Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
Stars: Joey King, Abby Quinn
Writers: Ginny Mohler, Brittany Shaw
Directors: Lydia Dean Pilcher, Ginny Mohler
In Theaters and on Streaming Services
Think they treat you badly at work? Consider the subjects of Radium Girls, an infuriating and engrossing drama based on the true story of 1920s factory women who endured deadly radiation poisoning — contracted from the dabs of fluorescent paint they applied to watch faces day after day, year after year.
In history, the U.S. Radium Company employed hundreds of young women at its East Orange, NJ, plant, paying top wages for their painstaking hours tracing luminous radium paint onto the faces of watches and airplane instruments. To keep the paintbrush tips pointy, they were told to lick the brush between each number — the worst possible advice, as the highly radioactive paint was slowly absorbed into their bones and teeth.
“If you swallow any radium, it will make your cheeks rosy,” they were told.
To make matters worse, as one young woman after another fell to jaw cancer, the company doctor assigned them all with the same fictional diagnosis: untreatable syphilis. Of course, rather than face public humiliation, nearly all of them went to their graves quietly, thinking they’d had no one to blame but themselves.
All those lowlights are grimly enumerated here by co-directors Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler (Mohler also co-wrote the script with Brittany Shaw). The name of the offending company is changed to American Radium and the real-life drama’s primary characters are consolidated into two fictional sisters, Bessie and Josephine — heartbreakingly portrayed, respectively, by Joey King (Hulu’s The Act) and Abby Quinn (Little Women). Tentatively asserting their rights in a world where women have been voting for barely a decade, the sisters lean on each other for moral — and at times physical — support. The actresses bring just the right blend of defiance and vulnerability to the roles (although the illusion of living in a bygone era is sometimes thwarted by their decidedly Millennial speech patterns, particularly when they drop “t’s” from words like “but” and “important”).
If you want the full story, by all means read Kate Moore’s exhaustive 506-page account, Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, which teems with colorful, tragic characters and despicable corporate shills. The film, however, is an excellent and soul-stirring primer; a corporate horror story made all the more terrifying because it’s true. Spared the effects of radiation because she instinctively feels licking those brushes isn’t a good idea — and facing constant ridicule at work for that reason — Bessie watches with growing concern as Josephine’s teeth loosen and fall out. Her cheeks seem to suffer from constant sunburn, despite the fact that she’s inside all day. And when the oily company doctor (Neal Huff) arrives at the women’s home late one night with his scandalous diagnosis, they know for sure something is very wrong — Josephine’s never even had a boyfriend.
Plucky in that uniquely cinematic sense, the women get themselves a lawyer and try to enlist their co-workers to join them in a lawsuit against the company. But the money is too good and the work environment is relatively pleasant, so few want anything to do with the suit. In fact, many are openly hostile to the idea.
Eventually Radium Girls winds its way to a climactic courtroom scene. At this point, after having let the story unfold at a satisfying pace, the film hurtles into unrealistic overdrive: Events that in a real court would require months of wrangling unfold here in a matter of days. (In the actual proceedings, company lawyers cruelly dragged the matter out for years in hopes that the plaintiffs would die before they’d have to pay out a single penny.)
Reflecting the real-life resolution of the Radium Girls case, the film ends on a note that is neither stand-up-and-cheer nor shake-your-head-and-cry. For the most part, outrage is the order of the day in Radium Girls; anger that corporate greed could have so callously doomed loyal employees to protracted, painful deaths — and the nagging suspicion that there remain quarters of our world where things have not changed all that much.
Featured image: Still from Radium Girls (Juno Films)
It’s hard to make a more iconic Halloween movie than Halloween, but that’s not to say that there aren’t legions of other films where Halloween plays a critical role. Much like Christmas, Halloween is such a big holiday in the American imagination that it appears in a number of films that aren’t directly about Halloween, or even horror. Last year, the Post took a look at “The OTHER Classic Christmas Movies,” so it’s only fair that we do the same for Halloween.
10. Batman Forever (1995)
For some reason, the first three modern Batman films all rotated around some kind of holiday celebration. 1989’s Batman featured the Gotham City bicentennial, 1992’s Batman Returns took place at Christmas, and 1995’s Batman Forever landed on Halloween. The holiday doesn’t have a huge impact on the overall plot, but it shows up significantly later in the film. Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and The Riddler (Jim Carrey), having discovered Batman’s secret identity and fool an unusually dim Alfred (Michael Gough) using Halloween costumes. With Alfred’s guard down, the villains and their henchmen invade Wayne Manor, destroying much of the mansion and Batcave while kidnapping Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) and setting up a final showdown between the villains, Batman (Val Kilmer), and his new partner, Robin (Chris O’Donnell).
9. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
EVERYBODY knows that Meet Me in St. Louis is where we got “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But not everyone quite recalls that the movie basically takes place over most of a year from 1903 until the World’s Fair opens in 1904. The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Sally Benson, which was originally presented as a string of short stories in The New Yorker. The Halloween sequence represents a pivotal moment in the plot’s central relationship. Esther (Judy Garland) has been in love with John (Tom Drake) from a distance for a while. However, her sister Tootie alleges that John hurt her while Tootie was out for trick-or-treat. Esther attacks John in a rage, but Tootie admits that John actually protected her and sister Agnes from the police after a bungled prank. Esther’s apology to John leads to their first kiss.
8. Mean Girls (2004)
Tina Fey took on a terrifying subject when she adapted Mean Girls from Rosalind Wiseman’s book, Queen Bees and Wannabees, and that was the teenage trauma associated with high school cliques. Mean Girls covers a lot of ground when it comes to how young women interact, including social expectations versus reality, the spitefulness that can arise in a compressed setting like a high school, and how kids are often unaware of the damage that words can do. One key scene takes place at a Halloween party; the lead-in starts off light, playing off of the ongoing trend of hyper-sexualized costumes, but it takes a turn when Cady (Lindsay Lohan) is betrayed at the party, setting her on a course that affects the rest of the film.
7. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
A soul-crushing novel made into a soul-crushing movie, We Need to Talk About Kevin deals with one of the worst possible nightmares for a parent: what do you do when your child is the one who conducts a school massacre? The epistolary novel by Lionel Shriver was made into a haunting film starring Tilda Swinton as Kevin’s mother, Eva. As Eva drives home one night, the demons plaguing her and her family seem to come to life, moving in and out of the shadows as she sees them out her car window. It is, however, only Halloween, but the frightening vista underscores Eva’s own inner turmoil and the tragedy that has played out over the course of Kevin’s life.
6. The Harry Potter Series (2001-2011)
Take a hugely successful book series. Recruit appealing newcomers for the young leads. Add some of the most accomplished adult actors in England. Never stray too far from the books. Spend ten years becoming of the one best loved movie series of all time. We all watched that work for the Harry Potter series. Obviously, the magic-based series lends itself to Halloween. Moreover, since every book roughly covers one school year, it’s easy to slot those scenes in the plot. Each book at least references Halloween. Not all of the films touch on it, although there are recurring references. A running concern is the fact that Voldemort was originally defeated on Halloween Night. Rowling also tied important events to the holiday in the first four books. Easily one of the most memorable Halloween scenes is in the first book and first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. When a Mountain Troll gets into the school, the student body panics. Only Harry and Ron keep their cool to try to find Hermione. Making their way to the girls’ restroom, they find Hermione under attack by the creature. Encouraged by Hermione, Ron performs a spell that uses the troll’s own club to knock him out. Not everyone is pleased (Quirrell is a double-agent, Snape is annoyed), but Professor McGonagall gives the lads points for saving their friend.
