You Light Up My Life

Simple souls chewed up... Spat out!
★★
☆☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1977
Director: 
Joseph Brooks
Starring: 
Didi Conn, Michael Zaslow, Joe Silver, Stephen Nathan
The Setup: 
Personal screed against the entertainment industry.
Discussion: 

So the title song here, which has infiltrated my iTunes (along with numbers by Donny & Marie and those hideous Billy Joel 50s nostalgia songs), erroneously led me to watch the film Ice Castles, which was relatively charming and featured a good performance by the steely Jennifer Warren. I was a little disappointed by how that film strained for easy sentiment in its second hour, throwing things out for their momentary emotional frisson without thought to whether they made sense in the overall narrative, but CHHAA-RIST! compared to THIS shit, that movie ends up looking like Chekov!

Sadly, being a bumbling idiot, I accidentally deleted all my screencaps from this movie, causing me to resort to what I could gather from the Internets, the pathetic results of which you see here.

This movie promises to be an exposé of the music industry, and features a lead performance by Didi Conn, best known as Frenchy, the beauty school dropout, from Grease. If you know her as Frenchy, you might be curious, as I was, to see how she'd do in a straightforward role where she wasn't being used as comic relief. The movie opens with her as a child, doing a comedic act with a dummy. Somehow they found a child that could completely plausibly grow into Didi Conn. Her character is Laurie, and her Henny Youngman-esque comedian father, Si, tells her she needs to work on her timing.

We go into the credits, which find Laurie, fully grown, driving around L.A. in her red convertible, to the folky strains of a song that says "Everybody shining like a hero... Everybody going to be a star..." We will have many sequences of Laurie driving around to this song during the first half. During the credits we discover that this film was produced, written and directed by one Joseph Brooks, who also composed and conducted all the music. So this is one man's personal vision, um, for better and mostly worse.

Laurie goes to an audition for a commercial, where she meets her friend Annie Gerrard. The idea is that these bit players in the fame game are circling around, all trying out for the same parts, while all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas. Laurie is recording a radio commercial for a certain brand of eggs, and given fairly ludicrous instruction to make her voice imply that the eggs make omelets fluffy. She informs the creatives that it's not the eggs that make omelets fluffy, it's the milk, and she loses the job. We're supposed to take it that these ad people are just IDIOTS, and Laurie a common-sense woman, but the impression is that she doesn't take direction well and is a narcissist.

By now you may be wondering why she has a Brooklyn accent if she's from L.A. Me too. At night she goes to a recording session, where she is working on her demo tape at personal expense. She sings a song about the joys of composing, with lyrics "You can turn the world on with your music... you can say your own thing, in your own way..." We are left to understand that she derives most satisfaction from making her own kind of music, singing her own special song, and that this is her dream.

Meanwhile, one of her day jobs is dressing exactly like she did when she was ten and doing the exact same dummy show for a TV audience of kids that don't laugh. Her dad got her the job, and is still, fifteen years later, telling her it's just a small matter of timing. Can you imagine fifteen years of that? Obviously Brooks couldn't, because even a paramecium would have adjusted his message a tiny bit over that time. Not to mention that the talented Conn has to work extra hard to deliver jokes WITHOUT timing.

That night Laurie is at dinner with Annie when she has to use the pay phone. It is occupied by a handsome man who demands to use it again, with his arm around Laurie this time, flirting rather outrageously (enough to raise red flags for anyone who has left the house more than twice) and telling her he COULD buy her a drink, but he really wants to just take her home. This line was also used in Paycheck, and this is an example of stupid men living up to their insensitive stereotype: "I could buy you a drink and talk to you and get to know you as a human being, but really I just want to get you to blow me, so why don't we just skip your part and get straight to MY part?" Charmed! What does that tell you about how a relationship with this guy is going to go? But poor Laurie is a naive lass, and goes home with the fellow, who, by the way, is a film director named Christopher Nolan. I shit you not.

In the morning Chris is making as though he's fascinated by Laurie and all but desperately in love with her. She says she can't see him anymore, because she's actually getting married in a few days. You, the viewer, are like "Oh, I guess she's lying to him for some reason, because we haven't heard a peep about some upcoming marriage, or seen anything, or met her fiancé." So she gets away, over Chris' protests, and you're still wondering why she's lying about getting married.

