Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, April 7, 2017

NO ENCORES: The Gong Show Movie (1980)

1. The Gong Show Movie (1980)
Director: Chuck Barris

When Chuck Barris died last month, I was genuinely sad. I've long been fascinated by Barris' career. He had aspirations of being a respected artist. Yet his biggest claim to fame was as host of a program considered by some to be the worst television show ever made. Even then, “The Gong Show” was better than its reputation suggested. It was both a celebration/condemnation of dumb-asses doing dumb-ass shit and a subversive upheaval of seventies television conventions. Barris himself had mixed feelings about the show, which manifested in his novels and (total bullshit but fascinating) autobiography. This inner conflict also motivated Harris to write, direct, produce and star in “The Gong Show Movie.” The film flopped hard at the box office and wouldn't receive a home media release until 35 years later. Unsurprisingly, it would be Chuckie Baby's sole foray into film making.

“The Gong Show Movie” is another highly fictionalized autobiographical work from Chuck Barris. The film follows a week in Barris' life. It concerns his struggles with running the Gong Show, as the censors are constantly breathing down his neck and networks threaten to cancel the series. His hosting duties have brought him fame but now people won't leave him alone, as folks constantly pester him for auditions. He also receives negative attention, as some people hate him. He has doubts about running a show based around people humiliating themselves. All of this is putting pressure on his romantic relationship with a pretty redhead. Soon enough, Chuckie Baby is heading towards a mental breakdown.

Due to its general unavailability, I read a lot about “The Gong Show Movie” before I ever got a chance to actually see it. From what I read about the movie, and what I knew about Barris' writing, “The Gong Show Movie” sounded like a weird mix of hacky shtick and existential despair. Which is not inaccurate but also makes the movie sound more interesting than it really is. “The Gong Show Movie” does concern Barris' deeply conflicted feelings about his celebrity status and his most famous program. Yet it never dives deep into that misery. It doesn't explore the deal with the devil Barris made, getting famous by making a stage for people to humiliate themselves. Instead, “The Gong Show Movie” floats just above these feelings. The tone is kept goofy and light. The result is not a film that springs between different tones, like I expected. Instead, it's a movie that handles a serious topic in a deeply inappropriate manner.

Mostly, “The Gong Show Movie” is a staggering act of self-indulgence. I know “The Gong Show” was popular. I know it made Chuck Barris a recognizable figure. Yet “The Gong Show Movie” portrays Barris as an Elvis-style mega-celebrity. He can't walk down the street without someone auditioning for his TV show. He gets recognized everywhere he goes, even in the middle of nowhere. People break into his house to get revenge on gonged acts. Barris writes himself an attractive girlfriend, who loves him so totally that their inevitable separation comes off as totally phoned-in. The heat he receives from the network censors is portrayed as nonstop. Barris basically portrays himself as famous, successful, beloved but deeply persecuted. In other words, “The Gone Show Movie” serves his ego above everything else.

Yet it must be said that “The Gong Show Movie” is occasionally interesting. Barris actually does okay as a first time director. The film features likably surreal moments. Such as when Chuck Barris' morning ritual is contrasted with “Gong Show” regulars waking up. The two guys in one suit stagger out of bed together. Jaye P. Morgan lays in a giant, heart-shaped bed. The Unknown Comic wears his bag to bed. His girlfriend wears a bag too. Barris also employs a cinema verite approach, recording what are probably genuine backstage auditions with shaky, naturalistic camerawork. Barris' use of editing is intriguing too, as audio from one scene will often drift over into the next. “The Gong Show Movie” may be a work of total hubris but Barris had potential as a filmmaker.

Even as an actor, Chuck Barris does an okay job. I guess the guy was used to being in front of a camera by this point. If it wasn't already obvious, “The Gong Show Movie” also makes it clear that Barris was playing a character as the host of the Gong Show. The stoned out, hat-wearing “Chuck Barris” that appeared on the Gong Show stage was an assumed persona. When playing himself here, Barris is usually compelling. He has a nice nervous energy that even occasionally gets a laugh out of the audience. With his wrinkles and graying Jewfro, Barris hardly looks like a traditional leading man but his talents are enough to keep the audience watching this movie.

“The Gong Show Movie” is entirely Chuck Barris' story and leaves little room for other performers. Barris' real life wife Robin Altman, in her sole screen credit, plays the fictional Barris' love interest. Altman is hampered by the unfocused script but she shows some potential as a performer. James B. Douglas, a character actor with a long career, plays the snooty network censor with some flair. The movie is filmed with cameos from then-famous folks and people who would be famous some day. Phil Hartman has a bizarre bit part as a man boarding an airplane while carrying a gun. Rip Taylor appears a waiter in a kitchen, doing his usual thing. Vincent Schiaveli shows up as the guy who attempts to kill Barris before being talked into appearing on the show. Rosey Grier, Jamie Farr, Danny DeVito and Kitten Natividad all appear as either Gong Show contestants or judges.

Unsurprisingly, “The Gong Show Movie” was not sold as an intensely private scream from the darkest pits of Chuck Barris' soul. Instead, the movie was mostly advertised by promising audiences a look at the many Gong Show acts that got censored by the network. So we see people swear or get nude on the stage, in what is clearly real footage. Among these cut acts are old favorites like the Popsicle Twins or the Vatican Rag. And, of course, lots of Gene-Gene the Dancing Machine and the Unknown Comic. You'd probably expect this from something called “The Gong Show Movie.” Sadly, unless you're a super fan of the series, you're unlikely to get too much out of this stuff. And there's a lot of it too, the recycled footage probably making up about a third of the run time.

You know the weirdest thing about “The Gong Show Movie,” aside from it existing in the first place? It's a musical! Considering Barris' background in songwriting, I suppose it's not too surprising he included some songs. The songs are strange. With his country and western band, Barris performs an upbeat number called “Oh Lord, Why Me?” The movie opens with, and later reprises, a number called “It Doesn't Pay to Get Up,” a rather drearily sung piece. The climax to “The Gong Show Movie” features Barris' friends singing a song to him called “Don't Get Up for Me.”  While the music upbeat, the lyrics hint at Barris' depression. Which makes it an odd song to end the movie on.

I had hoped “The Gong Show Movie” would be a deeply weird movie, a miscalculated by fascinating affair made by a man in crisis. And it's sort of that. Mostly, the film's commitment to cornball comedy and Barris self-rhapsodizing makes “The Gong Show Movie” a bit of a slog to get through. Occasionally, something strange or interesting emerges from it. The movie will certainly give you a peak at what an odd, fascinating guy Barris was. Yet its obscurity and unavailability probably made the movie sound more intriguing than it actually is. “Gong Show” super-fans may love it but I doubt anyone else will be especially compelled by it. His sole directional credit isn't very good but I'll always think of Chuck Barris as an odd, interesting guy. [5/10]

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