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Looking back at 'Tapeheads' all these years later is a strange trip! John
Cusack is now a respected leading man and Tim Robbins is Mr. Credibility.
Back in the day they were two zany dorks up for just about anything. This
movie is sometimes surreal, sometimes silly. Very uneven with some segments
just falling flat on their face. But there is more than enough unhinged
invention on show to make it something unique.
It might on the surface seem like the precursor to Bill and Ted and Wayne and Garth et al, but there is an underlying subversive, almost punk attitude, that puts it closer in spirit to 'Roadside Prophets' (which also featured Cusack) or even some of the movies of Alex Cox. Cox has no direct involvement with 'Tapeheads', but like his 80s cult classic 'Repo Man' it was produced by ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith, and several Cox regulars appear - Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss, Xander Berkeley, Bobcat Goldthwait, and even (an uncredited) Courtney Love.
The plot doesn't matter all that much, at times it's just an excuse for music video parodies, pop culture in-jokes, and cameos by an almost endless parade of musicians, familiar TV faces, and other oddballs, everyone from Jello Biafra to Connie Stevens. It's like channel surfing while tripping and listening to oldies radio. Just the sight of seeing 'The Killers' Clu Gulager being spanked by Courtney Love while cult favourite Susan Tyrrell urges her on (blink and you WILL miss it!!), is almost worth watching this alone for. 'Tapeheads' may not be THE great lost 80s cult movie, but it does deserve to be rediscovered. There's no other movie QUITE like it! And it will put a smile on your face, guaranteed.
Tapeheads is not a subtle film. It is not brilliant film. What it is is
one of the most unique and funny American comedies in a long time. What
allows this movie to rise above the stupidity in which it revels in is
two-fold. Its quirky sense of humor is so unique and refreshing, that
you're not only willing but looking forward to the plot which can politely
described as asinine. Secondly, it has the Swankey Modes, who are
soul legends Sam Moore and Junior Walker. They bring a delightful energy
and great music to the movie.
It would be pointless to bring up specific scenes, except to say that this movie has approximately ten or fifteen of the funniest vignettes of the year. There are also plenty of misses, but the joy in seeing them make the effort allows you to forgive all the misses.
John Cusack and Tim Robbins, both exceptional actors capable of great subtlety, exhibit none of it here. What they replace it with is a great comic energy and a willingness to do almost anything for a joke. Cusack is especially endearing as a total sleazeball who will do anything for a buck. Michael Nesmith (yes, That one!) produces this farce and demonstrates what we already knew- He was really the talented one, and the funniest one.
I imagine that there will be people who hate this movie. People who hate its lack of subtlety, who hate the implausible plot, and who just don't get a humor that most can most aptly described as off kilter. What they don't understand is that the humor in this movie is a complete original, and the lengths this movie takes to see it through are admirable and at times breathtaking. And it is for those reasons that Tapeheads is one of the great American comedies of the 1980's, and one of the most underrated movies ever made.
I can't explain why but I've watched this a hundred times and I keep
laughing, alongside Cusack's Better Off Dead. John Cusack and Tim Robbins
were still playing losers and became good friends off camera when they
Tapeheads, as they play bumbling would-be music video makers. In order to
get their boyhood heroes The Swanky Modes (played by real-life singers Sam
Moore and Junior Walker) the gig of all gigs, they scam and plug their way
through unpaid work, Roscoe's chicken and waffles, relentless hitmen and a
vengeful politician. Great character acting by Jessica Walter, Don
and Clu Gulager. Cameos by a ton of folks, including executive producer
Michael Nesmith (from the Monkees), Jello Biafra, Fishbone and the Nuge.
Along the way are all kinds of catchy little jokes that you either like
remember forever or. just don't like. "We love Menudo." "On spec." The
mounting parking tickets. At least watch it for Cusack and Robbins passing
the Brothers Against Drunk Driving (BADD) alcohol test: going through the
alphabet backwards with your eyes closed, skipping all the vowels and
the hand sign for each letter.