5. The Crow (1994)
The supernatural revenge thriller based on the comic book series by James O’Barr found tragedy in the on-set death of leading man Brandon Lee and triumph in the critical and financial success of the film and its soundtrack. The plot turns around October 30th, once known as Devil’s Night in Detroit for a phenomenon of arsons taking place on that date over several decades; on one Devil’s Night, Eric Draven and his fiancée, Shelly, are murdered on the day before their wedding (which would have been Halloween). Draven returns one year later to deal out harsh vengeance on those responsible. The city, already portrayed in a dark and gothic manner by director Alex Proyas, also has the trappings of Halloween, including trick-or-treating children that pass Draven in costume.
4. Watchmen (2009)
Based on the medium-changing comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (seriously; it’s on Time’s list of 100 Best Novels from 1923 onward), Zach Snyder’s Watchmen takes great pains to present an adaptation that’s as close to the page and panel as possible. The story takes place in an alternative 1985 where Nixon is still president and America won the Vietnam War thanks to the intervention of the super-powered Dr. Manhattan. Though the story constantly jumps in time, the main narrative is set in 1985 on the verge of Halloween . . . and nuclear holocaust. Halloween imagery sneaks in at the edges, and several critical plot developments (many of which are horrifying in their own right) occur across October 31 and November 1.
3. The Karate Kid (1984)
One of the more memorable Halloween scenes from any high school-related film happens in The Karate Kid. At a Halloween dance, Daniel (Ralph Macchio) wants to be with Ali (Elisabeth Shue), but he’s been trying avoid the bullying of Johnny and his Cobra Kai buddies. Daniel cleverly dresses in a shower costume to conceal his identity. But when Johnny breaks off from the other Cobra Kais (who are all dressed in matching skeleton costumes and facepaint) to smoke weed in the bathroom, Daniel takes the opportunity to rig up a hose and douse Johnny. The Cobra Kais chase Daniel down and deal him a violent beating until Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) intervenes. Miyagi dismantles the bullies by himself and helps treat Daniel’s injuries. Soon after, Miyagi begins to train Daniel so that he can confront the Kais at the All-Valley Tournament.
2. E.T. (1982)
Is there anyone who doesn’t know E.T.? What you might not recall is that Halloween actually plays a crucial role in advancing the plot. E.T. wants to “phone home” so that his people can come back for him. However, Elliott and his brother Michael need to sneak E.T. and the communication array he’s built to the nearby woods where they’ll have a better chance of making contact. That’s where Halloween comes in. The boys use that most reliable of disguises (from a kid’s point of view): a white sheet ghost costume. They first have to convince their mother that they’re actually taking their little sister, Gertie, out, which works. Although a chance encounter with a kid dressed as Yoda distracts the alien, they are still able to get him to the forest to make his call.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Speaking of important scenes occurring at Halloween . . . the climactic action of To Kill a Mockingbird happens on Halloween night after a pageant where Scout is dressed as a giant ham. As Scout and her brother Jem walk through the woods toward home, they are attacked. Scout can’t see much because of her costume, but she realizes that someone else stopped their attacker. It soon becomes clear that they were attacked by Bob Ewell, whom Atticus had shamed in court. The man who saved them was their reclusive neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley. As Atticus and Sheriff Tate piece together events, they realize that Boo stabbed Ewell, killing him. However, Tate decides to list it as an accident, sparing Boo the attention and circus of a trial.
Featured image: leolintang / Shutterstock
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute
Stars: Sterling Hurst, Emily Dunlop, Matt Chastain
Writer/Director: Matt Chastain
In Select Theaters and on Most Streaming Services
One of the reasons faith-based movies don’t ordinarily clean up at the box office is because the faithful too seldom see themselves accurately represented in them — and also because to the uninitiated, believers in these movies seem kind of, well, weird.
Those opposing perceptions are attacked head-on in Small Group, a good-natured faith-based comedy that explores the tentative dance Americans choreograph every day as the faithful and faithless try to find common ground without sacrificing their core beliefs — or lack thereof.
Sterling Hurst stars as Scott, a documentary filmmaker who’s been hired by a sleazy film producer (Robert Riechel Jr.) to make a movie that rips the cloak of hypocrisy from a community of Atlanta Christians, revealing them to be the fakers he’s convinced they are. A generally good-natured agnostic with no religious axe to grind, Scott at first resists. But a job is a job, so he dons a pair of Google Glass-like camera/eyeglasses and embeds himself in the fellowship, recording every interaction along the way.
The film merrily skirts the probability that this sort of Candid Camera scam would most likely land someone in jail. But Hurst is such an appealing actor, reminiscent of Daniel Stern in his goofily clueless Home Alone days, that we immediately give his character the benefit of the doubt. Along for the ride is Scott’s wife Mary (Emily Dunlop of TV’s Doom Patrol), trying to be supportive but uneasy about making “friends” with the subjects of her hubby’s guerrilla documentary.
Small Group wrings its laughs — and a few thoughtful moments — from the couple’s fish-in-baptismal-water experiences. An uncomfortable Sunday service seems to them more like a rock concert than a worship event, and they’re distressed when their brand-new red letter Bible proves no match for the digital Scriptures their pew mates wield on their smart phones.
Of course, once they’re enlisted into a small group of church members, the couple soon discover this is not the flock of weirdos they’d expected. And once Scott’s ruse is inevitably discovered, his enraged subjects have to decide whether or not there’s a place in their hearts for unbelieving — and occasionally duplicitous — outsiders.
It’s all as light as an Easter morning balloon launch — until the film takes an unexpectedly dramatic, almost documentarian turn when Scott is invited to accompany the men folk on a mission trip to Guatemala City. There, writer/director Matt Chastain (who also plays one of the small group guys) turns his camera on the real-life squalor of the city’s slums — and the work of Engadi Ministries, a program that tries to save young men from hurling themselves into the dead-end violence of local street gangs. Through Scott’s eyes, we meet several of these youngsters — their bodies covered with tattoos, their eyes ablaze with suspicion and anger — playing themselves with riveting intensity.
It’s quite a transition, admirably pulled off by first-time director Chastain, who momentarily sheds the friendly confines of an off-kilter Sunday School comedy to dip his toes into a kind of street-smart cinematic realism that owes more to Rossellini’s Rome: Open City than to Heaven Is for Real.
Too often, faith-based movies get written off as second-class cinematic citizens. But the genre has given us some of Martin Scorsese’s most thoughtful work (The Last Temptation of Christ; Silence), more than a few Best Picture Oscar Winners (Chariots of Fire and A Man for All Seasons among them), and even a classic comedy (Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty). Small Group doesn’t quite breathe that same rarified air, yet it succeeds in using film to explore the kinds of crosstalk that can build bridges among people of all faiths — or no faith at all.
Featured image: Still from Small Group (Limesoda Films)
Herb Alpert Is…
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
Stars: Herb Alpert, Sting, Billy Bob Thornton, Lani Hall, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendez
Director: John Scheinfeld
In Theaters and on Video On Demand
It’s always a good feeling when a movie offers reassurance that you are, despite your darkest suspicions, absolutely normal. That’s how I felt while watching the new documentary about Herb Alpert, the now-84-year-old trumpeter who revolutionized popular music in the 1960s with his Tijuana Brass.
The affirming moment comes about a half-hour into the film, at the point where Alpert releases his 1965 record Whipped Cream and Other Delights, the album that featured on its cover model Dolores Erickson wearing nothing but a mound of whipped cream. She was, as they say, quite something.
“I was obsessed with that woman,” says Police frontman Sting, who was an adolescent at the time.