She goes to shoot another commercial, with another misguided director who wants her to channel Ethel Merman doing Al Jolson while singing about toaster waffles. Now it's clear: this movie is of the opinion that advertising people are just IDIOTS, plain and simple. Writer/producer/director/composer/conductor Joseph Brooks himself plays one of the creative directors, either here or in the first scene, cementing the film's scathing criticism of the ad world. Laurie then goes to meet this guy who--is her fiancé! She actually IS getting married! And we just haven't seen or heard a peep about it until AFTER she told Chris. And that's when it hits you: Wow, this movie is just AMATEUR!

Her fiancé, Ken, is completely dismissive of her musical ambitions, not seeing why she can't cancel her recording session to go to a party, and referring to "her little songs" in extremely dismissive terms, as though it were a hobby akin to needlepointing. Subtlety: begone! It's bad enough that it is completely unbelievable why Laurie would be with him in the first place, unless--as is beginning to become the unintended subtext here--she's just completely desperate and pathetic. She has let her father arrange the wedding at this cheesy chapel where the plan is for them to be propelled down the aisle in a giant clam that opens at the altar, whereupon a bunch of doves will be released. Ken doesn't like it, but they can't let Dad down, and besides, Dad doesn't listen to anyone anyway.

SPOILERS > > >
Well you would not believe what happens next. Laurie goes in to audition to overdub a song for a movie, and will you just GUESS who the director is? Why, it's Chris Nolan! He passes out the sheet music to the orchestra, and Laurie is going to get to perform her audition with a full orchestra! Those who share my admiration for sleazy 70s dudes may like the conductor here, who has a nice beard, is wearing a full-body jumpsuit, and just seems kind of horny in that charming 70s way. Laurie keeps interrupting before the song in little Streisand-esque "charming" insecure tics til you might start shouting "Are you going to sing the fucking song!?" She does, and you may be shocked to discover that her number is the title track! Then you notice that we are precisely halfway through the running time and realize that this is supposed to be the big signature sequence / turning point. And it's fine, but, you know, more experienced people could have probably wrung a lot more power from it. It is, after all, a pretty good song. But what does come through, and goes a long way toward papering over this film's egregious flaws, is Laurie's joy in singing and Conn's genuine charm.

Well guess what? Everybody is blown away by Laurie's raw talent, and not only does Chris want to use her music in his film, he wants HER to star in the leading role! Then Laurie is at a party with Ken and her Dad, but is distracted. It's obvious to everyone, including the infants in the audience, that she doesn't love Ken and doesn't want the wedding. Her Dad takes her aside and says "Don't do any of this for me," which is a one-time reversal, as the rest of the time he just smilingly barrels over Laurie's wants and needs without a thought. Later she goes and sees Ken at work--as a tennis instructor--but he's oblivious and she's inarticulate. We have moments of her practicing her song with Chris, then she and Chris strolling on the beach in an image that is the ESSENCE of the 70s. She has a heart to heart with Annie about how she doesn't love Ken but does love Chris, and has the part in his new film. "Did he SAY you had the part?" Annie asks. "Yes," Laurie replies.

Well, if you think things are about to come crashing down fast, you're right! JUST after Laurie confirms that Chris SAID she has the part, we cut to Chris auditioning another actress (who we make sure is nowhere near as good as Laurie), and offering HER the part! Then, just to make sure that even the developmentally disabled understand Chris' duplicity, he says "If I SAY you've got the part, then you've got the part." Chris then writes "scumbag" on his forehead in black magic marker.

Laurie, innocent lamb, goes and breaks off the wedding with Ken. Then, in the NEXT SCENE, an assistant calls and tells her she doesn't have the part. Sounds like a great time for Laurie to snap and go on a killing spree, but sadly, this isn't that kind of movie. She goes to see Chris, and finds him leaving his apartment--WITH the new actress! He says he's been "so busy," but that she should call him, so they can "keep the channels open" and continue to be "friends." You may have to shield yourself from all the sledgehammer blows straight to your head. And although we're supposed to be grooving on the tragic injustice of it all, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that Laurie, by being such a naive simpleton, is almost entirely responsible for bringing this situation on herself.

Well, there's got to be some form of on-stage breakdown in here, does there not? Laurie hits rock bottom as she performs her dummy act in front of a bunch of grim-faced kids, bizarre, avant-garde flute notes sounding--are they from the TV show or on the soundtrack?--to denote her mental instability. Afterward her Dad is still telling her--as he has for FIFTEEN YEARS now, which starts to denote some sort of serious psychological issue--that all she needs is a slight adjustment of timing.

