1980 and the Death of the Disco Musical

What happened to the disco musical?
Landon Palmer

The Apple

The musical possesses a unique form of power rarely afforded to other Hollywood genres. In the words of film scholar Rick Altman, “The musical invites us to forget familiar notions of plot, psychological motivation, and causal relationships.” In contrast to other commercial genres, the musical is almost one-of-a-kind in its ability to arrest time and space, to suspend disbelief, to defy our lived understanding of human relationships and even the very conventions of filmgoing. In what other mainstream genre can fictional characters get away with looking into the camera lens so often? Dramatic logic is replaced in the Hollywood musical by spectacle and raw emotional appeal, with singing as the defining device for such purely cinematic priorities.

But what happens to the musical when singing is taken out of it? This was the conundrum of the short-lived disco musical, a sub-genre that ended as soon as it began.

Popular music has been a part of the history of the film musical since the early sync-sound era, when radio and vaudeville performers made the move to the big screen. Since then, the musical has incorporated jazz, rock, and a litany of Top 40-friendly subgenres and fleeting trends, brought to screen in everything from A-production spectaculars and gritty “backstage” music industry dramas to exploitation quickies. Such conventions could not, however, be readily merged with disco, a popular music genre defined less by musical performance than the cultural activities that embraced it, including DJ-ing, roller-skating, and, of course, dancing. This problem is addressed overtly in Can’t Stop the Music (1980) when Steve Guttenberg’s songwriter character complains that he can’t find someone to adequately belt his tracks: “Today, nobody sings. Everybody dances!”

That is, until 1980.

Before 1980, the American disco musical was defined mostly by the social spaces in which the genre thrived. The defining movie in this regard is Saturday Night Fever (1977), which contrasted the limits of Tony Manero’s (John Travolta) home and work life with the comparable dreamscape of the Brooklyn dance scene. Hollywood’s representation of disco through dance continued after 1977 with the Motown-produced Thank God It’s Friday (1978), where the authority of the DJ is only overshadowed by Donna Summer and The Commodores in the third act, and roller disco movies like Roller Boogie and Skatetown U.S.A. (both 1979). 

Because disco was predicated upon producing studio sounds that were difficult to re-create live (arguably the first popular music genre in which the DJ was king), and its appeal gravitated around disco dancing and the clubs that housed it, disco could not readily intersect with the singing and music performance-based conventions of Hollywood musicals. But at the dawn of the 80s, the disco musical sought to do exactly that with three expensive features: the lavish Hollywood throwback Xanadu, the Village People pseudo-biopic Can’t Stop the Music, and the dystopic sci-fi extravaganza The Apple—with the last of these effectively staging the death of the sub-genre. 

Xanadu first went into production as yet another low-budget roller disco film. But after casting Olivia Newton-John (fresh off the massive success of Grease [1978]) and Gene Kelly, its ambitions ballooned. With an iconic studio-era musical star as a co-lead (in what would be Kelly’s final film role) and inspired by the 1947 musical Down to Earth, Xanadu sports several bona fides of the Classical Hollywood song-and-dance spectacular around the story of a painter, Sonny (The Warriors’s Michael Beck), who falls for his muse, Kira (Newton-John). From the 1940s-style opening credits over the Universal logo to one defiantly non-disco dance duet choreographed by Kelly to the film’s elaborate production design, Xanadu approaches the disco musical as it would a Broadway adaptation, distinct from the more realist stories by which pop music genres have routinely been translated to screen. And despite first-time feature filmmaker Robert Greenwald’s limitations as a director of musicals (he often inexplicably won’t let us see the stars’ dancing and skating feet), disco—a genre not defined by subtlety—here proves perhaps more fitting than other popular music genres to the old-school, big-screen treatment. 

Regardless of the film’s elaborate nods to old Hollywood, singing is still subordinate to dancing in Xanadu, with many musical sequences organized around dance or through montage rather than onscreen music performance. When the camera is on Kelly, this is hardly an issue; however, Xanadu’s distance from the traditional musical becomes readily apparent in several key numbers where even lip-synching doesn’t come into play, such as “Suddenly,” a “duet” ballad between Sonny and Kira who slowly skate (and fall for one another) across a dark soundstage, with the number’s relative quietude and restraint only highlighting further the fact that these characters are not actually serenading each other.

