Infamous bad movie Can’t Stop the Music is perhaps one of the strangest pictures ever made. Watching it today, whether for the first time or the seventh, it is impossible to look at it without the filter of dated camp. Even in 1980 its time had passed, what with the famed ‘Disco Demolition’ derby of 1979 still fresh in the memory, and The Village People’s success winding down. It’s such a ludicrously mounted production that it thrills me to no end that it was a hit in Australia and nowhere else. The soundtrack album, too, which went to no. 1 on the Kent Music Chart and has since become a late night television staple, typically on New Year’s Eve because networks expect drunken idiots to sit around and watch.
The film opens with Steve Guttenberg (ding), working in a record shop (ding ding) on roller skates (ding ding ding) as mad hordes of customers fight their way to the register to purchase the latest, hottest, chicest disco vinyl (ding ding ding ding we have a winner!). Quitting his job to become a composer and rolling down Broadway to the beat of David London’s “Sound of the City” as glitter-sparkle credits fly across the screen. It’s patently absurd and how anybody thought it was a good idea even then is mind-boggling. Still, Can’t Stop the Music is a curiously fascinating film to watch, which certainly helps explain its cult status. Much like the other famous terrible musical of 1980,Menahem Golan’s The Apple (which received zero Razzie nominations compared to Music‘s seven; explain that!), there’s a genuine sense of awe to be found in its ugly, chintzy excess and tone deaf style. To be a fly on the wall of this production would be an eye-opener.
Visually, it’s easy to see what they were attempting. It’s full of bright colours and bustling energy, juxtaposing its pulsating disco beats with the working class that were (supposedly) buying these records as escapist fantasy: New York City as a musical utopia unlike any other. The Village People may have told gay men to “go west”, but Can’t Stop the Music attempts to lay claim to New York as the place the be if you want to make it big, whether you’re a retail lackey or a construction worker. It’s a city where artists mingle and can be creative, where even amidst the skyscrapers and the office workers strolling to lunch meetings and coffee breaks the sound of a disco record can make it feel like a wide-eyed wonderland. I mean, there’s a scene where the Indian village person crawls through the window of his friend/neighbour/stranger and she says, “This is neighbourly New York.” This was the New York City that many wanted, when really they were getting The Equalizer.
Listen to the sound of the city, listen to the cars on the street
New York is the fans of the Yankees, New York is a cop on the beat
Listen to the sound of the city, listen to the steeple bells chime
New York is a city of magic, New York is a hip state of mind
When it came to selecting a favourite shot… well, that was hard. I may appreciate what it was going for visually more than most, but it’s still not a particularly well-shop film. It’s not marked with big visual moments, you know? It’s a movie that, watch somebody play a computer game, director Nancy Walker forgets that watching people dance is disco is far less interesting than actually dancing disco – and without the magnetic star energy of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever with its raised competitive stakes, entire scenes go by that today only serve to bolster one’s Spotify playlists. I mean, the nightclub sequence that occurs 13mins in is hardly on par with Baz Luhrmann’s audaciously put together Moulin Rouge!
One scene, the “I Love You To Death” number is trying so hard for interesting visuals with bold, lavish splashes of red and glitter, although a later scene set to “Y.M.C.A.” that kind of recreates Gentlemen Prefer Blondes‘ famous gay gym workout number is absurd but nicely edited as these things go and the use of music video choreography, angles and slow-motion lends it at least some sort of visual style. Furthermore, the “Milkshake” number is probably the closest the film gets to an actual moment of visual class (even if it is still a Vaseline-lensed mess) as it attempts to blend The Village People with an old school musical. Still, only one shot really stood out as “worthy” of choosing as the best shot, and that was this:
Shameless. Cluttered. Scantily dressed. Completely irrelevant and unnecessary. Steve Guttenberg looking agog. Epitomises Can’t Stop the Music, wouldn’t you say?