When Universal Pictures signed on for The Gong Show Movie, show creator Chuck Barris could have simply taken the money and run. With that title, all people would have expected was a feature-length version of the show with the barest semblance of story. Instead, Barris enlisted the help of underground legend Robert Downey Sr. and made his own industry-skewering slob comedy approximation of 8 1/2. Critics of the time hated it as much as they hated the television show but the funky, loose-limbed results have aged surprisingly well.
The Gong Show Movie goes the postmodern route a few decades ahead of schedule by having Barris play himself in a comic-nightmare version of his own life. In this alternate universe, The Gong Show is a hit but Barris is burning out. Producing the show is a grind, he’s got a snide network executive named Didlo (James B. Douglas) constantly breathing down his neck and, worst of all, he’s constantly besieged by wacko aspiring entertainers and critics wherever he goes. When the daily hustle puts a strain on his relationship with long-suffering lover Red (Robin Altman), Barris finds himself taking desperate measures to take control of his life… and the answer might not be what he expects.
The resulting film was controversial, to say the least: it was lambasted in the press, barely played in theaters at all and was never issued on home video in any format in the U.S. until Shout! Factory picked it up for blu-ray release. It also seems to be terribly misunderstood. The critics regularly accuse it of being a cheap, self-aggrandizing cash-in. It’s actually a self-deprecating work in which Barris uses his opportunity to make a movie to satirize his show and himself much like The Gong Show satirized the variety show format.
The Gong Show Movie has a loose “week in the life” structure that is offset with plenty of gags. Some might call it repetitive because the gags resolve around a few recurring themes (the top one being people constantly accosting Barris with impromptu additions) but this approach works because the variations on these themes are colorful and Barris and Downey spice them up with bits of loopy satire.
One of the highlights is an extended sequence where Barris visits a contestant who suffered a heart attack during the shooting of a Gong Show episode in the hospital: his show is critiqued by the nurses, the patient leaps up from his bed to audition a new act and an attempt to talk with the patient’s doctor results in said doctor giving his own audition. It ends up being very funny because the film never strains to get the laughs, instead taking a quietly loopy, deadpan and sometimes surreal approach to the humor.
Barris happens to be a pretty decent director, achieving a solid pace and deploying some nice steadicam shots (actually, Downey directed half of the film before Barris took over so he deserves kudos as well). He also wrote the song score, which includes a dazzling climactic number used for a scene that sends up the “all-cast final number” often seen in traditional movie musicals. Best of all, there are plenty of choice clips from Gong Show auditions and episode shoots that are uncensored, including an eye-popping clip of the infamous “popsicle twins,” Jaye P. Morgan shocking the audience by flashing them and brief appearances by a young Taylor Negron and Kitten Natividad. Also, look out for a quick one-scene role by a young Phil Hartman late in the film.
In short, The Gong Show Movie is a schlock time capsule par excellance, delivering a singular mix of gleefully trashy laughs and a fun sendup of the “woe is me” showbiz autobiography that is liberally laced with the outsider art of Gong Show segments. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, you need to see this movie.
Blu-Ray Notes: Shout! Factory rescued this title from home video oblivion with a new blu-ray edition. The transfer quality is solid throughout, with the vintage color scheme coming through nicely and even the videotape-transferred-to-film Gong Show segments looking better than expected. The original mono mix is presented in lossless form and offers a clean, effectively-mixed vintage soundtrack.
There is only one extra here but it’s a good one: a commentary track by author and pop culture historian Russell Dyball. It’s a highly informative piece that supplies background info on the film, including extensive quotes from Barris’s autobiography, and plentiful biographical details on the cast and various Gong Show regulars. It also has some subtle, smartly crafted critical commentary on the film. In short, a great listen for fans of the show and anyone interested in this cult curio of a film.