Train Wreck Cinema
Can't Stand the Music
By David Skolnick
Can't Stop the Music (EMI Films, 1980) – Director: Nancy Walker. Writers: Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard. Stars: The Village People, Valerie Perrine, Steve Guttenberg, Bruce Jenner, Paul Sand, Tammy Grimes, & Marilyn Sokol. Color, 124 minutes.
While there are many contenders, for me Can't Stop the Music is the best worst film ever made. It features a bad storyline, bad directing, bad music, bad editing, and awful lead actors. Also, the film's timing couldn't have been worse. Yet many years after it was released and bombed at the box office, there is something endearing about the movie.
Supposedly it’s loosely based on how the Village People were formed. But it's about as historically accurate as 1979's The Muppet Movie is about the origins of Kermit the Frog and friends.
Filming on Can't Stop the Music (originally to be called Discoland – Where the Music Never Ends!) began in May 1979 as disco music was on the verge of taking a historic nosedive. In July of that year, the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” occurred. The event featured a large box of disco records blown up between games of a White Sox double-header at Comiskey Park in Chicago, leading to a riot.
Can't Stop the Music was released June 20, 1980. A day later, “Funkytown” by Lipps, Inc. would spend its last day as the nation's Number 1 single. It would be the last disco song to ever reach the top of the charts. Disco had a great run, dominating pop music from mid-1975 to the genre's dying days in mid-1980. Its fall was unpleasant for all involved. For example, the Bee Gees, one of music's greatest bands, rode the disco bandwagon mightier than any other established group. When disco died, the Bee Gees went from being the biggest band in the world to writing and producing for other musicians because no one wanted to hear them. They became music outcasts for about a decade despite their impressive catalog of songs before the disco craze. It was a classic case of those who live by the boogie, die by the boogie.
As this film wrapped up, Allan Carr, who produced and co-wrote Can't Stop the Music, saw the potential for a huge flop. He changed the name of the film and supposedly ordered that about $10 million be spent on promoting the movie that cost about $10 million to make. But it was a waste of money. Film critics hated it and disco fans – or anyone who went to the movies – stayed away. The movie – called “Can't Stand the Music” by some of its detractors – made $2 million at the box office. Along with Xanadu, it was the inspiration for the Golden Raspberry Awards, and was the deserving “winner” of the Raspberry's first Worst Picture award.
Work on the movie got off to a horrible start when Victor Willis, the cop, quit the Village People during pre-production. Willis was the band's lead singer and co-wrote most of their best-known songs. While he rarely complained about the band's gay image, Willis, who was married at the time to Phylicia Ayres-Allen – later Phylicia Rashad and best known as Bill Cosby's TV wife on The Cosby Show – wanted to make it clear he was straight. He pushed for his then wife to play his girlfriend in the movie. The rest of the band, except leatherman Glenn Hughes, was gay. When Willis quit the band and the film, his wife left the movie too. Ray Simpson, who was a backup singer for years for the Village People, was pushed to the forefront as the group's lead, and took Willis spot in the film. On his best day, Simpson couldn't match Willis' vocals and charisma, and couldn't write songs like the band's former frontman.
The movie opens with Jack Morell (Guttenberg) working as a record store clerk while on roller skates. His boss wants Jack to stay late for inventory, but he can't as his big break await him as the DJ of a discotheque that night. Jack has recorded a song. He wants to play it at the club and get discovered. His name is similar to Jacques Morali, who created the Village People and co-wrote most of their big songs with Willis.
Jack quits and roller-boogies his way out of the store and down the middle of the streets of Manhattan to the opening titles. He does a couple of spin moves and repeatedly raises his hands above his head for no apparent reason. Motorists honk their horns for this idiot to get out of the street, but none are kind enough to the viewing audience to run him over. Amazingly, this isn't even close to being the movie's worst scene. It's impossible to write everything wrong with this film, as I can't even do justice to everything wrong with the opening credits. Besides the silly dancing on skates and hand-raising, much of the opening credits are done using a cheap triple-screen camera trick.
For some unknown reason, Nancy Walker, Rhoda Morgenstern's mother on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the Rhoda spinoff, was chosen to direct this movie. Walker had a few TV directing credits, largely for the two shows previously mentioned, before this. This would be the first and last movie she'd ever direct. The script was awful, but her inexperience with filmmaking and bad actors is on full display in this movie. Can you imagine going from working with Ed Asner, Ted Knight and Mary Tyler Moore to Guttenberg, a group of disco musicians and an Olympic gold medalist making his acting debut? Walker was definitely in over her head – though as she wasn't even five-feet tall that's not saying much. Supposedly she and Perrine had huge personality clashes and after a while, Walker stopped directing any scenes with the actress. With Perrine in nearly every scene, I wonder how much of this movie Walker actually directed.
