Once a proud and shirtless beast, the rock musical has all but vanished from the landscape. Fringe events like REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA or DR. HORRIBLE or 'jukebox' fare like ROCK OF AGES and MAMA MIA do not count. The first are freak events courting cult status, the latter incorporate only tried and tested tunes written long before their Broadway shows. CHICAGO, LES MISERABLES or PHANTOM don't count either. But there was a time when the rock musical soared on wings of brilliance. I'm talking of course of the late 60s-early 70s -the age when impassioned singing met electric guitars and funky bass, and bi-curious guys in silver make-up and long hair strutted shirtless, and God was not ignored.
This was the era of Vietnam, and Times Square was not a place to bring the kids, at least not at night. Grindhouses, adult bookstores, prostitutes and flashy pimps, bums, hippies, sadomasochists, junkies and--most shocking of all to our Anita Bryant-poisoned minds--queers were part of the experience. A day trip to NYC to see a show with the family often consisted of waiting in line at the cheap tickets window in the center of the street, ogling the passing freak parade in a mix of unease veiled in an attitude of sardonic faux-blase' disinterest, like a zoo without bars where the animals wouldn't bother you if you didn't make eye contact. After you left and finally cleared the morass of sordid swamp outer industrial wasteland running between NJ and NY, you sighed in relief to be back in boring old suburbia, like Dorothy at the end of OZ with a new appreciation of Kansas.
When their later film versions came around, ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973), GODSPELL (1973), THE WIZ (1978) and HAIR (1979) had to be toned down (though porn star Paul Thomas shows up in JCS). Meanwhile crazy Brits like Ken Russell gave us wild album-based spin-offs like TOMMY (1975) and film versions of ROCKY (1973) and Broadway was going even farther, showing the all-nude musical revue OH! CALCUTTA!
Surrounded by the sleaze of Times Square, Broadway's mere nudity and simulated coupling managed to stay somehow clean and so showed Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public that those scruffy homeless kids on the street might be disguised angels, so treat them right and tip the girls. Books like Erica Jong's Fear of Flying with its ode to the "zipless f-ck," the tawdry glam gossip of Rona Barett, and the cute old lady sex specialist, Dr. Ruth (below, right), all created a sense that women were enjoying their new orgasms all across the country and swinging and casual sex was as healthy and normal as going to church or making dinner for your family, and the world was just a little less uptight (especially compared with today) and we kids were listening in, soaking up the loose prana with our hungry spinal snake-sponges. It all seemed very tawdry to us, though. Like everything after you turned 18 was going to be one of those depressingly sordid Seka movies.
But in the midst of all this came the arrival into the mainstream suburban swinger lexicon of my least favorite drug, cocaine. And as coke became 'hip' so did disco and at last kids and adults found something to agree on. We kids loved disco - you could dance like a maniac to it, pogoing and jive talking and every other kid in town had parents or siblings with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, it was a ubiquitoius as Frampton Comes Alive. In short, disco was crossing boundaries the Christian-pagan neo-decadent arias of Broadway and the best-seller list never could, for the homosexual and coke aspects were sublimated deep by the time it all got to TV, and we kids loved the costumes and were learning disco moves in gym class.
BUT HOW DID A COKE-FUELED MUSIC CROSS OVER TO KIDS? (Answer: at left, Vinnie Barbarino)
We kids had long pondered the electric strangeness of the Hair and Sgt. Pepper's album covers in our parents' record rack, we were afraid to play them. But we loved John Travolta from Welcome Back, Kotter, so seeing him on the Saturday Night Fever cover made everything all right. He had the working class Italian vibe we were now familiar with via ROCKY, and the Fonz (and Cha-Chi, and Carmine) but he could also sing and act stupid with a winning smile that let you know he was far smarter than he'd ever let on. As long as he was connected to it, disco could cross over to suburbia, where, as I've said before, we loved The Village People because they were dressed like all our favorite icons as kids - cowboys, Native Americans, motorcycle cops - and not one of us ever imagine they were, you know... not straight.
We also found the relative sexlessness of, say, variety shows like The Captain and Tenille, Donny and Marie, and Shields and Yarnell very soothing, a buffer from all the sordid sleaze and electric shocks. I recall that towards the end of the 70s, when I was 12-13, sex was starting to get on my nerves. I had a lot of 'pent-up' energy by then. Not that anyone molested me, on the contrary - I molested two babysitters, my dad's secretary, two of my mom's friends, and one very nubile young daughter of one of said friends, all before I was ten years-old. And in the malls I would sneak into Spencer's Gifts and marvel at the dirty novelties and thumb though Fear of Flying and get massive 10 year-old boy hormonal surges. But being only ten or so I had no orgasm, or even knew about them. I had been led (thanks to a Judy Blume book) to think that the orgasm discharge was a gush of blood, and thus I was terrified to even try. Masturbation was considered a deranged, sad act. Wet dreams were discussed, in terrified tones, at the playground, but if they happened it was out of our control, far more humiliating than merely wetting the bed.
