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Flying high, under the gaydar

Sooner or later, everybody figures out that the Village People are gay



You’ve wanted to see former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner go after an acting career and end up just looking nervous and embarrassed in sprayed-on Daisy Duke shorts. You’ve wanted to watch Steve Guttenberg ham his way through a rags-to-riches story about a DJ with a dream like Beaver Cleaver on a coke bender.

You’ve been wondering how in the world—and why—an enterprising movie producer would approach the daunting task of taking the gayest band on the planet and straightening it out for a mainstream disco movie musical.

Young man, there’s a place you can go.

I should probably preface this review by stating, as publicly as you like, that I had absolutely no idea the Village People were gay until relatively recently. Never even stopped to think about it. But then again, I never owned any Village People records, never saw them on Solid Gold or anything, and was only dimly aware of their significance as anything but a bunch of guys who liked to dress up as policemen and construction workers and who liked singing about being in the Navy and endorsing their favorite athletic club. Believe me, I’m not being disingenuous here. Even in the face of so much retrospectively overwhelming evidence, I honestly didn’t have a clue.

I might have had an inkling that something about this musical assemblage of macho archetypes was a couple bubbles off plumb if I’d seen Can’t Stop the Music, the semi-autobiographical Village People musical, when it first came out (so to speak) in 1980. Then again, I might not have. Several people have since told me that they sensed, as wee sprouts, that there was something about the general gestalt of the construction worker, the biker, the policeman et al. that couldn’t be explained by the sum total of what they’d managed to figure out about adults, relationships, sex and sexuality up to that point. Something about the Village People just didn’t check out with the when a man and a woman love each other very much, they may decide to lie very close together definition of sex in the World Book encyclopedia, but they weren’t sure what else it might be.

The single most amazing thing about Can’t Stop the Music (apart from the fact that it ever got made at all) is that this ambitiously misguided disco musical was intended for family audiences. It would be extremely interesting to know how this strategy went over with said audience, but to find that out you’d first have to find somebody who actually went to see it when it was released in June, 1980. Critics murdered it. Audiences stayed away in droves, and the movie promptly bombed. Can’t Stop the Music recouped less than $2 million of its original $20 million budget, nearly half of which had gone to promotion and advertising. Did I say promotion? Producer Allan Carr (Grease) and writer Jacques Morali weren’t the only ones convinced that their Village People musical was going to be the biggest thing since spice racks—Baskin-Robbins actually produced a tie-in flavor called, believe it or not, “Can’t Stop the Nuts!”

Three years earlier and the movie could have been huge. It’s not, I contend, that the world wasn’t ready for a disco musical loosely based on the story of the Village People. Rather, by summer of 1980, everybody was done being ready for it. Can’t Stop the Music simply missed the boat. Nowhere near as gritty as Saturday Night Fever, the movie could still have contended with John Travolta for all-time disco movie honors if group Svengali Morali had just mobilized his human resources a few years earlier.

As it happened, the zeitgeist had changed considerably by 1980. Less than a year earlier, 50,000 people had handed over the admission price of 98 cents and one disco record to watch WLUP morning DJ Steve Dahl, dressed in military fatigues disturbingly suggestive of the Village People’s G.I., detonate an enormous stack of disco vinyl between innings at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Writer Morali and producer Carr must have been either happily oblivious or extraordinarily confident in the success of their pet project not to heed the writing on the wall.

Oblivious, hapless or whatever, they went ahead and did it. Twenty-two years later, with all the benefits of hindsight, it’s like watching about fifty different unlikelihoods converge on the brink of disaster and then go leaping over. Bruce Jenner—acting career?

Rosie, the redheaded waitress on the old Bounty paper towel “quicker-picker-upper” advertisements—directing? Steve Guttenberg—acting career? Village People—straight? Family audiences—were supposed to go see this?

Which brings us back to that most amazing thing about the movie: the Village People playing it straight for mainstream family audiences. To be sure, there isn’t a single overt reference to homosexuality in the entire movie. But since the entire movie revolves around a single segreto di Pulcinella—namely, that everyone involved in the movie is perfectly aware that the Village People are gay, but no one is saying anything about it—it follows that the queer subtext would come seeping through in unusual and surprising ways.

Which it does. There are several lines in the movie that seem like they might be coupled with innuendo or double entendre or references to specific aspects of queer culture (like keys and hankies), but they’re never truly telling. When someone says “Nice box” to tax attorney Ron White (Bruce Jenner), maybe they really are talking about the cake box he’s carrying. When former supermodel Samantha Stevens (Valerie Perrine) asks the cowboy (Randy Jones), if he’s got a hanky (which he does), maybe he’s just one of the increasingly few men who still carry hankies to blow their noses into and/or proffer to the occasional weeping damsel. When the doting mother of DJ Jack Morell (played with gusto by the ham actor’s ham actor, Steve Guttenberg) tells the Village People they should all be down on their knees thanking her son, maybe she really does have a more innocent gesture of gratitude in mind.

