Capitalism has come for the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but all is not lost. Some of the parts of the production were worth it–like the soundtrack.
As a child of liberals in the late 70s, I grew up exposed to media crying about how the 60s hippie movement, the “revolution” had been undermined, packaged and commodified by the capitalist system. “Peace and Love, sold at $5 a pop,” said a friends mom, as we spent our allowances on peace sign iron-ons for our jean jackets. Perhaps they were trying to teach us that capitalism is evil. Instead it taught me that capitalism is so powerful it can absorb anything thrown at it, by spitting it back out, repackaged with the rough edged sanded down and the coat lacquered shiny for the next generation to spend their chore money on.
The latest “rebellion” to undergo this experience was last night’s Rocky Horror Picture Show. Kristen will be here later to talk about all the things that were wrong with it as a production, but I was struck by the what was good–and how those good things were part and parcel with the production missing the point.
First and foremost: the music. The music was good. if you’ve ever wanted to own the soundtrack of RHPS sung surprisingly well, go buy it this morning, care of your local music retailers. Even Brad and Janet were sung well. Laverne Cox as Frankenfurter is a revelation. Of course, as I said, this misses the point of why RHPS was so beloved by teens in the 1980s and early 90s. We loved that movie because it was not sung well. That meant we could sing along and not feel bad that we sucked.Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Steve Wilkie/FOX
Next up: the costumes. The original RHPS movie’s costumes are a complete trainwreck, with cheap bustiers that don’t fit, torn fishnets and stuff that looks like it was found in a truck at the back of the theater. None of that here! Laverne Cox’s costumes are lush. They are to die for. There are professional cosplay crafters studying the film to figure out how to make it at home. And once again, it misses the point. In 1992, a fourteen year old wants to be able to get away with playing Janet with whatever they found in mom’s closet–and cheap bustiers are transgressive and naughty and dirty. There is nothing naughty and dirty about anything worn in this production. The assumption is that the cosplay hobbiests and the costume professionals will be doing the imitating nowadays.
Then there was the conceit of having the audience “watch” along with those at home, in order to attempt to explain the midnight showing phenomenon that sprung up around this movie to a new generation. This may have been the part that fell flattest, even as it attempted to explain the unexplainable. How does one try to explain to a child that at their age, the internet didn’t exist yet? That chat rooms were still five to ten years out, that finding your people far flung across the internet in 1989 was not actually possible for the average non conformist freak, and that the only way to find those like you, and be among your people was to attend one of these showings?
But the real reason to tune in last night, at least for me, was to see if the movie could and would update itself for a world where trans folks are now visible in the mainstream. The original RHPS was made in 1974, when to be gay was to be seen as having a mental disorder, and illegal across the country. To be trans…basically didn’t exist to most people. I know when I saw the movie for the first time in the early 1990s, I only vaguely knew of “transvestites” as something to do with gay people and AIDS. Tim Curry’s performance for me was akin to the other movie I saw him in that year, Legend, where he plays a classic Devil on two foot stilts. Neither of these characters were anything to do with the real world as it was presented to me as an eighth grader.Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Miranda Penn Turin/FOX
Nowadays, eighth graders are routinely presented with the concept of “transgender” as merely another way of life in an entire spectrum of choices that include “pansexual,” “omnisexual” and other options along with the now traditional and mainstream married gay lifestyle. Children who recognize themselves as born in the wrong body, are encouraged to express it as early as elementary school. The word “transvestite” is no longer an accepted term. So to have a transgender person play the role, how does that change it?
Quite a lot, it turns out, and that alone made for a show worth tuning in for. Yes, the dirt was scrubbed. Yes the edges were removed, and the transgressive nature of the film made shiny and rock and roll pop for a modern Glee-ified audience. But the real fundamental change was Cox. I could quibble about her line readings all day long, and there were points where I missed Curry’s dramatically over the top Dragqueen-esque behavior. But having a man who is a woman playing the role gave it a far more gender confused twist to the sexuality–one could suddenly really see where both Brad and Janet were attracted to this and why that confused them both so badly. If the raw nature of the original had been allowed to come through, there were the makings of a truly dangerous film to play at 8am on a school night on Network Television.
But with all that sex removed, the show just left Cox with the choice to knock every musical number dead, and that she did. Even some of the ones that make no sense towards the end of the show. Don’t dream it, be it? That’s fine, but no sex please. And that will be $11.99 for the soundtrack.