“I actually had guilt,” confesses Billy Bob Thornton. “I would sneak into my mom’s room and look at the cover of that album when she was in the kitchen.”
And no, it does nothing to dim my fevered recollections of that time when, in the film, Alpert reveals that the model was covered not with dessert topping, but shaving cream.
The music was pretty good, too. I would defy anyone, no matter their age or musical inclinations, to sit through Herb Alpert Is… and resist tapping their toes, humming along, or even rising to their feet for a dance or two. “The Lonely Bull,” “Tijuana Taxi,” “Taste of Honey,” “This Guy’s in Love With You,” along with dozens more Alpert instant standards, jockey for position in a soundtrack that is so infectious at times you wish everyone would stop talking (even when the talking heads include the likes of Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendez, Quest Love, and Bill Moyers).
Still, in the hands of director John Scheinfeld (The Happy Days of Gary Marshall, Who is Harry Nilsson?) the story of Herb Alpert is a lot more than a snappy greatest hits collection; it’s a deep dive into the agonies and ecstasies that drive profoundly creative people like Alpert — a guy who not only recorded some of the 20th century’s most memorable music, but also made his mark in the fields of painting and sculpture.
Narrating his own story, Alpert is an affable, if somewhat selective guide. For reasons known only to him, he glosses over the early days of Tijuana Brass, essentially ignoring the rather remarkable fact that the first TJB records consisted primarily of Alpert alone, recording in his garage, relentlessly overdubbing his own trumpet solos to create the illusion of a full band. Only when audiences began demanding live performances did he hire a team of crack studio musicians to play with him.
Besides his music wizardry, Alpert also possessed a keen nose for talent, and along with his partner Jerry Moss (the “M” in their label, A&M Records) he released albums by a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s legends including Carole King, The Carpenters, Peter Frampton, Janet Jackson and Chuck Mangione. Many of A&M’s titles still reside on the list of best-selling albums of all time.
Still, Alpert insists, there was a dark side to his fairy tale.
“I’m famous, I’m rich,” he recalls thinking at the height of his fame. “But I’m miserable.”
Admittedly, it’s hard to really feel bad for a guy whose chief problem is he’s too successful. Still, a gallery of archive footage does seem to reveal a man who pastes on his dimpled smile while cranking it up onstage, but whose demeanor crashes the moment the curtain closes.
He ultimately found happiness sharing his success — with his clearly adoring wife, singer Lani Hall, and a growing circle of charitable groups. Aside from the soundtrack you never want to stop, Herb Alpert Is… becomes most satisfying in its coda, exploring the musician’s latter-day obsession with promoting arts in America’s schools. Reading in a newspaper that Harlem’s storied School of the Arts was going under due to a lack of funding, he rode to the rescue with a half-million-dollar grant — just one installment in the more than $150 million he’s donated to non-profits over the years.
Here the camera follows Alpert through the halls of the Harlem campus, stopping in classrooms to hear students feel their way through compositions classical, jazz, and pop.
To these kids, he’s a nice old man who has taken an interest in their aspirations. To the rest of us, Herb Alpert emerges as a reminder of our youthful passions — and our responsibility to help today’s kids realize theirs.
You can do that, Herb Alpert Is… says — even if you haven’t sold 72 million records.
Featured image: Still from the documentary Herb Alpert Is…(Abramorama)
See all Movies for the Rest of Us.
Featured image: kchiu / Shutterstock
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
Stars: Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan
Writer: Christian Thorpe
Director: Roger Michell
Blackbird, the story of a terminally ill woman (Susan Sarandon) summoning her family for one last weekend together, doesn’t take us anywhere we haven’t been before — but with a cast that boasts 12 Oscar, 13 Golden Globe and 5 Emmy nominations among them, it’s one first-class ride.
Matriarch Lily (Sarandon) is suffering from one of those undisclosed movie illness that is progressively but rapidly weakening her body. Right now she’s having trouble walking and one arm is useless, but as more than one character observes, “She’s not so bad.” Lily is bad enough, however, that she and her physician hubby Paul (Sam Neill, whose piercing eyes nearly match Sarandon’s in laser-like intensity) have decided she should end it all now, while she can still lift her own glass of hemlock (actually, phenobarbital).
But first, of course, there must be a final, not-so-fun family weekend at Lily and Paul’s plush seaside home — for all movies about life and death must take place by the water.
The kids arrive one by one. Here comes Jennifer (Kate Winslet), the “good” girl who has spent her entire life desperately trying to measure up to her mother’s expectations — and projecting those same unreasonable goals onto her son Jonathan (Anson Boon). Jennifer has a nebbish husband (The Office’s Rainn Wilson) who is a font of historical and scientific trivia but clueless when it comes to making actual human connections.
Next comes Anna (Mia Wasikowska) with her girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus) in tow. Anna is immediately confronted with questions about why she almost never has contact with the rest of the family. Don’t worry — we’ll get the answer soon enough.
And finally there’s Liz (Lindsay Duncan), Lily and Paul’s oldest and closest friend. Just how close? Patience. That particularly juicy reveal will have to wait until just before Lily’s fatal gulp.
For reasons known only to Lily, the weekend must include a non-chronological celebration of Christmas, complete with presents and a freshly chopped-down Christmas tree. Unfortunately, Lily’s Christmas soon devolves into a high-stakes version of Frank Costanza’s Festivus — with an emphasis on the traditional Airing of Grievances.
Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Hyde Park on the Hudson) is just the guy to corral all this histrionic star power. He gives each cast member ample time to strut their stuff in the service of a cluttered script that bristles with long-simmering family conflicts — all standing patiently in line, waiting to be tackled one-by-one as the film’s brisk hour-and-a-half proceeds apace.
In lesser hands, Blackbird (the meaning of the title is, to my knowledge, never really addressed) would rank little higher than your standard issue high-calorie, low-protein Hallmark Channel movie. But the entire cast hurls itself into this sentimental stew with such abandon you come away from Lily’s farewell party unexpectedly sated.
Just don’t drink the digestif.
Featured image: Rainn Wilson as Michael, Sam Neill as Paul, Bex Taylor-Klaus as Chris, Mia Wasikowska as Anna, Lindsay Duncan as Liz, Susan Sarandon as Lily, and Anson Boon as Jonathan. Blackbird arrives in theaters and on demand on September 18, 2020 from Screen Media. (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Screen Media)
The Library That Dolly Built (September 21)
There’s a smattering of classic songs in this documentary about country icon Dolly Parton, but the focus is on the star’s offstage work for the past 25 years: her Imagination Library. Summoning a powerful cocktail of charm, determination, and shrewd business sense, Dolly mounts a small program to put more than 100 million free books into the hands of children, first in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee, but soon marshaling an army of allies to expand far into the English-speaking world. Yes, it’s an adoring portrait. But doggone it, the lady’s just plain adorable.
Belushi (Showtime, November 22)
Nearly 40 years after John Belushi’s death of a drug overdose in an L.A. hotel, documentarian R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) collaborated with the Saturday Night Live star’s widow, Judith Belushi Pisano, to mount this definitive look at the tragic star’s meteoric career. Through previously unreleased interviews, voice recordings, and archival footage, the film not only explores Belushi’s uncommon success (he simultaneously had a top-rated TV show, a No.1 music record, and the nation’s top box-office film) but also his enduring impact on comedy and music. (Note: The film’s premiere shifted from September to November as we were going to press.)
Mystery Road (Acorn TV, September)
No Country for Old Men meets True Detective in the second six-episode series of this dust-choked, death-soaked drama set on the craggy coast of western Australia. It starts with a decapitated body floating among the mangroves and ends with an epic shootout, and in between, Aaron Pederson mesmerizes as a brooding indigenous cop. Directors Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair, themselves indigenous Australians, pause to contemplate Australia’s complex social structure — fractured in ways that often echo the American experience.
