smoothest) lusts after Barker’s wife. So he wrongly sentences Barker to prison, seduces and poisoningly induces Barker’s wife, and takes Barker’s baby daughter as his “charge,” to await the day when she is old enough to marry him.

Fifteen years later, Barker escapes from prison, returns to London, and adopts the persona of barber Sweeney Todd. At first, he intends only upon avenging Turpin. But he soon discovers he has an other-barberly way with a razor. And as it happens, Todd’s landlady (Helena Bonham Carter), an unsuccessful baker, could use some fresh ingredients to sell her pies.

Oh, and this is a musical, too — albeit the bloodiest musical ever, with shot after shot of Todd severing the necks of bourgeois customers whom he feels have it coming.

So why do I heartily recommend such a gruesome offering? For one thing, the script (by John Logan, an avid Todd buff) and Burton’s elegant direction take the story its bare bones, with vivid characterization and crisp plotting and timing.

Of course, the actors contribute much as well. And every last one of them — including Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Borat business turned me off — sing and act wonderfully, taking some of the sting off the movie’s black-comedy ickiness.

Johnny Depp, again, takes major chances and scores. The feyness of Burton/Depp collaborations such as Ed Wood and Willie Wonka is gone. In its place is Todd’s grisly dark confidence and rationality of his murdering ways — the ultimate depiction of the maxim “Be careful what you wish for.”

Its dark themes aside, Sweeney Todd was 2007’s entry in an apparent renaissance of the movie musical — and justifiably so.

 

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) – Great spoofery, rock music, and Susan Sarandon’s breasts

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The line for critical objectivity ends at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Either you love this one, or you just don’t get it. (Count me among the former.)

The story centers around super-square high-schoolers Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon, most definitely in her pre-Oscar days). They get engaged and prepare to meet up with an old teacher of theirs, when their car gets a flat tire. The only place for help is a nearby castle run by a demented doctor named Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry) — and brother, the kind of help he offers.

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The movie’s legend has long been part of modern film folklore: how rock impresario Lou Adler picked up an obscure stage show from L.A. and had it made into a movie; how the movie was considered a flop because it only attracted about 50 people per showing, until someone realized that it was always the same 50 people; how it was moved to midnight screenings and became an established cult classic.

And of course, part of the legend is the show-within-a-show, where moviegoers come dressed as their favorite Rocky Horror characters, bring their own props to the theater (such as water guns to shoot during a storm scene in the movie), and shout dialogue cues at the screen. (When an audience member yells out, “What’s white and sells hamburgers?”, a screen character says, “Didn’t we pass a castle down the road?”)

Of course, the movie is best seen at a full-participation public theater. But if you strip away the midnight extras and watch it on DVD, the movie still has much to offer, such as:

* Gloriously trashy sets and color — it’s a treat just to look at.

* References to seemingly every movie ever made. Just for starters, check out all the sci-fi film reference in the movie’s opening theme. And of course, there are the obvious references to Frankenstein, with the spooky castle, the mad scientist, and his unique creation.

* A terrific soundtrack of rock songs, all composed by Richard O’Brien (who plays Frank’s flunkie, Riff Raff, and who also wrote the original play and its screen version).

* Wonderful performances, from everyone from Bostwick and Sarandon to heavyweight rock star Meat Loaf (in an all-too-brief turn). And then there’s Tim Curry, whose fishnet-stockinged Frank made an indelible mark upon pop culture with the first swish of his satin cape.

The DVD version includes the film’s concluding song “Superheroes” (formerly available only in the British movie version) and an alternate soundtrack where you can learn the participation “script” without having to go out at midnight.

Whether you’re a “virgin” (the cultists’ term for Rocky Horror first-timers) or veteran, it’s definitely worth the time warp.