[The Cult Club is where Flixist's writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
The 1970s seemed like the last real push for big screen musicals. You had everything from Grease to Tommy to Rocky Horror to Cabaret released with some regularity through the decade. By the mid-1980s, studios considered the genre mostly dead, though we did still get Little Shop of Horrors and Labyrinth.
The limbo years of the early 1980s bore several strange musicals with their own little cults behind them. There are the sequels Grease 2 and Shock Treatment (aka Rocky Horror 2: Electric Boogaloo). There's Richard Elfman's brilliantly bonkers Forbidden Zone. There's the dark Steve Martin misfire Pennies from Heaven. There's the Olivia Newton-John/ELO vehicle Xanadu. There's also The Return of Captain Invincible, a superhero musical starring Alan Arkin and Christopher Lee.
And then there's The Apple, technically a late 70s movie, but released in the United States in 1980. It's a campy, futuristic dystopian rock musical. Excuse me, I meant to write, "The Citizen Kane of campy, futuristic dystopian rock musicals." (It may also be the only one.)
The Apple is set in 1994, a place beyond Orwell. The world of The Apple is controlled by Mr. Boogalow, the head of a gigantic music corporation. His power is so great that he dictates what people should wear and listen to. Sub Pop and Matador never existed to give the world grunge and indie, Factory was likely dismantled, and SST and Dischord were probably squashed in a bloody government crackdown that would have made for a great punk song. Boogalow's influence is so widespread that he also requires all citizens to engage in mandatory exercise to its pre-approved songs from the band BIM. Orwell had his Two Minutes Hate, The Apple has its Two Minutes Jazzercise. Boogalow is a sound salvation; Boogalow is cleaning up the nation.
But trouble comes to Boogalow in the form of Alphie and Bibi, an AM radio folk duo hailing from Moose Jaw, Canada. (Moose Jaw is a real place; on a related note, Alphie's jeans are so tight that another part of a moose's anatomy makes an appearance in the film.) At the World Vision Song Festival, Alphie and Bibi's "Universal Melody" almost dethrones BIM's song "BIM" (seen above), causing the anesthetized audience to feel a brief but genuine happiness.
Rather than shutting up Alphie and Bibi for good, Boogalow wants to sign them and turn them into his tools. And so begins a tale of small-towners facing the machinations of the power elite. Alphie -- whose accent sounds part Irish, part Dutch, and part Scottish rather than Canadian -- is skeptical about the whole deal, but Bibi is the eager young starlet with dreams of fame.
Beware the savage lure of 1994.
I first saw The Apple in 2004 when it was released on DVD for the first time. The movie was especially interesting to a friend of mine because it was from The Cannon Group, who put out some true classics of trashy 80s action cinema, including:
Beyond the action films, Cannon had an eclectic output of cult classics. Both Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo were from Cannon, ditto Lifeforce, Over the Top, and Masters of the Universe. The company even dabbled in superheroes with botches like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and 1990's Captain America (J. D. Salinger's son played the title role); they even tried but failed to bring Spider-Man to the big screen. There were a handful of respectable Cannon films, like Barfly, The Assault, and Othello, but the company was built on the bloodshed of Michael Dudikoff, Chuck Norris, and Charles Bronson.
The Apple marked a turning point for Cannon. It was directed by Menahem Golan, and released in 1979 in West Germany under the title Star Rock. By the late 1970s, Golan and cousin/business partner Yoram Globus became the heads of the company. Under the flag of Golan and Globus, Cannon sailed into its golden age, relatively speaking.
A while ago I was talking to our own Alec Kubas-Meyer about classic movie musicals, and how the films essentially did their best to construct a plot around a few select tunes. When it works, you don't even notice that the plot is meant to bridge gaps between the numbers. What we get with The Apple is a work of startling unpredictability, a sort of fever dream rock musical that doesn't make much sense but doesn't seem to care either. Everything is so randomly placed that it's hard to tell if the plot came first or the music did, and if the plot was rushed or the music was, or both.
Before Alphie and Bibi meet with Boogalow, they wait in a building lobby and encounter some strange and besequined circus/ballet. The room erupts into a musical number called "Showbizness." The song has a sort of even thump to it as they talk about selling out, but the chorus seems to be stripped from another song entirely -- the rhythms don't really match, the delivery of the vocals is off, the tempo is all slippage. Everyone seems to trip getting into and out of the chorus, which goes: "Life is nothing but show business in 1994 / We pine for the spotlight / We kill for encore."
But the best line in any song in the film is in The Apple's title number (seen above). It sums up the whole attitude of randomness and assemblage -- like a weary "Let's just get through this, guys," but done with the moxie of an old-timey musical. Dandi, the lead singer of BIM, seduces Bibi in a Bosch-like vision of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Dandi looks like Roger Daltrey Lite with half the testosterone of regular Roger Daltrey.) In his oil and his loin cloth, he brandishes a comically large prop apple, half-red and half-green, and growls: "It's a natural, natural, natural desire! / Meet an actual, actual, actual vampire!"