The in-jokes—at least they seem like in-jokes—fly so far under the radar that after awhile you have to wonder if, as a tipped-off viewer, you aren’t simply trying to read too much into them. But then again, when Bruce Jenner dumps a pan of steaming lasagna all over himself, doesn’t Guttenberg’s aspiring DJ—who has a platonic living arrangement with former supermodel Perrine—look a little too practiced when he drops to his knees at crotch level to help him out of his pants?

The acting in general is pretty wretched (although next to Jenner, even Steve Guttenberg looks like Sir John Gielgud). But then again, it was Nancy Walker’s directing debut. Prior to Can’t Stop the Music, she was known mainly for playing Rhoda Morgenstern’s mother on the TV series Rhoda and, as mentioned earlier, Rosie the “quicker-picker-upper” waitress on the Bounty paper towel commercials.

The closest Can’t Stop the Music comes to giving itself away is an absolutely riveting Busby Berkeley-style production number staged at the athletic club Jenner secures for group rehearsals—you guessed it, the Y.M.C.A. The look of Christmas-morning wonderment that lights up the Village People’s faces as they behold the sight of a hundred buff young men wriggling into wrestling singlets, snapping each other’s nude behinds with towels and generally disporting themselves is one of the high points of the movie. Jenner, for his part, looks relieved. He finally gets to do some track and field and shoot hoops—to the rousing strains of “Y.M.C.A.,” of course. Valerie Perrine, the only woman in the entire club, runs around in a red t-shirt printed with “Macho Woman” in white iron-on letters, handily winning honors for mother of all beards. She also shows her breasts in the scene where the Village People splash her playfully in the hot tub. Taken with the swinging sickles in the shower scene, it’s a wonder Can’t Stop the Music got its PG rating.

The group’s big break comes at the end of the movie, when they get invited to perform for 2000 people at a party in San Francisco. To attract a real crowd, the producers organized a free Village People concert at Candlestick Park. The crowd that turned up for the free show consisted almost entirely of exuberant gay men, to the extent that a fake concert using extras had to be staged later so that cinematographers could snag a few shots of women and other assorted non-gay-male concert-goers to reflect something of the film’s intended audience. vAmong the few critics who didn’t completely trash Can’t Stop the Music upon release, at least one commented that the film had potential to become a bona fide gay camp classic—if it survived. A very prescient assessment. As a movie, Can’t Stop the Music is dunderheaded in almost every department—but sincerely so. The “Y.M.C.A.” number alone makes it at least worth checking out, but if nothing else it’s an intriguing look at how gay culture in the late ’70s and early ’80s was able to celebrate itself beneath the conservative radar. 

Can’t Stop the Music was re-released earlier this year by Anchor Bay EntertainmentI got in touch with my inner gay construction worker watching Can’t Stop the Music. Let’s see what some other local or formerly-local filmies came away with after recently revisiting movies they hadn’t seen in a while. Frank Capra’s 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and this is what I got from it which was quite different from how I remembered it: Namely, it would be wrong to interpret this movie as a naive exaltation of the American system of government. Actually, the government and the media are portrayed as thoroughly corrupt and cynical, and the public as something made to order. This movie is quite sophisticated about political leadership as capable of bringing about only modest and temporary changes in people’s lives (Senator Jeff Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, runs afoul of the political establishment, big business and the media because he wants to establish a—self-supporting—boys camp in his home state. This is hardly a radical overturning of the social order). So just prior to WWII, then, Capra is not making a propaganda movie about the essential goodness of the American people and their institutions, but making a case for idealistic individuals making a difference, modest as it may be, in the face of the materialist schemes of cynics. This reminds me of what I would like to see as the new political dictum for our times: “Let’s be unrealistic, let’s demand the possible!” or, perhaps, as Antonio Gramsci once insisted, “Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will!” —Chip Stearns, Prescott (Ariz.), professor of integrative studies and film buff I watched Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man awhile ago with a whole new perspective. What I once saw as fatalist despondency in William Blake’s journey (when I was a dozing freshman), I now—seven years, five countries, three girlfriends, one dog, and two brushes with death later—see as a determinist struggle to get things finally right, come hell or high water. Go figure. —Ryan Polomski, director, New Crystal Theatre I watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 when I was a senior in high school, and thought it was incredibly slow and boring. I watched it again last year, and found it absolutely overwhelming. What a powerful characterization of the abyss and of our own fragility in the face of it (I guess I wasn’t thinking much about the abyss in high school). The computer, “HAL,” is also a great metaphor for our contemporary predicament: technology often bites the hand that “programmed” it. —Sean O’Brien, UM professor of philosophy and film buff

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