Can’t Stop the Music (1980)

Title

Directed by Nancy Walker

Tagline: “The Musical Comedy Smash of the 80’s!”

Run Time: 124 minutes

A guest review by Sean Ledden


Back Story

Early in the 1970’s French pop composer Jacques Morali moved to the U.S. , where he fell in love with the dazzling Manhattan scene, and with disco music. One night at a gay costume ball held in Greenwich Village , he was struck by how many guests came dressed as macho male stereotypes. Thus came the inspiration for creating an all-male band where each member dressed like a different fantasy figure. Sending out a casting call for "macho types," he had soon assembled a 6-man group made up of a cop, a cowboy, a construction worker, an army soldier, a leatherman, and, of all things, an Indian chief. The resultant group was that inimitable 70’s mix of kitsch and camp, "The Village People." Everyone thought he was crazy to try such a thing, but by 1979 he had written such chart-topping hits as "YMCA," "Macho Man," and "In the Navy" for his eye-popping pop group.

Hollywood took notice, and came calling in the form of Allan Carr. Allan, who was riding high after the success of the movie "Grease," would later be responsible for the infamous Rob Lowe-Snow White duet of "Proud Mary" at the 61 st Academy Awards. ( Cue ominous music .) Well, before you know it Jacques and the boys were on a plane to California to film a lavish $10 million Hollywood version of The Village People’s success! (Cue ominous music.) To be directed by Nancy Walker! – huh??? Yes, comedy actress Nancy Walker, famous for playing Rhoda’s mother in the TV series "Rhoda," and (thanks Dennis, for reminding me!) "Rose the Waitress" in the "Quicker Picker Upper" paper towel commercials. (Cue ominous music.)

Anyways, for Jacques & Co. it was a show business dream come true. And for gay audience members, like me, it was an exciting opportunity to get past the silences and snubs so often found in the movies. (Cue ominous music.) Let’s take a look!

The Movie

Glittery, kitschy graphics, and the big sparkling name of Allan Carr announce the beginning of "Can’t Stop the Music" just before we cut to the frantic interior of a Manhattan record store. Dressed in tight jeans and colored overalls, the hip, young clientele shake their happy booty as they thumb through the latest disco hits – one of which is playing over the loudspeakers. You can feel the excitement of America ‘s youth culture as our hero, spunky All-American boy next store Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg) roller skates into view! Jack works here, and skating through the youthful hordes of desperate record shoppers he pleads with his nasty, middle-aged boss for the right to leave work on time. But his boss is middle-aged, meaning he’s a bitter, grey haired "square," and he insists Jack stay late to do the inventory. "No inventory, no job!" he shouts, relishing the chance to crush the spirit of another happy young person – all of whom he evidently despises. (Boooo! )

Pushed past the point of endurance, Jack displays vintage 70’s, pre-Reagan worker chutzpah by plugging into the speaker system and screaming to the entire store:

"OK, Schultzy, have it your way. But the next time you take inventory in here, you’ll be carrying the albums of Jack Morell. ‘cause I am a composer, not a schlepper salesman! – My time is now!!!"

And with this stirring declaration of emancipation, flung like a gauntlet into the face of American wage slavery, Jack roller skates out into the vibrant streets of New York to celebrate his unemployment. Cue the disco beat, and up come the titles!

"New York is the city of cities! Now York is for wearing the crown!" crows the music as Jack careens through heavy traffic- smiling, laughing, singing, pumping his fists in time to the music – Jack is so maniacally happy at being in New York and following "his dream" that you want to punch him in the mouth. Not to worry, though, I’m sure he wouldn’t feel it. The entire opening sequence is like a commercial for black market uppers. ( Gossip Note : A friend of mine once spent some time with a cast member from this movie. When asked by my friend about the experience, he replied that he couldn’t remember a thing – because of all the drugs he was taking at the time. He went on to say it was the same for the entire cast.)

The title sequence is also an early indication that the gay nature of The Village People will be swept under the rug. Hell, even the group itself is pretty much dispensed with. We get one shot of "David the Construction Worker," but no other member makes it onto the screen. Instead we get a veritable festival of female tits and ass, including 3 busty women with complimentary tank tops that spell "San" Fran" Cisco." By referring to that gay Mecca in this way, the crafty producers succeed in making a heterosexual allusion to homosexuality. Neat trick – and I’m already pissed off at the movie.

