Friday, September 24, 2010

Review – Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

September 24, 2010

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – U.S., 1970

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a parody of a film I’ve never seen, directed by a man whose other films I’m unfamiliar with, about a time and a scene I have very little connection with – not exactly the recipe for true viewing pleasure. Would I like it more if I had seen other Russ Meyer’s films or the movie it is parodying, 1967’s Valley of the Dolls? Would I then feel I were in on the joke? Perhaps. However, I have a feeling that my reaction to the film would still be much the same as it is for what masquerades as parody these days, films like Vampires Suck and Dance Movie. What’s the point? And Beyond the Valley of the Dolls strays so far from any recognizable point that a narrator has to come in towards the end of the film and explain in a rather omnipotent voice what viewers should have learned from the film. Perhaps this is part of the parody. Again, I don’t know enough about the social scene or the films that are being parodied to know for sure.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the screen play for which was written by noted film critic Roger Ebert, is primarily about three young ladies in an all-girl rock band called The Kelly Affair and their manager. Towards the beginning of the film, they decide to relocate to Los Angeles, hoping that such a move will enable them to break into the music scene. Kelly Mac Namara (Dolly Read) is the band’s lead singer, Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers) plays guitars and sings back-up, and Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom) sits behind them on drums. Their manager, Harris Allsworth (David Gurian), just happens to also be Kelly’s high school boyfriend. In Los Angeles, the four of them meet up with Kelly’s rich aunt, Susan Lake, who despite not recognizing Kelly at first decides rather quickly that she is entitled to a third of the money that Susan inherited upon the death of Kelly’s mother. It’s a rather generous move that raises the ire of Susan’s lawyer, Porter Hall, who is understandably distracted by all of the half-naked models that surround him on a daily basis. Aunt Susan, deeply involved in the fashion industry, invites Kelly and her friends to a party being thrown by Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, who we learn is very influential in the music industry. If you imagine the party scene from Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s and add cross-dressers, lecherous old men, nudity, sex, and drugs, you’ll have a good idea what Barzell’s parties are like. As for Kelly, she seems liberated by her new surroundings; Harris, on the other hand, feels increasingly alienated by it.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls depicts life at warp speed. The Kelly Affair, now called The Carrie Nations, achieves success incredibly quickly, and Kelly and Petronella seem to start relationships the moment they bump into someone they like. Both ladies also sleep with men that they don’t particularly care for, although for very different reasons. If this all seems rather unrealistic, remember that this is parody – It’s not meant to reflect real life. People who begin to question how realistic it all is are missing the point. It’s like criticizing The Dukes of Hazzard for not being a modern-day classic when all it aspires to be is a low-brow comedy. I’m not exactly sure what Russ Meyer wanted Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to be, but I doubt he had visions of it ever being declared a modern-day Casablanca. People who argue that the film includes too many clichés are missing the point. The clichés are intended.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has been described as a horror film, a comedy, a drama, and a sex film all rolled up in one – an apt description in my opinion. Those who like films like this will undoubtedly see some genius in it. The film is well-acted and contains some pretty good rock songs. While I did not break into laughter much, I could recognize moments that were intended to be funny, and I’m sure that if I were more familiar with Russ Meyer’s films, I would have been laughing as well. And perhaps this is the film’s greatest obstacle. Because it is a parody of something that is not easily recognized by modern-day audiences, its appeal may be greatly diminished. Compare the film to the Austin Powers films or even 1992’s Brain Donors. Even if viewers are unfamiliar with the early Bond films or the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, they are still likely to find humor in those films. Would someone watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the first time cold be able to appreciate it or understand some of its references? I’m not so sure.

I find myself wanting to like the film, but ultimately being unable to. The film simple didn’t grab me enough, and I ultimately didn’t care how it all ended. Is it as bad as some capsule reviews have made it out to be? No, it isn’t. It has some interesting characters, in particular, Barzell, one of those larger-than-life characters that perhaps only exist in movies. He quotes Shakespeare incessantly, speaks in highly exaggerated mannerisms, and is full of very infectious energy. John Lazar has a great time playing the role, and he is a lot of fun to watch. I also liked James Inglehart as the Ali-esque heavyweight champion of the world, Randy Black. In his first scene, practically everything that comes out of his mouth contains a boxing reference. In addition, the film’s observations about how success, drugs, and sex can change people are spot-on. However, they will not be revelations to anyone who has seen much more powerful depictions of drug abuse, such as Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. An unfair comparison – I know, but I just can’t help myself. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

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