Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel (1983)

Imagine a film so plagued with legal and productions issues that even the pseudonymised Alan Smithee doesn’t want to take a credit—and it took almost 30 years before the film screened to a mass audience.

Such a film is Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel . . . yes, we know the hotel’s sign uses an ampersand, while film title uses the contraction . . . that’s just one of this film’s many problems.

And those problems began in the fall of October 1982 in Richmond, Virginia, at the once opulent Jefferson Hotel, a location where French director Louis Malle previously completed his 1981 independent comedy-drama My Dinner with Andre (which Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave “two thumbs up”). By the time Hollywood came a-callin’ in Richmond for its next film, the hotel fell into urban decay and became the home of transients.

But no one ever got a chance to give a thumb—up or down (but probably a lot of middle fingers)—for Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel. Well, they did . . . 27 years after the fact, in 2010. But more on that later. . . .

Executive Producers Howard and Francine Schuster, along with producers Peter Rodis and William Gilmore (who saw the film as a “tax-shelter” movie), and Stiff Records’ signee Rachel Sweet and her father/manager (who envisioned the film as her transition from music into film) rose about a $4 million for the project. None had produced a film prior—or since. And speaking of “taxes”: the reason Richmond was chosen over the also-scouted locations of Atlanta and Orlando was Virginia’s generous “tax incentive/tax break” program for film and television productions.

The film’s genesis was rooted in the 3-D craze sweeping cinemas in the early ‘80s with the likes of Amityville 3-D, Comin’ at Ya!, Jaws 3-D, and Friday the 13th 3-D,” and Treasure of the Four Crowns cleaning up at the box office. The Schusters, along with cinematographer and stereoscopic film expert John Rupkolvis, were behind the development of a new type of inexpensive 3-D filmmaking called Arrivision—and the Schusters wanted to make their own movie to showcase the new 3-D technology.

The director the Schusters chose for their “3-D rock ‘n’ roll teen horror musical”—a “director” who never directed a film before—was film composer and arranger Richard Baskin (Nashville, Welcome to L.A., Honeysuckle Rose), a Baskin-Robbins ice cream scion, Barbara Streisand’s then live-in boyfriend, and brother to Saturday Night Live writer Edie Baskin. Richard Baskin’s street cred as a songwriter and composer for films is what got him the job on this planned musical—actually a long-form MTV-style rock video. The set director, just starting out in the feature film business, was noted music video director Mary Lambert (the Go-Go’s, Madonna, Motley Crue, Janet Jackson), who became a film director in her own right (1989’s Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery). Also on the set as the film’s music consultant was Seth Justman, the longtime keyboardist and songwriter for the J.Geils Band.

Okay, so all of these people have skills. So far, so good. . . .

The script, described as “unfinished and unfocused” and “unyielding” over the years by those involved in the production, centered on the career of the Third Dimension, a young n’ sassy, new-wave rock trio fronted by Lisa, portrayed by Akron, Ohio, born and U.K.-transplanted singer Rachel Sweet, who issued European hit singles on the Stiff Records label (home to Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe). The faux band also featured Johnny, a leather-jacket clad guitar player portrayed by Judd Nelson in his feature film debut (two years away from his back-to-back breakthrough roles in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire), and Rick, a scarf-clad bassist portrayed by the big screen-debuting Matthew Penn, he the son of director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man). (These days, Matt is a prolific TV series director with over one hundred fifty credits.)

The cast was rounded out by older, fading actors brought in as fading classic ’50s rockers: comedian Dick Shawn (It’s a Mad, Mad World, The Producers), now ubiquitous character actor Joe Grifasi (Brewster’s Millions, Honky Tonk Freeway), and Broadway singer-actress Donna McKechnie (TV’s Dark Shadows), who replaced Stella Stevens (The Poseidon Adventure). Also starring was Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons (himself a Chesapeake, Virginia native) as a motorcycle-riding disc jockey, along with MTV VJ Colin Quinn as a fast-pattering DJ.

