Rollercoaster (1977)

“Hey, just wait a minute there, you smug and pretentious, know-it-all pseudo-film critic . . . what’s this disaster-suspense drama doing in the middle of a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Week” of reviews? This is just a knockoff of Dirty Harry crossed with Earthquake, and instead of Clint Eastwood’s police inspector, we get an amusement park safety inspector. And while George Segal is pretty cool in the role, he’s no Dirty Harry Callahan.”

“Well, don’t forget that George is teamed with Richard Widmark as FBI Agent Hoyt.”

“Uh, no. Sorry. Still not Dirty Harry Callahan.”

“Well, do the factoids that Rollercoaster not only has a rock ‘n’ roll connection, but a connection to Pittsburgh and Star Trek as well, Mr. Critic of critics?”

“No, not really. But you’re going to ramble about it anyway. I’m going to go take a piss. Later, dude.”

Critics of critics. God, how we love ’em at B&S About Movies. . . .

So, the connection to Star Trek comes courtesy of director James Gladstone, who directed the classic September 1966 episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” you know, third episode of the first season that served as the second series pilot when the first pilot, “The Cage” (starring Jeffrey Hunter as Kirk), failed . . . you know Gladstone’s episode: Gary Lockwood (2001: A Space Odyssey, Earth II) and Sally Kellerman (the original “Hot Lips Hoolihan” in the theatrical version of M.A.S.H) obtained psychic powers after the Enterprise crossed The Great Barrier. And, as we learned, courtesy of B&S’s Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, Sam, in his review of 1974’s Cry Panic, James Gladstone directed that John Forsythe-starring TV movie written by Jack B. Sowards who, in turn, came up with one of the greatest tales of Federation folklore: the Kobayashi Maru, a no-win scenario for new Starfleet captains that was first brought up in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Gladstone also directed the ’70s duplex favorite, When Time Ran Out (1980), an Irwin Allen-produced disaster-suspense boondoggle about an island volcano. That film reteamed Paul Newman and William Holden from the disaster bonanza The Towering Inferno and Ernest Borgnine and Red Buttons from the water epic The Poseidon Adventure. And Gladstone, along with producer Jennings Lang (Airport ’75, Earthquake, Airport ’77, The Concorde : Airport ’79, as well as Play Misty for Me, Slaugtherhouse Five and The Nude Bomb!!), previously worked together on Swashbuckler (1976), Universal’s forgotten “pirate comedy” flop starring Robert Shaw from Jaws.

The plot of Rollercoaster was described by Gladstone as more of a Hitchcockian cat and mouse story than as the disaster movie it was marketed; Segal concurred: he saw it as a well-structured, Hitchcock-styled action-adventure, combined with Universal’s (“Sensurrond”) technology. And Rollercoaster was, in fact, the fourth film in the studio’s “Sensurrond” oeuvre: the aforementioned Earthquake, the WWII epic Midway (1976), and the theatrical version of Battlestar Galactica (1978).

The film stars Timothy Bottoms (Up From the Depths! Thank you, Charles B. Griffith for that duplex classic!) as a mad bomber blowing up the nation’s rollercoasters to extort a million dollars from a Chicago-based amusement amalgamate. Now, if you’re keeping track, that is pretty much the plot of Dirty Harry — only with the mad bomber replaced with an assassin, and Georgy-boy not slingin’ a .357 and quipin’ one-liners. And if it all sounds like Speed, with Dennis Hooper’s “mad bomber” blowing up a bus-for-bucks (which is just Die Hard on a bus), then it probably is.

“Hey, man. I’m back from my piss. And one hell of a loaf-pinch. You’re still rambling? Did you get to the rock ‘n’ roll part, yet? Time’s a-wastin’. I need to go do my yard work.”

Ugh. Critics of critics, again I say. . . .

Anyway, as for the Pittsburgh connection: Mine and Sam’s beloved Kennywood Park out in West Mifflin in Allegheny County was originally set as the location for the film’s opening “crash” segment. When the park got cold feet at the last minute, producer Jennings Lang reset the scene for “Wonder World” at Kings Dominion outside of Richmond, Virginia. (This extended interview, seen below, with King’s Park Manager, Dennis Speigel, who also starred in the film, tells it all.)

And now for the rock ‘n’ roll part . . . finally!

