ABOUT THE AUTHOR: An American living in London, Jennifer Upton is a freelance writer for International publishers Story Terrace and others. In addition, she has a blog where she frequently writes about horror and sci-fi called Womanycom.
A cult classic about teenage rebellion, the medium of radio (and the importance of rock music) features throughout Times Square (1980.) In the plot, it’s the vehicle through which the two protagonists connect. Initially, to each other and eventually to the greater adolescent female population of 1980 New York City.
Two girls, Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson) and Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado) come from divergent backgrounds. One is a street kid with no family bounced from home to home and the other the motherless daughter of a wealthy politician gaining notoriety for cleaning up the area where Nicky lives. Times Square. The two meet in the hospital where each is being examined for perceived mental illness.
Despite their apparent differences, both are misunderstood by the adult establishment. The girls connect through their love of music their shared fandom of an all-night radio show hosted by Johnny LaGuardia played by the velvety-voiced Tim Curry, who is excellent as always. Pam admires Nicky’s free spirit, and Nicky admires Pam’s intellect. The casting of the two leads is perfect.
Following her discharge, Nicky goes back to break Pam out, wandering the hospital corridors, blasting The Ramones’ classic “I Wanna Be Sedated” on her boombox to entice her new friend to defiance. Together, they escape in a stolen ambulance and hole up in an abandoned warehouse by the east river.
DJ Johnny picks up on the story and uses it to start a movement against Pam’s father, whom he despises for trying to gentrify his neighborhood. He puts the girls on the air and makes them famous. They become Icons for other disaffected young ladies itching to rebel against the “banality” and “boredom” of their everyday lives. They start a band called The Sleeze Sisters and begin spreading their message through their music all over the airwaves in graffiti throughout the city. Even when the girls engage in potentially dangerous hijinks–they throw televisions off of high-rise buildings onto busy sidewalks as a symbolic gesture against societal brainwashing–Johnny supports and protects them.
Eventually Pam, who has been building up her self-confidence working as a stripper who “won’t dance nude” tires of Nicky’s high jinx and develops a crush on Johnny. Although it never explicitly says the two are lovers, their sleeping arrangements and Nicky’s jealous reaction to Pam’s wandering eye says it all. Nicky sets up an interview situation designed to prove to Pamela that Johnny is only in it for himself. He’s tired of his job on the night shift and sees this movement to boost his own brand and his show’s ratings. She suffers a mental breakdown and throws herself into the East River only to climb out asking herself, “What the fuck am I doing?” Johnny calls a doctor, who sedates her. Upon seeing this, Pam confronts Johnny angrily. She hates seeing her friend devoid of her usual fighting energy and inspires her to perform one last act of ultimate provocation. An illegal concert in Times Square.
Pam calls all the news outlets and announces the free gig to take place on top of a theatre marquee smack in the middle of Times Square. Johnny’s message on the radio brings girls from all over the five boroughs to see their hero perform, dressed for the occasion with their eyes blacked out “like a criminal.” The cops show up to shut them down, leaving Nicky one last chance to grand stand “about life” and to thank Pam for changing hers for the better. She knows Pam must go home. Her Dad is watching from below. As a duo, the girls have taken things as far as they can and now it’s time for them to walk their own individual paths, each armed with the determination and confidence inspired by the other.
As a final farewell, Nicky salutes the police and Pam and jumps into the crowd. They catch her and disappears into a sea of look-alikes. Pamela reunites with her Dad and the credits roll. Over a Bee Gee’s song. An odd, preternatural choice made by producer Robert Stigwood, who managed them at the time. They have no business being on a soundtrack with Patti Smith, The Ruts, David Johansen, Lou Reed, XTC, and the Ramones. Moyle and star Johnson discuss this at length on the commentary track for Anchor Bay’s 2000 release.
Along with being a fun ride, the film is also a beautiful snapshot of what Times Square was like in 1980. The real one. Before it became boring and banal. It’s magnificent in its corruption. You can almost smell the dried semen in the 42nd Street porn theatre the girls run through dodging law enforcement in the second act. It might be odd to say that I miss that time in New York’s history. As Nicky says in the film, “No sense makes sense.”