This is the Village People story with the Village People music, starring the Village people, and it’s even worse than that description makes it sound. Okay, the Village People were never exactly a high-class musical group, but you have to admit that their biggest hits were enjoyable in a cheesy, fun-trash, semi-intentional camp kind of way. I’m personally convinced that everyone actually likes “YMCA”—most of them like it with some degree of irony, and some people won’t actually admit to it, but deep down, they all do.
Unfortunately, this movie’s ten-song score only features two of those hits, “YMCA” and the title-song. The rest of the score is equivalent to (God help us) Village People album-filler tracks. These songs are so awful that they will literally cause to gape in awe. The worst offenders are “Samantha”, with its stuttering refrain and idiotic lyrics (“I like that wiggle that you’ve got in your jeans”), the burrow-into-your-brain-annoying “I Love You To Death”, and “Milkshake”, which is supposed to be a three-minute commercial jingle for milk, and which is accompanied by a truly indescribable production number involving Valerie Perrine and a giant milkshake glass
The script isn’t any better, featuring one of the most incompetently-structured plots ever seen in a musical, and loaded with howlingly bad lines of dialogue, several of which would make ideal internet memes if this film were even slightly better known.
As for the cast, Valerie Perrine and Steve Gutenberg give outrageously loud, broad and coarse performances, Perrine sounding like she thinks she’s on a Three’s Company era sitcom and Gutenberg’s shrill hyperactivity making him sound kind of like a rabid chipmunk. The Village People themselves have nice singing voices but are hopeless as actors, with Felipe Ross, the “Indian”, being especially incompetent.
Bruce Jenner just looks lost and out of place and has serious trouble with his dialogue…there’s a reason he never tried to act again after this. Marilyn Sokol gives a truly disgusting performance in the secondary female lead, reminding one of nothing so much as Tim Curry’s performance in Rocky Horror, but without any of the comedy or sex appeal. The Ritchie Family, a disco group who make a guest appearance to sing one number, come across here as mediocre and mechanical.
Several great stars of previous eras have cameo roles, but don’t get your hopes up yet, unless you get a thrill out of seeing talented people embarrass themselves. Tammy Grimes is forced to say lines like “Get away, cat! You rotten pussy!”, June Havoc plays every stage mother cliché in the book in what I think was meant as an ironic reference to her connection to Gypsy, and Russell Nype barely gets a word in (they should all be so lucky).
The movie is also at least mildly inept from a technical perspective (not Ed Wood inept, but still noticeably unprofessional). Nancy Walker is unfortunately known to the public at large these days largely for her role in a paper towel commercial, but she was once one of the Broadway musical’s greatest comic actresses, the Carol Burnett of her day. However, whatever Walker’s credentials as a performer, film directing is obviously not among her talents. Maybe we can chalk it up to inexperience: certainly this film gives the impression of being the work of people who’ve never made a movie before (actually, it appears to have been done by people who’ve never seen a movie before, but given that Walker was wonderful in the film of Best Foot Forward…).
With all that said, I will say something I don’t say about very many of the worst musicals of all time: You have to see this before you die. Yes, it’s terrible, but in a ceaselessly hilarious laugh riot kind of way. This is the Plan 9 of musical movies, the number one camp classic, horrendous on every level but uniformly enthralling. Some musical film fans would argue with that statement, but that’s because they’re used to the semi-intentional, relatively polished brand of camp usually associated with camp classics in the musical genre (like its two contemporaneous disasters in the same field, Xanadu or The Apple).
The thing is, when I said this film was the Plan 9 of musical movies, I also meant that its camp is the same kind of camp as movies in the vein of Plan 9 or Manos: The Hand of Fate, and that kind of camp is sometimes foreign to people whose exposure to bad movies is limited to the musical genre. This isn’t some surreal acid trip where you’re still conventionally absorbed in the movie and awed by its sheer absurdity; it’s actually too inept to create that effect, because you never forget you’re watching a movie for an instant. The comedy here comes from the sheer impressive spectacle of watching how spectacularly they failed to make a movie, a pleasure generally more associated with sci-fi B-Movies than with musicals, however awful.
If your idea of a camp classic is Xanadu, then I’m going to be honest, there’s a chance you’ll just wind up finding this as horrible as it objectively is, but if you’re a fan of the Mystery Science Theater brand of bad movie, and you’re not opposed to seeing those pleasures offered in the form of a disco musical, this is, as I said, pretty much the pinnacle of entertaining badness as far as the musical genre goes.