This article is featured in the September/October 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Courtesy Land Grant Films
Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Director: Mary Wharton
Stars: Jimmy Carter, Garth Brooks, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Larry Gatlin
In theaters and virtual theater video on demand
Bill Clinton may have been the first U.S. President born after World War II, but as this tuneful, nostalgic documentary reminds us, it was Jimmy Carter who first harnessed the energy of rock and roll to catapult himself to the highest office in the land.
James Earl Carter, born in 1924, went to war to the music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey — but he was a Georgia boy whose childhood soundtrack was dominated by the gospel tunes he sang in church and the barn dance music that crackled through the air from the Grand Ole Opry.
By the time he ran for President in 1976, Carter’s musical tastes had already morphed into a love of country-tinged rock and roll, and he brought that sensibility to his campaign.
In fact, if not for his rockabilly roots, the film suggests that Carter might not have become president at all. Director Mary Wharton — a long-time producer/director for PBS’s American Masters series — explores how, in the early days of his campaign, the candidate would come up with desperately needed cash simply by calling on the likes of The Marshall Tucker Band or the Allman Brothers to drop what they were doing to mount a fundraising concert.
“We’d have a concert on Saturday,” a former campaign worker recalls, “and use that money to buy advertising on Wednesday.”
As Carter himself tells Wharton, “It was the Allman Brothers who put me in the White House.”
The film makes clear that Carter was no simple opportunist; his love of music infused every aspect of his life, from the spiritual to the political. Bob Dylan marvels that on their first meeting in the White House, Carter recited many of the songwriter’s lyrics, weaving them into a personal and religious testimony.
“I realized my songs had reached into the establishment world,” Dylan tells the camera. “It made me a little uneasy.”
After his arrival in the White House, Carter filled those historic halls with music of all sorts: giants of classical, rock, gospel, and jazz all took their turns on the stage. One of the film’s most disarming passages involves trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie coaxing the prez, who famously got his start as a peanut farmer, into sort-of singing an awkward rendition of “Hot Peanuts.” Carter hosted the likes of Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, Cher (who drank from her finger bowl) and Willie Nelson (who came to D.C. straight from incarceration after a drug bust in Jamaica).
If music enlivened Carter’s White House years, it also saw him through his darkest hours as president: At the height of the Iran hostage crisis he closed himself into his office and listened to Willie Nelson sing gospel songs.
In the end, the Carter/music connection was not enough to save his presidency. Still, there’s the sense here that it is music that continues to feed his soul — and has helped him become our greatest ex-president.
“I think music is the best proof,” Carter concludes, “that people have (at least) one thing in common, no matter where they live, no matter what language they speak.”
Featured image: Jimmy Carter with Willie Nelson, 1980 (Credit: Courtesy The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)
The Personal History of David Copperfield
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
Stars: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Morfydd Clark, Rosalind Eleazar
In theaters; streaming dates to be announced
Forget every Charles Dickens screen adaptation you’ve ever seen — Armando Ianucci’s take on David Copperfield is the funniest, freshest, most fulfilling cinematic foray into Victorian England since, maybe, ever.
You would be hard-pressed to imagine a more appealing cast — from the top-tier stars to the smallest supporting players — than in this lush, sentimental retelling of Dickens’ ultimate up-from-the-gutter story. Effervescent where previous versions are stodgy; irreverent where others are ponderously deferential to the source material, this is a Copperfield for the 21st Century: energetic, sprightly, and all-embracing.
For those who were not compelled to read Dickens’ 600-plus-page 1850 novel in elementary school, the story involves a young man who, after an appropriately dark Victorian childhood in a British workhouse, finds his way into the home of some wealthy relatives and then forges his own place in the world. Dickens infused a lot of his own life into the story (He called the title character “my favorite child”), which makes it perhaps the most engaging of his novels. It’s also his most free-form work — Dickens had no idea how some plot elements would pan out even as he was still serializing it — a quality that writer-director Ianucci (The Death of Stalin) puts to excellent use. Through clever transitions and comically mannered delivery, he finds a subliminal chipperness in the material that has eluded other filmmakers (Although George Cukor did give it a go in 1935 when he cast W.C. Fields as young David’s kind-hearted benefactor Mr. Micawber). It’s a trick Baz Luhrman tried in his version of Romeo and Juliet, but while his effort felt shoehorned into the Elizabethan universe, here the ploy fits as nicely as a gentlewoman’s high-button shoes.
As the wide-eyed, ever-optimistic title character, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) has us rooting for him from the moment he appears on screen. Even while employing an admirably diverse cast, Ianucci’s decision to cast an actor of Indian descent may seem bold. But it’s totally in line with Britain’s long history of trade with the subcontinent and the racially mixed families that settled in and around London at the time. In any case, Patel makes a perfect Copperfield, his wide-open face a palate on which he paints successive expressions of humiliation, wonder, and ultimately triumph. Tilda Swinton is adorable (yes, you read that right) as his eccentric aunt. And Hugh Laurie should be Oscar nomination-bound for his performance as David’s perpetually confused but ultimately sharp-as-a-tack uncle. As the unctuous-but-scheming Uriah Heep, Ben Whishaw is gleefully infuriating, his eyes beading menacingly from under a Dumb and Dumber haircut.
The undisputed all-time master of opening sentences, Dickens starts Copperfield’s narrative with this line: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
True to his source, Iannucci begins his movie with those same words. And as he squeezes every possible laugh from Dickens’ tale while leaving plenty of room for authentic sentiment, Iannucci becomes a hero of sorts himself, boldly throwing open new windows on a story we thought we already knew.
Featured image: Dev Patel and Hugh Laurie in the film THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Photo by Dean Rogers. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
See all Movies for the Rest of Us.
Featured image: Oleksandr Fagaulin / Shutterstock
It’s unusual, but not unheard of, for a TV series to break out into theaters as the regular show continues to run on television. It’s slightly more common with animation (or puppetry), with examples like The Simpsons, South Park, and The Muppet Show all pulling it off during their runs. In terms of live-action, the list is much smaller, with notable efforts being the 1960s Batman and The X-Files, which scored a hit film between seasons five and six of the series. However, Dark Shadows managed to put a feature film on the big screen featuring a number of main cast members while the series continued to run daily. It wasn’t a surprise that the show bucked tradition or expectations; after all, it had been doing just that since its 1966 debut.
Dark Shadows was the brainchild of Dan Curtis, a writer, director, and producer whose output had a seismic impact on the horror television genre. Over the years, Curtis hopped back and forth between television and film. His 1975 TV movie Trilogy of Terror, based on three stories by Richard Matheson, is routinely listed among the best horror films ever made for the medium. He adapted a number of classic horror novels for TV to great success, including the 1973 version of Dracula with Jack Palance in the lead. In the 1980s, he adapted Herman Wouk’s World War II novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance into a pair of mini-series that were nominated for a combined 19 Emmy Awards, Remembrance winning for Best Mini-Series. He also directed The Night Stalker, the film that introduced Jeff Rice’s intrepid reporter character Carl Kolchak to wider audiences; the 1972 TV film was the highest rated TV film of all time at that point, with 48 percent of all TV viewers in the U.S. tuned into the movie on the night it ran. That film led to a hit sequel, The Night Strangler, and the spin-off series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Curtis formed the idea of Dark Shadows around a dream he had of a woman on a train. Encouraged by his wife, his successfully pitched his concept of a Gothic soap opera to ABC in 1965. He teamed up with Art Wallace, a seasoned writer with years of genre TV experience, to flesh out the overall idea and story bible for the new series. Wallace and Curtis wrote the first eight weeks of the series (40 episodes), and then Wallace traded back and forth with screenwriter and playwright Francis Swann on the next nine weeks.
