05 January 2009

FUNK AND ROLL

A whole year of the 1000 best movies of all time has proven to be far too much respectability for me to handle week after week. Which is why for the next few Sundays, at least, I'm dedicating my "classic" movie reviews to films from what we might call the less-reputable end of the cinematic spectrum.

I'm having a hard time thinking of a way to get more bang for your bad movie buck than 1979's Roller Boogie, which possesses what must be one of the most efficiently lousy stories in cinema history: it's all but impossible to imagine a 103-minute narrative that includes a broader range of the mustiest clichés known to humankind. It's the story of a good girl from a wealthy family who looks for excitement in the rough 'n' tumble part of town, where she falls in love with a local bad-boy hero, which turns into the story of the kids' attempt to save their favorite hang-out spot from a corrupt developer, with the help of a handy audio recording of that developer's threats to the kindly old man who just wants to give everybody a safe place to have fun. But that's not the only thing stopping our young lovers from getting together: she also has to contend with her emotionally distant parents who want to send her off to the East Coast to become a lady at school, and are too square to understand what the hell their daughter sees in this jazz rock disco noise, and why she won't just settle down with the boring horndog they've picked for her to date. If this doesn't all seem hopelessly familiar yet, it's probably because I haven't mentioned the scene where the wacky kids end up dragging a whole party full of stuffy square white people into a swimming pool.

It might be faster, in fact, to list the tropes that Roller Boogie misses than the ones it hits (for one, I expected the solution to the whole developer crisis to involve putting on a show in the old barn): in all honesty, I can't name another film in which every beat of the plot, from the broadest arc to the tiniest point of character detail, has been recognisably lifted intact not just from another movie but from seven decades of movie history. Perhaps the only thing that makes Roller Boogie original - although being comprised entirely of clichés as old as a human lifespan has it's own kind of demented originality - is its setting in the high-energy world of roller discos, a fad that barely outlived the film's post-production schedule. Like films about the Lambada, there just wasn't enough time for more than a couple roller disco movies to come out, and that alone is enough to make Roller Boogie a nearly unique film in all the annals of filmdom (the other one I know of is Skatetown, U.S.A.; while Xanadu features a roller disco, it is not at heart a roller disco movie).

But hey, what's originality? Plenty of great movies have been equally guilty of stealing most of their ideas from older sources, just as plenty of bad movies have. So the fact that Roller Boogie is a bad movie, to an exceptional degree, can't just be blamed on its wanton lack of imagination. There's plenty of other things to go around, and most of them ultimately have to do with the fact that it's an unabashed cash grab meant to exploit a short-lived fad from the late '70s. For example, the specific nature of roller skating meant that most of these characters who are meant to be super-great at the art have to actually be super-great, or at least good enough so that those of us who aren't personally great roller-skaters can't tell the difference. Which means in turn that they must be played by professionals. And this leads us to one of the most dire truths of Roller Boogie: it is populated, without exception, by skaters who cannot act, or actors who cannot skate (though to be fair to the skaters, plenty of the actors aren't particularly good at either activity). Hence the hero, Bobby James, is played by the much-awarded skater Jim Bray in his one and only cinematic appearance. Bray isn't just a poor actor; he's hopeless, and his performance is among the worst I've ever seen in that era - an era that gave us the talents of Michael "Xanadu" Beck and wave after wave of Expendable Meat slasher film thespians, I'll remind you - a literally slack-jawed affront to the dramatic arts. The greater part of his dialogue is mumbled quickly, and can hardly be understood; his expression changes only as a function of how wide his eyes are open. The worst thing is, his skating dances aren't even all that well-executed, although there's one that's pretty unintentionally hilarious, as Bobby expresses his sorrow over the impending destruction of the local roller rink, accompanied by a horrible cover of Supertramp's "Lord Is It Mine".

The good news - relatively - is that Bray's apocalyptic performance much overshadows his co-lead, Linda Blair, in the roll of Theresa "Terry" Barkley (An androgynous name for the female lead! What further great innovations can this film provide?). Best known for her performance in The Exorcist, at the distinguished age of 13 years, Blair went on to have quite the career, mostly in shoddy genre exercises, some of which make Roller Boogie look positively respectable. She's not much of an actress, and not much of a skater, and left to her own devices I've no doubt that she would leave the film trapped in bland mediocrity. Still, next to Bray she seems the most charismatic and bubbly of leading ladies. Next to most of the cast, as a point in fact: nearly everyone onscreen either mugs like a crazy person or gawks emptily. Blair's bland decency serves her extraordinarily well in such surroundings.

Beyond that, the film is bursting apart with weird, bad ideas. Not stylistically; it's perfectly innocuous, with no moments of tremendous incompetence nor any particularly inspired shots. But all the bits that go into the story! Cataloging them would be tedious, but almost every frame includes something that just doesn't fit, whether it's the Barkley's black maid who seems to have stepped intact, stereotypes and all, from a 1940s comedy; the couple making out on a dumpster in the opening scene; one of the most unconvincingly wacky bare asses I've ever seen in a movie; and of course the incredibly arbitrary way that Terry switches from sweet and flirty to ice cold during the first hour, apparently just to pad out the courtship scenes. Which even then only add up to one half of a feature.

Still, I loved the hell out of Roller Boogie. It is stupid and bad, but in such a broad way as to make it more of a theoretically experiment in badness than anything else. Besides, as a snapshot of what 1979 looked and sounded, it is without compare: look to the scene where we meet Terry, in which the details of her outfit are given much greater weight than she is herself. California disco fashions and music are as much a presence in the film as any character, if not more, and while some may call this just one more of its flaws, I am happy to regard it as the chief justification for its existence. It is nothing if not funky, and I suspect that being funky, and not being at all good, was always the greater goal.

1 comment:

ChrisV82 said...

in all honesty, I can't name another film in which every beat of the plot, from the broadest arc to the tiniest point of character detail, has been recognisably lifted intact not just from another movie but from seven decades of movie history.

Did it ever occur to you that this film was created by a super computer that mashed together an uber-franken-film from the pieces and ideas of other films? If you approach it from the perspective that a machine made this, then it is a pretty impressive film.