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By Phil Hall | April 14, 2003

Much of the critical babble surrounding the film version of “Chicago” involved the supposedly imaginative way the film was framed: the lavish and loud musical numbers were all in the imagination of Renee Zellweger’s character. However, this was not the first time a film musical used such a concept…and it certainly was not the best. The 1986 low-budget indie musical “Population: 1” got there first, with more style and substance than the overheated/overrated “Chicago” had to offer.

Unfortunately, most people are not familiar with “Population: 1.” It did not have a wide theatrical release in the U.S., although it did get playdates throughout Europe and Australia. Had it enjoyed the hefty promotional push that Miramax pumped into “Chicago,” the film might enjoy classic status today.

“Population: 1” was designed as a vehicle for The Screamers, a San Francisco-based synthesizer-punk ensemble fronted by Tomata DuPlenty and Sheela Edwards. This group never released a record, but were supposedly popular enough in the West Coast punk scene during the early 1980s to warrant being the stars of this feature film. And what a loopy film they made, with DuPlenty as a hapless civil defense worker who finds himself trapped in a fallout shelter while the world is destroyed in nuclear war. Realizing he is the last surviving member of the human race, he sinks into an extended inner monologue tracing his place within the course of the 20th century American experience, which is depicted in a series of wild musical numbers all anchored in the deteriorating corners of his mind.

“Population: 1” combines updated versions of classic songs, such as “Ten Cents a Dance,” with the original compositions from The Screamers’ playlist, such as the raucous “Jazz Vampire.” The musical sequences run the gamut of surreal and playful considerations, sometimes heavy with special effects (DuPlenty is shaved and groomed by a variety of hair-and-skin care tools that fly across the room and encircle him) and sometimes moored in the trappings of a too-real world (DuPlenty and Edwards driving down the dusty roads of Depression-era America clogged with people in vain search of a better life). There are also intercut scenes of The Screamers in a concert gig, giving the only film available of the act in full force before an adoring audience.

While “Population: 1” employs a host of extras for some of the musical sequences, it is pretty much a two-person movie. As the focus of the action, the boyish-but-kooky DuPlenty has a field day singing (actually, talking his way across the music) in a variety of oddball situations, ranging from splashing in a bubble bath, hanging upside down from the ceiling, and rocking a chair violently like a rodeo rider going for the elusive eight seconds. He was a colorful and original screen presence and it is a shame he never found a wider fanbase (DuPlenty later quit music to concentrate on painting; he died three years ago). Edwards, a pale and somewhat spooky-looking lady, cuts a more drop-dead-serious personality here, often singing directly into the camera in tight, stoic close-ups. Imagine Vampira’s character from “Plan 9 from Outer Space” in 80s-style make-up singing punk rock and you have an idea of Edwards on-screen.

Director Rene Daalder, best known for the 1976 cult flick “Massacre at Central High,” brings out the best in this strange duo and stranger concept by pushing the film to bizarre lengths. And unlike Rob Marshall’s pirating of Bob Fosse’s trademark style for “Chicago,” Daalder’s direction is distinctly original in concept and execution. The film never goes over-the-top, like Ken Russell’s musical offerings “Tommy” and “Lisztomania,” but instead maintains a deliberately warped equilibrium that never dribbles into camp or winking at the audience. That Daalder never achieved the recognition he deserved was a major shame, but the film’s emergence on DVD may hopefully right that prolonged wrong and bring “Population: 1” to a decidedly larger population.

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