The series began by leaning on the more traditional tropes of Gothic romance, with Curtis’s “woman on the train” becoming Victoria Winters, who was drawn into a Jane Eyre-inspired plotline. Less than a year into the run of the show, ratings were less than great. In an effort to boost interest, Curtis went all-in on the horror angle by introducing vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid. The show exploded in popularity, picking up three million viewers in a year. The daily timeslot (usually 4 p.m., though it had runs at 3:30 p.m.) gave teens the chance to discover the show after school, and they became a solid component of the audience. Emboldened by their success with Barnabas, the creators went full steam ahead with ghosts, witches, werewolves, and more. Time-travel became a component, with entire weeks of the series spent in different time periods; of course, Barnabas (as a vampire) and others could appear up and down the timeline, while some actors simply played their ancestors or descendants as needed.
With the show, and Barnabas in particular, taking off, Curtis started pitching for a theatrical film spin-off and sold MGM on the idea. One early concept had the creative team re-editing series episodes into a film, but that was abandoned in favor of doing a tight, film-length version of Barnabas’s main story. Curtis and the writers and producers of the daily show coordinated to write out the necessary members of the main cast for when they would needed during the six-week film shoot. Some of the same sets and locations were used. However, the film milieu obviously provided greater leverage for violence and scares, allowing for things that were out on TV (like dripping blood from vampire fang-induced neck wounds) to be shown. The film was released on August 25, 1970, and while it wasn’t a runaway success, it did double its budget, allowing MGM to greenlight a second film.
The Night of Dark Shadows trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Unfortunately, the ratings for the daily show started to taper off. After a high of seven to nine million viewers a day in mid-to-late 1969, viewership went into a skid. There are a number of theories for this, running from the 1970 recession forcing budget cuts, to the loss of ratings leading to local stations dropping the show and feeding a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Whatever the final reason, Dark Shadows aired its last episode on April 2, 1971. A few months later, the second film, Night of Dark Shadows, hit theaters. This time, due to the unavailability of Jonathan Frid, who had gone on to other projects after the cancellation of the series, the movie focused on Barnabas Collins’s descendant Quentin and the witch Angelique. At the last minute, MGM forced Curtis to cut more than 35 minutes from the film to get its run-time down; all involved felt this hurt the film in a number of ways. When the movie opened, it made back its budget, but that was it for the original TV and film incarnations of Dark Shadows.
Over the years, the show has been subject to a number of reboot attempts. NBC put a new version on the air in early 1991, starring Ben Cross as Barnabas. Initial ratings were huge, but the show was quickly derailed by pre-emptions brought on by ongoing coverage of the Gulf War. The show was cancelled after a single season. A pilot was made for the WB in 2004, but didn’t get a series order. Tim Burton directed a new big-screen version in 2012, which starred his frequent collaborator Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins; although the film made money, it was something of an overall miss. Jonathan Frid put in a cameo for the film, which was his last screen appearance before he passed away that year. Since the fall of 2019, Warner Bros. Television and The CW have been developing a sequel to the original series, tentatively titled Dark Shadows: Reincarnation. Dan Curtis passed in 2006, but his daughters Tracy and Cathy hold the rights to the series and are involved in the production of the potential new version.
The work of Dan Curtis in general and Dark Shadows in particular continues to resonate across media. The X-Files creator Chris Carter spoken often of the debt his show owed to Kolchak. You can see its echoes in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, among others, and in the number of daytime soaps that adopted supernatural plotlines, including Days of Our Lives and the almost entirely supernatural General Hospital spin-off, Port Charles. Perhaps a new version will jump up and seize the zeitgeist again; maybe it will even be popular enough to produce new films while the new series runs. If Dark Shadows has taught us anything, it’s that nothing stays dead for long.
Featured image: Ironika / Shutterstock
Generation X readily acknowledges the films of John Hughes as bedrock cultural experiences of their ’80s and ’90s youth. At the same time, a number of other films would represent a darker undercurrent of that generation’s experiences, far away from fictional Shermer, Illinois, including Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge (1986), Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1989), and Allan Moyle’s Times Square (1980). Put off by parts of his Times Square experience, Moyle resolved not to direct again, but ten years later, he was back behind the camera for a film he’d written about alienation, depression, the burden of expectation, the exploitation of kids by school officials, and a primordial version of today’s internet culture. That film was Pump Up the Volume, a film both uniquely of its time while being many steps ahead of it.
Moyle first drew notice for 1980’s Times Square, a film that he co-wrote the story for and directed. The movie was produced by Robert Stigwood, famous for managing The Bee Gees and Cream, producing for the stage with shows like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, and producing films like Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Aware of the punk and new wave scenes that had already coalesced in New York City, Stigwood saw an occasion to produce another huge double-album soundtrack. Moyle just wanted to tell his story about two young women finding solace in each other and music. Frustrated to the point of quitting over Stigwood’s demand for more musical sequences, Moyle quit the movie before it was done. Stigwood got his musical scenes, but also cut some of the more emphatic lesbian overtones of the relationship between the two main characters. The resulting soundtrack turned out to be a tremendous artifact of its time, featuring acts like The Ramones, Roxy Music, The Cure, XTC, Lou Reed, The Patti Smith Group, Gary Numan, Talking Heads, and Joe Jackson. The film has since developed a cult reputation, but the overall situation and its failure drove Moyle from movies for a decade.
When he returned, it was with a script that he had originally started as a novel. The story concerned a pirate radio personality who was connecting with a teen audience by being real and foul-mouthed while playing music that related to an outsider sensibility. SC Entertainment out of Toronto decided to develop the movie, and they managed to talk Moyle into directing again. Still reluctant, Moyle said he’d walk if he couldn’t get the right lead; that turned out to be Christian Slater, who displayed some of the qualities that Moyle was looking for with his turn in Heathers.
Released in August 1990, Pump Up the Volume is definitely of its time. It exists in a space just prior to the advent of the World Wide Web. While pay services like Prodigy and CompuServe were in use, there were still wide portions of the U.S. that hadn’t even heard of email. Comically large “Zack Morris” mobile phones existed, but weren’t remotely in the kind of widespread use that would follow later in the ’90s. That’s part of what makes the pirate radio station concept so appealing; teens really did listen to the radio in the ’80s, and that, along with both mainstream and underground music magazines, was one of the ways that kids (especially those in outsider social groups) learned both about new music and social issues. Ads in magazines like Maximumrocknroll and other avenues enabled a healthy tape trading culture, wherein teens would mail each other music or videotapes of concerts and club shows to facilitate the spread of bands they liked.
And that’s reflected in the broadest theme of the film: communication. Mark Hunter (Slater), a smart new student whose father works for the school district, is a loner and has trouble connecting, so he creates his shock-jock persona, alternately called “Happy Harry Hard-On” or “Hard Harry” and begins talking about everything that’s bothering him personally and socially behind the anonymity of radio and a voice modulator. For Mark, it’s initially about the release, but then he begins to realize that people are actually listening.
This taps into and opens up a wide range of problems as seen through a variety of other teen characters. One character struggles with the weight of academic expectations that’s been put upon her, and begins buckling under that pressure. Another finds himself expelled for suspicious reasons and protests to get back into the school. When Mark calls a listener, he winds up trying to talk him down from committing suicide, but fails. This activates the parents of the community, but they still miss the point that they aren’t connecting with their own children. What’s worse, people in the school administration have actually conspired to kick out kids that are struggling on standardized tests in order to make the school look better (and to keep receiving funding). These were real issues. They’re still real issues.