The titles over with, Jack hooks up with his pal, just retired super-model Samantha Simpson (Valerie Perrine) down in groovy Washington Square. Still high on "life," he gushes on and on about his "big chance" to guest DJ at a disco that night. (Hidden Gay Reference Alert! – Jack will get his chance to DJ because the usual guy is "lost somewhere out on Fire Island." If you’re in the know, and can understand Guttenberg’s slurred delivery, you’ll be able to arch a finely manicured eyebrow, pucker the mouth and smirk, "Oh ho!")

Back at Samantha’s fabulous plant-filled apartment, the pair finds "Felipe the Indian" (Felipe Rose) lounging in front of the TV. This gives Jack another chance to gush on and on about his big chance. And Felipe, being the kind of dreamer who goes around dressed in a feathered war-bonnet and cut-off jean mini-shorts, is excited. But practical Samantha is dubious about the wisdom of Jack’s quitting his job.

Psycho   Psycho

Jack talks to anyone who will listen about his dreams of show biz success.

 

Samantha views Jack as a "kid brother," despite a clumsy pass he tosses at her. ( Phew . He’s normal!) But trying to reason with him only makes him wave his arms around more. Worse, in a horrible attempt to imitate Mickey Rooney in those old "Let’s Put On a Show!" musicals, he pleads so intensely that the veins in his throat bulge out uncomfortably. "Look, tonight Benny Murray will see that I’m merely fabulous and make me the full-time DJ," he screams, "I’ll get to play my music. The people will start collapsing and the big record companies are going to come crawling!" For some reason Samantha is still unconvinced, so Jack makes a dread promise. If she "doesn’t like what he does," he’ll accept a fate worse than death, and "go back to dental school, like my father wants." Yea, right. You and I, and everyone else in the audience knows that should this come to pass he’d commit suicide before graduation. And thus the stakes are set for the big night. Pretty heavy. Fortunately we have some "comic relief" when Felipe comes in and tells Samantha that the hose she uses to water her indoor jungle is leaking all over the carpet, ha ha ha!

Cut to "Saddle Tramps," the popular disco that Jack will guest DJ at. Once again we are "treated" to a scene of youthful high spirits as the blue jeaned, sequined, and polyestered crowd boogies down under the neon glow of randomly placed signs. Interestingly, the crowd is also completely heterosexual – and this seems to include Felipe, who works there as a dancing waiter, as well as "David the construction worker" (David Hodo) and "Randy the cowboy" (Randy Jones) – both of whom are getting it down with some lovely ladies. (Nothing against the lovely ladies, but ugh.)

Up in the DJ’s booth super perky Jack grows profound as he shows Samantha his "kingdom." Gazing out over the glitzy, yet drab dance floor and the tacky crowd, he gives voice to the movie’s justification for disco, young people and, come to think of it, sex, "Look at them. They’re so happy! They’ve forgotten everything that gets them down." Unfortunately, that’s probably not what you’ll feel as the movie launches into it’s first extended "dance" number – 3 grueling minutes of flashing neon, tilted camera angles, and truly mediocre bump & grind moves on the dance floor. (In an infuriating aside, my research tells me that the producers marketed "Can’t Stop the Music" as family entertainment. So while open references to homosexuality were apparently taboo, mimed heterosexual intercourse on a dance floor was perfectly acceptable.)

Samantha is wowed by the uninspired disco tune, after all, Jack wrote it for her, and she promises to help launch his career. But first he needs to put together an awesome demo tape. This freaks out the once super confident Jack. "It’s impossible! Look, nobody has time for anybody, and nobody gives new people a break." Jack seems to be bi-polar. No surprise I guess. But now it’s Samantha’s turn to play the optimist, and she boasts about how she’s dated and "romanced" some of the "real biggies of the record industry." So the sky’s the limit for our young hero! (By the way, eeeiiiiuuuuu !)

