Sorting through the summer slump
It's summertime -- the livin' is easy, the weather is warm, and the movies are dreadful. I can't remember a worse season for filmgoing, whether "art" or "entertainment" is your goal.
True, there have been bright spots: the warmth and optimism of "Bronco Billy, " the delicious performances of Burt Reynolds and David Niven in "Rough Cut." But these pictures are commercial flops, withering on the vine. Judging from the box-office figures, audiences prefer the boredom of "The Blue Lagoon" and the buffoonery of "The Blues Brothers." No wonder the movies have the blues.
In a recent New Yorker article, critic Pauline Kael puts the blame for today's bad films on the laziness and conservatism of the Hollywood moguls. She has a point -- the businessmen who run the studios are apparently terrified of taking risks -- but it's important not to oversimplify. After all, "Bronco Billy" and "Rough Cut" managed to get made by Hollywood, as did "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Black Stallion." The fault lies partly in ourselves, and in our willingness to patronize mediocrities like "Brubaker" and "Friday the 13 th," thereby encouraging the moguls to make more of them.
Another factor has also been causing mischief lately -- the growing link between Hollywood and the pop-music business. In the old days, a movie studio might try to earn extra money by marketing an album of the soundtrack music. Nowadays, the process works in reverse. Somebody comes up with a sharp idea for a record or a rock group, and the movie tags along like an obedient afterthought. That way, even if the movie bombs, a fortune can be made from the lavishly produced and snazzily packaged disc.
Economically, it makes sense. But do the tactics of top-40 radio have a happy effect on Hollywood? Clearly not. For proof, look at this season's musicals, which are a sorry lot by almost any standard.
The most successful of the bunch in The Blues Brothers, directed by John Landis. It's a spin-off of a record album, which was a spin-off of a TV routine on "Saturday Night Live." In the movie, as before, John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd play a pair of white men with a passion for black music. To raise money for an orphanage, they organize a blues band peopled by a motley crew of musicians and misfits. It sounds simple enough, but Universal Pictures managed to spend more than $30 million on it, turning it from a potentially funny farce into a lumbering potpourri of loutish slapstick, punctuated with more car crashes than "Bullitt" and "The French Connection" combined.
It doesn't take a Hollywood whiz to question the wisdom of turning a cute TV gimmick into a multimulti-million-dollar extravaganza. Yet "The Blues Brothers" is one of the few pictures now holding its own at the box office, and even a few critics have found something kind to say about it. Interestingly, it does have a sort of elephantine grace, and it's a cleaner movie than its R rating (for a few four-letter words) would imply. Even its music has a certain imaginativeness, especially when energetic black performers are spotlighted. John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles don't pop up on-screen every day.
But the main virtue of "The Blues Brothers" is that it's less boneheaded and boorish than its musical companions of the moment. Roadie is a crude comedy about a poor Texas lad (played by the mountainous MeatLoaf) who becomes road manager for a rock group. It's fun to see rocker Alice Cooper without his makeup, tand I'd watch any movie with Deborah Harry and Blondie. But the crass humor and sluggish performances undermine what little the film has to offer, and there isn't even very much music -- as if the movie were just a teaser for that all-important record. It's hard to imagine what Art Carney is doing in a place like this, and it's hard to believe that the filmmaker is Alan Rudolph, who used music so intelligently in "Remember My Name."
To look on the bright side for a moment, this season has given us a couple of very strong movies about music (not made in Hollywood, by the way). But they have played to unfortunately limited audiences. The Last of the Blue Devils, directed by Bruce Ricker, is a loving and colorful documentary about a reunion of the Blue Devils -- the original superstars of Kansas City jazz. The movie showcases a host of survivors of this legenary crew, featuring music that ranges from the blues artistry of Jay McShann to the all-round jazzmanship of Count Basie. You can even hear rock 'n' roll sneaking aroung the corner when Joe turner sings his seminal "Shake, Rattle and Roll," which helped to spark the rhythm-and-blues era. It's a special movie for a special audience -- jazz lovers -- but it deserves a lot more exposure than its recent brief engagement in New York.
And so does Rockers, an international production if ever there was one, directed in Jamaica by a Greek filmmaker trained in the United States. Theodoros Basaloukos filmed this exotic musical, which uses reggae -- the pop music of Jamaica -- to explore the artistic joys, personal sorrows, and alleged professional exploitation experienced by the poverty-bound artistes of the reggae world.
The hero is a drummer named Leroy Horsemouth Wallace, played by the real-life Horsemouth himself. He gets ripped off by an evil nightclub owner, has a forbidden romance with the boss's daughter, and finds himself in personal danger -- until he rallies his pals and takes a lighthearted but very effective revenge.
It's a captivating tale, told with rough-hewn tastefulness (except during a fleeting sexual scene) and continual energy.It's also garnished with first-rate reggae -- a combination of rock and calypso -- from excellent Jamaican performers.Though many moviegoers have remarked its similarity to "The Harder They Come" of a few years ago, "Rockers" is a worthy yarn in its own right; and it provides a bonus when it peers into the Rastafarian culture shared by its working-class heroes, who speak in Rasta patois, translated by English subtitles.
Compare this with a piece of Saturday night garbage like Can't Stop the Music , a blatant two-hour advertisement for an album by the Village People, so noisily stupid that even disco-struck audiences are avoiding it. Jamaica's low-budget beauty wins over Hollywood's millions, hands down.