“Can’t Stop the Music” was a case study in the wrong way to do camp

Can't Stop the Music Can't Stop the Music

Producer Allan Carr’s legendary disco disaster turns 40 this year, and fails to maintain even “so bad it’s good” status.

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NOTE: Though Caitlyn Jenner is credited in Can’t Stop the Music as Bruce Jenner, we will refer to her by her current name and preferred pronouns, while the character she plays will be referred to as “he/him.”

On July 12th, 1979, during a White Sox-Tigers doubleheader at Comiskey Park, Chicago radio station WLUP sponsored “Disco Demolition Night,” charging a discounted ticket price for fans who came to the game bearing disco albums to be blown up on the field. With more than twice the amount of expected attendance (with hundreds more people sneaking in past the gates), the event quickly got out of hand. A riot broke out, resulting in property damage and dozens of arrests.

Though there was certainly something sinister about a bunch of angry straight white men destroying something closely identified with gay and Black/Latinx culture, the gesture was in vain anyway. Disco was already mostly dead, co-opted by novelty songs, Sesame Street, and even Ethel Merman. Even new music that still sounded an awful lot like disco was rebranded as “dance music,” as mainstream radio stations gradually returned to the mellow gold playlists of the early 70s. 

So, of course, the best time to release a movie capitalizing on the disco craze was almost a year later.

Can’t Stop the Music isn’t a movie so much as a collection of baffling decisions, most of them made by producer Allan Carr, who, after being largely responsible for the success of Grease, was given a blank check and presumably a large bag of cocaine to make anything he wanted. Ostensibly it’s about the creation of the Village People, but they barely rate as supporting characters in it. Carr, who threw numerous “pre-premiere parties” for Can’t Stop before it was even finished filming, declared it to be a celebration of a hot new generation in acting talent, but cast it with people like June Havoc and Jack Weston. Rather than hire someone with experience in directing musicals, or even feature films in general, Carr went with Nancy Walker, who only had a handful of TV sitcom directing credits to her name. It was rated PG, and sold as a fun for all ages comedy, but featured a startling amount of sex humor and even a glimpse of full-frontal male nudity. It was marketed as a cheeky look at wild, “shock the normies” downtown New York culture, but focused far too much on a boring straight romance, even ending with a marriage proposal.

Steve Guttenberg, even more smug and unlikable than he is in the Police Academy series, is Jack Morell, an ambitious songwriter who believes he’s destined for great things. Jack is loosely based on composer/producer Jacques Morali, and while Morali was openly gay, Jack is almost aggressively straight, constantly manhandling and hitting on his friend/roommate Samantha (Valerie Perrine), while writing songs about her in which he talks about how much he loves “the wiggle in your jeans.”

For a movie that had a tie-in ice cream flavor from Baskin-Robbins called Can’t Stop the Nuts, Can’t Stop the Music inexplicably tries very hard to water down its gay themes. It was a pointless exercise, because absolutely no one was fooled into thinking that the Village People were straight, and yet here they’re only presented as objects of desire for women. No one fares worse than Samantha’s horny friend Lulu (Marilyn Sokol), a grotesque parody of a middle-aged single woman, who hits on every man she encounters, often while groping them and licking her lips.

Can’t Stop the Music isn’t a movie so much as a collection of baffling decisions.

Even in an extended disco nightclub scene, all the bodies gyrating against each other are men and women. The closest the movie gets to genuine camp is a musical number set to “Y.M.C.A.” (the only recognizable song on the soundtrack), and a celebration of the male form and how it looks in very short shorts. Just so you don’t go thinking it’s too homosexual, however, there are occasional shots of Samantha getting a massage and soaking topless in a Jacuzzi. Much like Disney repeatedly announcing that they’re featuring a gay character in a movie, only to have that character get 45 seconds of screen time and be completely superfluous to the plot, here the culture Can’t Stop the Music claims to be celebrating is straight-washed, and made more palatable for the Middle America audience who wasn’t going to see it anyway.

Convinced that Jack’s generic light disco-pop is the future of music, he and Samantha set about forming a group to perform it. This group is, of course, the Village People, and in order to go along with this movie you must accept that they dressed like the Village People before becoming the Village People. Yes, that means that Felipe Rose, the “Indian” (who is the brunt of some truly horrifying racial humor), just hangs around in a loincloth and full war bonnet, and Glenn Hughes, the “Leatherman,” shows up for his audition in bondage gear. If one positive thing can be said about Can’t Stop the Music, it’s that the Village People themselves are kind of likable, even charming. The film wouldn’t have suffered from giving them more to do than stand around and wait to be told to dance and sing.

Alas, far too much plot real estate is taken up by Samantha’s romance with uptight tax lawyer Ron White (Caitlyn Jenner). They have a most implausible meet cute when Ron shows up unannounced at Samantha’s apartment bearing a cake from her sister in St. Louis. It just happens to be at the exact same time that the Village People are recording the first song for a demo (outside, on a patio, which is definitely where you record demos), and Ron is so appalled by this display of people singing and dancing that he storms out, telling Samantha “Your friends are a little far out for me.”

One wonders what sort of They Live glasses Ron was wearing to make him think he was seeing some Plato’s Retreat-level debauchery happening, but never mind. Though they have what can only be described as anti-chemistry, it’s practically love at first sight for Ron and Samantha, and soon Ron is loosening up and quitting his job to devote himself full-time to the Village People. How do we know he’s fully embraced that crazy downtown New York lifestyle? He wears a crop top and booty shorts, but only for one scene.

While it cannot be stated enough how bad Caitlyn Jenner is in this, in fairness to her everyone else is too. Jenner at least had the excuse of not being a professional actor, while Valerie Perrine, not even a decade earlier, was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Bob Fosse’s Lenny. She sleepwalks through her performance, smiling glassy-eyed at everything like it’s happening near her rather than to her, while everyone else overplays their roles to the point of an aneurysm. Like a lot of productions that go immediately off the rails before filming even begins, no one seemed to agree what kind of movie they were in. Some are in a trying-to-be-campy musical, some are in a romantic comedy, some are doing weird Vaudeville shtick, some, like Sammy Davis Jr.’s wife Altovise, just seemed to have shown up on the set one day and were given a role. Somehow, it’s the Village People, despite their skimpy and/or tight-fitting costumes, who are the only ones that come away from it with their dignity intact.

Can’t Stop the Music is an astonishing two hours long, the first half devoted to labored physical comedy, drug humor, gross double entendres, and the occasional racist quip. The second half is an unendurable slog as we slowly, painfully reach the inevitable conclusion that of course the Village People will become an overnight success, otherwise there’s no reason for this movie to exist. In addition to not aging well, it’s a glaring reminder of how pop culture erased the contributions of gay performers in order to make movies and music more mainstream-friendly. It exists now largely as a subject of “Is it really that bad?” discussion for film buffs and fans of schlock, and yes, it’s really that bad. Loud, garish and yet also boring at the same time, it wants to have its cake and eat it too, by portraying a world unfamiliar to most audiences and then squeezing the life and joy out of it.

Can’t Stop the Music Trailer:

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