Times Square

The chances were slim to none that any of Hollywood’s early attempts to depict the punk/new wave scene would be anywhere near on the mark, but that didn’t stop me and my friends from dragging our black clad, funny haircut havin’ asses to every single one of them. I think that we were flattered by these films’ failure to pin us down, as if that was somehow a testament to both our own uniqueness and the singularity of our cultural moment. The truth, of course, was that such misfires were less the result of failed effort than they were of the filmmakers’ halfheartedness in their attempts to cash in on what I’m sure they considered to be a fleeting fad. In any case, few of these movies were more destined to get it wrong than Times Square. A film whose promotion rode hard on both the vaguely punkish look of its two leads and a soundtrack choked with some of the era’s biggest names in radio-friendly new wave, Times Square was ultimately too confused in its execution and garbled by post-production mishandling to come off as clearly being about anything, much less a movement in music and style that, by 1980, was starting to look a bit confused and garbled itself.

Still, it is very likely that there is a better film — if much less likely an actually good one — hiding somewhere within Times Square. After all, it did, to its credit, frustrate my efforts to completely hate it when I first saw it. This was in large part due to the performance by one of its stars, (still) unknown (then) newcomer Robin Johnson, who commits to her role with such a disarming naturalness and emotional honesty that everything else that is noncommittal and false in Times Square stands out in stark relief by comparison. That Johnson acts as if she’s at the center of a movie that’s far superior to the one we’re actually watching raises suspicions that somewhere, in the cutting room dustbin of history, such a film might actually exist. And that, as later accounts have established, is what actually seems to be the case.

Times Square also gains cache in retrospect for its prescience in foreseeing the fate that would befall its titular stretch of real estate, preserving for posterity “The Deuce” — as well as other aspects of a New York that now seems far away to the point of feeling completely unreal — in all its seedy glory. Anyone who has an interest in grindhouse cinema will want to see this film just to be tortured by the abundance of marquees proffering fare like Nurse Sherri and The Dragon Lives. Sure, the DVD revolution has insured that you can now be bored and disappointed by these titles in the comfort of your own home, but nothing could compare to the experience of being bored and disappointed by them while surrounded by a bunch of potentially dangerous and in some cases foul-smelling strangers. Oh, if one could only walk into the screen!

As director Allan Moyle tells it, Times Square had its genesis during the late seventies, when Moyle, then a resident of 42nd Street, found a portion of a journal written by a young, mentally ill woman hidden between the cushions of a second-hand sofa. Moyle was intrigued by what he read, and enlisted the help of writers Leanne Unger and Jacob Brackman to craft a screenplay inspired by the journal, a script that, once completed, bore the provisional title She Got The Shakes. She Got The Shakes made the rounds and eventually came to the attention of record mogul and film producer Robert Stigwood, the man responsible for such monolithic, music-driven late-seventies blockbusters as Saturday Night Fever and Grease, not to mention every bit as spectacular music-driven failures like Sgt. Pepper.

Stigwood took a shine to She Got The Shakes, no doubt seeing in it the opportunity for another pop-music-heavy screen vehicle, one capable of selling soundtrack albums as well as theater tickets. Moyle agreed that he wanted the film’s soundtrack to mostly be comprised of songs, but wanted those songs to reflect the movie’s downtown New York feel – a desire that survives in the inclusion of tracks like Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and Patti Smith’s “Pissing in a River” on the final OST. Stigwood seemed to be in tune with this at the outset, but as production went on, and he began to set his sights on the film’s soundtrack album being a double — rather than a single — LP, he began to pressure Moyle to alter the film in order to include more music. Moyle refused, and was subsequently fired, after which Stigwood’s people finished the film, working with an eye toward making the now re-titled Times Square a more effective advertisement for its soundtrack album. Toward this end, many crucial expository scenes were cut from the film in order to make way for more pop song friendly, dialog-free scenes. Also, not surprisingly, the song selection began a marked drift away from the director’s original vision, with the result being a soundtrack album on which tunes by the Talking Heads and first-wave British punk band The Ruts sit uneasily alongside tracks by Desmond Child and Rouge and the Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb.

It’s true that many of Times Square‘s problems are a result of the butchering it received after Moyle’s departure. It is a film disorientingly devoid of transition, where shifts of plot and character just happen without any hint of what lead to or might have motivated them. Still, based on what we do see, I think that Moyle still has to shoulder some of the blame. The film seems to lack focus at its core, as if Moyle can’t decide whether he’s telling either a celebratory or cautionary tale of teenage rebellion, painting a portrait of mental illness, or chronicling yet another version of the rock and roll dream. Now, of course, a film can be all of those things — and I wish that I could say that Times Square is all that and more — but the fact is that Moyle never seems to really commit to any one of them, with the result that the film is ultimately none of them to any successful degree – a situation that is only exacerbated by the ham-fisted editing job. Ironically, the one thing that Moyle did seem pretty certain about was that Times Square was a love story, albeit one with two teenage girls as its focus. That one can only glean that by inference when watching the film today is testament to the zeal Stigwood’s crew took to the task of excising it completely from the final product.

