photo & text by nacrowe
i first experienced THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (20TH CENTURY FOX, 1975) film my sophomore year of high school in the basement lounge of my dorm at the time with several of my clued-in, more culturally SOPHISTICATED classmates. without any warning i remembered being particularly irked by how they wouldnt shut up during the beginning of the film, only to quickly realize that this somewhat choreographed element was part of the INTERACTIVE charm at the heart of the movie. from there on out i was MESMERIZED by this two-pronged assault on my senses, and nobody was even dressed up for the performance!
written by RICHARD O'BRIEN, who plays the character of RIFF RAFF in the film adaptation of the stage show, the THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW musical is a bit of paean to all things B-MOVIE and CULT CLASSIC-related from revered rudimentary early SCI-FI, MONSTER and HORROR genre films to the schlocky HERSCHEL GORDON LEWIS, WILLIAM CASTLE, JAMES WHALE and ROGER CORMAN end of the cinematic spectrum. the plot loosely revolves around a newly-wed MIDDLE AMERICAN square couple (played by BARRY BOSTWICK and SUSAN SARANDON) whose car breaks down near an old VICTORIAN mansion on a rainy night, only to be confronted with the PHANTASMAGORICAL interior world of the transvestite mad scientist DR FRANK-N-FURTER (played by TIM CURRY) and his band of merry pranksters.
i gotta be honest, the plot is not that important. the music and the spectacle of it all is what is key to appreciating THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. songs like "SCIENCE FICTION/DOUBLE FEATURE," "DAMMIT JANET," "SWEET TRANSVESTITE," "THE TIME WARP" and "I CAN MAKE YOU A MAN" transport you to an alternate utopia that is seemingly INCLUSIVE and CELEBRATORY of the diversity of human experience in all its forms and variations. all of these songs are ICONIC, as well as the various PARTICIPATIVE audience elements that have been utilized over the years. what is key is that there is a potential for experiencing the film anew each time you watch it as the interactive lines shift with each new audience. for me the key song of the film is "FANFARE/DON'T DREAM IT" which has the IMMORTAL line of "dont dream it, be it." i can only imagine being a LGBTQ teenager in the 1970s watching this film and feeling empowered by the sheer bravado and force of will of the characters to fearlessly manifest their sense of IDENTITY on the world. CURRY, for his participation, is at the peak of his powers and i can only describe his performance as generationally BRILLIANT. despite the obvious sheer camp and exaggerated artifice involved in the film, at the heart of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is a message of SELF-EMPOWERMENT and unadulterated COURAGE to BE TRUE TO ONESELF, even in the face of an INTOLERANT and often CRUEL world full of SELFISH, INSECURE, UNENLIGHTENED beings that act out of FEAR. the film asks its audience to be likewise unrelentingly AUTHENTIC without self-consciousness, even if society turns a cross eye in your direction.
dont dream it, be it.
THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is an ICONIC film with an absolutely TIMELESS, KILLER soundtrack. most definitely worth checking out. again and again and again.
i first became aware of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (20TH CENTURY FOX, 1975) film sophomore year of prep school in MASSACHUSETTS. i remember trying to watch the movie when all of these kids in my dorm would keep talking over it and doing dance moves and acting out a whole independent narrative. i quickly realized what my peers were doing was insanely intricate and it dawned on me that this was the point of the film. later i realized that this was rooted 4th wall break was rooted in the original play, where audience participation was encouraged, but watching this all unfold did blow my mind at the time.
i can't think of another example of a film that thrives on this kind of behavior. closest i can think of is watching a film at theatre in NYC, where people will yell stuff like "BITCH DON'T OPEN THAT DOOR" at the perfect opportune time. yes, that does take you out of the scene, but in my opinion such enriches the movie going experience. its like getting free commentary from an unreliable narrator.
i think part of the reason the interactive nature of the film works so well is that fact that it is a MUSICAL. an unconventional one at that which utilized ROCK MUSIC, something of a novelty at the time, but it does play to the genre expectations. in AMERICAN MUSICALS, when a character or a group sing a song you are transported temporarily to a world that is outside the realm of the narrative. what you witness is a projection of a character's mood and aspirations on the scenery around them. its a trick that is unique to this genre and is partly why i have gravitated to such over the years. some of my favorite films are musicals such as CABARET and THE BANDWAGON, and they all play to this convention.
in a sense THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is a series of these projected fantasies intercut with brief scenes of dialogue to tie them together. the point of the film, in my opinion, is this idea of transcendence. transcendence of gender, sexuality, space, time, etc. not to overdue this concept but through genre conventions of the MUSICAL, these characters have transcended their own individual identity. and to me that describes the transformative quality of ROCK AND ROLL when done correctly. that rejuvenating, transcendent power of collective unity in music.