You can read Mark’s radio show, the affinity that kids have for it, and the broken communication between generations as a fairly savvy forerunner of internet culture. You can substitute “amateur radio” for “YouTube” or “TikTok” or “Snapchat” and still tell elements of the same story. That’s one of the reasons that film was strikingly different and remains resonant, because as good as John Hughes was at presenting outsiders, this hits in a more cutting way.
On The Sam Roberts Show, Christian Slater said he wants to be remembered for Pump Up the Volume. (Uploaded to YouTube by notsam)
Moyle also managed to be ahead of the curve with his soundtrack, just like he was with Times Square. In the keynote address that he gave at South By Southwest (SXSW) in 2013, Dave Grohl hilariously recalled how absurd it seemed in 1990 that Nirvana and alternative music might break through to the mainstream, going as far as to read the Billboard Top Ten songs of that year. And yet, that’s the kind of music that fills Mark’s show and the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack. Moyle and company understood that outsiders connect to outsider music, and thus the film was populated with songs by The Pixies, Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, Concrete Blonde, Cowboy Junkies, and more. Ironically, a number of those bands would begin experiencing broader awareness that year, and some, like Soundgarden, would burst into actual stardom during the following year’s alternative explosion. Concrete Blonde’s contribution was a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows;” in the film, Mark uses Cohen’s version to open his radio shows until the climactic scene when he uses the cover. The album peaked at #50 on the Top 200.
Ultimately, the film was not a huge success in theatres. Like a number of movies of the time, it found a second life on video. Moyle stayed in film this time, and would go on to make another music-centered and much-loved cult classic in 1995, Empire Records. The thing that remains important about Pump Up the Volume is that it tried to be about something, and it succeeded. It shows that teens have a much deeper life of complexity and problems than parents and authority figures give them credit for, and that simple and non-judgmental communication, no matter how loud, might be the best first step to alleviate those issues.
Featured image: The DVD and film soundtrack of Pump Up the Volume (Photo by Troy Brownfield. Film & DVD ©New Line Home Entertainment/Warner Bros.; CD & Soundtrack ©MCA Records/Universal Music Group; writer’s nearly indestructible Guitar Amplifier ©Charvel).
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan
Writer/Director: Michael Almereyda
In Theaters and Streaming at Video On Demand Cable
As the new biographical film Tesla unspools onscreen, there is a neat bit of synchronicity in realizing that, if not for the central character, you might not be watching a movie at all.
For while it is true that Thomas Edison is largely credited with helping invent the movies, it was his archrival Nikola Tesla who not only single-handedly devised the system of sending sound and pictures over the air, but who also invented the technology that still transmits electricity across long distances from power plants to transformers to the wires leading into your TV.
Ethan Hawke, one of the screen’s great chameleons, plays Tesla, a Serbian immigrant who arrived penniless on these shores in the late 1800s and promptly set about transforming the world — first as a staffer at Edison’s New Jersey invention factory and then as an associate of another giant of the early electrical age, George Westinghouse.
Like many singular geniuses, Tesla was not known for playing well with others. He was sullen, surly, and downright antisocial. Such characters can often be difficult to endure onscreen — why should we invest two hours of our lives in someone who seems congenitally incapable of forging human relationships? — but Hawke succeeds admirably in bridging the chasm between us and the inventor.
True, Hawke’s Tesla seems to grunt his words rather than enunciate them, and even as he is pursued by some of the most desirable women of the age (including kazillionaire J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, played with smoky appeal by The Knick’s Eve Hewson) Tesla clearly prefers the company of the enormous sparks that crackle from his electric coil. At times, Hawke’s Tesla seems so physically twisted by his obsessive internal focus he threatens to literally fold in on himself. But Hawke’s remarkably physical performance elicits more sympathy than aversion. He is a man possessed, for sure, but he’s under the spell of both interior demons and the mysteries of a natural world that only he seems capable of comprehending.
Such a man is, of course, doomed to be chewed up by the world of commerce, and Tesla runs straight into the maw of America’s aging Boy Wonder, Thomas Edison. Kyle MacLachlan puts his perpetually cherubic face to excellent use here as the Wizard of Menlo Park; it’s a cheeky mask that barely conceals the all-consuming vanity that drives him. Sizing up Tesla, Edison realizes he’s dealing with a world-class genius — and he spends much of the rest of his life ruthlessly trying to bury him.
For a time, Tesla finds success under the wings of Westinghouse — played with surprising spirit by comedian Jim Gaffigan — but once again, soulless Big Business crushes the man who can envision sound waves that split the earth but who can’t see the danger of a rogue contract clause.
Befitting its maddeningly eccentric subject, Tesla is a decidedly off-kilter biography. Writer/director Michael Almereyda (Marjorie Prime) lets the story unfold largely chronologically, but occasionally he’ll throw in a time-bending curve, as when his narrator — Tesla’s frustrated paramour Anne Morgan — calmly produces a MacBook laptop computer to show us how many hits you get when you Google “Tesla.”
The gimmicks don’t always work — the film at times becomes as haughtily self-aware as Tesla himself is painfully clueless.
It might have been nice to see a film made about Tesla in the 1960s, the golden age of overblown biopics, when David Lean might have splashed Omar Sharif as Tesla across a giant screen, bedding heiresses and sending lightning bolts screaming into the Colorado foothills.
Such a film might not have been as authentic to the true person as Tesla is — still, it might have done more justice to the epic influence he’s had on all of our lives.
Featured image: Ethan Hawke in Tesla (Photo by Sean Price Williams, courtesy of IFC Films)
Made in Italy
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
Stars: Liam Neeson, Micheál Richardson, Valeria Bilello, Lindsay Duncan, Yolanda Kettle
Writer/Director: James D’Arcy
I’m all for any film that manages to pry a gun from the hands of Liam Neeson.
Made in Italy, the story of an estranged father and son rebuilding their relationship as they attempt to renovate an old family estate in Tuscany, isn’t up there with such classic father-son dramas as Life Is Beautiful, Big Fish, and Bicycle Thieves — but neither is it Taken, or The A-Team, or Commuter, or any of those other slam-bang shoot-’em-ups that make a lot of money for Neeson, but ultimately waste the talents of the man who is easily one of our most gifted screen actors.
Neeson plays Robert, a world-famous painter who abruptly retreated from the art world following his wife’s death in a car crash. He’s also backed away from his son Jack — played with earnest abandon by Micheál Richardson — to the point where the pair hardly speak, even though Jack is a successful art gallery manager.
Well, he was a successful art gallery manager — until the opening scene, when his business is abruptly yanked from him by his vengeful ex-wife Ruth. Jack decides to try and buy the gallery back from her, but that would mean cashing out his half of the family’s Tuscan villa — which would also mean approaching his distant dad.
Robert is surprisingly amenable to the plan, however, and just a transition scene or two later we are in sunny Italy, where the once-grand, now-dilapidated home awaits them. They get straight to work hauling weeds and painting — bickering endlessly but, admirably, never walking away from a tiff. Writer/director James D’Arcy — making his first feature film — offers a story with twists we can see coming like meatballs with spaghetti, but he has lucked into a cast that can still add some paprika to his otherwise bland piatto principale. Among the supporting players, Lindsay Duncan, the spirited English actress who was so spellbinding as the ever-hopeful wife in 2013’s Le Week-end, makes the most of her part as a pithy real estate agent and possible love interest for the artist. Not so fortunate is Yolanda Kettle as Jack’s bitter ex Ruth, who is so relentlessly angry we can’t help but think Jack did something absolutely awful to her.
