In 1980, the disco musical Can’t Stop the Music was released to a combination of indifference and ridicule. Arriving too late to cash in on the disco boom, the film flopped badly. In this sense, it was no different to several musicals and disco-themed films that appeared at the end of the 1970s and into the Eighties – Roller Boogie, Xanadu, The Apple and so on. These days, Can’t Stop the Music has a small cult following of people who marvel at how camp the film is, even thoughts a story, it often seems blissfully unaware of just how blatantly gay its central act is.
To understand the reason why this book exists, we have to briefly examine two short-lived phenomena of the late 1970s – The Village People and the photo novel.
The Village People were a manufactured disco act put together by producer Henri Belolo, with the specific intention of appealing to the gay community. They were signed to Casablanca Records, and like label mates Kiss, they all adopted specific personas – in this case, a collection of overtly macho, moustached gay stereotypes and fantasy figures like the weatherman, the construction worker, the Indian, the cop and so on. The group had huge hits with Y.M.C.A. and In the Navy – which crossed to the mainstream where many people seemed blissfully unaware of the gay subtext in both the songs and the group’s visual style. What can I say? It was a more innocent time.
The Village People’s day in the sun was pretty much over by the time the film appeared, and things weren’t helped by the fact that lead singer Victor Willis had left the group shortly before production began; he was replaced by backing singer Ray Simpson, and after this film tanked, the group tried to reinvent themselves with a New Romantic style. Over the next few years, they would undergo various musical and line up changes, but other than minor hit Sex Over the Phone, they never again troubled the public consciousness.
Also big between 1978 and 1980 was the concept of the photo novel, film tie-ins that straddled the divide between novelisations and comic book adaptations. These books used photo frame grabs and either captions or speech bubbles to offer a visual version of the movie. It was a fairly short-lived idea – while comic books could translate a film’s visuals into something original and dynamic, the stills rarely captured the impact of the movie – without the ‘motion’ part, it turns out that motion pictures are not that exciting. And the photo novel also depended on a leap of faith, with the publishers having to take a guess at which films would be big hits. They are only occasionally correct, and the number of forgettable flops and films that hardly worked on a primarily visual level (The Champ, for instance)that were picked up for the format – which, being printed in colour on glossy paper, was rather more expensive than a standard novel – quickly consigned it to the dustbin of history.
Can’t Stop the Music was another flop film, but at least this book – published by Pinnacle – is printed in black and white on standard rough paperback novel paper, with a sixteen page colour section in the middle. The plot is a highly fictionalised version of how the Village People were formed – in this case, put together by retired supermodel Samantha Simpson, played by Valerie Perrine. Also in the cast are Steve Guttenberg as a DJ and songwriter, and Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner as Perrine’s romantic interest.
The film is a bizarre mishmash of unfunny comedy and musical numbers, clearly inspired by – but a million miles away from in terms on entertainment value – the ‘star is born’ musicals of the past. Whatever appeal it had depended on the music and dance routines, and of course, this book has neither of those. Also missing are the brief shots of naked men and Valerie Perrine romping topless in the bath with the band during the Y.M.C.A. scene – moments unlikely to appear in PG rated films today.
Without the Village People music and the colourful spectacle of the film, the Can’t Stop the Music photo novel would seem, on the face of it, to be a remarkably pointless idea. Like the film it was based on, it quickly vanished into obscurity. Looked at now though, it’s not unamusing, if only for some of the ridiculously kitsch still shots and weird captioning. As a photo novel, it actually works a little better than most photo novels, simply because it has the look and feel of a photo romance strip – it it ridiculous and trashy, but on that level, it does work in some strange way. And what’s obvious from this is just how much fun the group – not all of whom were actually gay – were having camping it up shamelessly. As a high-camp souvenir, this is well worth looking out for.