When “The Gong Show Movie” first appeared in 1980, it was doomed to failure. Its talent-free TV talent show inspiration had already been cancelled and no one was interested in paying to see a film version of a television program already out of favor. Today, however, “The Gong Show” inspires a joyous brand of lunatic nostalgia for the cheerful vulgarity and refreshing anarchy that shook up the dull world of TV game shows.
Which is not to say “The Gong Show Movie” is a great film. It is actually a great so-bad-its-good film, inspiring plenty of unintentional laughs and good-natured groans. The film was originally planned as a collaborative effort between the TV shows’ creator/host Chuck Barris and cult film writer/director Robert Downey Sr., but Barris elbowed Downey off the project and took control of the film’s artistic and creative reins. The result is a mess, admittedly, but it is a damn entertaining mess.
“The Gong Show Movie” is pretty much an unofficial remake of Fellini’s “8½” with Barris playing himself as the Mastroianni character: the put-upon, harried, creatively drained artist fighting off various intrusions, memories and challenges in order to fulfill his vision. In this case, the intrusions come in the form of a network executive named Buddy Didlo (you can imagine how his surname gets mangled) who keeps protesting the rising vulgarity and shrinking ratings on the show. There are also endless interruptions by would-be stars bothering Barris to get on the air (the late Phil Hartman, in his film debut playing a robber on an airport ticket buyers line, is among them). Then there is the problem of the people on the show, particularly the raunchy Jaye P. Morgan and her tendency towards foul language and gestures.
Intercut throughout the film are scenes from the TV show, including many segments that were taken off the air for obvious reasons. These include the infamous “Popsicle Twins” performing fellatio on orange Popsicles, Jaye P. Morgan flashing her breasts while Gene-Gene the Dancing Machine cavorts across the stage, and the Unknown Comic reeling off filthy humor at breakneck speed (“Do you like sex? Do you like travel? Then go take a fucking hike!”). There are also jaw-dropping performances by the Vatican 4 (men dressed as nuns who mock Catholic protocol in syncopated swing) and a extraordinary number where an elderly man sings “Amazing Grace” while Barris limps on stage in crutches, becomes ennobled and inspired by the song–he stands up straight, tosses the crutches aside, takes a giant step forward and crashes down on his face.
Barris and his wife Robin Altman play themselves and they spend their on-screen time engaging in long, sincere conversations on how “The Gong Show” is wrecking their lives. I believe these sequences were intended to be serious, yet they are actually very funny given that neither Barris nor Altman know how to act and their lines are delivered with a painfully earnest manner that makes them inappropriately synthetic. Barris also engages in various acts of bizarre behavior, including a game of racquetball that nearly drives him to collapse and an inane country-western musical interlude, which shows off his very, very limited vocal range. Barris also gives over too much of the film to zany funnyman Rip Taylor, who shows up briefly as the owner of a French restaurant where the menus are missing. Taylor has nothing to work with but a lame French accent, but he literally takes over the film on the strength of his frenetic energy while Barris looks on his larceny with shock.
“The Gong Show Movie” is a therapeutic guilty pleasure. Great filmmaking? Nah! Great fun? Oh yeah, in spades!
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