Well, I hope you are ready for some CATHARSIS. Laurie finally tells her dad that "This is not my life--it's YOUR life!" and that she's a dancer, not a stripper! Oh sorry, she's a singer, not a comedian. Dad responds with a Ken-esque "oh right, you've got your little songs." Turns out he's never once listened to her music, and she gives him a tape, which he still looks at with incomprehension. Laurie says she's going to New York because she's got a recording deal with Columbia Records--some agent mentioned this is passing earlier, so slightly that you have all but forgotten it. Dad offers to move BACK to New York with her (and you say, in the last five minutes of the film, "OH! THAT'S why she has a Brooklyn accent!") but Laurie wails "I love you! But you've got to let me go!" and launches into a speech about "I've got ME! And I LOVE MYSELF!"

She leaves her dad looking at her tape like “Why the fuck would she give me THIS?” and the last shot of her driving away to New York in her convertible [so she doesn’t have ANY possessions?], and a split screen shows us that her song, “You light Up My Life,” climbed the charts to number one on the charts! Dreams DO come true!
< < < SPOILERS END

Holy Christ, what a FUCKING. PIECE. OF SHIT! Nearly unbelievable. I am all in favor of films being one person’s singular vision, but sometimes that results in brilliant visions, like The Tree of Life, and sometimes it results in something like this, which is just one man’s venomous screed against the bad, bad people in Hollywood, coming off as unrealistic and naïve, which a few more collaborators might have helped to mitigate. We’re supposed to wring our hand over how such a simple font of pure artistic magnificence like Laurie—or perhaps like Joseph Brooks!—gets stomped on and dragged through the mud by all those evil, selfish, narcissistic fucktards in Hollywood!

Problem is, the script is so obvious, the characters such cardboard cutouts, it undercuts its message the entire way. As mentioned, Chris has red flags popping out all over him when he first meets Laurie, and if she doesn’t see them, it’s because SHE is not very savvy. Then there is her fiancé, who is so dismissive of her “little songs” that it is unbelievable she would get this far in a relationship with someone so unsupportive. Her Dad hasn’t altered his facile advice to her in fifteen years. When Chris offers her a dream part as a lead in a movie out of the blue, she doesn’t retain a shred of skepticism. Did she just arrive in Hollywood YESTERDAY? The unintended message is that LAURIE herself is idiotically naïve, to the point where it’s impossible to be sympathetic with her. At the end, she is moving all the way across the country for another verbal agreement that was just mentioned in passing, nothing in print, no contracts signed, and although we’re supposed to applaud her triumph—and this one apparently worked out—we have no reason to believe she isn’t making another tragic life decision based on the flimsiest of naïve assumptions.

This is not even to mention the way the film konks you over the head repeatedly by having scenes follow hard on each other, and lines of dialogue that make sure even dogs and goldfish can comprehend the permutations of the plot. Subtlety? Ambiguity? They have no place here. The clearest example is Laurie saying Chris SAID she had the lead part, then him offering the part to someone else with “If I SAY you’ve got the part, you’ve got the part!” Again, it undermines the film’s points by hitting you on the head so hard to makes the filmmaker seem simple and naïve, negating everything it is trying to accomplish.

As an interesting and strangely fitting coda to this, it would seem that Joseph Brooks was later charged with raping several women by staging pretend auditions in which he would get them drunk and have them hold his Oscar (not a euphemism) and telling them they would have one of their own one day, if they only... you know....

What this film DOES have going for it, and is almost enough to save it, is Didi Conn. She is charming and appealing—that you knew—but she is also able to handle a serious lead role with aplomb and sympathy. But her secret weapon, which can be credited for making this film bearable, is that she is able to convey real joy when singing [she’s actually dubbed throughout] and is movingly open with her emotions. There are moments where Laurie is transported in love and looking forward to her big break, and you can see the warmth and pure lovability in her eyes. That alone is almost enough to save the movie, and make one wish that for better or worse, she hadn’t BECOME Frenchy in the eyes of the public, until the end of time. You deserved more, Didi! As this movie was wrapping up, I could just hear my mom's voice saying “Well, the movie wasn’t so great, but that girl is JUST as CUTE as a BUTTON!”

Should you watch it: 

If you want to see a really horrible 70s piece of shit melodrama, sure.