You’d think we’d cut to Samantha turning on the charm for some of these biggies, but we don’t. Instead we get the first of several cumbersome side plots as tough as nails New York glamour-puss Sydney Channing (Tammy Grimes) tries to badger Samantha back into modeling for a huge new campaign to push milk down the throats of an unsuspecting American public. "No, no, no!" answers Samantha, but Sydney is undeterred. Tossing back her purple mink stole she vows to bring Samantha back, and to make milk more glamorous than champagne by putting it in corked bottles! Ha, ha, ha! (Despite the dreadfully clichéd material, Grimes actually gives a real performance, and she’s the most fun to watch in the movie.)

Alas, Guttenberg is not fun to watch, as Jack tries to demonstrate a new song to Samantha by going "ba bah, ba bah, ba bah" and flailing his arms about. Suddenly realizing that his voice sucks, Samantha tells Jack that they need to round up some talented singers. But how? She needs to think, and plot and scheme. And so with a scary smile and glassy eyes she declares she’s going out for a "Baskin-Robbins rush." "No Valerie, don’t do it!" I want to yell. "The sugar and milk fat might have a toxic reaction when combined with whatever it is you’ve already ingested!" Ignoring my silent plea Samantha heads out onto the streets of Greenwich Village , ice-cream cone in hand. And in one awkwardly scripted and staged scene after another she talks an odd assortment of male "amateur singers" into doing Jack’s demo tape for free. Thus The Village People are born! Sort of. 3 band members have yet to appear in the movie. ( Production Note : The whole time she’s auditioning the guys on the streets of the Village, her never melting, never diminishing ice cream cone full of wholesome Baskin-Robbins ice cream stays firmly in hand. One can only imagine how many ice-cream cones they went thru as they did take after drugged out take. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but Perrine seems to be holding her cone like she can’t stand the loathsome thing. And just a thought here, but can you imagine what would happen if the production assistant in charge of ice cream accidentally scooped in strawberry instead of vanilla for one of the takes? The screaming that would come from poor Nancy Walker! In over her head, behind schedule and over budget she’d probably explode "God dammit! Who’s the moron who put in the strawberry?" At which point the exhausted production assistant would begin to choke back the sobs as the rest of the panicked crew ran around in circles. All the while that uptight business suited rep from Baskin-Robbins, who flew in from someplace like Cincinnati , Ohio , would scowl while writing something down in his prissy little notebook. Finally a fresh cone of vanilla ice cream would be produced – but Valerie’s wondered off again and no one can find her. God dammit!)

Back on set, Valerie, as Samantha!, meets Dave (the construction worker.) And we come to one of this movie’s many "highlights"- a weird, jaw-droppingly bad musical number and one of Hollywood ‘s greatest monuments to bad taste.

Inspired by Samantha’s pitch, Dave says he dreams of "fame, fortune, platinum records!" And you’d think this would lead to a fantasy about fame, fortune, and platinum records. But if so, you’d be confounded by the mad genius that is "Can’t Stop the Music!" For what we get instead is a garish fever dream in which Dave is pursued and sexually devoured by a ravenous horde of skinny, large breasted women. "It’s every boy’s dream," he muses just before the music starts up! (Nothing against the ravenous horde, but ugh.)Watching Dave, who has a pair of handcuffs hanging from his weightlifter’s belt, screech " I love you to death! " as the slinky femme-fatales bite his biceps and rip his shirt to shreds, I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell the producers were thinking. This is what I a came up with:

• Allan Carr & Co., dazzled by the cross-over success of The Village People – those cheerful ambassadors from New York ‘s infamous homosexual underground – plan a lavish Hollywood musical that’s sure to be a hit!

• Shrewdly limiting their own financial risk, Carr & Co. pry large amounts of money away from The American Dairy Association and Baskin-Robbins. In return they feature each corporation’s product in what they promise will be a wholesome, family entertainment.

• Dropping the gay identity of the group in order to avoid offending their sponsors, and the "heartland," they never-the-less scramble to attract Village People fans who are outside the sexual mainstream.

• The brilliant solution? A bouncy, family-friendly fantasy of heterosexual S&M cannibalism!

Love you to death

"I Love You to Death!"

