When it was first released in 1980, Times Square was kind of a big deal – a ‘punk rock’ movie that was given a lot of attention by the British music press and desperate to be cool media – from Radio 1 DJs to Time Out – and which had a popular soundtrack album. Similarly, it was widely dismissed by older critics and didn’t make a lot of money. So perfect cult movie material.
It’s odd, then, to see how quickly the film fell from grace, it’s cult movie status diminishing rather more rapidly than most of its contemporaries. While the film has maintained (and even built) a following, it’s surprising how little known it seems to be. Hopefully, this new release will go some way to raising its profile, because although the film is not quite the masterpiece some had suggested, it’s definitely an interesting slice of youth cinema – and now, a fascinating historical time capsule. In a world where the clean up of Times Square that the film posits has actually happened, stripping away the sleazy grindhouses, porn theatres, sex shops and other edgy elements in favour of a Disneyfied experience that might be safer but is certainly duller, this is a remarkably poignant look at a place where the misfits, the runaways and the outcasts could call home.
Times Square tells the story of teenage runaway Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson), who lives a life out on the streets and has a knack for getting into trouble. Taken to a psychiatric unit for evaluation, she meets Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvardo), the repressed daughter of an ambitious politician who is on a ‘clean up Times Square’ mission. The two become unlikely friends, Nicky bringing out a sense of confidence in Pammie as she teaches her the ropes of survival in this institution and then encourages her to join her in breaking out. The pair soon are on the run in New York, with Pamela’s father reporting her as kidnapped even as the pair deck out an abandoned warehouse as an ultra-hip art palace. DJ Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry) becomes a vocal supporter of the girls, having previously received letters from Pamela describing herself as a ‘zombie girl’ – he can see that she is being liberated from her empty life, and begins to talk about the girls almost as if they are mythical rebels. Nicky’s move into music (with the excellent Iggy Pop-inspired punk number Damn Dog) only emphasises this, and before long the pair have been reinvented as as The Sleez Sisters, inspiring a generation of teenage girls to question and rebel. But after a while, cracks begin to appear in their relationship…
Allan Moyle’s film is a fascinating – if very flawed – tale of teenage rebellion and self-discovery, sprinkled with references to the Patty Hearst story (like Patty, Pammie is a ‘kidnap’ victim who becomes one with the ‘kidnapper’ and rebels against her bourgeois existence) and very much of its time. The film is lighter than you might expect – the coverage at the time suggested something gritty and grim, but there’s a lot of fun in this movie, with the two lead characters having a sense of joy and freedom for much of the movie that is infectious. And interestingly, it acts as a validation of the people who populated Times Square – all too often portrayed as a violent, dangerous hellhole, here it is a place for the misfits of the world to gather and look out for each other – a twilight world that is certainly edgy, but the only place some people have. Of course, with the gentrification of the area, these people will have been ethnically cleansed. While I imagine it has worked wonders for New York’s crime figures, you can’t help but feel that every major city needs at least one space that is seedy, sordid and exciting. No one will be able to convince me that things are improved the removal of neon signs and theatre marquees advertising Snuff, Screams of a Winter Night and other such cinematic debris.
Of course, Times Square is not the movie it should be. Seeing Robert Stigwood’s name on the credits, fresh from Saturday Night Fever, Grease and the disastrous Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band doesn’t bode well for an authentic punk rock experience, and director Moyle left the film before it was completed, leading to a rather schizophrenic edit that shifts direction from one character to another (and even attempts to move the emphasis onto Curry’s supporting character at one point) while ensuring that the music soundtrack is… erm… interesting. While Moyle integrates a lot of recent punk and new wave music into the film – from The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Cure, XTC, Lou Reed and Patti Smith to Suzi Quatro‘s Rock Hard (the girls’ favourite record, apparently), the film also has some terrible disco inserted into the soundtrack, none more grating than Robin Gibb and Marcy Levy dueting on Down in the Park over the closing credits, a ghastly piece of music that feels like a slap in the face for anyone who has enjoyed the film. Also deleted are the lesbian scenes, and so the film now has a certain ambiguity regarding the sexuality of the lead characters – though it’s still pretty clear that the girls are more than just friends.
These changes mean that the film seems compromised, but taken on its own level, it’s still an impressive work. It’s got a genuine street-level atmosphere and even in the music isn’t always on the ball, the movie itself has a real punk rock ethos running throughout with the rebellion and the cry for non-conformity. And the two leads are impressive – Johnson is especially good as the streetwise, possibly genuinely psychotic and vulnerable Nicky, while Alvarado is convincing as the poor little rich girl who has a rebellious adventure even though you know she’ll eventually return to the place she belongs. They keep the film from sliding into sentimentality, and Johnson really should’ve had a better career as either an actress or a rock star.
A great punk rock movie, teen flick and historical artefact, Times Square deserves to be better known than it is. If you enjoy the punk cinema of the period, this will definitely be a movie you’ll want to snap up.