After the credits are done, Jack goes back to his rather nice Manhattan apartment. He lives with Sam Simpson (Perrine), a recently retired supermodel. The two are friends, and she is very supportive of his music career, but is also concerned about his future. Jack's song, “Samantha,” goes over big at the club, called the Saddle Tramps. Felipe Rose (the Indian) lives near Sam and works at the club. We also get to see Randy Jones (the cowboy) and David Hodo (the construction worker) dance at the club. While they're gay, the three are portrayed as totally straight. There are several subtle and not-so-subtle gay moments in the film, but they don't involve any of the members of the group.
Sam loves Jack's song and has him make a demo tape so she can shop it around to her friends in the music business. While Jack is making the tape, and dancing like someone is squeezing his testicles with a pair of pliers, Sam gets a call from her close friend Lulu (Sokol), who works as the assistant to Sydney (Grimes), Sam's former agent.
Lulu is the spitting image of Tim Curry's Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sydney wants Sam to come out of retirement to do a milk commercial. Sam says no because “the 70s are dead and gone. The 80s are going to be something wonderfully new and different, and so am I.” She's somewhat correct as the 80s saw the death of disco and her acting career.
Upon hearing Jack's demo, Sam likes the songs, but hates his voice. She works to recruit singers, quickly getting the Indian, the cowboy and the construction worker to agree to come to her house that night for dinner and to sing. One of the most bizarre scenes has the construction worker, who sings on TV commercials, daydreaming of being chased by sex-hungry women as he performs “I Love You to Death.”
Our first glimpse of Jenner happens almost 30 minutes into the movie. Had he never shown up, we'd have no objection. He plays Ron White, an uptight tax lawyer who moved to New York City from St. Louis. He's mugged by an armed elderly lady who takes his watch, class ring, wallet and Phi Beta Kappa key, but let's him keep a cake he has with him. The movie moves to Sam's house. The three singing recruits are there with Jack teaching them the words to “Magic Night,” with Lulu getting overheated by the Indian. He returns the flirtation probably thinking Lulu is a transvestite. Ron, angry about getting mugged, shows up at Sam's with the cake. See if this makes any sense: Ron personally delivers the cake to Sam as a present from her sister, his former neighbor in St. Louis. That means the cake traveled for hours if we assume Ron just got off a plane and headed to Sam's home. Talk about a desperate plot reach to get Sam and Ron together.
Accompanied by a friend of Sam is Simpson, the cop, who was found while he was giving singing parking tickets. Adding to the mayhem/mess is Jack's mother (played by June Havoc, whose older sister was Gypsy Rose Lee). After eating, the four singers somehow do a near-perfect first take of the song they learned a few minutes ago. They also do an awful lip synching job. It's typical of the poor editing throughout the film, particularly during the music numbers. Ron leaves in a huff, upset about the company Sam keeps. Is Ron a homophobe? That's impossible as no one is supposed to be gay.
The next day, Sam has no success selling the demo and decides she'll go to see Steve Waits (Sand), an ex-boyfriend and head of Marrakech Records. This is a play on Casablanca Records, the Village People's label and the leading record company of the disco era as well as the label for KISS. Sam wears a low-cut dress and while Steve is very pleased to see her, he can't get off the phone, which was the reason they broke up. Steve agrees to give Sam's band studio time, primarily because he wants to get busy with her. Sand isn't bad as the frenzied music executive, and is one of the very few bright spots among the actors in the movie.
Sam meets Ron again as he's one of Steve's tax attorneys. She's still bothered by Ron leaving the night before, but agrees to take him home as he has a nice body even though he's a total yutz. Ron fails to hail a cab, and you can see it coming a mile away – Sam shows some leg like Claudette Colbert did in It Happened One Night and a couple of taxis stop. Don't worry, we get to see a lot more than her leg later. While at Sam's place, Ron spills lasagna on his pants so off they go. After agreeing to let her use his law office the next day to find a couple of other singers to fill out the group, Ron and Sam end up in bed.
At the audition, Alex Briley (the soldier) is added with Hughes (leatherman) taking the final spot beating out a hatchet juggler, a guy on stilts and a flaming baton twirler. Hughes' story is one of the few true parts of the film. Like his character, Hughes was a tollbooth worker when he answered an ad seeking singers to join the Village People. He gets the job in the movie by singing “Danny Boy” on top of a piano. (See it here.) To see him with that mustache, the hairiest chest known to mankind and all that leather is such a funny sight.
Kicked out of the law office for disrupting work, Ron quits his job to become the Village People's lawyer. The group's got so many hangers-on and they haven't worked together even once. With nowhere to rehearse, Ron, who is in a cut-off shirt and short-shorts, takes Sam, Jack and the group to the YMCA. This is one of the movie's strangest scenes, which is saying a lot. Viewers get a lot out of this segment: a very bad rendition of “YMCA,” the only known Village People song they perform in the movie; some brief male full-frontal nudity; some not-so-brief male full-rear nudity; plenty of ridiculous near-naked homoerotic choreography of men diving, boxing, wrestling, and playing volleyball; a couple of brief topless moments of Perrine in a hot tub; Jenner doing athletic stuff in slow motion such as jumping hurdles and slam-dunking a basketball; and silly camera tricks including showing 24 mini-screens. A male friend of mine has a great story about this movie and specifically this scene. A teenager at the time, he saw the film on HBO. Before it began, he was pleased to see it featured nudity. While you see Perrine's boobs for a few seconds, the longer nudity parts are of guys during the “YMCA” number, much to his disappointment.
