can't stop the music

There’s something odd about the trailer for Can’t Stop The Music. Actually, scratch that, there’s a lot that’s odd. But, as a writer, I noticed something odd about how the narrator introduced the film. After proclaiming this to be “the musical extravaganza that launches the 80s,” he then introduces the movie by saying, “It’s Allan Carr’s Can’t Stop The Music.” Typically, that apostrophe-S, possessive descriptor is reserved for the film’s director (especially so when the director also writes the script). 

But in this case, Carr was neither the director nor the writer, which got me wondering: what made this his film? What did the producer of Can’t Stop The Music get billing like that? Like I said: something odd. But after a little investigation into the making of one of Hollywood’s biggest flops, it makes complete sense. Here’s why…

Synopsis: A pseudo autobiographical account of how the disco group “Village People” was formed. The excitement begins when Samantha Simpson (Valerie Perrine) sets out to find a group of singers to perform songs written by her roommate, Jack Morrell (Steve Guttenberg). The resulting group—a biker, a cowboy, a construction worker, a police officer and an Indian—seems poised for success until complications arise.

Tagline: The Musical Comedy Smash of the 80’s!

The First Time (1969)

Part 1: Discoland

Like most stories involving Allan Carr, this one begins at a party. But surprisingly enough, this was not one thrown by Carr himself. Instead, this was a dinner party hosted by actress Jacqueline Bisset who ten years earlier had starred in The First Time (1969), a coming of age film that marked Carr’s debut as a film producer.

After a couple of intoxicating hours at this party, Allan Carr decided that it was time for him and several other partygoers to head on over to the Palladium and watch the taping of a weekly syndicated TV show called Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Hopping from one hot spot to another was de rigueur for Carr, but this evening’s lillypad leap was about more than just diversion. There was a business component and his objectives were twofold:

  • To see a performance by this hot new disco band called the Village People.
  • To meet with Henri Belolo and Jacques Morali, the French music producers who had conceived and “cast” the Village People.

At some point that evening, while dancing to hits like “Y.M.C.A.” and “In the Navy,” Carr was struck by a cinematic epiphany. “Instantly, I see a film,” he told his friends. “I want to do a movie musical with the Village People!” he told his friends.

While this may seem like an odd (and ill-fated) epiphany to have had, it was certainly one that wouldn’t have seemed that way to anyone who knew Carr. As a movie producer, he had taken Hollywood by storm just one year earlier a musical hit called Grease. As a publicist and manager, he was renowned for working with great talents (such as Tony Curtis, Peter Sellers and Ann-Margaret) and for discovering young stars (like Mark Hamill, Lisa Hartman and Olivia Newtown-John). So professionally, it wasn’t a stretch to think that a Village People movie could leverage disco fever and succeed at the box office. But there was a personal component as well. As an openly and enthusiastically gay man himself, Allan Carr loved what the Village People meant to the homosexual community; they were gay icons who subverted macho fantasy and celebrated a culture that too rarely was acknowledged (let alone celebrated).

Carr’s epiphany accelerated following his meeting with Belolo and Morali. After learning about how they had invented the Village People and recruited its members, Carr believe this origin story would be the perfect narrative engine for a film. And that film, this masterpiece-to-be, would be called Discoland

To write the script, Carr hired Bronte Woodard (who had written the screenplay for Grease) and Bruce Villanch (a versatile writer whose diverse skill set included writing jokes, newspaper articles, screenplays and musicals). After coming on board, Woodard and Villanch went to North Carolina where they wrote the first draft of Discoland, while enrolled at a weight loss center.

Meanwhile, Carr set out to find a leading lady for his film. Someone to play the role of Samantha Simpson, an endearing supermodel who helps her friend Jack Morell form the Village People. Carr’s first choice for the part was Jacqueline Bisset. After she turned down the role, it was then offered to Olivia Newton-John, who was lukewarm on the prospect. In addition to concerns about the script, she was also worried about the music. If she was going to play this part, she wanted her composer John Farrar to be brought on so that he could re-work the music. Belolo and Morali, however, shut down that idea; they had no interest in sharing any piece of the recording profits. As a result, Newton-John turned down the part. Given how hard Carr had fought to cast her in Grease, this greatly disappointed the producer. He would become even more disappointed (and angry) as Newton-John soon signed on to star in a different disco musical: Xanadu, which would come out the same summer as Carr’s Village People project.

Without Newton-John, Carr turned his attention to Cher. When that didn’t work out, he set his sights on Raquel Welch. This option seemed promising until David Hodo who played the Village People’s construction worker and had a background in musical theater, shared horror stories about Welch that led the group to nix this idea. With Welch out of the picture, Carr ended up casting Valerie Perrine, a beautiful blonde who had started the ‘70s as a Vegas showgirl and, by the end of the decade, had become an Academy Award-nominated actress.

Although the search for Discoland’s male lead involved much less back and forth, the casting process was no less interesting. As Steve Guttenberg recalls in his memoir, The Guttenberg Bible, his agent gave him some advice before the audition. “Whatever you do,” the agent cautioned, “Don’t be alone with Allan. He’s a grabber.” Below is a short excerpt from the book in which Guttenberg details the audition:

I tried not to notice that he wasn’t wearing underwear.

“Turn around. Let me see your tush.” I did. Is this what I have to do to get a job?

“Do you have any aversion to wearing a sock in your pants? Enough.” He clapped his hands like a sultan and his yes-men ushered me out.

With Perrine and Guttenberg on board, there was still one key part to cast: a stuffy lawyer named Ron White. The part ended up going to an incredibly well known “unknown”: Olympic hero Bruce Jenner. Later on, a journalist famously asked, “Bruce, why are you making this movie?” Jenner replied, “You can’t live on Wheaties alone.”

And in Allan Carr’s mind, Discoland was going to be way bigger than Wheaties, the Olympics and any musical that had ever been made. Discoland was going to be huge! So gigantic that before production even began Carr was compelled to throw “pre-first-anniversary” festivities, which consisted of several party’s to celebrate the film’s original tagline: Where The Music Never Ends.

Needless to say, everyone involved was feeling upbeat and enthusiastic when production on Discoland began in New York City on August 20, 1979. “But as soon as we started filming,” explains Neil Machalis, the executive producer, we ran into a problem…”

Continue Reading Can’t Stop The Music Oral History >>

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