Cotton Candy (1978)

“That’s part of the problem with being a kid actor. When your show’s over, nobody informs you that your career’s over, too.”
— Luke Halpin, aka Sandy Ricks on TV’s Flipper (1964 – 1968)

To become a child actor; a kid star, to paraphrase British modernist poet David Jones: it is both a blessing and a curse.

And for every Leonardo DiCaprio, who got his start as a kid actor on TV’s Growing Pains, receiving the industry’s blessing to transition into adult roles, there’s a Dustin Diamond, from TV’s Saved by the Bell, who’s destined to experience a fateful, Longfellowian rain fall.

Courtesy of Made for TV Movie Fandom Wiki/You Tube trailer.

And in the case of Luke Halpin (Shock Waves), his successful ‘60s doppelganger would be Ron Howard who, as a kid actor, got his start as Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show (1960 -1968). If only Luke Halpin had been noticed by George Lucas and cast in one of the most profitable films in history, American Graffiti (1973; we’re reviewed the sequel, More American Graffiti), or booked a part on ABC-TV’s Happy Days . . . damn the cackling Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos, that trio of witches weaving the looms of fate.

And the witches saw fit to weave Roger Corman into Ron Howard’s tapestry. And the B-Movie King and the strawberry-mop topped sitcom star made a deal: If Howard would star in New World’s hicksploitation romp Eat My Dust (1975), he would give Howard the opportunity pursue his dream of directing a feature film, which became Grand Theft Auto (1977; its theatrical one-sheet appears in Cotton Candy as George and Brenda go on a date to a movie theater). Both films duplicated the insane box office of American Graffiti: Eat My Dust grossed $5 million against $300,000 and Howard’s directing debut grossed $15 million against $600,000.

So with three box office bonanzas and a hit TV series on his resume, NBC-TV wanted a piece of the Howard action. So they gave Ron an opportunity to direct his second film—his first TV movie (the others were 1980’s Skyward, 1981’s Through the Magic Pyramid, and 1983’s Little Shots)—for his newly formed Major H Productions with his father Rance and brother Clint (Ice Cream Man!!!). The idea that Ron and Clint came up with was Cotton Candy: a TV movie-length pilot for a weekly series concerning the rock ‘n’ romance adventures between the rival high school bands (starring 30-year-old teenagers, as is the case with all teen comedies of the ’70s) Cotton Candy (the underdogs) and Rapid Fire (the chick magnets) making the race for stardom in Dallas, Texas. (The high school in the film was called-out-by-name Lake Highlands High School.)

Tad Painter, Morgan Ferguson, actor Mark Wheeler, Mark Ridlen (also a Dallas radio jock), and John Painter, collectively known as Rapid Fire, aka Dallas local band Quad Pi, formerly known as Lithum X-Mas/image courtesy of Clint Howard via Robert Wilonsky and The Dallas Morning News.

For his leading man, Howard cast his old buddy Charles Martin Smith (Toad from American Graffiti; he later directed the “No False Metal” classic, Trick or Treat!!!). Smith is George Smalley: a geeky high school senior who’s dogged by his mother about dating and girls and a dad (Alvy “Hank Kimble” Moore from Green Acres . . . Ack! Stop right there. This is B&S About Movies, buddy! We remember Alvy from Smokey and the Hotwire Gang, The Witchmaker . . . and The Brotherhood of Satan!!) who wants him to stop wasting his time with the guitar (oh, do I relate). So to get chicks and get dad off his back, he joins the school’s football team, but is quickly cut from the squad.

No matter. George hated football and was only doing it to please dad. What he really wants to do is music. So when one of the guitarists of the school’s hottest band (they do all of the school’s dances, mall concerts, hot parties, and get paid gigs!), Rapid Fire, leaves the group as result of a family move, George decides to ask for an audition after a show. And Torbin Bequette (an excellently dickish Mark Wheeler; portrayed Neil Armstrong for Ron in Apollo 13), the band’s popular singer and big man on campus, humiliates George in front of everyone.

So, together with his best friend (ugh, not another clueless, talentless dork with no musical or legal skills “managing” a band, riding his talented friend’s coattails: this is Ricky from American Satan all over again), Corky MacPherson (Clint Howard), they resolve to form a rock band to perform George’s original tunes and take down Rapid Fire at the big “Battle of the Bands” (Oh, the “Battles” at the local skating rink and the city park’s outdoor stage of the ’70s and ’80s!) competition at the real life, Town East Mall (Oh, those teen years of living at the mall! Orange Julius and Spencer Gifts!!) in East Dallas. Together, George and Corky recruit a set of brothers who play keyboards and guitar, a former gang member on bass guitar (Manuel Padilla, Jr., aka Jai from ‘60s TV Tarzan), and a very cute female drummer (Leslie King, she of the 1979 Drive-In T&A classics Gas Pump Girls and The Great American Girl Robbery; as a screenwriter she penned 1988’s To Die For for Deran Sarafin, yes, he of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Death Warrant!).

The out-of-print paperback tie-in/courtesy of Amazon (this was the best available image).

So, what about the music, you ask?

It is pure ’70s pop bubblegum. But Cotton Candy ain’t the Knack or Sweet. So instead of “Frustrated” or “Good Girls Don’t,” or “Fox on the Run” and “Love Is Like Oxygen,” we get a rocky-upbeat version of the safe n’ sweet sounds of the Carpenters (girl drummer, hatch), with the George Smalley originals “She Rolls,” “Born Rich,” and “Starship” (damn it: not uploaded to You Tube).