The plot—such as it is—is your typical good vs. evil story centered around a rock ‘n’ roll battle of the bands contest held in the old, sinister “Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel.” Sweet’s new wave-inspired Third Dimension are, of course, the good guys; the washed-up ’50s rock-crooning the Weevils, fronted by Shawn and backed by the cougaresque McKenchnie and the piano-playing Grifasi, are determined to win the contest at any cost.

As you’ll can see from the two trailers and promotional video we’ve linked-up below (at the end of the review): everything is way out there—and not making a whole lot of sense, as continuity and narrative are out the window.

It seems the sinister, evil classic ’50s rockers, the Weevils (escaping from Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise), have perfected the skills of hypnotism, have control of three white-clad tempting Fates to lure men to their sexual demise (always on the make for Nelson and Penn), and have access to a time machine—which comes in handy when you need an inebriated Beethoven and stoned Jimi Hendrix to show up for few laughs; Frankenstein lumbers around the halls amid zombies; there’s a dancing chorus of haunted pants; an old, snoring corspe takes a nap in front of a television; there’s a wheel-chair bound, rat-faced talent agent; Shawn’s Weevil King of Evil sashays around in wares typical of King Ludwig II of Bavaria; Joe Grifasi cops n’ mocs Elton John’s wardrobe and stage antics. There’s sad trombone “Wah-Wah-Wah” fanfare-styled humor that would give T.L.P Swicegood (The Undertaker and his Pals) pause. There’s a ten-minute, song-and-dance car crusin’ number with Nelson and Penn shredding guitars as Sweet sings. There’s homages to Devo paired with Shawn crooning ’50s rockabilly tunes. Oh, and everyone is shoving things into the camera to play up the the “3-D” effects.

So, yes . . . the mise-en-scène kinetics of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is definitely a touchstone in the rock ‘n’ roll tomfoolery, as Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel wears its hopes as another Rock ‘n’ Roll High School on its sleeves. The more discerning rock flick connoisseurs will reference Allan Arkush’s Get Crazy (1983; his gonzo tribute to the closing of the Lower East Side New York rock club, the Fillmore East), Menahem Golan’s crazed, futurist rock tale, The Apple (1980), and the Weinstein’s Miramax debut release, the obscure Playing for Keeps (1983; which also deals with the shenanigans at a “rock ‘n’ roll” hotel). Then there’s the VHS aficionados who will go deeper with It’s a Complex World (1991), a nutty tribute (Elvis and Captain Lou Albano show up) to Providence, Rhode Island’s late rock club, Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel.

No way this is going to work. . . .

Almost immediately, Baskin, it’s been said, found himself in way over his head—and all hell broke loose over the script, shooting schedule, and budgets one week into shooting. And the production shut down for a week. Then Seth Justman—who was also new to feature film directing—took the director’s chair based on his heavily-rotated MTV videos for J.Geils’ “Love Stinks” and “Centerfold,” along with “Shake it Up” by the Cars. Of course, by this point, the screenplay, written by Russ Dvonch of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School fame (and worked in various capacities on Roger Corman’s Deathsport and Avalanche), was rewritten by an unknown writer-friend of Justman’s, Janice Shaprio (with no other credits to her name since).

Needless to say, the new director and script doctoring didn’t help.

The film disintegrated in a flurry of lawsuits, speculations and accusations. There were claims the original negatives were lost or stolen, lost in a lab accident, or it was because the film lab processing the negative went bankrupt. The ensuing lawsuits quickly bankrupted the Schusters—and they fled to Australia. Other rumors claim the film was cut up by Bob and Harvey Weinstein and spliced into Playing for Keeps (1986), their debut feature for Miramax Studios—which was another Matthew Penn-starring film (thus assuring some sense of continuity) that also served as the leading lady debut of Marisa Tomei. (The practice of cutting a failed, unfinished film into another also occurred with the Runaways feature film, We’re All Crazy Now, which ended up in the film duBeat-e-o.) And why was that assumed? Because the Weinstein’s film also centered on a trio of New York high schoolers who decide to turn an old, grand mansion into a “Rock n’ Roll Hotel” (a claim which has been reportedly disproven, at least according to the materials-research I’ve read).