After all of that excitement we go back to the streets for several bizarre and pointless scenes in which "kindly" old ladies abuse various co-stars, including hapless nice guy Ron White (painfully untalented Olympic superstar Bruce Jenner.)

Mad

Ron is from the mid-west, and this is his reaction to New York.

Then it’s back to Samantha’s place where her horny friend Lulu (Marilyn Sokol) shamelessly ogles Felipe – thus reducing a complex human being into a 2-dimensional sex object. (Feminists rejoice, it’s payback time!) Lulu is also responsible for the movie’s first and only open reference to drug use when she offers Jack a joint! Coyly murmuring "Lulu," he never-the-less follows her into another room. Emerging later with blurred speech and vision, we all get a chance to laugh at a dope-head! (By the way, pot makes Jack a lot easier to take.)

And as our happy, and in some cases lubricated, free-spirits prepare for the big demo taping, secondary characters start to rain down on Samantha’s lovely patio garden like cases of Spam dropped from cargo planes into a disaster zone. First is hapless nice guy Ron. Turns out he’s a tax lawyer just moved in from St. Louis , and he’s here to give Samantha a cake from her sister. (Oh, brother.) Showing a brave commitment to hackneyed clichés, the movie presents Ron as an uptight, mid-western stick in the mud. Looking at the young, clean, attractive, but mildly bohemian crowd he sniff’s "What is this, a halfway house?"

Samantha

Samantha is having a little trouble focusing tonight.

Next is another one of Samantha’s many, many, many friends, with "Ray the Police Officer" (Ray Simpson) in tow. She heard him giving out a "singing parking ticket" and decided to drag him in for the demo recording. Why not? We even get to meet Jack’s mother! (June Havoc, who deserves better.) She wears loud floral pants suits and dreams of the day Jack’s music is produced on (now say it with hope in your heart and stars in your eyes!) "Broadway!" Finally, in comes Sydney Channing climbing over the garden wall in her relentless effort to tempt Samantha, and once she sees him, gorgeous looking Ron with big modeling contracts. Much "witty" bantering accompanies all of this, for example:

Ron: "Is there any reason he’s dressed up as an Indian?"

Samantha: "Maybe it’s his (super scary smile) fantasy."

Ron: Well, being a cowboy is my fantasy, but I don’t go around dressed like one."

Lulu: (Vamping it waaaaay up, ala Mae West) "Too bad, we could use another hand on this spread. Unnnaahh."

Imagine an entire movie written at this same level of sophisticated hilarity, and you have the horror that is "Can’t Stop the Music!"

Now we have about 500 lasagna munching people milling about the garden. And, finally, we get a Village People performance – sort of. That’s because we still only have 4 of the 6 members present. Be that as it may Ray leads the boys in a rendition of "Magic Night." And I almost hate to admit it, but this number works. This song, like all the rest written by Jacques Morali, is sweet and fun and bubbly, Ray has a great voice, and the staging isn’t drowned in kitsch and glitter. Oh, and a full disclosure – I confess to liking disco music, Godawful though much of it is. All I can do here is beg for the reader’s understanding, and compassion. That and point out that Scientific American, at least I think it was Scientific American, ran an article recently about the discovery of a "disco gene."

But back to business and the patio garden, where Ron suddenly storms out for no particular reason. "Your friends are a little too far out for me," he huffs at Samantha. "I don’t get it why a good looking girl like you is down here in the Village with a bunch of….I don’t know what!" Apparently Ron has never before socialized with casually dressed heterosexuals. Oh well, he is from St. Louis . (Interestingly, Ron does have cause for complaint. During the garden scene he’s sexually harassed by an obnoxious Lulu, which is supposed to be funny. But he never mentions that.)

Samantha responds by continuing the weird pretense that her garden lasagna party is a transgressive, taboo-shattering bacchanal. "I don’t judge people. I accept them," she says, "There isn’t a person who breathes who doesn’t have certain peculiarities. As long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, it’s alright with me." This is a sentiment I heartily agree with, but what "peculiarities" are we talking about here? Homosexuality, of course. "But," you might say, "there aren’t any homosexuals in her party, or the movie!" True, that’s because they might offend the targeted mainstream audience. But still, "Can’t Stop the Music" wants us to know that it bravely supports the rights of people it refuses to include in its script. Good for you Hollywood !

