Having seen this when I was in middle school, and remembering when it was a big sensation—not to mention the soundtrack receiving fairly regular airplay in my home—I knew that one day our paths would cross again. But alas, now I know with fair certainty that I have seen this movie for the very last time. At least I hope so.
From Alan Parker, who has some sort of pedigree in movies about music [he did Pink Floyd's The Wall and later went on to do Evita and The Commitments], comes this movie about the Manhattan High School for the Performing Arts. The movie begins with a title: “The Auditions” and that what we have; a bunch of kids auditioning for the school. The first is this frizzy redhead Montgomery who was sent to military academy, and describes two days’ leave which he spent with his mother “just like we were sweethearts.” Uh, eww. We don’t need Oedipally-stuck boys at our school just now, thank you. Then there’s this nerd who plays symphonic music on a bank of many synthesizers, and a redhead girl Doris who has a Jewish mother who insists on speaking for her and documenting her audition on her instamatic. Many artistic disciplines are represented, and the kids seem to try out in all of them. We also get glimpses of some of the teachers, including a black drama teacher who is all sensitive 70s seriousness, and a Jewish music teacher with a beard, glasses, and withering look. Among the auditionees are a black girl who insists that her boyfriend Leroy accompany her to her auditions. When they both get the opportunity to dance, Leroy WAY upstages her, quite purposefully, and gets accepted to the school, while the girl gets dumped out. She is understandably furious, but Leroy is all like “Whatever.” We also see a number of horrible, horrible auditions, and think that these people are there to show us how competitive the school is and how only the best of the best make it.
But actually, no, because soon after we get our title “Freshman Year,” we see that nearly all the people who had horrible auditions were accepted to the school! Maybe we’re supposed to think that the teachers are so perceptive that they can discern the diamond even within the most dull of stones, but the net effect is a feeling that this elite school is not elite at all, and is probably absolutely desperate for money.
We have a few scenes meant to demonstrate the kids getting accustomed to the nasty, gritty New York of the late 70s, which looks like a horribly grimy, run-down place that is 100X more interesting than it is now. Blah, blah, some stuff about the beginning of classes, and at 28 minutes we have: the Hot Lunch Jam! What happens when you pack all those creative kids into one room together? Why, spontaneous explosions of song and dance, of course! Here we start with the noise of the crowded lunchroom, with one guy tapping drumsticks here and another shaking a tambourine there, then suddenly it all coalesces into a beat! Then one adds piano! Then Irene Cara starts singing! Then they all start dancing! And the entire lunchroom seems to know the words—of this song they’re making up on the spot! Those artistic kids are so IN TUNE.
One interesting point, for a movie that tried so hard to launch Irene Cara as a superstar, is that we never see her audition, she just shows up in school. And she cannot yet act [or lip-synch] very well, which was a surprise, as her performance blew me away in Sparkle of four years EARLIER. She is soon hitting up keyboardist Bruno to form a band, but he has issues about people other than himself hearing his music. One night they’re out on the town and Irene is spouting all this mumbo-jumbo in such a factual tone it made me laugh. For example, she says “How bright our spirits go shooting out into space depends on how much we contribute it to the Earthly brilliance of the world” as though announcing a simple fact such as “there are two pints in a quart.” Meanwhile everyone is always practicing and doing scenes and reciting dialogue, so much so that the movie becomes a little meta for a bit, as all of our actors are acting that they’re acting.
But what of the hot-button 70s issues? Just hold onto your hats, because we’ve got illiteracy, homosexuality, poverty, and prejudice against electronic music coming up in just the next 30 minutes. First it turns out that Leroy cannot read, and is badgered to do so by the redheaded teacher we’ll come back to later. Then Doris supposedly “can’t think of” a painful memory—although we all know this is denial—but is soon given a fresh one by her Jewish stage mother. Then Montgomery decides that he is going to use his “painful memory” to come out as gay to his class! He does, and THE NEXT SHOT is of him applying lipstick, making this movie somewhat of an enduring painful memory for me. Let's face it folks: doing drag is ALL THERE IS to gay life!
Doris has a brand-new most painful memory after her mom makes her warble “Happy Birthday” at a kids’ party, and Ralph opens up about the pain of life in the Bronx. You know—I’ll bet he’s going to turn his pain into ART!
So after Irene Cara lip-synchs poorly to “Out Here On My Own,” we move on to junior year, when suddenly our students, as though having their hormones suddenly switched on, discover romance. Doris and Ralph end up together, leaving third-wheel friend Montgomery to yearn after Ralph. Doris now wants to change her name to “Dominique Dupont,” which floors her mother, who insists that she must be pregnant. No such luck, as that kind of human drama would be awesome, but we do have unrequited gay love, so I suppose we shouldn’t ask for the stars. Anyway, Doris’ mother asks what happened to her daughter, and Doris responds: “Something wonderful is happening to me, Mama. I’m growing up.” In here also we see that Irene pretends to live in a mansion on the Upper East Side, but once her friends drop her there just gets the subway to whatever hovel she lives in. HARD hitting.