The group is next in the studio for the demo with Steve watching. Jack tells him, “This is the sound of the 80s.” Uhh, not even close. When Steve sees the band's outfits he delivers probably the best line in the film: “I hate Halloween.” The band underwhelms as the choreography is awful and the song, “Liberation,” is terrible. Steve says the band isn't good, but offers a contract for a small amount of money as he still has the hots for Sam, who doesn't feel the same and rejects the offer.
Jack and Ron decide the best way to get discovered is to hold a “pay party.” They want to rent a vacant building, charge people $20 each, and have a DJ and live music with the Village People as the main act. Not wanting to use her savings to fund the party, Sam agrees to do the milk commercial as long as the Village People are in it with her. And with that we get the funniest – I don't know if it's intentional or not – scene in the entire film. Dressed in white and silver, the Village People sing “Milkshake,” with Perrine and a bunch of others dancing in a 3½-minute commercial that pays tribute to, well, milkshakes. I can't properly do justice to this segment so watch it here.
The milk industry isn't too keen on the ad as it may be “too controversial for their American family image.” The money from the commercial is going to take a while to collect. No money means the pay-party idea is dead. While not addressed, how can anyone afford to have a 3½-minute commercial air on TV?
Ron's mother (Barbara Rush) saves the day. The rich socialite is putting on a charity event in San Francisco and offers to have the group perform. But there is trouble in paradise. Sam invites Steve to San Francisco under the guise of a romantic weekend, which upsets Ron, who breaks it off with her. Instead of Sam, Jack and his mom get on Steve's plane. Jack's mom signs a deal with Steve while plying him with kreplach. Not that this movie makes much sense, but Steve already saw the group bomb at the demo so why would he sign them to what ends up being a lucrative contract including merchandising rights in Japan?
Back in San Francisco, the band is waiting to make their big debut. The members are on edge with Hughes banging his head against the wall, repeatedly saying, “Leathermen don't get nervous.” They hit the stage and sing “Can't Stop the Music” to an appreciative audience. The credits begin to roll as we assume they become rich and famous. In reality, the film is a train wreck and a colossal failure, and the group's time in the spotlight is over.
The fallout from this film was epic.
Disco died around the time of this movie's release, and this film did nothing to revive it. While there's been nostalgia for it, disco never made a comeback.
With the death of disco, the Village People are strictly small-time performers. Willis returned to the group a couple of times after his failed solo career. Hughes died of lung cancer (he was a smoker) in 2001 at the age of 50. He was buried in his leatherman outfit.
Perrine, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in 1974's Lenny as Lenny Bruce's wife, saw her film career fizzle after Can't Stop the Music. She worked consistently, but not as a star and in nothing memorable.
This was Walker's only film credit as a director. She returned to acting though didn't do much after this film bombed. She made more Bounty paper towel commercials – “the quicker picker upper” – as Rosie the waitress. She was nominated for an Emmy for her guest appearance as Sophia's sister on The Golden Girls. She died in 1992 at the age of 69 of lung cancer, just like Hughes.
Sand worked regularly as a guest star on numerous TV shows, but never made it big as an actor.
This was the only film in which Jenner didn't play himself. The 1976 Olympic decathlon gold-medal winner did some TV shows. He gained notoriety as the stepfather to the Kardashians and more recently for his transition to a woman, Caitlyn.
Carr next film was another disaster, Grease 2. He had success on Broadway, winning a Tony for Best Musical for The Birdcage. He tried to top the colossal failure of Can't Stop the Music in 1989 as producer of the Academy Awards show. He had an actress dress as Snow White team up with Rob Lowe to sing a parody to the tune of “Proud Mary.” For that, Disney sued him. Carr died in 1999 of liver cancer at the age of 62.
Guttenberg was the only actor from Can't Stop the Music to move on to bigger, but not really better, things. He had a successful career in a series of awful movies including four Police Academy movies, two Cocoons, Three Men and a Baby and a sequel to that. His curious longevity in film with little talent was part of a 1995 episode of The Simpsons. The song of the Stonecutters, a secret fraternal organization of which Homer joins, includes the line, “Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star? We do. We do.”
As for the film itself, while Can't Stop the Music completely bombed at the box office and was the inspiration for the Golden Raspberry Awards given to the worst films and actors, it has become a cult favorite. The film is considered high camp and unintentionally hysterical. I've seen it at least a dozen times and am still amazed that something this bad was not only created but efforts were made to share it with the world. If you've got Netflix, you can watch it right now – and “do the milkshake!”