In truth: The Sweet and Nelson-starring film finally appeared in a March 1983 issue of Variety—released under the auspices of another set of filmmaking relations: Menahem Golan (who just directed an equally wacked out rock flick, The Apple) and his cousin, Yoram Globus, for their Cannon Pictures. The press release stated they were set to debut the film at the Movie Lab on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles on March 9 and 10 at 3 p.m; and that it would have a New York showing at the Waverley Theater on Sixth Street during the weekend of March 11 and 12.

But alas, the showing weren’t a serious attempt to distribute the film, but simply to fulfill the terms of the project’s “tax shelter” agreement to investors that that film must appear in a major city over the course of a weekend (see Tom Sizemore’s Zyzzyx Road and Christian Slater’s Playback for examples; Roger Corman’s abortive 1994 version of The Fantastic Four also applies). At that point, Rachel Sweet and her father shanghaied the film and claimed they “finished it,” shooting new footage and shifting more of the film’s focus on Rachel—and that the film aired on HBO in the mid-eighties (a claim which the programmers of HBO deny).

Then, in February 2010, Craig Hodgetts, one of the set designers on the film working under Mary Lambert, discovered a raw VHS tape labeled “‘Rock and Roll Hotel,’ 83 min., 1986,” in a box of production sketches and photo stills from the film in the archives room of his architectural firm in Culver City, California. And that copy does, in fact, carry a “Richard Sweet Productions” title card. So, it seems, the Sweet’s claims that they finished the film and that it aired on HBO are true. And this is the version that has no director credit—not even Alan Smithee.

So what happened to the original 35mm “3-D Wondervision” version showing off all that great 3-D camera work? What happened to the print shown in Los Angeles and New York in 1983? Where’s the 1986 version?

Today, all that exists is the digitized, low-tech 2-D direct-from-VHS copy that occasional plays around the Richmond area in an art house-drafthouse environment and the occasional U.S film festival—the one found in a box in Hodgetts’s closet.

TRAILERS ‘n’ CLIPS: Yes, we have ’em! But you know those ‘ol HTML bugs and video sharing sites. Code breaks and “unofficial” uploads by fans — and not reissue shingles — are sometimes deleted. So, you can link-out to watch this trailer and promotional video on You Tube and another trailer on Vimeo.

MANY THANKS: To Dale Brumfield of Style Weekly Magazine, Cinedelphia Film Festival (as of 2021, the site is currently dead/festival no longer exists), and James River Film Journal for their efforts in preserving the memory of this truly lost rock ‘n’ roll film that assisted in preparing this review for our first “Rock ‘n’ Roll Week” at B&S About Movies.

MORE THANKS, 2022: Just when you think your review-writing was for naught, only to be lost somewhere, forgotten on a file server . . . someone discovers it, shares it on social media, and the subsequent readers reach out to express their enjoyment of the piece. So, thanks to those half-dozen or so that FB’d me (including two who worked on the film!) with their gratitude. Yeah, it is fun to reminisce with these films and chat them up with the fans and the crew. Your vibes keep me bangin’ at the keys! Turns out it is not as fruitless as it sometimes feels (my “Exploring 50 Grunge Films” piece received the same, positive social media responses).

MORE MOVIE LINKS: Oh, and since Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel qualifies as a Box Office Failure—hey, everyone gave it their best, for sure—be sure to check out out recent, week long February tribute week to “Box Office Failures.” Do you need more faux rock band flicks? Sure you do! Then check out our “Ten Bands Made Up for Movies (and a whole lot more)” featurette.

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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