As for Rapid Fire’s catalog: And you thought the Sebastians (of Rocktober Blood fame) securing the right to Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and Ted Nugent’s “Sweet Sally” for their pirate radio romp On the Air Live with Captain Midnight (1979) was a rock ‘n’ boondoggle? How in the hell did Ron Howard get the rights to Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” via Eric Clapton? How did he get the rights to Billy Preston’s (Hammond organist on the Beatles’ albums) “You are So Beautiful” via Joe Cocker?

Clearly, Cotton Candy, while a bunch of clueless dorks who decide playing strip poker with their female drummer is the mature thing to do, is the more talented band. Sure, Rapid Fire has the slick, silk windbreakers, smoldering good looks and feathered hair . . . and can afford snazzy, three-piece suits and fedoras, you know, to carry through that “gangster” theme to go along with that awesome “Tommy Gun” band logo.

“Rapid Fire’s got to reload . . . we’ll be back in five.”

But Torbin and the boys can’t write music; they can only can butcher jukebox-from-hell covers that ’70s sound-alike budget album distributor Pickwick International would reject for release.

Yeah, it’s all very “Pickwick International” with Rapid Fire. If you went on a Sunday “Swap Swap” excursion with the family at the local Drive-In, you know the label. I got burned by Pickwick’s version of Tommy (You Tube) thinking I was buying the Who’s rock opera. Well, that’s Torbin Bequette and Rapid Fire: all the girls, none of the talent, and it ain’t Clapton or Cocker.

Yeah, this is taking me back to those bag-o-dicks from Mad Sire in their silk band jackets and platform shoes and flared jeans churnin’ out their covers of Rick Derringer’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hoochie Coo” and Styx “Renegade” at the school dances . . . and taunting Hot Rats, the underdog Ramones-inspired stalwarts as “Hot Rats . . . more like cold crap,” as we ripped out the originals “Rock ‘n’ Roll Stereo Kids” and “Scene Queen” (which later became “Bitch Queen” as we, pathetically, went “metal”) to a garage audience of five fellow lost souls that were a lot like Sam, my boss at B&S About Movies.

Ack! Tagents and non-sequiturs! Back to the movie. . . .

Because Howard’s TV movie debut tanked in the ratings, and both Ron and Clint expressed embarrassment over the years regarding the project, Ron has publically stated the film will never, ever see (a hard or digital) release. And once Ron’s career took off with the likes of the theatrical features Night Shift, Splash, and Cocoon, he didn’t want anyone to remember Cotton Candy; when the ‘80s video boom hit and stores were hungry for product, the film was never released to VHS.

So how bad is it?

Well, in our review of It’s a Complex World, we spoke of how revered it is among the movers and shakers of Providence, Rhode Island, where it was filmed—ditto for Richmond, Virginia’s denizens who remember the making of the failed Rock N’ Roll Hotel. And the rock denizens of Dallas, rightfully, feel the same way about Cotton Candy. It’s all about nostalgia on this one. If you were in middle or high school in 1978 when Cotton Candy aired, you’ll love it. If you never seen it before and, compare it against Howard’s later works, such as Apollo 13 . . . let’s put it this way: it’s not as bad as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (is any rock movie?), but the proceedings will not be as cool as Eddie and the Cruisers, and not as awesome as Rock Star with Mark Wahlberg (” . . . stand up and shooout!”). Those who love it (moi): we are loading up our TV-to-VHS-ripped copies of Cotton Candy alongside Ladies and Gentleman: The Fabulous Stains and the Dennis Hopper Elvis-Johnny Rotton punk-tale oddity that is Out of the Blue (we’ve got to review that one!).

Cotton Candy recently had an 40th anniversary screening at the Lake Highland Alamo Drafthouse outside of Dallas, put together by Mark Ridlen of the faux Rapid Fire. But do not let that fool you into thinking a DVD restoration is forthcoming. . . .

The bootlegged VHS-ripped-from-TV (regardless of the flashy slip cases) on this one are impossible to find. Cotton Candy has never been officially released on DVD (by Howard or NBC-TV’s corporate parent, Universal) and hasn’t re-aired on TV since the mid ’80s—so watch out for those grey market TV-to-VHS-to-DVD rips in the marketplace. Yes, there are 1985-dated foreign VHS tapes in the marketplace (an image of the Swedish version recently, post-this-review, posted on the IMDb), but it’s doubtful those are from the original negative. Well, perhaps a PPV or VOD stream, Ron? How about a with-ads stream on TubiTV? That’s unlikely. After Howard’s Imagine Entertainment was acquired by Disney, the negative to Cotton Candy has been buried in their vaults ever since. . . .

So the best we’ve got to enjoy Cotton Candy are ’70s UHF-TV rips uploaded to You Tube. And it seems Ron Howard doesn’t mind, since they’ve been there a while. You have three uploads to choose from HERE, HERE, and HERE. Sadly, the ending of the film sticks on all of them before we can see the songwriting credits behind Cotton Candy’s tunes. Ah, but there’s nothing like a B&S About Movies review obscurity (see Arctic Warriors) to inspire those IMDb page updates. Courtesy of those updates, we now know that Joe Renzetti wrote those nifty Cotton Candy tunes with Charles Martin Smith. The Philadelphia-born Renzetti got his start as a film composer and soundtrack consultant alongside Smith in The Buddy Holly Story, teaching Smith and the rest of the cast to sing and play their instruments—live on camera—the first for a theatrical film. Another of Renzetti’s film gigs was instructing Kurt Russell as “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” on John Carpenter’s 1979 TV movie, Elvis.

So, you want more fake bands of the Cotton Candy variety? Then be sure to check out our “Ten Bands Make Up for Movies (and a whole lot more)” featurette.

* Our thanks to Advocate Mag and The Dallas News for preserving this beloved rock flick obscurity with interesting trivia bits in the preparation of this review.

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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