After the success of the demo, Samantha swallows her pride and makes an appointment with her ex-boyfriend, workaholic record mogul Steve Waits (the wonderful Paul Sand, who, poor thing, is also in this movie.) Much hilarity ensues when Samantha meets him because every time she tries to say something he leaps to answer one of the many phones in his office. This scene isn’t very funny, but it is a poignant reminder of life in the pre-cell phone world, where Steve’s behavior was considered extraordinary. Happily Samantha manages to get a commitment from him, so yea! And then whom do you think she meets in the lobby? Yes! It’ Ron. First they fight, then they flirt, then he spills hot lasagna on his pants, then his pants come off, then they…..I think you get the picture. (A running gag thru this whole sequence is that Ron, though played by an Olympic champion, is a total klutz. Ha ha ha!)

Cut to Ron’s huge, million-dollar wood paneled office on Wall Street, which he’s kindly volunteered for auditioning more members of Jack’s slowly, slowly coalescing money-making machine. And it’s a laugh riot as a motley crew of flamboyantly awful sideshow acts invades the stuffy sanctity of the "Establishment." Chinese baton twirlers vie for space with clowns, tennis racquet jugglers, singing bodybuilders, and girlish heavy metal rockers who literally chew the telephone cords of Ron’s prim old maid of a secretary. So this is an audition for singers? Yes, because New York isn’t dullsville, man! Oh, and Samantha’s dressed up like a flight attendant. Well, as you can imagine all of this doesn’t sit well with Ron’s grumpy old boss, who walks in with (drum-roll) Ron’s mother! (The lovely Barbara Rush – who was great in "When Worlds Collide" and "It Came From Outer Space!") This movie’s strange, but admirable, habit of dragging in people’s mothers pays off when Mrs. Ron, seeing the collection of show business freaks infesting her son’s office says, "Didn’t Village types go out with the 60’s?" And voila, the " The Village People" are born!!! (At last!) And to cap it all off "Glenn the Leatherman" busts in on everyone, "by mistake" (oh brother) and sings a pretty decent rendition of "Danny Boy." It’s the only time the movie implies, implies mind you, that one of the Village People might, I say might , be gay. I think the reason is that Danny’s full-on S&M leather regalia defies the kind of half-assed explanation given for the goofy outfits of the other men.

Ron must really love "Danny Boy," because when boss-man complains about the ruckus, he quits! I’m beginning to suspect that Ron, like Jack, is bi-polar. And as if to mirror Ron’s disturbed psychology, a man in glittering gold shorts suddenly jumps on top of a table. Accompanied by a prissy little piano score he spins & twirls a pair of "flaming" batons and sets off the sprinklers – causing everyone to rush for the exits. (Ha ha ha!)

Cut to the streets of, you got it, Greenwich Village , with the entire gang walking about in tight late-70’s street fashion. Ron in particular has loosened up to an extraordinary degree as he prances down the street in a mid-drift exposing T-shirt and short short jeans. It doesn’t really make any sense, but I’m not complaining. Anyway, everyone’s unemployed, and broke, but with hearts full of hope they find a free place to rehearse –the YMCA! Cue the music for their big mega-hit, and a beefcake smorgasbord down at the weight room, swimming pool, locker room and showers! For once it’s an all-male show, except when Samantha crashes the hot tub – the tramp! And it’s all a lot of tacky fun, even if it’s bargain basement Leni Riefenstahl. (Or – is it tacky fun because it’s bargain basement Leni Reifenstahl? Cue Twilight Zone music.)

YMCA

News Flash! 70’s sportswear did not flatter the male figure.

Almost immediately after that, however, we go into the band’s first studio recording. It’s a disco anthem called "Liberation," and it’s a catastrophe. Here are some of the lyrics:

Liberation – it’s time for liberation, (right now!)

Out of our way because we’re ready to fly (liberation!)

And for this right we stand here willing to die (liberation!)

