Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Times Square (1980) with Trini Alvarado

I like Times Square (1980) in large measure due to the amazing soundtrack album.

The 2-record set was something I remember looking at in department stores in 1980 when the movie was tanking in theaters and I was becoming more aware of non-mainstream music.

In 1980, when I was 13, I didn't know anyone who would have taken me to see the film; I think that the new wave/punk soundtrack is probably one of the reasons that I figured that neither of my parents would have much patience to sit through the movie. And the R rating of the film prevented me from having my grandparents drop me off at the theater to see it on my own.

I was certainly aware of Trini Alvarado. I might have seen her on television prior to the film but I vividly remember a scene from her 1979 film Rich Kids as shown on "Sneak Previews with Siskel and Ebert". As I was a nerdy 12-year-old boy in 1979 who never missed that show on PBS, the clip of the cute and naturally beautiful girl near my age certainly captivated me as an adolescent.

When I finally saw the film years later on television, I realized what a mess it was: too earnest to be an exploitation flick, despite being set in the titular Times Square; too much like an "ABC Afterschool Special" to be taken seriously as a straight drama by even a 13-year-old; too silly in parts to appeal to older audiences who might like the drama between the two female leads; and so on.

But, despite all of those problems, I still like the film.

In 1987, I worked at the Record and Tape Exchange in College Park, Maryland. I tried to get the owner to buy some copies of the Times Square (1980) soundtrack on LP but he balked as the LP was a ubiquitous cut-out for a spell.

I tried to convince him because the soundtrack to Valley Girl (1983) was such a big financial hit on vinyl at that time, sometimes fetching up to $40 for us and even more at other shops in D.C..

He didn't believe me until I called one of those rivals (Orpheus in Georgetown) and got a quote on what they were selling the LP for. The owner was convinced. He bought some copies. They sold and he made a profit and I felt like my good taste had been vindicated.

But, money aside, it's a great record. Look at this track listing!

Suzi Quatro "Rock Hard"
The Pretenders "Talk Of The Town"
Roxy Music "Same Old Scene"
Gary Numan "Down In The Park" -- originally a Tubeway Army song!
Marcy Levy and Robin Gibb "Help Me!"
Talking Heads "Life During Wartime"
Joe Jackson "Pretty Boys"
XTC "Take This Town"
The Ramones "I Wanna Be Sedated"
Robin Johnson "Damn Dog"
Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado "Your Daughter Is One"
The Ruts "Babylon's Burning"
D.L. Byron "You Can't Hurry Love"
Lou Reed "Walk On The Wild Side"
Desmond Child and Rouge "The Night Was Not"
Garland Jeffreys "Innocent, Not Guilty"
The Cure "Grinding Halt"
Patti Smith Group "Pissing In The River"
David Johansen and Robin Johnson "Flowers In The City"
Robin Johnson "Damn Dog (Reprise - The Cleo Club)"

Apart from a few bits of filler, and the songs written for the film, there are some seminal punk and new wave cuts on that record!

In 1980, those bands were ones I had just read about, at most. By 1981, I was reading Creem magazine and by late 1982, I was listening to WHFS in the D.C. area and I finally heard tracks by most of those bands.

And my favorite band seems to have had similar good taste; the Manic Street Preachers covered "Damn Dog" on their first LP, Generation Terrorists. They also recorded a single, "Roses in the Hospital", that was inspired by dialogue from the film. Additionally, band member Nicky Wire has dressed like the characters during live performances, his eyes covered in greasepaint in tribute to the raccoon-like bandit masks worn by the characters in the film.

Robin Johnson plays streetwise Nicky Marotta. That Ms. Johnson's performance reminds one of "Cousin Geri" on TV's "The Facts of Life" is probably not a good thing; whether she intended to recall a mentally retarded Mick Jagger or not doesn't matter as the performance largely distracts from the rest of the film.

Trini Alvarado plays Pammy Pearl, the daughter of a city commissioner (Peter Coffield) in charge of cleaning up Times Square, a task eventually accomplished by Rudy Giuliani. The guy's a hypocrite and that hypocrisy drives his 13-year-old daughter a bit insane -- or so the plot implies.

Trini takes comfort in the voice of slick DJ Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry). The DJ supports the two main characters and uses them to further his own goals (though that bit is underwritten).

The sequence where the gals break-out of a mental hospital is a thrilling one. As Nicky blares "I Wanna Be Sedated" on her boombox, the scene seems to find the life-affirming joy at the heart of that punk rock classic by The Ramones. Before grunge and goth, "alternative" music really did sometimes provide a spark of exuberance to counter the formulaic crap of the Eighties Top 40 landscape.

The girls find an abandoned building on the docks and take it over like a female version of Ratzo and Joe Buck from Midnight Cowboy (1968).

Meanwhile, DJ Johnny is relaying messages to the girls from Pammy's father since it looks like Pammy was kidnapped and Nicky has a shady background.

In the film's most inexplicable scene, the 13-year-old Pammy -- Trini was born in 1967, according to online sources -- gets a job as a fully clothed stripper at a dive bar in NYC. The scene is weird and, like many sequences here, feels badly edited as if some big plot points have been skipped over or thrown onto the cutting room floor.

The girls perform a "punk" song, "Your Daughter Is One", that sounds a bit like Patti Smith, at the radio station. How the two got into the station despite all of the cops and psychiatrists looking for Pammy is never explained.

The big problem with Times Square (1980) is that it's not only hokey and melodramatic but badly put together. Every time I watch it, I feel like scenes are out of order, or that something is missing.

The whole final sequence where Nicky and Pammy have a fight and Pammy suddenly gets well, or wants to return to normal, is so ineptly presented as to confuse even a viewer who has seen the film before.

Supposedly, a more obvious lesbian subtext was jettisoned from the film but the problem is really scenes of dramatic import with no build-up. Suddenly, it's a melodrama and suddenly Nicky realizes she is sick and the DJ is alternating between supporting the Sleez Sisters (Nicky and Pammy's alter-egos) or he's helping the authorities bring in the girl after he promotes her final Times Square rooftop concert at midnight.

That is to say nothing of the weird scene where Pammy's father finds her but makes little effort to bring her home with him. She's 13 and more or less alone in 1980's Times Square. So much for good parenting.

That said, it's hard to hate the film despite its many, many problems. Trini Alvarado remains a charming presence. She brings a real humanity to the film even while Johnson mugs it up a bit.

And any film that opens and closes with Roxy Music's "Same Old Scene" over shots of a long-gone Times Square sea of grindhouse theater marquees is hard to hate -- look fast for marquees touting The Dark (1979) and Paul Naschy's The House of Psychotic Women (1976).

Yes, Times Square (1980) fails on many levels but I still love it.