Onscreen singing is similarly negotiated in Can’t Stop the Music, which opens with Guttenberg’s songwriter character aspiring toward success in the recording industry with his supermodel roommate (Valerie Perrine). He debuts one of his song recordings in a local club, and leaves the DJ booth to find his roommate praising his talents as if he were a live musician who had just walked triumphantly offstage—a moment that highlights the changing measure of musical talent that started with disco and would continue in such production-based music genres like hip hop and electronic dance music.

What follows this moment is a familiar backstage musical that pseudo-biographically charts the rise of a popular act to fame and success as Guttenberg assembles a group to perform his songs. Can’t Stop the Music brings the Village People into a pop musical storytelling framework that has had a place onscreen since The Jazz Singer (1927) and through early Elvis Presley movies, and subsequently continued in Purple Rain (1984) and 8 Mile (2002). Song numbers are thus narratively rooted within the labor of the recording industry, in this case rehearsals, auditions (see below), recordings, parties, commercial jingles, and a triumphant live performance serving as the film’s climax.

If onscreen singing is a prime vehicle for the tropes that distinguish the Hollywood musical as a film genre, The Apple then carries the dubious distinction of being the most consistently “musical” film of the disco category.

When Manahem Golan and Yorum Globus took over The Cannon Group in 1979, they intended initially to extend their Roger Corman-modeled reputation for producing profitable low-to-medium budget films into this new venture. But with The Apple, Golan sought to realize a more ambitious passion project about a music producer with a dictatorial reign over a dystopian disco state, only to be challenged by the sonic purity an Adam and Eve-like musician couple. 

While elaborate disco numbers are the film’s purported source of attraction, The Apple takes an antagonistic position to disco itself, viewing the music genre as a corrupt commercial enterprise headed by the evil record mogul Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal). This becomes clear from the film’s opening moments, when The Apple’s protagonists, Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Alphie (George Gilmour), are introduced at Boogalow’s Worldvision Song Festival playing a relatively modest singer-songwriter duet that throws into stark relief the excess of the event’s other acts. 

The distinction is clear. Despite the sense that many other off-screen instruments are uncannily audible besides Alphie’s acoustic guitar when the couple performs, Bibi and Alphie are depicted as “authentic” musicians, quickly tempted by the allure of the music industry in the form of wealth, fame, sex, and drugs, available only for the price of a contract with Beelzeb—um, Mr. Boogalow. Alphie remains pure, while Bibi ascends to candy-colored fame, having traded in their folk-ish sound for raw, gluttonous, American speed.

Alphie finds peace with—naturally—a commune of cave-bound hippies (it’s worth note here that The Apple takes place in the near-future of 1994), and Bibi soon joins him. When Boogalow attempts to retrieve his “property,” The Apple introduces a literal deus ex machina, as messiah figure Mr. Topps (Joss Ackland) abruptly enters the picture in order to save these refugees of the 1960s from Boogalow’s corruption and start the world anew.  

The Apple’s anachronistic nostalgia makes its musical priorities obvious, seeing in Mr. Boogalow’s unabashedly commercial reign an abandonment of the musical integrity embodied by previous generations—and preserved in the (sort of) acoustic sounds of Alphie and Bibi. If the writing on the wall was not already clear for the disco musical by the successive financial failures of Xanadu and Can’t Stop the Music, then The Apple’s ending dramatized its final defeat. 

As Paul Thomas Anderson made spectacularly evident in the tragic New Year's Eve sequence of Boogie Nights (1997), by the early 1980s the party was over. In 1981, the Village People made an unfortunate attempt at changing their sound with a new wave album. That same year, Studio 54 changed ownership, reopened, and struggled to update its image until closing its doors in 1986. Disco was dead. And beyond the select afterlives of the sub-genre's instigators—such as the Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive (1983)—so was the disco musical. Except in this case, the party ended before it ever really got going.

However, in the ensuing decades, all three of these movies have developed notable cult followings. Xanadu was adapted into a Tony-nominated Broadway musical in 2007, while Can’t Stop the Music and The Apple have been reinvigorated by repertory screenings buoyed by their so-bad-it’s-good reputations. Beyond their legacy as Razzie-inspiring flops, maybe now the disco musicals of 1980 can be appreciated for, however briefly, expanding the possibilities while illustrating the limitations of popular music’s place in the Hollywood musical. 

The Apple is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Thanks to James Hook for his assistance in this article.

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