The DVD is letterboxed and has a strong analog track with Nesmith, director Bill Fishman and production designer Catherine Hardwicke. Much of the time it is as light-hearted as the movie and interesting. Unfortunately, Fishman brings up tons of scenes that were deleted from the film but aren't included on the DVD. I'm sure there's some reason for this, maybe they just weren't available, but it's kind of frustrating - they actually sound funny instead of the usual deleted scene that deserved to be cut out and forgotten. I was surprised that so much stuff was actually cut out, and that Cusack and Robbins wanted to play the opposite roles when they auditioned. But, this ain't the high theater either. At times the analog track has some of those "Remember when that happened" stories, that only work if you really really like the film. But then, why else would you watch the whole thing with the analog track on?
In the 80's, back when MTV actually played videos, I spent plenty of time with it on in the background, the way radio was in earlier decades. Tapeheads captures that in spades - the glitzy, superficial, just plain stupid, yet weirdly captivating 80's music video scene, from behind. With spoof videos like King Cotton in the "Roscoe's Chicken and Waffle Commercial", and Devo backing Cube-Squared's video ("The hottest thing from Sweden since Abba") in mock-Swedish, and some stunningly good performances by "The Swanky Modes" (Sam Moore and Junior Walker), it sticks in your head. This is no "The Shawshank Redemption" or "Grosse Point Blank" - If you're seeing it for Tim Robbins and John Cusack - this is late-80s throwaway kitsch, and it shows - and there's nothing wrong with that. If you think more "Better off Dead" or "Cadillac Man", you're in the right ballpark. Frankly, it's refreshing to see them in something early in their careers, having some fun. If you enjoyed your videos in the 80's, it's worth checking out.
It's a next-generation Blues Brothers. Quick-moving visuals, good script, well executed. Funny, irreverent, and best of all the music is great. Love the two leads (Cusack & Robbins) and wonder if they remember having fun making this movie because it sure looked like they did. (Cusack can dance; Robbins can't.) Great to see some old-timers in the music roles - Sam Moore and Junior Walker, for two; plus there are several tunes I've never heard before so I got to hear and appreciate them for the first time. Cinematographywas well done. I'm surprised it's not a cult film for old r & b rock & rollers. The DVD came with a CD of the ending song "Ordinary Man" by the Swanky Modes (Moore & Walker), guaranteed to get you moving in your chair.
Tapeheads is a surprisingly perfect satire of the eighties made at the end of the eighties. It is very funny, with an intelligent script and great dialog. Fine comedic performances by Cusack and Robbins. Multiple intertwined plots. There is a love story between a female artist and Robbins' nerdy video artist. A self-help guide with Cusack trying to better himself and his buddy. A music marathon with wonderful performances. A corrupt politician caught in a delicious scandal. All this combined with an hysterical dysfunctional family drama, make for a thoroughly wacky and wild time. The soundtrack is fabulous too. In particular, Roscoe's Rap manages to send up MTV, KFC, TV advertising and Rap music. Loved it!
"Tapeheads", a scrappy, intermittently funny spoof of the music video business, might have been the perfect comedic short, and stars John Cusack and Tim Robbins are effortlessly in the swing of the nonsensical chaos involved. They play two semi-savvy security guards in Los Angeles who start their own company, Video Aces, making hilarious videos for groups, parties, and one deathbed star. It's too bad the filmmakers had to invent a dim side-plot to pad the running time (shenanigans involving a crooked politician and his henchmen which doesn't do much except take away from the movie's primary strength, sending-up the music culture of the late-'80s). Still, Cusack and Robbins create a couple of originals here: nerdy but loose, street-smart without being hipsters or posers, these guys are on the same nutty wavelength, and they never put each other down. They're the real thing in buddy-comedies. *1/2 from ****
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I remember when this film first came out. It played the local "indie" theatre for about a week. According to a "Details" magazine article on Cusack, he said that when they were promoting the film, did so in their "Actor's Gang" personas, wearing skinny ties and trench coats, and they got kicked off of a morning talk show for trashing the green room.
Judging by the final product, it seems that Robbins and Cusack wanted to have some fun, and brought this film to Michael Nesmith's Pacific Arts Company (not known for its high production values), and banged it out between schedules.