In Times Square‘s opening moments, we are introduced to David Pearl (Peter Coffield), the head of a mayoral commission tasked with the revitalization of the Times Square area. While many of the movie’s messages are murkily telegraphed, this is one instance where the impression we are meant to get is perfectly clear: Pearl’s dedication to cleaning up the Deuce is just symptomatic of a larger tendency on his part to want to sweep anything messy or discomfitingly “real” neatly under the carpet. His teenaged daughter Pamela (Trini Alvarado) has obviously done her share of suffering for this, and storms out of the public hearing her dad’s hosting in reaction to his latest bout of patronizing dickery. Soon thereafter, Pearl checks Pamela into a neurological hospital to undergo tests for some kind of “seizures” that she’s reportedly having – a diagnosis that, while dubious, seems to relate to some specific kind of behavior on Pamela’s part that the film doesn’t see fit to provide the audience with any evidence of. Once the preliminaries are out of the way, Pamela is introduced to her roommate, another young girl by the name of Nicky Marotta who is there for the same tests.

As portrayed by Robin Johnson, a fifteen-year-old Brooklynite who both looks and sounds like a teenaged David Johansen in drag, Nicky is the proverbial piece of work. A foul-mouthed street kid with undefined mental “issues”, Nicky affects a look that is halfway between punk chic and seventies rocker, with a logo pin festooned leather jacket and hair that can’t decide whether it’s a Johnny Rotten spike or a Joan Jett shag. If you get the feeling we’re now going to see the sheltered, unhappy little rich girl falling under the thrall of the wild free spirit who says and does whatever she feels, you’re right. It’s not long before Nicky has convinced Pamela to make a break from the hospital and the two of them are on the lamb. After hijacking an ambulance, they take refuge in a dilapidated abandoned pier, where they begin the business of creating a surrogate family of two — a bonding process that, thanks to much of it succumbing to the editor’s blade, takes place in startlingly compressed fashion.

Somewhere in all this we’re introduced to Johnny LaGuardia, a late night DJ played by Tim Curry at the height of his Rocky Horror midnight movie fame. Johnny broadcasts from a penthouse studio that overlooks Times Square, spending a lot less of his airtime actually playing records than he does oozing out one portentous observation after another in a self-satisfied purr. I don’t remember if statements like “There are eight million stories in the big city”, or referring to gazing down upon Times Square as “looking into the heart of the beast” seemed less cliche in 1980, but it’s safe to say that they haven’t aged well. In fact, I’ve got to say that, time-warp pacing aside, I think that Curry’s character is one of Times Square‘s biggest problems. The movie positions him as at once a Greek chorus and an Olympian god, commenting on the action from on high — and often informing us of developments and character motivations that we would otherwise have been none the wiser about — as well as influencing the action by goading the main characters with his words. In the end he ends up seeming like little more than a sloppy piece of narrative grout-work, covering up the holes while at the same time calling attention to them. Plus there’s the whole issue of his smugness. It definitely gave me pause when, during a later scene in which Pamela’s dad gives Johnny a beat-down, I found myself rooting for the dad. Still, I feel fairly certain that this was more due to Johnny being an insufferable asshole than it was to any creeping middle-aged conservativism on my part.

Anyway, due to Pamela’s dad being an influential public figure, Johnny takes an interest in her alleged “kidnapping” at the hands of Nicky and, once he has established a line of communication with the girls themselves, sets out to make a cause celebre of them. Nicky and Pamela respond to LaGuardia’s casting of them as countercultural heroes with increasingly public acts of rebellion, dubbing themselves with the PR savvy moniker “The Sleez Sisters” and appearing on the DJ’s show to sing a song in which they castigate Pamela’s dad. (In this sense, Times Square‘s story seems to draw a lot of inspiration from the Patricia Hearst case, particularly the episode in which the kidnapped heiress suddenly surfaced by way of a tape released to the media in which she renounced her privileged upbringing and criticized her media mogul father.) Nicky sees an opportunity to realize her dream of becoming a rock star and puts a band together, making her debut at the strip club where she and Pamela are working. The song she sings is actually pretty good, too — a credible bit of raunchy sub-New York Dolls boogie rock called “Damn Dog”.

