Can't Stop the Music

The pop-culture zone where movies meet rock & roll has served up musicals, tour documentaries, concert films, biographies, autobiographies, and, in its most emblematic display, lighthearted pseudo-biographical romps that are both promotions and flip-offs of the star-maker machinery. The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night was the early exemplar, the Monkees’ Head its psychedelically antic son. In their wake have come a strange panoply of films that are ever harder to take at face value. The Spice Girls’ Spice World is just the most recent of its kind: pop movies half baked and well seasoned.

Take the Village People, who were, like the Spice Girls, a producer-contrived act with titular stage identities (“Policeman,” “Construction Worker,” “Indian,” et al.). Three years after their 1977 inception, they served up Can’t Stop the Music, the tall tale of how Jacques Morali imagined the gay disco act and marketed it to middle America with the dweebily peppy Steve Guttenberg playing Morali stand-in Jack Morell. Inverting the rock myth of creative cool cats fighting for their integrity against moneygrubbing suits, the picture airs goofy shamelessness, depicting the group as the hired help and the manager as the mastermind.

With regard to character, plot, and dialogue, Can’t Stop the Music—which was directed by Rhoda‘s mom and Bounty pitchwoman Nancy Walker—has no merit. Savored as a disco document, though, it’s priceless kitsch. The flick is too campy to describe, but if I explain that one undeveloped subplot concerns the Policeman tracking down an 80-year-old woman who mugged Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner at gunpoint or mention that a scene depicting an open audition ends when a man in gold lame hot pants sets off a sprinkler system with flaming batons, you may get a sense.

At the same time the Village People got funky in New York, the Sex Pistols were punking out London, and the Barnum behind their vicious circus was Malcolm McLaren. In The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, McLaren frames his history of the seminal band as a lesson in rock commodification, describing how he converted the Pistols’ ethos—bottomless contempt for everything from competent musicianship to basic human decency—into filthy lucre.

While McLaren, wearing a T-shirt that reads “Cash from Chaos,” intermittently dispenses a lecture of hilariously brazen crassness (“Forget about music and concentrate on creating generation gaps”), guitarist Steve Jones goes on a half-cocked, hard-boiled search for the key to the swindle, trying to see whether McLaren’s ripped him off. News footage and wildly offensive fantasy sequences—the least rowdy of which is a cartoon showing Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, and mates coursing through an airport on a surging wave of vomit—help one story segue into the other, and 19 interpolated music clips unleash the raw snarl and noisy spasms that made the whole sick stunt worthwhile.

It’s McLaren’s dictum that for business purposes, “a group that can’t play is better than a group that can.” Correspondingly, in Spice World, the group’s musical director congratulates them by cheering “that was absolutely perfect without being actually any good.” And how. Throughout the movie, the Girls—ever friendly and funny (especially Posh, my new favorite)—contend with farcical mishaps that threaten their first concert, exuding happy blandness at every step. It’s a feature-length commercial in the form of a revisionist history.

In actuality, the Spice Girls were conceived four years ago, the brainchildren of managers who went fishing for talent with a magazine ad for bait. Spice World suggests a fake past—invoked in flashback—where the gals, manager free, shared a struggling existence “a very long time ago.” It’s a cold lie told with a wink of self-mockery. The whole film has the cheaply knowing tone of a beer ad that mocks beer ads as a means of selling beer. As such, the movie is never more than lightly amusing.

At least it is in 1998, when—what with Austin Powers striking a cheeky chord and platform shoes sold at the mall—there’s a little bit of Spice in us all. Is Spice World, a mediocre musical comedy, destined for greatness on the cult shelf? Kitsch is inanity regarded in retrospect, and years from now we’ll know if the Spice Girls’ pseudo-feminist Girl Power blather can incite as many howls as the claim Guttenberg fervidly makes for the Village People: “This is the sound of the ’80s!” Can’t Stop: A Swindle: A Spice World: C+

Can't Stop the Music
  • Movie
  • 118 minutes