Strong words, and thrilling if you were coming out of the closet in the wake of the Stonewall riots. But just look how the song is staged in the movie! It comes with fist pumping choreography, provided by Lulu (!?), but the camera makes a point to show how half-hearted the boys are as they sing it. I mean "liberation" for whom, and from what? They don’t get it, and neither will the audience. It’s all a boring, empty cheat.

Anyways, we’re soon back to more excruciating "drama" as Steve Waits tries to sign the band up on the cheap. "They have a very small audience," he reasons. (What audience would that be?) And there’s more excruciating "comedy" as 4 of our (heterosexual) protagonists scheme to get The Village People onto the charts. (By the way, none of band members themselves are present.) Sample dialogue:

Jack: "You guys remember Benny Murray who used to run Saddle Tramps?

(Samantha’s friend) Alicia: "Sure, who could forget Benny the letch!

Ron: "We ran into him this morning."

Alicia: "What were you doing? "Cruising" down Times Square ?

Oh, my aching sides! Anyways, seems Benny is now producing dance parties. So perky Jack & manic Ron get the bright idea of producing one of their own to launch Jack’s band. And to fund this kick-off Samantha decides to bite the bullet and do Sydney ‘s milk campaign. With, and here’s the catch, The Village People as her back up! Yea! It’s another wholesome yet kinky treat!

And well, it’s something, that’s for sure. It’s starts out with Samantha playing a suburban housewife in a "Leave it to Beaver" kitchen. In come 6 little Village People boys, in costume, to get their glasses of milk. As she pours out a glass the beat starts to throb over the soundtrack, and we cut to a huge black and white balloon covered stage set. Now all grown up, The Village People, Samantha, and (sigh) lots of lovely dancing girls – all of them dressed in glittering white – strut their stuff behind gauzy white curtains, up shinny black staircases, and in front of giant, blinking milkshake glasses. All the while Ray sings his heart out to the immortal lyrics,

Shake it!

Do the shake (do the shake), do the sha-a-ake (do the shake)

Do the milkshake, the milkshake (do the shake)

Do the shake (do the shake), do the shake (do the shake)

Do the milkshake, the milkshake (do the shake)

After the number ends in a huge balloon drop over the dancers, we see Samantha, Jack, Ron, Lulu, Ron’s mother and Jack’s mother all assembled in Sydney’s Hollywood fantasy of an office. Noticeably absent are the Village People themselves. I guess Sydney & Co. don’t want to socialize with the help. Anyways, they’re all excited after watching a tape of the "milk commercial" and nice Mrs. Morell crows about how talented her son is. What mother wouldn’t? But all is not as well as it seems, for another heart breaking obstacle to Jack’s future wealth is about to rear it’s ugly head.

Sydney explains, "The higher echelon of Madison Avenue feels that (the commercial) may be too controversial for their American family image."

Jack’s Mother, "Corporate thinking sucks."

Jack (shocked) "Mother!"

Poor Jack! Fortunately Ron’s mother, an elegant cliché of a society matron comes to the rescue. It’s explained to her that the gang was hoping to use the residuals from the milk commercial to produce a spectacular "pay party" to launch Jack career’s as a song writer. Only, neither Samantha nor Ron is willing to tap into their personal assets. So what to do? Why, it turns out that Ron’s mother, as a hobby, regularly stages huge charity fundraisers. Even better, she’s doing "a really grand affair next month in San Francisco ." (Get it? San Francisco . Nudge, nudge, wink, wink!) Would it be possible for the boys to sing a few songs? – Was Stalin a communist?

Everyone’s all energized again, and Jack, who’s wearing a really loud checked sports jacket, starts jumping up and down – the darling, greedy little boy! Samantha, meanwhile, gets on the phone and tempts Steve Waits with a "long weekend in San Francisco ."

But here we run into a problem, for super cool Ron has suddenly turned all up tight again. He’s already offended that Samantha, who wore a dress that was sexy, but which could have appeared in a 1950’s MGM musical, revealed too much of herself on television. (In fact, her "performance" is far less steamy then Cyd Charisse’s dazzling "bad girl" turns in "Singing in the Rain" and "The Bandwagon.") And now he’s shocked that she’s trying to seduce Steve into a deal. Samantha in turn is shocked that Ron would think this of her, and a very painful breakup scene ensues. Painful, that is, because we have to watch Bruce Jenner try to express "anger" (puffed out cheeks) and "indignation" (bugged out eyes.)

