Book Review: Music on Film: The Rocky Horror Picture Show by Dave Thompson

As Roger Ebert so memorably put it a few years ago, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not so much as movie as more of a long-running social phenomenon.” Indeed, there has never been (and likely never will be) a movie which has inspired such fan devotion. It has now been nearly 40 years since the original stage production of Rocky, yet it remains as weirdly fresh as ever.

When the film version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released on VHS in the ’80s, I assumed that the whole midnight movie thing would end. After all, owning it meant that you could watch it anytime you chose, over and over. Was I ever wrong on that one! What I had failed to take into account was just how important the audience is to the whole Rocky experience.

More than anything else, it is the fans who make each Rocky Horror Picture Show screening so special. Although the “midnight movie” idea had been around for some time prior, there had never anything like this. How many of us walked in for our first viewing, only to be taunted by a packed house as “virgins?” Even though I had been cautioned by my friends to expect the unexpected, I was still pretty stunned by the event. Watching The Blue Lagoon (1980) was certainly nothing like this. But, as Marti DeBergi (Rob Reiner) put it in This Is Spinal Tap (1984), “Enough of my yakkin’; whaddaya say? Let’s boogie!”

What the recently launched Music On Film book series does is discuss various movies whose soundtracks are intrinsic to the picture at hand. In fact, the previously mentioned Spinal Tap was one of the first entries in the series. Author Dave Thompson takes us through the various permutations of the Rocky Horror phenomenon. As a native Brit, Thompson was a perfect choice for this project. There is quite a bit of history to the film that a lot of Stateside viewers may be unaware of.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show began as a stage show, at a tiny Kings Road theatre on June 19, 1973. It was a humble beginning, the house had a capacity of just 63 people. Rocky Horror was so original that it received an inordinate amount of press, especially from the hip music rags. I am certain that the glam-rock connection didn’t hurt things either. Thompson shies away from this connection, but think about it. In 1973, androgyny was the coolest thing going in England. Portraying a sweet transvestite on a London stage may have been edgy, but the Ziggy Stardust girls understood.

Rocky got noticed, so much so that 20th Century Fox green-lit a film version of it, which appeared in 1975. As every fan knows, it was a box-office bomb. The studio executives quickly distanced themselves from it, in fact, many of them were embarrassed that the film had been made at all.

Then the midnight screenings began, and all hell broke loose. The late-night movie concept was a smart idea even before Rocky caught on. Take a film with a “cult” audience (read small, but hip), and show it at midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. The crowd was mainly college kids, watching such fare as Pink Flamingos (1972), or a stoned-out concert flick like Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972) – and suddenly you had a packed house. Plus, the snack bar did incredible business.

Still, one has to wonder – why The Rocky Horror Picture Show? There are many others that could have made the cut. For a while, Eraserhead (1977) was a contender, and there were plenty of others “weirdos“ to choose from as well. Thompson makes the argument that it was the music that really drove things home, and it is hard not to agree. The songs made the movie, and the movie made the songs.

I guess it depends on your level of devotion to Rocky Horror, but for me – the tunes don’t really work too well outside of the movie. With a book in a series titled Music On Film, the writer is bound too spend a great deal of time discussing the tunes. And there are some great ones here. “Science Fiction / Double Feature,” “Time Warp,” and “Sweet Transvestite” to name just a few.

In terms of physical size, there is a uniformity to the Music On Film series. They are not much bigger than a standard jewel-case CD, yet the books hold some cool, and obscure information. The pictures of rare, and very cool memorabilia is a nice inclusion. But the majority of the text is devoted to the amazing shelf-life the whole thing has had over nearly 40 years.

Besides discussing the early stage production and midnight movie phenomenon, Thompson gets into some of the later stage versions. For example, I was previously unaware of the fact that during the Broadway run, the producers hired Joan Jett to play the character of Columbia/Usherette.

Music On Film: The Rocky Horror Picture Show will obviously appeal to fans of the movie, but for those on the fringes, it is a pretty easy introduction to the whole thing as well. Remember, “Don’t Dream It, Be It.”

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Greg Barbrick

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