It was only natural with all that stored venom that when the right bad influence friend came along I would give up girls and turn my attention to WW2, and with war arose the need for 'clean' home front entertainment, time to gather the other barbarians and clean out Thulsa Doom's sex dungeon.
And as we were gathering up our loathing... XANADU did a stately 80s pleasure-free dome decree.
|Sandahl Bergman at far right|
|Cleaned Travota on Captain and Tenille|
Some Scientology angel was looking out for Travolta, because he made a vast fortune just from appearing on the cover of both the Grease and Saturday Night Fever albums! They were beyond huge and sold consistently for years and years, comparable only to Fleetwood Mac's Rumors and Frampton Comes Alive! But while the film of Saturday Night Fever was dingy and depressing in its lower-strata blue collar seediness, GREASE was smartly moved to the sunny safety of Burbank, making the greaser haircuts and cigarettes and unwanted pregnancies little more than rich kid slumming. Fine with us, we in the suburbs didn't know the difference, only that the environment of GREASE didn't make us want to kill ourselves from depression over graffiti and urban blight.
Anyway, it was a monster hit. And so why not merge the GREASE with the NIGHT and add the then emerging roller disco craze? Throw in a fantasy element and an old duffer or two, and whammo! You do for the 40s big band zoot suit sound what GREASE had done for the 50s do wop.
That was the plan.... for XANADU!
Just compare the two stills below - the top one from DOWN TO EARTH, a 1947 comedy musical that XANADU more or less remade, notice the inept blocking of the shot, which leaves a ton of dead space at the right and left of the backdrop, leaving the widescreen shot looking inept in every detail.
|(below: Xanadu - What were you, blocked in a barn?)|
|Top: New York, New York (1977); 1941 (1979)|
What happened in a sense was America's taste in retro memories was flattening out. The age of three channel TV was ending, and with it the need for 'variety' shows that appealed to children, the elderly, and adults all at the same time. And without long hair and sleaze to produce rock gravity, the empty glitz of disco was just another toot up nostalgia's porous straw. By the time it got to us, disco had become sexless, leaving us with no choice to find the stuff straight from the source.
And so it was that as children our interest in sex was rekindled with the rise of the VCR.
Among other things the VCR brought a chance for us all--parents and kids alike-- to finally see X-rated movies. As with any huge sea change, the censors and critics need time to catch up and for awhile, freedom reigned and for awhile every child above 12 saw all there was to see, all at once. Censorship had chastened TV for so long we felt protected from anything it could deliver on our invulnerable home screen (in other words, we could see the sex removed from its tawdry urban setting). The huge backlash against pedophiles and Satanic child molestation rings presumably all over the suburbs was no doubt inspired by seeing just how base our fellow man was now that we could see all those films we'd been afraid to see at the drive-in or inner city theater back in the day. In the 70s we had never been ashamed of our bodies or our desires, perhaps because we just never really saw them so nakedly.
|You're dead sons, get yourself buried: Sgt. Peppers, Can't Stop the Music|
Meanwhile, Alan Carr--one of the key figures behind the huge hit GREASE (and on Broadway, LA CAGE AU FOLLES), had troubles of his own, namely a huge disco flop centered around the Village People, Bruce Jenner, Nancy "You're soaking in it" Walker, hottie Valerie Perrine and struggling songwriter (and tight white pants enthusiast) Steve Gutenberg, known as CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC (1980). Like XANADU it cost $20 million, but bombed far worse. And in the case of both of them there's very little of that money visible on the screen. Sure there's dancing and glitz but the blocking, pacing, and acting is a mess. Now I'm just speculating, based largely on a book I'm reading about Carr, but I'd venture to guess where a goodly rock of that 20 million went, and it certainly wasn't into hiring a good DP, editor, art designer, choreographer or continuity editor. It was up the nose, baby. And nothing translates more poorly to film than a hack's sweaty ego trip incoherence.
On the other hand, this was still the age of multi-generational 'family entertainment' - variety shows on all the major networks. And the people with the kids and $$ to buy tickets remembered fondly the 50s. Any further back and no one really cared, except old people who got senior citizen discounts anyway so they didn't impact the box office. The days of romancing a past decade with music and glamor were over, at least until the 90s when suddenly the 70s looked like the last great, free unprotected moment America was ever going to have, until of course, Leonard Maltin's 'Forbidden Hollywood' series came out and we saw with agape jaw the racy forward thinking brilliance of the 1931-34 pre-code era.
And we have it handy. We have Turner Classic Movies. So forget about the blues / tonight!
And never take condoms from strangers.