Cut to Steve in his hideously decorated private jet. He’s in a bath robe waiting for Samantha’s arrival, so I guess he had the same idea that Ron had. But he’s in for a surprise, because who should show up instead? Why it’s Jack, and his mother! Stunned into inaction, the plane takes off before Steve can throw them out, and off they go to San Francisco . All the while Jack’s mother, who’s turning into a really pushy stage-mother, badgers Steve about her son’s talent and pulls out a big shopping bag full of edible Jewish goodies. This provides a chance for some character development in Jack. He helpfully explains that mom isn’t Jewish, but dad is…..OK. So?

But then his mother says, "When it comes to eating, all mothers are Jewish." Interesting point. And wouldn’t that also mean that when eating every child is Jewish too? Which in turn would mean that everyone in the world is Jewish, at least when eating?

One more bizarre cul-de-sac out of the way, Mrs. Jack starts hammering away at Steve on album contract details. Fade to several hours later when, the ruthless battle for profit rights over and won, mother and son relax and gaze dreamily into a future filled with luxury and glamour. But lest you think they’re vulgarians, Jack suddenly pulls back a curtain window to look at the approaching city of San Francisco . "Oh look Ma, look how beautiful." he gushes. Awww , Jack has a soul! And as if to celebrate this fact a thumping disco beat starts to rings out over the land as Mrs. Jack sighs, "Oh Jack, it is true. There is magic in the world." – What, you mean like selling your soul to Satan in exchange for worldly success? (Sorry, that was a bit harsh.)

Fade to the big night where a 3 sister diva act called The Richie Family warms up the already hyperventilating crowd while The Village People are practically crowded out of their own dressing room by an avalanche of supporting characters. Let’s see, there’s Ron, and Lulu. Then Samantha’s friend Alicia breathlessly observes, "You are not going to believe this crowd. San Francisco high life is one of the kinkiest things I ever saw!" Nudge, nudge, wink, wink! Then in breezes Ron’s mom, who introduces the women from her never specified charity committee to Lulu, and then to the boys – who are, shockingly, only half dressed! "Don’t mind us," says one leering matron, "we understand show folk here." Nudge nudge, wink wink! Now it’s Sydney’s turn to storm in before she gushes to Ron’s mother, "I’ve never seen such a huge turn-out. And so bizarre! Chic!” (I think that’s a nice way of saying “So perverted! So Fey!")

Next, in rushes Jack and his mom, waving the signed contracts with Steve’s record company. The band members cheer, and promptly run out of the room. This clears the way for more business with Ron’s mom, the Charity Ladies, Sydney, etc. Then in walks a new character, powerhouse TV journalist Claudia Walters (Leigh Taylor Young, who’s even more zoned out than Valerie!). She’s on her way to interview the boys, but before she gets to them her producer steers her toward record mogul Steve. She asks for "personal" background and he makes a smarmy pass at her. Incredibly, it works and she walks off with him for a "private interview!" Eeeeiiiuuuu. (I think we just caught a glimpse of the real Hollywood here. Eeeeiiiuuu .)

After that sleezy little detour in comes Samantha, ending everyone’s tepid suspense over her whereabouts. Jack rushes over and we have more jumping and hugging over the signed record contracts. And oh my, there’s Ron’s old boss from that stuffy Wall St. law firm. Scenting money he walks over to Ron and welcomes him back to the firm -as a junior partner!! But Ron’s still pissed off at Samantha, and so we have to sit through a big reconciliation scene where he comes around and proposes a big San Francisco wedding to her. Awwwwww.

Our next dramatic climax is a "Lulu," and it comes from Lulu! (rim-shot.) I didn’t mention it earlier, but Lulu is Sydney ‘s secretary, and the running gag here is that Sydney is always giving her ridiculous orders. Well, Lulu is mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it any more! Feeling empowered as the Village People’s number one roadie, she gets her big scene when she finally tells Sydney to shut up. You go girl! And something that occurred to me back at the start has just been confirmed. Lulu is a loud, flamboyant person with a touch of the ugly duckling. Meaning, she doesn’t quite fit in. She’s oppressed at work. And she’s also constantly cruising men, as well as stealing line readings from Mae West. Poor, dear thing, she’s meant to be a stand-in for all the oppressed, flamboyant queens out in the audience, who it was hoped, would stand up and cheer when she told off her boss.….Halleluiah!