So, do you remember during your MTV youth, the quirky “Cool Places” that featured the annoying and least-attractive member (well, opinions vary) of the then hot the Go-Go’s, Jan Wiedlin? Well, you might recall that wasn’t a Jan Wiedlin solo tune: it was the lone U.S. Top 50 radio hit by Sparks, which was featured on their twelfth studio album, In Outer Space (1983), issued by Atlantic Records.

Anyway, Spark’s previous label, Columbia (the band burnt through six deals over the years), decided a great way to promote their new signee was by casting them in movie and feature the planned singles of “Fill ‘Er Up” and “Big Boy” from their mutual debut, Big Beat (1976; produced by Rupert Holmes . . . yes, the “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” dude). Sadly, the genius of the Columbia promotions department didn’t work: after one more flop album, 1977’s Introducing Sparks, the label dropped the band.

If you look closely at their “big scene,” you’ll notice that album’s ex-Tuff Dart Jeff Salen on guitar (“(Your Love Is Like) Nuclear Waste” and “All For The Love of Rock and Roll“), along with ex-Milk and Cookies (You Tube) bassist and drummer Sal Maida and Hilly Micheals. And since we’re talking MTV: You’ll recall Hilly Michaels had his own MTV video hit, “Calling All Girls,” from his solo debut, Calling All Girls (1980). As with Columbia pushing Sparks via film, Warners also failed to break Micheals to a mass audience by placing tunes from the album in the uber-obscure (flop) Robby Benson (The Death of Richie) rock flick, Die Laughing (“Shake It and Dance“), and Chevy Chase’s Caddyshack (“Something’s On Your Mind“).

Okay, so this is where Sam just says, “F it,” and lets me free range across The Point, gushing in gaiety over the quirky, they’ll-never-be-The Cars-no-matter-how-much-the-label-wishes-it-so Sparks. But I say “bollocks” to the industry: I love Sparks!

It all began for the Los Angeles Mael brothers with their ahead-of-its-time new wave precursor, Halfnelson (“half nelson,” get it?). The band featured the likes of Earle Mankey (later of the Pop and 20/20), his brother, Jim (later of the alt-rock chart-topping Concrete Blonde), along with Leslie Bohem and David Kendrick of L.A.’s Bates Motel. With fellow Bates Motel/Sparks’ members Jim Goodwin and Bob Haag, the quartet became the Gleaming Spires. Their new wave hit, championed by Rodney Bingenheimer (The Mayor of Sunset Strip), “Are You Ready for the Sex, Girls,” appeared on the soundtracks to The Last American Virgin and Revenge of the Nerds.

Halfnelson signed with Bearsville (home to Foghat, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, R.E.M clones the dB’s, and NRBQ), with Rundgren producing. After one belly flop of an album, the label wanted a name change (their moniker was “dumb and confusing” per the label) and reissued the album. Three ignored albums later, Sparks were signed by “fan” Muff Winwood (Steve Winwood of Traffic and Blind Faith’s brother) to Island. So off to England Sparks went, to ride that country’s then hot “glam” wave, where they fit right in with the likes of David Bowie (his long time producer, Tony Visconti, produced them), T.Rex, Mud (Never Too Young to Rock), and Slade (Slade In Flame).

Then, when glam became passe in the U.K. under the rise of punk rock and the Maels didn’t fit in with that Sex Pistols-inspired scene, they returned to the U.S., where hard rock was on the rise in a post-Van Halen world. And Columbia’s brain trust had Sparks make a “big rock move” for two more albums. And that “move” led to Sparks’ appearance in Rollercoaster — a role that the Brothers Mael described in a September 2006 Mojo interview as “the biggest regret” in the career of Sparks.

Regret? I went screaming from the duplex to find used Sparks albums at the local used record store. Hey, at least Columbia converted one person into a “Sparkhead” via the film.

And how is this not on TubiTV, considering it’s been re-released on Blu by Shout Factory, who has their own Tubi channel? No online stream, either? Not even on Amazon Prime? What the hell! Well, we found this — as a commenter dubbed it — “Glaucomavision” copy (you’ll get the joke when you open the link) on You Tube, for those of you that have never experienced the wonder of the members of Sparks fleeing the shrapnel of a rollercoaster.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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