The film's songs were written by the Hebrew stage musical team of Coby and Iris Recht. One of the film's bit players, George S. Clinton, helped translate and fine tune the lyrics since the Rechts spoke very little English. This may explain the sheer randomness of the vampire line. Clinton went on to become a prolific film and television composer.
The Rechts may be lacking in terms of songcraft, but in a way, this lack of deftness is made up for in the conviction of the stars. Dandi can only sing in bold text and exclamation points, with the occasional triple exclamation point thrown in for emphasis. Mr. Boogalow lets his malevolence flow through his thick French accent and the smooth elocution of every word he sings. Even through the schmaltzy numbers of lost love, both Alphie and Bibi belt it out like they mean it. At the heart of every successful camp work is some kind of sincerity. Rarely can you half-ass your way into making a true cult classic. Someone has to care, someone has to commit, there needs to be some kind of belief in the work.
But there is one song in particular that was meant to be clever. It's called "Coming" (seen above), and the double entendre is so blatant it can't even be considered a double entendre. But it's a hilarious nontendre, and Pandi, the other lead singer from BIM, does her best to sell it, or at least fake it like she means it.
Few things date a movie more than its vision of the future; the exceptions to the rule usually involve retro visions of the future that are heavy on art deco. Rather than give us a glimpse of the world to come, The Apple essentially underlines and italicizes the fashion excesses of the late 70s. The collars are glider-like, unbuttoned shirts are unbuttoned an extra button, the metallic hologram rainbows seem extra colorful. The most 1994 thing about The Apple may be the shoulder pads, which are almost as big as the shoulder pads in Rob Liefeld comics. All that in mind, Mr. Boogalow's right-hand man Shake wears the coolest garment from any era in one scene: an Amazing Stories bathrobe.
There are a few strange connections between this late 70s vision of the future and the not-too-distant past. All of the cars in The Apple look like The Homer from the "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" episode of The Simpsons. Zapp Brannigan from Futurama may have gotten some fashion tips from Ashley, one of Mr. Boogalow's many lackeys. Dress up the BIM dancers as aliens and Santa Clauses and you basically have a Vegas version of a Flaming Lips show. There's even something that looks like a chrome Segway in the film, and it looks embarrassing to use even back then -- 100% accurate.
It's this collision of dated futurism, random mayhem, schlocky filmmaking, and reckless earnestness that has helped The Apple live a second life after it died at the box office. I'll admit that I didn't like the movie the first time I saw it, and the reason for that is right below: a little musical number called "Speed." If "Showbizness" is a number that stumbles into and out of its chorus, "Speed" is a song that makes you actually dread the impending refrain. It's repeated over and over again, creeping up on you, and when it arrives it's like an ice pick twisting in your ear.
And yet somehow after my ears were assaulted, I returned to the movie. It's grown on me and I've even come to like "Speed" even though I cringe when I hear it. This is just madcap fun. The Apple is pure, unbridled kitsch coming at you, speeding forward like a tricked-out moped seen through star filters, shimmering like some gaudy outfit too wide at the shoulders and too tight in the crotch. The Apple may not have predicted the horrible fate of 1994 with any accuracy, but it did feel like a futuristic peek into the bizarro 80s. This is the terrifying world we'd live in if disco won the war.
As for where the film goes storywise, you won't see its finale coming. It's pretty normal up until you meet Gandalf the Groovy and the Fellowship of Bombadils, and then there's a deus ex machina. Putting it that way probably makes it sound a lot cooler than what really happens. When the end comes, you'll find yourself asking, "What the hell just happened?" Maybe it's working on Golan's private symbolism, or maybe when he got to page 70 of the script, Golan just sighed and said, "Hell, I don't know... Let's just get through this, guys." This is one of love's great mysteries.
The time is right for The Apple's midnight revival. It's the future now: 2012, post-beyond Orwell. Rocky Horror is a well-established staple of midnight showings, Troll 2 has been anointed to the hip end of the cult canon, and people are actively in search for oddball dreck like The Room and Birdemic. We should all gather somewhere dressed in tinfoil. We should all pop power by the hour. We should all get worked up to 150+ heartbeats. Let's find the actual vampires.
Somewhere, comrades, at midnight, let's all do the BIM together.
Next Month... Hang ten and catch some waves with Liz Rugg as she looks at the Troma classic Surf Nazis Must Die.
PREVIOUSLY SHOWING AT THE CULT CLUB
April: Santa Sangre (1989)
March: Tideland (2005)
February: House (1977)
January: They Live (1988)
December: Jingle All the Way (1996)