After a LONG sequence in which they go to see an audience-participation showing of Rocky Horror [Parker must have been itching to be the first to put that on screen], we have a long monologue by a blonde dancer who gives a pre-abortion speech to Leroy’s fetus, which is going to cause her to drop out of school. Around now you notice that this movie is depending on these poor kids, most of whom cannot act, and expecting them to deliver these giant 70s monologues. Around here is where the amusement has worn off and the whole thing is becoming somewhat painful.
And somewhere in here, which must be mentioned, is the part where they all spontaneously spill out into the street, carried away by the pure exuberance of SONG!
This is also where things start getting GRITTY. First, Leroy is looking for the redheaded teacher, because she’s failing him for not being able to read. He finds the hospital where the redheaded teacher is waiting for her husband to die, and screams at her for failing him. When the teacher finally snaps, Leroy sits right down next to her and says “Hey, how’s your old man doing?” Then the emotional bull’s eyes continue to be sledgehammered as Irene’s “big break” turns out to be to make a porn film! The director tries on a horrible French accent and says he’s a disciple of “Goddard.” First of all, I blame Irene, because she should be able to see through this guy [he’s not subtle], and she should have left when things got weird. What, is she desperate for the money? For WHAT? She’s still in high school. This is one of the big problems of the movie: it just has so many characters and such a long arc that the stories are brought so far—in sketchy, incomplete strokes—then abruptly dropped.
After Ralph gets a big head and loses his friends but makes up with Montgomery and there are hints that they enjoy a mutually-satisfying gay relationship, we have our climactic graduation musical number, “The Body Electric.”
This is a piece of music that only could have arisen from the 70s. As a way of demonstrating virtually every field of study at the school [if they’d tried harder, they could have included dramatic monologues], we have this long, overblown monstrosity that shifts genres every few seconds. After a soulful solo, we suddenly shift into heavy metal-lite, then some abrupt classical flourishes, then a dance sequence, then I had to burst out laughing at the sudden gospel breakdown. They’ve really hit it all! Except Inuit throat singing, I suppose. And it truly is so hideously awful, distilling that certain oversensitive “theater person” aesthetic of the 70s into five minutes of tendentious bombast.
For the first hour I was into the film, and was enjoying skipping around in the various stories, meeting the varied characters and enjoying the songs. But after a while you start to realize that there are just too many characters for the movie to portray any of their stories with any depth. For example, Ralph just suddenly goes into comedy, despite us seeing no training or leaning toward this. He was one successful night, we see him start to take drugs, and the next time we see him the movie lets lines like “We never see you—you’re always out drinking with your new friends,” do all the work. Which would be fine if Ralph was one background character, but when the whole movie is populated with characters we get nothing more than rough sketches of, it begins to be tiring and uninvolving. Another example is Leroy. If the redhead teacher is so adamant about taking him out of school if he can’t do his academics, how exactly does he make it to senior year? We never find out, we just catch a glimpse of him dancing during the finale. And Coco and Leroy supposedly have a relationship, though we never see one bit of evidence of this.
So as the movie goes on and one becomes less and less involved, one starts to notice the hoary 70s cliches. In one way they’re wonderful, because they are so very of their time, but as we head into the second hour, hot-button issues like drugs and homosexuality [back when it was still ALWAYS tragic] and illiteracy and teenage pregnancy begin to seem like thumbing through a 40-year-old sociology textbook. This movie is very much like A Chorus Line in this way. And let’s not forget that these kids are given long, emotional speeches, but, in large part, can’t act very well. So you start to have the community theater feeling where you have to sit there trying to imagine what the character WOULD be expressing if the actor could act.
I didn’t listen to much of the “class reunion” commentary, and I didn’t hear anyone other than the director when I did. He speaks in a very portentous voice and one notable quote is how the later TV version “sanitized my vision,” because he was trying to portray “the dark side of that desperation for fame” which he “doesn’t see represented that much.” Uh… you DON’T? Sure, lately almost all representations of fame include degradation as half of the experience, but even THEN “the dark side” was part and parcel of the fame experience—look no further than Valley of the Dolls! Or the endless romanticization on Marilyn Monroe or James Dean'’ deaths. Maybe what’s really going on is that this director has an overinflated sense of his own importance.
Nevertheless, this film was a phenomenon and it’s easy to see its enduring influence in shit like Hilary Duff’s Raise Your Voice, which obviously patterns itself after this film, especially in showing the many musical instruments the kids are playing [with one kid into hip-hop scratch instead of synths], and how they all bring their talents to the recess space to JAM! That film displays what relative realism this film has by comparison, however: in this film, we actually see our main characters practice. The emphasis the school supposedly places on attaining fame rather than artistic achievement [“And in time we will all be stars”] is the same, however.
Overall, dreadful. But amusing as a kind of time capsule of late-70s artistic sentimentality and music. Amusing for about an hour, that is.
You could do worse. If you remember the whole phenomenon and saw the movie as a child, addition revisitation rights are granted.