the fact that as an audience, we too are involved with this dissolution of the basic relationship between voyeur and participant that defines the movie going experience also makes sense. i can only imagine at the time what a revelation this film was. it still is.
i could go on, but this is a must-watch film, especially with participants. also, TIM CURRY is a god.
at some point TALKING HEADS frontman and notable NEW YORKER (via Rhode Island) DAVID BYRNE decided to make a film about TEXAS. sounds horrible but TRUE STORIES (WARNER BROS, 1986) is a classic film of its time.
this musical was referenced consistently throughout my childhood, especially BYRNE's obtuse narration of "who cannot say this isn't beautiful?" when speaking about the seeming infinite flat expanse that is the lone star state. literally every time we went to a new country growing up, my father used that line. "everything you see here is typically SOUTH AFRICAN, and who cannot say it isn't beautiful?"
full disclosure: i've never been to TEXAS. its a streak i am hoping to keep. closest i got was the GEORGE BUSH INTERCONTINENTAL AIRPORT in HOUSTON and that was enough. unfortunately i feel like i was partly raised in the south given that for three years in NIGERIA i lived in a guarded company compound full of TEXANS and LOUISIANANS, but that is a story for another entry.
what separates this film from just being an eccentric look at a southern state by an outsider is the soundtrack. what makes the music work is its earnestness and ability to illustrate different aspects of TEXAN culture, from its proud LATINX population to its crazed-apocalyptic evangelical doom-spouting sermonizers to its then-growing construction of new mega-malls brought on by new wealth from the tech and petroleum industries, this film really captures a moment in the AMERICAN psyche where capitalism seemed to potentially provide a means to self-actualization.
or maybe it showcased the insular nature of a pre-internet AMERICAN landscape where basic needs were met for the first time in history and all that is left is the vacuity of media culture to provide meaning. i don't know. its a very interesting film that means something different each time i see it. sometimes i feel BYRNE is viciously satirizing and mocking MIDDLE AMERICAN VALUES while other times it seems he is empathetically presenting an endearing slice of AMERICAN life. it's probably all true. oh shit, see what i did their on accident. that's good stuff.
i should mention that the songs are sung in the film by an impressive cast including JOHN GOODMAN, TITO LARRIVA (THE PLUGZ/TITO & TARANTULA/THE FLESH EATERS), POPS STAPLES (THE STAPLES SINGERS) and, my personal favorite, GENERAL HOSPITAL actor JOHN INGLE as a crazed televangelist preacher spewing crackpot conspiracy horse shit. most people are also suprised to learn that BRITISH INDIE/ALTERNATIVE legends RADIOHEAD derived their name from a song in this film.
regardless, this film is amazing. you should see it whether you are a fan of DAVID BYRNE and/or TALKING HEADS or not. but really you should be a fan of them as well.
it must have been sometime in my late teens when i started getting into film. i know for years my dad had been trying to get me to watch CABARET (ALLIED ARTISTS, 1972) and i just never got around to it for whatever reason. i know now how annoying that can be when you provide (what you feel is) a quality recommendation and the recipient of said information does nothing with it or doesn't appreciate it in the end. that can be annoying. just ask anyone at DEER GOD, since i'm apparently alone in feeling that MEL BROOKS is a genius and BLAZING SADDLES and SPACEBALLS are among the greatest comedies EVER.
but this is about CABARET and not MEL BROOKS. i did finally get around to watching CABARET in college and was floored by it. i told my dad how good it was and he was pissed. pretty funny now.
CABARET is a period film that focuses on the idyllic artistic/sexual/political freedom of the WEIMAR REPUBLIC and ultimately how abrupt a shift was experienced thereafter when the NAZI PARTY took over. noted theater director and choreographer BOB FOSSE was an inspired choice for director (beating out BILLY WILDER) as the musical numbers starring LIZA MINELLI and JOEL GREY are vivacious, memorable and effectively incapsulate the free-roaming spirit of the period. not to be mean, but MINELLI is so good in this movie that i forgive her as a fan of art everything she did thereafter. its like DAVE NAVARRO of JANE'S ADDICTION. it doesn't matter to me how many shitty reality shows he stars in or mediocre records he produces these days, since he is still the dude that created NOTHING'S SHOCKING and RITUAL DE LO HABITUAL.
it is hard not to read into the film an almost kindred relationship between the WEIMAR period in germany and the then-recent rise and fall of the american counterculture, civil rights and anti-war movement of the 1960s. perhaps given the fall of the WEIMAR REPUBLIC to the NAZI PARTY it is interesting to consider what the corresponding threat was to american life at the time: NIXON, CAPITALISM, CONSUMER CULTURE. just a thought.
if you haven't seen CABARET you should. for me its in my all-time top 3 (others being EAST OF EDEN and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST). please seek this film out. it is that great.