Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Three Films of the Punk and New Wave Era: Forbidden Zone; Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains; Breaking Glass

Hello! In this entry, I'm going to talk about three rock and roll movies about one of my favorite musical periods: The punk/post-punk/new wave movement of the late 70's and early 80's! And yet I STILL haven't seen Sid and Nancy...

Forbidden Zone,
by Richard Elfman, 1982

Most of us know Danny Elfman nowadays as the guy who scores the Tim Burton movies, but some may fondly remember him as the lead singer of the nutty, theatrical new wave act, Oingo Bongo, or as they were originally called, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Forbidden Zone is the Oingo Boingo movie, directed by Elfman's brother Richard, and intended to give theater audiences a cinematic idea of what an Oingo Boingo show was like.

What's it like? It's like a campy, trashy, John Waters burlesque show on acid. The story is centered on the Hercules family, a family of weirdos who live on top of a portal to the hellish 6th dimension. Herve Villechaize is the king there and he wants to toss aside his current queen and take the Hercules daughter, Frenchie, for his own. The rest of the family one by one go down, either on accident or to rescue her.

Forbidden Zone uses strange costumes, bad makeup, weird sets, and different styles of animation throughout. There are lots of musical numbers, the best of them featuring the songs of Oingo Boingo, though some are using old timey numbers. I'm not sure if I could call it a "good" movie, but it's an extremely culty movie and sometimes that's good. The music is really great. The acting is pretty awful, but also pretty appropriate, since Richard Elfman is obviously aiming for camp value. The cast is mostly just friends and family and Oingo Boingo members. The humor is pretty low brow and often knowingly lame, with the intention to offend everyone (and thus no one).

If you like Oingo Boingo and weird shit, you should probably watch Forbidden Zone. It contains lots of those things. It made me wonder what their early stage shows were like. I bet that would have made for an amazing night.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains,
by Lou Adler, 1981

It's funny that punk music had become such a thing by 1981 that they were making Hollywood movies about it. The movement had been declared dead a couple years earlier, and everyone was kind of cashing in their chips at this point. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is one such movie, though it has an air of authenticity lent to it by some real deal punk legends.

A young Diane Lane stars as Corinne Burns, a cynical teenager whose mother's recent death has spun her into one of those "nothing really matters" phases. After causing a mild stir by being fired from her fast food job while on a televised news report, Corinne announces to the world that she's the singer of The Stains, a band she has with her sister (Marin Kanter) and cousin (Laura Dern).

This is spun into a gig as an opening act for an over-the-hill metal band and an up and coming punk band called The Looters. The only problem is, nobody checked to see if The Stains can play. They're terrible. The sister and cousin can't play their instruments and Corinne can't sing. When booed off the stage, Corinne makes up for her lack of musical ability with her true talent: telling people why they suck and why she's awesome. She is perceived as a new feminist icon and spins The Stains into stardom with a plagiarized song, until, of course, it all comes crashing down.

I liked Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains a lot. It's directed by Lou Adler, best known for The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Cheech and Chong's Up In Smoke, both cult movies in their own right. But I think this is a better film than those two. It's not a "punk" movie, but it's cynical, darkly funny, and self aware enough to even mock itself a little. I thought Diane Lane gave a great performance as a teenage girl with a lot of rage and no real outlet for it. And a young Ray Winstone plays the singer of The Looters, who are rounded out by members of The Clash and The Sex Pistols. The Stains' main (plagiarized) song, Join the Professionals, was written by the former Pistols guys and it's a real-deal, legitimate sounding punk song.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is good stuff. Unlike Forbidden Zone, you don't have to be a weirdo like me to like it. It's a well made satire with some cool music that never really found the audience it deserved.

Breaking Glass, by Brian Gibson, 1980

It's funny: Breaking Glass is sort of the sincere version of the story that Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains was being sarcastic about. Well, I'm not sure if "sincere" is the right word. This movie has the stink of the English Pop Star Making Machine all over it.

It stars an up-and-coming New Waver named Hazel O'Connor, as Kate, an up-and-coming New Waver. The movie follows the course of her career from idealistic young punk who refuses to sign a record contract, through the formation of her band and first hit, the temptation of success and alienation of said band, and ultimately, the unhappy ending of her being a superstar with no integrity. Apparently there's another scene at the end but it was cut out of the US version for no good reason.

The thing is, Hazel O'Connor hadn't even released an album at the time of this movie's release. Her first was the soundtrack. There was probably a conversation at some executive office like:

"If we make a pop star and give her a movie telling everybody she's a pop star, she'll be HUGE!"

"Yeah, but won't people see right through that?"

"No, see, we'll make it a cautionary tale, and show her unhappy with her success, as if to say, the REAL Hazel O'Connor would never do that."

"I don't get it but you sign checks!"

Anyway, I don't mean to dis Hazel O'Connor, just whoever was pulling the strings. She wasn't just a one-hit wonder, and she still releases music to this day. The songs in the movie are actually pretty good, and they're produced by Tony Visconti. The production sounds a lot like David Bowie's Low/"Heroes"/Lodger period that Visconti was working on at the time of this movie. It's even safe to assume that the band in the movie (and the movie's title), Breaking Glass is named after the Bowie song on Low.

Breaking Glass isn't great, but it has some cool songs, and it also has Jonathan Pryce playing a deaf saxophonist with a heroin addiction, so it can't be all bad, right?

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