Finally, most of the important speaking parts depart the room, leaving Jack alone with those guys who sing his songs. And as the sound of applause for the closing warm-up act roars around in the background they all form a circle of hands to prepare themselves for the big event. Slowly the camera closes up on Jack. And though he doesn’t sing or dance, have any creative vision, or remember the names of the guys in the band, he gets a misty look in his eyes and sighs triumphantly, "We’re a group!"

And then there’s a big number where the Village People perform on stage.

The End.

Post Mortem

Despite a lavish budget and lots of huge production numbers, some of them bouncy, kitschy fun, "Can’t Stop the Music" is dead on arrival. Among the reasons for this are the clunky direction by inexperienced Nancy Walker, a script full of cardboard characters and unfunny jokes, and "acting" that lurches from glassy eyed spaciness (Valerie Perrine) to manic woodenness (Bruce Jenner). But the movie’s primary failure is that while it’s a story about the formation and success of The Village People, the band members themselves are only passive, accommodating pawns in Jack’s quest for wealth and fame. They therefore hold no dramatic interest whatsoever.

And what about Jack? Why should we care about his dreams of success? He’s supposed to be a charming everyman whose pursuit of the "American Dream" has us all routing for him. But the part’s just a lazy collection of bland clichés, and as played by Guttenberg, Jack’s a hyperactive little package of saccharine. Finally, since the producers were afraid to acknowledge the gay inspiration for the group, Jack has no creative vision. All that’s left is a vulgar scramble for lots of money. So despite the constant implications that issues of social tolerance and justice are involved, there’s absolutely no dramatic punch to the band’s success in the movie.

For a straight viewer I’d imagine the whole thing is one big, weird, glitzy yawn. And for a gay man, watching this movie is like not being invited to a party thrown in your honor.

Sean Ledden June 2007

Afterthoughts

I’ve pretty well trashed "Can’t Stop the Music," but writing this review has given me a chance to revisit The Village People, and I’ve decided I like them. I’ve heard them charged with perpetuating negative gay stereotypes, but I disagree. By combining campy, over the top visions of "macho men" with jokey sexual innuendo and happy dance music, they send out a message that the theater of masculinity is a place where you can have fun. And that’s a much better deal than the grim, violent, oh so pompous mind set that dominates our insecure, post-9/11 country today.

Read more about Can’t Stop The Music at

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8 comments to Can’t Stop the Music (1980)

  • guts3d

    Great review! I just hope I never have to watch this one…

  • Sean

    God willing, you never will! And a belated thanks for the encouragement. I’d send you a prize, only that would violate Dennis’ ethics rules. (He’s so uptight!)

  • No prizes allowed! We don’t do this for fun, we do it for honor 🙂

  • David Fullam

    Ah, the YMCA, where you can do such manly things as box and wrestle! This was on the other day, and my Mom asked me if anyone caught all the gay subtexts. I told her that at the time, no, since it did fail at the box office. If they don’t get it now, they never will.

  • You really do have to have blinders on not to see it…the amazing power of Denial!

  • David Fullam

    Yeah, if the YMCA number and “Milk Shake” don’t do it, then you are in denial city.

  • Guts3d

    Oddly enough, my twin sister loved the Village People, and had a crush on the Indian Chief. I guess it wasn’t as obvious as some thought, or my sister was naive as hell!

  • Sean Ledden

    Nothing to be ashamed of there, I grew up in Ohio, and I didn’t know the Village People were supposed to be gay! I had to hear it from Saturday Night Live. They did a rock show spoof with Gilda Radner playing a Village People loving tween. She was “old enough to like their music, but young enough to miss the homosexual implications.” When I heard that line a little thought bubble with “!?!?!” appeared over my head….I guess it was the end of innocence….Thank God!

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