The Village People Disco Musical ‘Can’t Stop The Music’ Is An Infamous Flop — But A Flop That’s Infused With Pure Queer Joy
By Dave Holmes
September 28, 2023
It is one of the most famous flops in movie history, a disco musical that was released on the very day the entire world decided it was good on disco. It cost $20 million (in 1980 money, so adjusted for inflation, that’s way more) and took in $2 million (in 1980 money, so adjusted for inflation, that’s way less; don’t overthink it). It is the reason we used to have the Golden Raspberry Awards, or maybe still do, I don’t know, because honey, I don’t want to be in that energy wave.
It is the Village People origin musical/Steve Guttenberg vehicle Can’t Stop The Music, and it is a shittering glitshow that must not be missed. (If you’re keeping score at home, it’s currently sitting at 22% on Rotten Tomatoes.)
Like most good things, the story of Can’t Stop The Music begins over drinks at a 1978 dinner party at Jacqueline Bisset’s house. Allan Carr was invincible — fresh off having produced Grease, which itself was fresh off becoming the highest-grossing movie musical of all time — and was looking for a splashy next act. He convinced Bisset and her guests to come with him to a late-night taping of Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, featuring a new act called The Village People. They went, The Village People village peopled, and the drinks (and other stuff) did what drinks (and other stuff) do, which is make ideas seem really good. He envisioned a big-budget musical called Discoland, featuring Jacqueline Bisset herself as the female lead, to which she said whatever version of “aw hell nah” people were saying in 1978.
But Carr would not be deterred. He got Bruce Vilanch to write the script on spec, and then rewrite it when Carr decided Olivia Newton-John should be the female lead, and then re-rewrite it again when she turned it down and Carr pitched it to Raquel Welch, and then again to Cher, by which time Vilanch asked for some money and Carr fired him. The part eventually went to Valerie Perrine, her love interest would be played by a first-time actor and Olympic gold-medalist we now know as Caitlyn Jenner, and as the Americanized version of Village People Svengali Jacques Morali, an unknown named Steve Guttenberg. It was, everyone agreed, going to be hot stuff.
Now, it is important to point out that Allan Carr, Jacques Morali, and all but one of the Village People are gay as hell. And though the gay community was making strides toward visibility and civil rights in the late 1970s, this was a thing that still needed to be suggested in mainstream entertainment rather than made plain. Carr and new screenwriter Bronte Woodard set out to make a movie that was very gay in the way the Village People were, which is to say “not explicitly, but obviously to anyone who bothers to give one second of actual thought to what is directly in front of them.” It is a script full of double-entendres, and single-entendres, and frequently jokes you are not sure whether you have entendu labeled correctly. It is saucy if you know what to listen for, it is clean as a whistle if you do not, which most people still do not — and I know that because Donald Trump is still playing “YMCA” at his rallies — and that is unequivocally a song about San Francisco bathhouse culture. You can’t tell me this isn’t documentary footage of Andy Cohen’s first day in New York.
The making of Discoland was troubled. The film was largely shot on location in Greenwich Village, on the same streets at the same time as a film the Greenwich Village people were not too psyched about: William Friedkin’s leather-scene gaysploitation film Cruising. The gay community often showed up to disrupt the filming, only to be told by Discoland’s director Nancy Walker that this was a good gay movie. (That’s right: Nancy Walker, Rhoda’s mom, the Bounty paper towels spokeswoman.) Near the end of production, that hideous Disco Demolition night happened at Comiskey Park, the trade magazines said nobody was buying disco anymore, so they changed the title to Can’t Stop The Music.
Speaking of things that can’t stop, Steve Guttenberg is basically like this for the whole two hours of the movie.
Do you remember back in the heyday of Sex and the City, how when the cast was interviewed, they would often say some variation of “New York City is almost the show’s fifth main character?” There are about seventeen main characters in Can’t Stop The Music, and you might say that cocaine is the first and loudest, and most important of them. Like the gayness of many of the film’s characters, it is never explicitly laid out that everyone involved with this film is zooted up out of their goddamn minds, but if you know, you know. You also know if you don’t know.
Roger Ebert was a shady lady about Can’t Stop The Music, as was his custom. “They advertised this as the entertainment explosion of the year, and it was a bomb alright,” he said on the special Worst of 1980 episode of his and Gene Siskel’s show Sneak Previews. “It’s a movie that couldn’t seem to start the music, a traffic jam of unrelated characters who crowd together and create general confusion.” And yes, he’s right, there’s a lot going on: Steve Guttenberg is trying to launch a singing group, Tammy Grimes is trying to get Valerie Perrine to back to her modeling career, there are six Village People and none of them have any character traits or inner lives, Paul Sand and Marilyn Sokol and June Freaking Havoc are there, and no two people I have mentioned so far are in the same movie. It’s a lot!
“But wait,” you’re saying. “This sounds like you are describing a bad film.” And yes, to the degree that quality can objectively be determined, this is a mess of a movie. But what is good about it is what makes it important, and that is the pure joy with which it was made. Can’t Stop The Music is not just a movie about how the Village People came to be (which is good, because I just watched it, and if you asked me right now how the Village People came to be, I’d say, “They…met, or something”). It is, or at least it was intended to be, a movie about the Seventies becoming the Eighties. About the glorious new world that felt like it was right within reach. “These are the Eighties,” a couple of different characters say, with maximum sincerity. “You’re going to be doing a lot of things you’ve never done before in the Eighties.”
It is a real punch in the fucking gut to hear those words. In August 1980, a few weeks after the movie came out, Bronte Woodard died of a nameless illness that was beginning to afflict gay men. Ronald Reagan would be voted into office three months later, and wouldn’t mention AIDS until nearly five years after that. By 1995, 10 percent of the 1.6 million American men aged 25-44 who identified as gay were dead. A generation was literally decimated. In the Eighties, we did a lot of things we’d never done before. Jacques Morali died of AIDS in 1991.
This year, really by accident, I’ve stumbled onto some high-quality queer art: the campy, drag-fueled 1981 video for “Brand New Dance,” a thrilling pop single from San Francisco artist Tommy Spence. “I Could Not Believe It,” the teenage diaries of a Black gay teen in 1979 Simi Valley who would grow up to be Los Angeles art-punk legend Sean DeLear (who can also be seen in the fascinating punkumentary Desolation Center, on Amazon Video or the Night Flight app). The Keith Haring exhibit at The Broad. Hell, the early work of The B-52s. These allow us to imagine a world that could have been, to appreciate a queer perspective, to honor all we have lost by facing what lies ahead with pride and energy and empathy and humor. We owe our best to the generation ahead of us, and to the generations to follow.
Is Can’t Stop The Music high-quality queer art? Maybe not. But like the works above, it is suffused with pure queer joy, which was revolutionary then and remains so now. And queer joy is going to go a long way toward saving us, if we let it.
Ultimately, it’s a better bet than cocaine.