We never do learn what happened between them — a major missing element in Jack’s backstory — but of course the entire film is building up to the revelation of why Jack and Robert have drifted apart. The moment arrives, fittingly, in the film’s best scene, a wonderfully acted dialogue that takes place in a dusty upper room, a place where Robert has secretly assembled an artist’s shrine to his late wife.
Shredding their facades of cordiality and tearing open their decade-old wounds, father and son brawl, bawl, and ultimately embrace not only each other, but the shared tragedy that has shaped their lives. It’s an extraordinary scene played with an intensity — and filmed with a tight focus — that reminded me of that shattering finale in Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Neeson and Richardson seem to be mining some vein of emotion that extends far beyond the movie set.
And of course, they are: Until this film, Micheál Richardson has been known as Micheál Neeson. They are father and son, and in 2009 Liam’s wife and Micheál’s mother, Natasha Richardson, died in a skiing accident. Now, dear reader, be advised your humble reviewer happens to be one of a rare breed who spends little time trafficking in celebrity news and gossip, and so I had not the slightest idea that these two actors were in any way related until I set about writing this review. I don’t think an artist’s craft should be judged by his or her private life (hence my stubborn appreciation of Woody Allen), but knowing what I know now, I am tempted to re-visit Made in Italy for a second look.
One scene can a movie make, and this one, coming just under the wire, makes Made in Italy more memorable than anyone might have expected.
Featured image: Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson in Made in Italy (Courtesy IFC Films)
Having performed in both the touring and London productions of Hair in the early 1970s, Richard O’Brien combined his love of science fiction, horror, and comic books with his stage background into writing the musical The Rocky Horror Show. The play rapidly grew in popularity, moving from theatre to bigger theatre in England. When the opportunity came to take the tale to the screen in 1975, little did anyone involved know that their film would still be playing around the world 45 years later. I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey . . . this is the story of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
O’Brien was born in England in 1942 and moved to New Zealand with his family in the 1950s. After college, he went back to England in 1964 and began working on stage and in film. O’Brien played both an Apostle and Leper in the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar; the director who cast him was Jim Sharman. Sharman would cast him again, and O’Brien shared his idea for They Came from Denton High, a musical send-up of the things that he loved, like 1950s science-fiction movies. Sharman came on board as director and gave O’Brien the idea for a new name: The Rocky Horror Show. In June 1973, the show kicked off at London’s Theatre Upstairs; it quickly became a hit, moving to bigger venues until making it to the U.K’s equivalent of Broadway, the West End.
Lou Adler was already a big name in American music when he saw Rocky in London. Adler had produced Carole King’s Tapestry, the Monterey Pop Festival, and six hits for The Mamas and The Papas, including “California Dreamin’.” He bought the U.S. theatrical rights, taking the show to the Roxy in L.A. Soon after, Michael White, who had produced the London shows, Adler, O’Brien, and Sharman were collaborating on a film version. Adler and White produced with Sharman directing and co-writing the screen adaptation with O’Brien.
In terms of casting, several members of the London cast made the jump to screen. Tim Curry (Dr. Frank-N-Furter), O’Brien (Riff Raff), Patricia Quinn (Magenta), and “Little Nell” Campbell (Columbia) had all been in productions in England. The ostensible lead roles of Brad and Janet were trickier, as studio 20th Century Fox wanted American actors in the parts; those ended up being filled by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon. Charles Gray, a two-time Bond villain, played the criminologist/narrator and Jonathan Adams was cast as Dr. Scott. Marvin Lee Aday, better known as Meat Loaf, was a veteran of Broadway’s Hair and had played Eddie in the L.A. cast; he reprised Eddie for the movie, two years before the release of his massively successful Bat Out of Hell album. Background character Betty Munroe (whose wedding Brad and Janet attend early in the film) was played by Hilary Labow, which was the screen name of Hilary Farr, known today as the designer on the long-running renovation series Love It or List It.
Much of the Gothy, classic horror mood of the film came from the location at Oakley Court. The estate had been used in several Hammer Studios films, including The Brides of Dracula and The Plague of the Zombies. In Sharman’s direction, you can occasionally note some of the same wide angles and sudden zooms prevalent in Hammer features, which were meant to echo styles prevalent in the genre. Richard Hartley produced the soundtrack and handled musical arrangements on the songs that O’Brien had written. The soundtrack lists 21 official numbers, although “Once in a While” came from a deleted scene and “Super Heroes” was only seen in the U.K. until the eventual video release.
The film opened 45 years ago this week in London, with the U.S. opening a few weeks later. It was not an immediate success. Outside of L.A., it was quickly pulled from theatres. Tim Deegan, a Fox executive, suggested an alternative strategy; figuring that the film might do well on the midnight circuit, as John Waters films had, Deegan got the ball rolling in New York. The Waverly Theater became ground zero for a cult phenomenon, fostering audience participation in the form of recited remarks and props. Audience members began coming to the show in costume, and screenings started to have live casts that would act out the film as it ran on the screen. Within a couple of years, the movie had become a legit cult sensation and defined the notion of the “Midnight Movie.”
The movie has actually never closed, making it the longest-running release in the history of film. Some fans and film history buffs were concerned about the status of the film when the Walt Disney Company finished its acquisition of 20th Century Fox in 2019. However, even though Disney “vaulted” a number of Fox titles, they were conscious of Rocky’s status and fandom and decided to keep it in release so that the screenings would go on.
So, just what has made it endure? At the top, the music is insanely catchy, particularly “The Time Warp.” The notion of attending a movie as a sort of costume party is fun, and the props and interaction make it a shared experience that you can join in over and over. But a deeper undercurrent is that Rocky Horror celebrates the outsider. It’s been embraced by the LGBTQ+ community, theater kids, punks, goths, comic book fans, horror and science fiction fans who get the in-jokes, and more, all of whom find connection to the film. Its influence has reverberated through the years, turning up in sitcoms like The Drew Carey Show or a 2010 episode of Glee or in films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Fox’s 2016 TV remake. It has endured for four-and-a-half decades, and there’s no sign that it will go away anytime soon. One supposes that it’s comforting to know that as much as some cult phenoms come and go, there will always be a light over at the Frankenstein place.
Featured image: UA Cinema Merced. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, opening night, January of 1978. (Photo by Robin Adams, General Manager, UA Cinema, Merced California, 1978. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.; Wikimedia Commons)
The history of the movie musical comes packed to the rafters with classics. You’ve got Singin’ in the Rain and The Sound of Music. There’s Cabaret and West Side Story and an armada of Disney films led by Mary Poppins. From The Wizard of Oz to Hedwig and Angry Inch, it’s easy to name beloved films that are powered by amazing music. But, like every other genre, the musical has seen its fair share of sour notes. 40 years ago this week, the critically reviled Xanadu hit theaters. And while people all over the world still enjoy a number of the Olivia Newton-John and ELO songs contained in the film, it stirred up enough dislike as a movie to inspire the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards. In that spirit, and with full awareness that someone out there probably loves each and every one of these, here are the Worst Movie Musicals Ever.
10. Xanadu (1980)
Perhaps the biggest problem for Xanadu’s detractors is that its disparate elements just never really hang together. Gene Kelly brings in a classic vibe, and the attempt to blend the ’40s and ’80s is commendable, but seeing Kelly frequently just reminds you how much better old Gene Kelly musicals were. The Greek mythology elements come off as more of a distraction. And frankly, there’s just way too much roller-skating. It’s also hard not to laugh when the nightclub they’ve been creating turns out to look like the set of Solid Gold. Bonus Track: dancer and actress Sandahl Bergman played one of Newtown-John’s Muse sisters two years before she made a big impression in Conan the Barbarian.