It's always a treat to see John Cusack and Tim Robbins acting in the same film. I believe "Tapeheads" is the first one where they co-headline, and it is great!
As a cult film, it has all of the factors that make it worthwhile (subtle sight gags, quotable lines, a stream of cameos, random tangent scenes (the Roscoe's Chicken and Waffle commercial), and satirical jabs (in this case the music video industry.)
Minor spoilers ahead:
My one complaint is that the ending could have been a little sharper. The final chase and apprehension of the politician's videotape should have been more suspensful, and I didn't buy the Swanky Modes' concert performance. Do you think a concert hall full of people waiting to see Menudo would be won over by one song by two aging R&B stars? Who knows. Maybe this was a subtle jab at Michael Nesmith's former band, who inexplicably gained a new following in the mid-'80s when MTV started airing episodes of "The Monkees" 3 times a day.
More than just a few similarities between these two 80's cult films.
Both have punk rock elements. Both have major settings in downtown LA's
industrial area in the 1980's, well before the arrival of loft
buildings and gentrification (post 2000). At that time, only misfits,
hard core artist types and homeless were living there. Both parody
media of the times, including music videos. (Repo Man specifically
skewering televangelists and Tapeheads specifically roasting self-help
types like Tony Robbins, or more likely Don LaPre.)
Both have goofball government agents chasing after the protagonists. Repo Man has The Circle Jerks doing bad lounge music in a dive bar. Tapeheads has Fishbone doing bad country music in a dive bar. Both have authority figures with "perverted" sex secrets (Tapeheads' Norman Mart with his spanking games, and Repo Man mentioning that John Wayne was gay.) Both films were produced by Michael Nesmith. (Sure The Nez must have been on familiar ground here with Fishman's script, just coming off Repo Man a few years prior.)
As others mentioned, director Bill Fishman employed a number of Cox's previous collaborators, including Zander Schloss, Xander Berkely and Courtney Love. So, was Fishman intentionally, slavishly copying Alex Cox with Tapeheads?
Honestly, I don't care, but the similarities are just so striking that I could not write a review of this film without mentioning them. If Repo Man is a 10, then Tapeheads, a similar take on LA in the 80's is an 8, the film's rating elevated largely by the game, appropriately goofy performances of Cusack and Robbins as the two leads. Cusack is really great in both comedy and drama, especially considering he would go on to a heavily dramatic (and successful)role in Stephen Frears' The Grifters only a couple years after this film.
It's not for everyone, and people use the term "quirky" far too much for my tastes. But this movie really is a quirkfest of the highest order and one of my personal fave pet movies.
(I should also note the similar plot point from Christopher Guest's movie The Big Picture, released about a year later, where the protagonist leaps from obscurity to fame after directing a no-budget, goofy music video which gets his name mentioned on MTV, by Richard Belzer of all people. Yet another element for me to confuse in my addled brain...wait, wasn't Richard Belzer in this movie? Oh no, that was The Big Picture!)
If you haven't stumbled across the movie, and you like Repo Man, early MTV or goofy 1980's comedies, you should check this out. And be on the watch for super brief cameos from Michael Nesmith, Weird Al Yankovic, Bobcat Goldthwait, Courtney Love and Jello Biafra. There's a cast list for ya, film fans.
Now, if you will excuse me, I'm really hungry and could do well right now with a Scoe's Special from Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There is a scene with a music executive watching a music video that consists of random shots of animals mixed with cleavage and butt shots of bikini clad girls. He loves it. Later on, a pretentious critic gives The Blender Children's new video, a funeral set to one of their songs, an emphatic thumbs up. Both videos were either slapped together or botched up. That is a good representation of the music video genre as a whole. As for the film, future A-listers Tim Robbins and John Cusack fool around in a punky film that could have been directed by Alex Cox. The film is uneven, as most punk films are, the movie jokes not being nearly as successful as the music video jokes. The scene where two girls square off with nun-chucks and switchblades just doesn't seem to fit and Clu Gulager's sex scandal politician sub-plot is left too far in the background. But nobody has ever roasted music videos as well as Tapeheads.
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