As a result of these hijinks, the Sleez Sisters’ legend continues to grow, with Nicky and Pamela building up an enormous, rabid following among Johnny LaGuardia’s young listeners. Of course, we’ll have to take Johnny LaGuardia’s word for that, because we’re not shown any actual evidence of this overwhelming public response until the film’s conclusion. Before that, we just have to make due with the DJ’s grandiose proclamations about how “a new iconoclast has come to save us” and him exclaiming about how his “switchboards are jammed” with calls of support for the two. Finally, Nicky and Pamela make their ultimate statement by dressing up in garbage bags, painting raccoon masks over their eyes, and throwing television sets off of the roofs of various buildings throughout the city. This wouldn’t seem that significant if not for Tim Curry’s rapturous exultations on the subject, which would lead you to believe that it was some kind of profoundly society-challenging act. Unfortunately, Nicky’s increasingly unstable behavior – peaking with a violent fit of jealousy that occurs when she discovers Pamela and Johnny LaGuardia alone together – begins to drive a wedge between the two girls. Ultimately, they return to their separate paths, but not before Nicky performs a triumphant, illegal concert atop a theater marquee overlooking the square.

Ironically, despite the fact that Times Square is so crammed full of music, that music somehow ends up feeling peripheral to its story, when, in fact, it should be at its very heart. This is the result, not just of the overall unevenness of the score itself, but also of some pretty tone deaf decisions as to how that music would be used. For instance, although we’ve already heard Nicky blasting The Ramones “I Wanna Be Sedated” out of her boom box like a personal theme song, when it comes time for Johnny LaGuardia to dedicate Nicky and Pamela’s favorite song to them, that song turns out to be a bubblegummy number from fading glam star and then Happy Days regular Suzi Quatro. The result of all this is that the form that the girls’ rebellion takes is never shown as being part of any larger cultural movement. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Nicky and Pamela had single-handedly invented new wave fashion themselves, with no spurring on from any outside influences.

Fortunately, Robin Johnson and her amazing, broken garbage disposal of a voice are on hand to provide the movie with a measure of the authenticity and punkish energy it so desperately needs. Hers is one of those types of performances that, when delivered by a first-time star, might lead you to believe that they were simply cast “as themselves”. There just doesn’t appear to be much of a line between her and the red-raw emotionality of the character she’s playing. Sadly, despite lots of grimy location shooting and the occasional stab at suggesting a harsher reality than its major studio mandate might normally allow, Times Square ultimately fails to live up to what Johnson brings to the table. This couldn’t be better exemplified than by a scene in which Nicky basically pimps the young innocent Pamela to the manager of a strip club. For the film, its an uncharacteristic turn into truly uncomfortable territory, but one that also rings true; Despite the fact that we like Nicky, there is something in her character that suggests that she would be capable of doing such a thing — and not just because she’s a little unhinged, but also because she’s obviously managed to survive on the street for a good while, and such survival often comes at a price that’s not all that pretty.

This moment of verisimilitude is short lived, however, and is completely shot down when, upon being informed that Pamela won’t dance topless, the manager strokes his chin thoughtfully and replies, “I like that! Class. Respect. It’s good for business!” Except if you’re in the nudity business, that is. Pamela later makes her dancing debut wearing three times as many clothes as anyone in the audience. And, of course, everyone loves her. A similar pattern is followed in a scene where a desperate Nicky and Pamela try to stage an armed robbery, only to have the situation diffused by a lame gag when things threaten to get too intense. It’s as if Moyle keeps vacillating between telling the harsh, street-bound story that his source material — the journal of a very real and clearly disturbed young denizen of those streets — necessitates, or perpetrating a fluffy “girls just wanna have fun” ode to teenaged female empowerment.

Times Square ultimately died an ugly death in theaters, and Robin Johnson, despite her obvious promise, went on to appear only occasionally in small television and movie roles throughout the following decades. However, in those intervening years the film has gone on to become something of a cult item, thanks in no small part, I’m sure, to Johnson’s spirited and moving performance, as well as to the fact that, despite some glaring flaws, the film’s soundtrack presents a neat little time capsule of a particular period in pop music history.

And I have to admit to not being immune to that last aspect of the film’s appeal myself. Not only did I almost jump out of my chair when I heard The Ruts’ “Babylon’s Burning” coming out of the speakers, but also found myself happily tapping my toe along to the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” and The Pretenders’ “Talk of the Town”. There’s also a neat little XTC rarity, composed specifically for the film, called “Take This Town”. Unfortunately, true to Robert Stigwood’s intent, this ends up being more of an argument for buying Times Square‘s soundtrack than it does for watching the film itself.

Release Year: 1980 | Country: United States | Starring: Tim Curry, Trini Alvarado, Robin Johnson, Peter Coffield, Herbert Berghof, David Margulies, Anna Maria Horsford, Michael Margotta, J.C. Quinn, Miguel Pinero, Ronald “Smokey” Stevens | Writers: Jacob Brackman, Allan Moyle, Leanne Unger | Director: Allan Moyle | Cinematographer: James A. Contner | Music: Blue Weaver | Producers: Robert Stigwood, Jacob Brackman