Synopsis: In this pseudo-biographical tale of the formation of 1970s disco giants the Village People, struggling DJ/songwriter Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg) needs just one big break to get his career off the ground. With the help of his newly-retired supermodel best friend Samantha (Valerie Perrine), Jack gets a record exec to listen to his demo, but Jack’s vocals just don’t cut the mustard. So Jack and Samantha decide to recruit singers from the Greenwich Village area of New York to form a group to perform Jack’s songs. With Samantha’s new beau Ron (Bruce Jenner) offering his Wall Street offices as an audition space, they build a group of six macho men – the Policeman, the Indian, the Construction Worker, the Cowboy, the Leatherman, and the G.I. – and dub them the Village People. But do Jack and his singers have what it takes to reach the top?
How to put into words my love for this beautiful trainwreck of a film? The first and only directorial effort of television actress Nancy Walker (Rhoda’s mom!), Can’t Stop the Music was meant to be the apotheosis of the disco era, “the movie musical event of the ’80s.” Unfortunately, it was released just after disco had already peaked and was rapidly falling to the era of New Wave. At the time of its release, Newsweek called it “the first all-singing, all-dancing horror film; the Dawn of the Dead of the disco era.” It was a double feature of Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu which inspired John J.B. Wilson to create the notorious annual Golden Raspberry Awards honoring the worst in film. Can’t Stop was nominated in all but one category at that first ceremony and walked away with the Razzies for both Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay. With a film this bad, you know it’s gotta be good.
You know right away that Can’t Stop is going to be wonderful from the opening montage of Steve Guttenberg gleefully (almost maniacally) rollerskating through the streets of New York City to the strains of the delightfully-peppy “Sound of the City” as the credits roll. THRILL as the words “INTRODUCING BRUCE JENNER” glitter across your screen. MARVEL at Guttenberg’s disturbingly-tight white jeans. This is disco, people, and it’s happening whether you like it or not. For the next two hours and four minutes (!), you literally cannot stop the music.
From there, the film is a balanced mixture of pure pleasure and pure pain. For the record, I consider all the Village People-focused parts to be the “pleasure” and all the non-Village People-focused parts to be the “pain.” Even though the Villagers ain’t no great shakes as actors, it’s the supposed “professionals” who were cast in the supporting roles who really chew up the scenery. Guttenberg is tolerable and somewhat endearing as the REALLY REALLY REALLY EXCITED ABOUT EVERYTHING composer and disc jockey Jack Morell, who’s a stand-in for the Frenchman Jacques Morali who formed the original Village People in 1977. This is the only feature film Bruce Jenner ever made, and for good reason, because he’s godawful and the movie spends an excruciating amount of time focused on his character, who’s introduced as some lawyer from St. Louis who’s mugged on his way to deliver a cake and winds up falling in love with Jack’s best friend Samantha? I’ve seen this movie ten times and I still don’t understand where he came from or why he’s there. Valerie Perrine as Samantha is also atrocious, but not nearly as atrocious as her creepy friend Lulu (Marilyn Sokol), whose sexual passes at everything with a pulse are truly cringe-inducing. It’s obvious that when the filmmakers realized that they couldn’t justify devoting two hours to the Village People act, they decided to make the rest of the film a goofball comedy, which falls flat in the most embarrassing and painful way. But, you know, fun painful, for the most part.
But truly it is the Village People themselves who make this film worth seeing. The musical numbers, like the people performing them, are fabulously over-the-top and must be seen to be believed. Numbers like “Milkshake” and “I Love You To Death” will remain stuck in your head for days, possibly years. Although the film is lacking two of the Village People’s three greatest hits, “In the Navy” and “Macho Man,” the extended “YMCA” number makes it so you don’t even notice their absence. But more than that, the Village People themselves are just fun dudes. Felipe Rose, who plays the Indian, gets the most screen time and lines, but each Villager is introduced in his own way and gets his moment to shine. My personal favorite, and the best WTF-inducing introduction scene of them all? Leatherman Glenn Hughes, who sadly passed away from lung cancer in 2001 at the age of 50.
I once read a review of this film which lamented the lack of overt gay images. The reviewer was male, but he had to be straight, because it’s pretty hard to miss the gayness in Can’t Stop the Music. Sure, there’s no gay sex, and none of the Village People ever come right out and talk about how gay they are, but come on. The whole point of the Village People was hyper-masculinized stereotypes of gay sexuality, which clueless straight people somehow took at face value because they just liked dancing to the music. The “YMCA” number in Can’t Stop involves ogling near-naked (some all-naked!) men in the locker rooms, soap fights in the showers, even slow-motion Greco-Roman wrestling and a choreographed boxing dance! Before the final “big show,” Glenn the Leatherman is banging his head against the wall in agony, repeating, “Leathermen don’t get nervous! Leathermen don’t get nervous!” at which point Alex the G.I. walks by saying, “Oh yes they do, oh yes they do,” with a knowing smile that implies he’s talking about more than just stage fright. If you want sex or a frank discussion of homosexuality, no, you’re not going to get it. But what you do get is so much better, a delightfully-cheeky camp extravaganza that’s just fun. Judging by some of the heavy-handed depictions of gayness that came out in the mainstream in the 1980s (and especially the 1990s), this film demonstrates a refreshingly-light inclusion of queer themes without having to get into all the serious political aspects of being gay in 1980. There are other movies that tackle those issues. The Village People are entertainers, and they have their very specific niche; don’t expect any more or any less out of them.
Despite being way too long and way too focused on the abysmally-stupid side characters, I really do adore this film. In some ways it’s the very definition of so-bad-it’s-good, but in other ways – like the musical numbers – it’s often just good (whether you want to admit it to yourself or not). Just don’t expect to come away with any deeper understanding of the world, because that’s not what this film is about. In fact, you may understand the world less after watching it. Truly a camp cinema classic and a movie very near and dear to my bitter little heart, Can’t Stop the Music is vapid, meaningless perfection.
Can’t Stop the Music (1980) – 4/5 stars