9. Cats (2019)
The Cats trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Trailers)
Here’s a caveat: time may move this up the list. Let’s face it: regular Cats is nobody’s favorite musical. Yes, Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige slayed “Memory” on both sides of the Atlantic, but that’s it. The basic story is this cat does this, this cat does that, no one likes the cat that has sex until it’s time to ritually sacrifice her, and so on. (Note to self: A Midsommar musical would be awesome.) But what really sets the film apart is the complete Uncanny Valley-ness of it all. Somehow, Marvel can make a tree and a raccoon into tactile, emotionally believable characters, whereas the unholy mélange of cat and human in Cats look like cut-scenes from the PlayStation I era. It’s just inherently bad. Bonus Track: Taylor Swift only has three words of dialogue.
8. Can’t Stop the Music (1980)
It’s the fictionalized origin story of the Village People, starring the Village People! It was also the other half of a double-feature with Xanadu that inspired John J.B. Wilson to create the Golden Raspberry Awards; Can’t Stop the Music was the first winner for Worst Picture. Plot-wise, the movie is a disjointed mess as it tries to follow multiple plotlines, like a romance between Valerie Perrine and then-Bruce Jenner (Jenner’s film debut, roughly 25 years before coming out as trans and taking the name Caitlyn), the struggles of Steve Guttenberg’s songwriter, the recruitment of the six Village People, and more. The only well-known VP song in the film is “Y.M.C.A.;” it appears during a musical number set at the, of course, Y, and features full-frontal male nudity (something that generally never happens in a film not rated R). Bonus Track: The director was Nancy Walker, best known as Rhoda’s mother on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, and character Rosie for 20 years of Bounty paper towel commercials.
7. Grease 2 (1982)
Producer Allan Carr was a successful producer of films like Grease, a Tony and People’s Choice Award winner, and an agent that discovered talents like Mark Hamill, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Olivia Newton-John. He also produced Can’t Stop the Music, Grease 2, and that career-killing Snow White/Rob Lowe Oscar number, so . . . win some, lose some? You can hardly blame anyone for wanting to follow the insanely successful Grease with a sequel. On the other hand, the original film had the bedrock of the stage musical to build on. And on the other, other hand, it’s just bad. The lone bright spot is Pfeiffer, who had the distinction of being one of the few elements that wasn’t savaged by critics. Bonus Track: Male lead Maxwell Caulfield went on to a different kind of musical immortality as Rex Manning in Empire Records.
6. The Pirate Movie (1982)
It’s the 1980s, so that must mean it’s time for dueling . . . Gilbert & Sullivan adaptations? One uses the original name of the stage musical, The Pirates of Penzance, and the other opts for, simply, The Pirate Movie. One has Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Angela Lansbury, and the other stars the guy from The Blue Lagoon. One failed because of a bad business decision, and the other failed because, well, it’s The Pirate Movie. The film starts badly, by shoehorning in a “let’s start in modern day and make it a dream, sort of” premise, and goes more wrong from there. Bonus Track: 1983’s Penzance with Ronstadt was cut off at the knees because Universal tried to simultaneously release it in theatres and pay services; subsequently, many theatre chains boycotted it, destroying its box office chances.
5. Rock of Ages (2012)
Would you go into a musical thinking that Tom Cruise is going to be the best part? That’s nothing against Cruise, who has proven that he’s literally willing to hang off of a plane to entertain us. But the absence of musical work on his resume turned out to be an advantage, because nobody expected that he’d be that good as hair-metal god Stacee Jaxx. Unfortunately, nothing in the rest of the movie lives up to that. There’s not really even a chance for a transformative breakout hit, as it’s a jukebox musical filled with previously known hits with only one original song. Another strike is that Mary J. Blige doesn’t get a number of her own. Possibly the biggest letdown is that the movie trades the spirit of the stage show (which is, “hey, this brand of rock is kind of silly, but huge fun”) for treating it all like a big goof. If the filmmakers aren’t convinced, then no one else is. Bonus Track: While a number of well-known rockers appear in cameos, so does pop star Debbie Gibson, who hit #4 on Billboard’s Dance Club chart just last year with “Girls Night Out.”
4. Nine (2009)
Nine is the rare case of a movie that gets a ton of award nominations (including four Oscar nods) but ultimately no one seems happy about it. The creative pedigree is astounding. Based on Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston’s stage musical, which was itself inspired by Federico Fellini’s 8½, the film was written by Michael Tolkin (The Player) and Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago). It stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Sophia freaking Loren, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, and Fergie. And yet . . . blah. Maybe it’s because 19 of the original songs were excised. Maybe it’s because the story of a director’s mid-life crisis just didn’t connect with audiences. Maybe it’s not even that bad, but just seems egregious in the face of SO MUCH TALENT going nowhere. Bonus Track: Remarkably, given their status as Italian icons, Loren and Fellini never did a film together, though she did present him with his Honorary Oscar in 1993.
3. From Justin to Kelly (2005)
The Golden Raspberry Awards went in hard on this one, calling it “Worst ‘Musical’ of Our First 25 Years.” Kelly Clarkson won the inaugural 2002 season of American Idol on Fox; Justin Guarini was runner-up. They found themselves contractually obligated to do a movie for 20th Century Fox, and this utterly terrible spring break musical was the result. Sure, we understand that they called Kelly’s character “Kelly,” but her movie last name of Taylor means that she inexplicably and distractingly shares a name with Kelly Taylor of Fox’s 90210 franchise. Much of the plot is a series of contrivances to keep the two leads apart, which makes little sense. It’s really not good. Bonus Track: Clarkson has of course had 28 Hot 100 hits since, and Guarini has stealthily appeared for years as Lil Sweet in an ongoing series of Dr. Pepper commercials.
2. Shock Treatment (1981)
How do you follow the success of The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Apparently, you can’t. It had the original director (Jim Sharman), the original writers (Sharman and Richard O’Brien), the original songwriter (O’Brien), two of the original characters (Brad and Janet, though played by different actors), and several members of the original cast as new characters. But it just doesn’t connect. While the idea of a whole town inside a studio dominated by constantly running TV programming is ahead of its time, it never totally comes off and you constantly wonder as a viewer why O’Brien and Patricia Quinn aren’t just their fantastic Riff Raff and Magenta selves again. Bonus Track: Jessica Harper, who replaced Susan Sarandon as Janet, had the female lead in another frequently panned musical, Phantom of the Paradise; however, she was also the lead in the horror classic Suspiria and appeared in its 2018 remake.
1. The Apple (1980)
Apparently 1980 wasn’t exactly the best year to try a musical. Director Menahem Golan co-owned The Cannon Group with his cousin, Yoram Globus. They made some cheesy but popular films, like Breakin’, American Ninja, and Missing in Action. They were also responsible for disasters like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and the famously bad 1990 version of Captain America that never made it to American theaters. The Apple somehow tries to combine a future version of the Eurovision Song Contest (here, the 1994 Worldvision Song Festival) and a parable of the dangers of the entertainment industry with, wait for it, The Bible. You have analogues for Adam, Eve, and The Devil (Mr. Boogalow, who owns a label, of course). You have variations on temptation scenes (title song The Apple, which includes a sort of tour of Hell with dumb as anything lyrics “It’s a natural, natural, natural desire/Meet an actual, actual, actual vampire”). The climax of the film is The Rapture. Seriously, this is a real movie. Utterly crazy doesn’t even really cover it. But sadly, it’s not an eminently rewatchable kind of crazy. It’s just terrible.
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