Posted in: Film Reviews, Musicals

Review: Can’t Stop the Music

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Disbelief. Right in the middle of the “Y.M.C.A.” number, which is right in the middle of Can’t Stop the Music, one feels one’s mouth actually hanging open. Good grief! Is this really happening? Members of a musical group called the Village People (who play streetwise dudes recruited to form an impromptu ensemble of singers/dancers) and Valerie Perrine (their manager) and Bruce Jenner (a tax lawyer with the hots for Perrine) sweep into a real Y.M.C.A. and begin performing all manner of athletic endeavor, all to a disco beat. And its all just awful. I don’t mean just the shots that you might be visualizing now—slowmotion splitscreen guys twirling through the air, a line of men diving sideways into a swimming pool à la Busby Berkeley. Those are there, all right, but we’re also treated to wildly awkward shots, like a group of nude guys horsing around in the showers (yup, you see everything down to their knees), or a whirlpool bath shot of Perrine’s breasts bobbing out of the water. These shots are even repeated during this montage—to Dolby music, mind. What makes them so jarringly out of place (uh—the shots, that is) is the uncertainty and the weirdness in the shifts from candy-flavored lightheartedness to an uncomfortable kind of wishful frankness. The problem with this sequence is the problem with the movie: Are we to view this pursuit of high spirits as sincere, or is the whole thing supposed to be a joke?

I think those who have tried to explain away the extraordinary poorness of this film by suggesting that it was merely one big put-on are grasping at straws: this movie doesn’t have enough cheek to put a tongue into. Its ostensible attempts at humor consist mainly of a series of bulge jokes (Jenner sits up suddenly; Perrine surveys his crotch and says “You get up quick”; “Quickly,” Jenner ripostes—and that’s the best of them), and of the embarrassingly broad playing of most of the actors. At one point Paul Sand, the only performer to bring the least bit of irony and calm to his role, begins breaking up at the overplaying of Steve Guttenberg; mercifully we cut away to a reverse two-shot before Sand can really be seen to laugh out loud. Sand is rock music mogul to Guttenberg’s struggling, hyper composer; the film acknowledges the improbability of their getting together with references in the screenplay to the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show musicals, but as spoof stuff—and Can’t Stop the Music is willing, even straining to be taken for a spoof—it falls flat. The movie places itself in the limbo between wanting us to really pull for the characters, really get involved with this kind of story, however implausible, and the cowardly safety valve (which blocks any inclination to get involved) of hinting that, well hell, of course this isn’t any good, it’s all a joke anyway. It’s that kind of wanting to have it both ways (while—I think necessarily—succeeding at neither) that makes the movie seem so feeble, no matter how loud. Such railing against cinematic dishonesty may obscure the fact that, amongst the advertisements for milk, Casablanca Records, and Baskin & Robbins ice cream, there were one or two enjoyable moments; but even these moments underscore the tension between intention and result that is the hobgoblin of Can’t Stop the Music. My favorite line occurs when Jenner’s successful lawyer father, distressed at his son’s involvement with a rock group, turns to him and says something like “Son, I can’t help thinking you’re making a major career mistake.” It is testimony to the thickheadedness of Can’t Stop the Music that the Pirandellian irony is almost surely unintentional.

© 1981 Robert Horton

Direction: Nancy Walker. Screenplay: Bronte Woodard and Allan Carr. Cinematography: Bill Butler. Art direction: Harold Michelson; interior design consultant: Waldo Fernandez. Special visual consultant: Steve Hendrickson. Musical staging and choreography: Arlene Phillips. Music: Jacques Morali. Editing: John F. Burnett. Production: Allan Carr, Jacques Morali, Henri Belolo.
The players: Village People (Ray Simpson, David Hodo, Felipe Rose, Randy Jones, Glenn Hughes, Alex Briley), Valerie Perrine, Bruce Jenner, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Sand, Tammy Grimes, June Havoc, Barbara Rush, Altovise Davis, Marilyn Sokol, Russell Nype, Jack Weston, Leigh Taylor-Young.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.