MESSED UP AND MUSICAL: Can’t Stop the Music (1980)

This movie — and Xandau — are why the Razzies exist, awards that celebrate the worst in movies. It’s the only movie that Nancy Walker — Rhoda’s mom and the Bounty paper towel lady — ever directed. It’s Bruce Jenner’s film debut. And I don’t care what anyone says, I love it in spite of everything bad you can say about it.

You can see why the movie happened. Producer Allan Carr was riding high off the success of Grease. Disco had finally hit the mainstream with Saturday Night Fever. And there was probably so much coke going around that everyone had a constant nasal drip. The time was ripe for what people had been clamoring for: the origin story of the Village People.

Wait — what?

The Village People — you probably know the words to YMCA — were created by Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo. While in New York, Morali attended a costume ball at the Greenwich Village gay disco “Les Mouches.” There, he was taken by all of the macho male stereotypes that he saw in the room and thought — this could be a music act, with each member being a different gay fantasy. Soon, they were signed to Casablanca Records, where their songs “San Francisco (You Got Me),” “Macho Man” and “In the Navy” played in clubs all over the world.

The truth is that the Village People were all one person at first: Victor Willis. Once the album became a hit, Morali and Belolo quickly put out an ad that said: “Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Moustache.” From that big success to the time this movie was ready to come out, disco was just about dead, a fact that Carr had foreseen, changing the title from the original Discoland–Where The Music Never Ends! 

So what’s it really all about? Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg, Police Academy) — named for Jacques Morali, of course — wants to be a composer. But for now, he’s DJing at Saddle Tramps, a disco. His roommate, Samanta Simpson (Valerie Perrine, Superman) is a newly retired supermodel. He writes her a song and everyone loves it, so she uses all of her connections to get him a deal. Her ex-boyfriend Steve Waits of Marrakech Records — get it, Casablanca Records? — wants her back, so he agrees to listen to a demo.

However, Jack’s vocals pretty much suck. So she recruits all of her fabulous friends, like waiter Felipe Rose — the Indian! And model David “Scar” Hodo — the Construction Worker! Randy Jones needs dinner, so he joins up as the Cowboy! We almost have formed Voltron…I mean, the Village People!

We’re treated to a solo song by David the Construction Worker called “I Love You to Death” where he fantasizes about all of the women who will be chasing him once he’s popular. When this scene played in San Francisco, supposedly movie screens were decimated with eggs.

Meanwhile, Samantha’s former agent (Tammy Grimes, who is one of the commercial stars in The Stuff) wants her back in the modeling business and orders her secretary Lulu to make it happen. Somehow, Ron White (Jenner), a tax lawyer, gets mugged on his way to delivering a cake to Sam’s sister, but then Lulu gives Jack drugs, then Ray Simpson — the Cop! — shows up and the four sing the song “Magic Night.” It’s all too much for Ron, who runs away.

The next day, Ron and Sam get back together and hook up. Now that he has a reason to help, he offers his office for further auditions, where we meet Glenn Hughes — the Leatherman! — and Alex Briley — the G.I.! — who finally form the full version of the group. Blink and you’ll miss W.A.S.P. frontman Blackie Lawless trying out! Finally, Ron’s boss Richard says (Russell Nype, who is also in The Stuff) that their company shouldn’t have anything to do with the group, so Ron quits the firm.

The band then goes to the YMCA to rehearse, which leads to a musical number for the song of the same name. If you’re looking to see plenty of naked men in a PG movie, well, here you go! I won’t judge! Marrakech offers too little money for their contract, so the gang decides to throw a party to raise some funds.

Seriously: this is the most raw dong I have ever seen in a non-porno movie.

Samantha agrees to model again for a milk commercial, as long as the Village People can be there, too. The TV spot — with six small boys dressed as the band — starts with Samantha pouring them milk and turning into the song “Milkshake.” Of course, the milk company balks at this. I’ve been in advertising for some time. I can only imagine the meeting where they showed this video to them and the blank stares turning into faces filled with pure rage.

Norma White (Barbara Rush, It Came From Outer Space) decides to help and invites the guys to be part of her fundraiser. Sam lures Steve to the show by suggesting they can canoodle, so Ron dumps her. Meanwhile, on Steve’s jet, Jack and his mother Helen (June Havoc, sister of Gypsy Rose Lee!) win the record company owner over and the Village People are signed!

Everything works out just fine. Ron and Sam get back together. He gets his old job offered back. And following a song by Morali’s other band The Richie Family, the Village People finally unite for “Can’t Stop the Music.”

If only reality had been so kind. After all, the infamous Disco Demolition Night in Chicago, the evening most people claim was the death knell for disco in the United States, happened two weeks into filming.

Even with a TV special — Allan Carr’s Magic Night — featuring Hugh Hefner and Cher, along with a new Village People song Ready for the 80’s! that was cut from the film, it was to prime America for a movie that by the time it was filmed no one really wanted to see.

Oh man, the lyrics to that song:

I’m ready for the eighties things look positive
I’m ready and I’ve got a lot of love to give
There’s hope in every heart and love on ev’ey face
The eighties promise everything is just gonna be great

But hey — Baskin Robbins had a flavor made for the film. Can’t Stop the Nuts was offered for the whole summer of 1980. Think I made this up? Nope. I have evidence.

It’s also one of the first appearances of Ray Simpson as the Policeman. The previously mentioned Victor Willis, the original lead singer, quit the group during pre-production. Turns out he wanted to let everyone know he was the straightman of the group and had insisted that his wife, the soon to be divorced and renamed Phylicia Rashad, be written into the film as his girlfriend. Her role in the film ended up being played by Sammy Davis Jr.’s wife Altovise Davis.

Even crazier was that filming in New York was constantly delayed by protestors who were upset about the film Cruising. Many of them thought that this film was that film, so they protested against the wrong movie!

The film failed. Disco died. But why are we talking about this all thirty-some years later? Simple: disco never really went away. And neither did the Village People. Victor Willis is even back in the group, after years of fighting. Sure, there are two different Village People bands touring. But people love them. They’re a part of our culture, even if this movie is pretty much forgotten (outside of Australia, where it’s a New Year’s Eve tradition).

If you want to see it for yourself, Amazon Prime has it for your viewing pleasure. I also want to inform you for some reason this movie is 2 hours and 3 minutes long. I have no idea why it has to be so long. Plan your evening accordingly.

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