Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Director: Jim Sharman                                Writer: Jim Sharman & Richard O’Brien
Film Score: Richard O’Brien                        Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Starring: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick and Richard O’Brien

Am I the only person in the U.S. who has never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Quite possibly. But I would have had to be in a coma the last forty years not to have heard of it. This is what I would call the first video to “go viral,” and it happened well before the digital age. What strikes me most, as a Rocky Horror virgin, is just how cinematic the whole thing is, and I’m not talking just about the story. There is a sense that the film occupies a distinct place in film history and not only harks back to what has come before, but also looks ahead to what would follow it. Since I have no real experience with the audience participation aspect of the film, I’ll have to limit my observations to it as a film.

There is a distinct dissonance that happens from the opening titles, when what purports to be a horror musical contains a song that references numerous science-fiction films of the past. That, however, is something that will be resolved later. The film wears its London-Broadway stage beginnings on its sleeve, as it has very little time for straight narrative. This is no doubt a reflection of the musicals of the past like Jesus Christ Superstar or Hair. The music itself is rather tuneless rock-opera fodder, similar to that of films like Tommy that came out the same year. But there is a distinct connection with what would come after, namely Grease. That movie, from another Broadway production, has the same kind of overt sexually and is the direct progeny of Rocky Horror. And for me, Grease is the last rock musical of its kind and the end of a genre.

The review in The B List by Kevin Thomas is shockingly bad. A mere five paragraphs that do nothing . . . nothing but tell the plot of the film. And yet, even with that it misses one of the most important aspects of the film: Meatloaf. The film is a celebration of victory in the sexual revolution. Meatloaf represents the nineteen-fifties with his Elvis haircut, Marlon Brando motorcycle, and tenor saxophone. He has been in the deep freeze and, accidentally being allowed to escape he must be killed once and for all by Tim Curry’s transvestite-Frankenstein character. The film is not a “gay” film. Instead it celebrates all forms of sexuality and especially the throwing off of old (fifties) morality and gender distinctions. In this context the sixties were just a gateway, the revolution that was finally achieved in the seventies.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is decidedly a B movie, but it does hold an important place as the penultimate rock musical. It also signals the move toward disco, though in fashion and attitude rather than music. It’s great to see Susan Sarandon, who would go on to play a nun in Dead Man Walking, and Barry Bostwick, who would play the father of our country in George Washington, at the beginning of their careers with no idea what big stars they would become. This was Tim Curry’s first film, reprising his role from the stage. And author-composer Richard O’Brien is perfect as his henchman. The film is obviously a cult classic, but in the end it is also an important cinematic signpost. It’s too bad The B-List couldn’t have come up with an author who recognized that.

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