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By Phil Hall | June 10, 2011

BOOTLEG FILES 379: “Cher…Special” (1978 TV special starring Cher, Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart).

LAST SEEN: Not seen in its entirety since its ABC broadcast on April 3, 1978.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: The entire show has never been available for commercial home entertainment release, although one segment did turn up on a Cher DVD.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Unavailable for many years, most likely due to problems with music and performance rights clearance.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Somewhat unlikely, unless Cher fans stage a revolt.

There is an old show biz joke that the only possible survivors of a nuclear holocaust would be cockroaches and Cher. While that might be a compliment to Cher’s seemingly indestructible presence as an entertainment icon, it also signifies her ability to get beyond the down periods of her erratic career.

In 1978, Cher hit a career low. A string of flop albums and an ill-advised attempt to relaunch her TV career by teaming with ex-husband Sonny Bono seemed to confirm that her halcyon days were over. However, Cher’s name value carried some clout with ABC’s programming department, and she was contracted to star in a one-shot TV variety special that would be sponsored by Buick.

The resulting production was called “Cher…Special” and it represents one of the strangest endeavors in Cher’s canon. It is not a bad production, per se, but its sheer weirdness gives the impression of a star that is not quite certain how to channel her considerable talents.

In fairness, “Cher…Special” deserves credit for not including a studio audience or canned laughter and applause, which was par for the course with 1970s variety specials. As a result, the absence of soundtrack feedback enables the viewer to fill in an audio void – and it is impossible not to watch “Cher…Special” without having a running commentary on the strange contents.

“Cher…Special” begins with the star playing a pre-teen version of herself. She addresses an off-screen (yet omnipresent) voice playing her mother, and the conversation focuses on the young Cher’s unhappiness that she lacks blonde hair and blue eyes – which, she observes, are the prerequisites for being popular at her school. The young Cher then announces that she is going to perform “West Side Story” at school. When her mother inquires which role she’ll perform, Cher replies, “All of them!”

What happens next is among the most mind-boggling things I’ve ever seen: Cher plays all of the major parts in a truncated version of “West Side Story.” For 15 minutes, she takes on the roles of Tony, Maria, Anita, Bernardo and the Jets. For the male roles, she puts on men’s clothing and wigs yet maintains her regular husky voice; for the female parts, she puts on a heavy Latina accent for Anita and strains for soprano high notes as Maria. Split screens enable Cher to perform duets with herself.

The result of this one-woman “West Side Story” is total bafflement. The idea is terribly wrong at many levels, not the least being her vocal inadequacy in capturing the visceral emotion of the classic score. But sight of Cher in male drag – multiplied by four when she plays all of the Jets – is so bizarre that it is impossible not to appreciate the blatant chutzpah of the gamble. (Pity that she didn’t have more time to put on a policeman’s uniform and do “Gee, Officer Krupke.”)

Cher then cedes the screen to a pair of guest stars who were riding respective waves of musical popularity. The scene takes place in neighboring apartments, where a voluptuous and bewigged Dolly Parton performs “Two Doors Down” in one flat while a shirtless and tushy-shaking Rod Stewart offers “Hot Legs” in the other apartment. Parton, as usual, is charming and sexy, but Stewart is so ridiculously over-the-top as an androgynous sex bomb that his exaggerated gyrations offer more hearty laughs than many deliberate comedies.

Things quiet down for a little while. Cher has a jokey conversation with the zany Laverne character she played in sketches on “The Sonny and Cher Show” (Laverne insists that Cher needs to make a comeback) and she engages in a light comic chat with Dolly Parton, using palaver consisting entirely of lyrics from classic songs. There is also an odd sequence where Cher presents the story of a woman leading a double life: she is a dreary secretary in a dismal office steno pool who transforms at night into the glittering queen of a disco ballroom.

But the craziness comes back for the big finale, billed as the “Musical Battle to Save Cher’s Soul Medley.” Cher finds herself torn between the Christian music sounds emanating from the top of a large staircase – a white-gowned Dolly Parton, backed by an African American gospel choir – and the music from the bottom of another stairwell – the rock band The Tubes, in a very rare primetime TV appearance, performing “Mondo Bondage” (complete with a tied-up woman in a leather bodysuit). Cher ultimately chooses good over evil, ascending to join Parton and her choir with a loud (if somewhat unfocused) rendition of “O Happy Day.”

At show’s end, Cher returns as her normal self (or as normal as Cher can be), noting that she is a mother now and that her blonde-haired, blue-eyed children Chastity and Elijah Blue are unhappy that they lack their mother’s dark hair. Elijah Blue comes out to join his mother as the closing credits roll.

If anything, “Cher…Special” was not boring. But it was bewildering to witness Cher steamrolling through a number of offerings that she was not suited for – Broadway show tunes, disco dancing, out-singing an African American gospel choir – and not doing what she does best…which, quite frankly, is being herself. It also didn’t help that she was burdened with wigs, make-up and Bob Mackie gowns that did not emphasize her beauty. In fact, she never looked worse than she did on “Cher…Special.”

However, some people thought “Cher…Special” was special: the program won an Emmy Award for Best Achievement in Lighting Direction and received nominations for art direction and for Dolly Parton as a supporting actress in a variety show.

ABC had no further use for Cher, but NBC signed her for a one-shot special in 1979. The same year, Cher scored a Top 10 single hit with her disco-inspired “Take Me Home.” But, then, her stop-and-start career stopped again, and three years would pass before she made a dramatic comeback as an actress in the Broadway and film versions of “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”

“Cher…Special” was never released in its entirety on any home entertainment format, most likely because of problems in clearing music and performance rights. The “West Side Story” sequence was included as a special feature on the DVD of Cher’s 2003 farewell tour, and clips with Cher and Dolly Parton performing together can be found on YouTube. The full show can be found on some collector-to-collector sites, although the quality is what you would expect from a program that was videotaped in 1978.

The fact that Cher could emerge from the shambles of this production and go on to the proverbial bigger and better accomplishments is certainly testament to her star power. But just because she could come out “Cher…Special” unscathed does not mean that watching this weird mishmash will not damage the average viewer. Of, if I could turn back time…

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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