Sunday, July 5, 2020

Nothing Lasts Forever in Allan Moyle's 1980 Teen-Punk Fantasia Times Square

(Alan Moyle,* US, 1980, rated R, 111 mins) 

Times Square, Canadian filmmaker Alan Moyle's first American feature, opens to the lush, yet spooky strains of Roxy Music's "Same Old Scene," a sign that this won't be just another teensploitation film. Nothing cheap and tawdry, not with this band of British sophisticates leading the way. That's how 16-year-old Nicky (Robin Johnson) enters the picture, dragging her guitar case through the neon-saturated Times Square of yesteryear, passing mustached men smoking and making deals and sequin-covered club goers mingling outside a disco. "Nothing lasts forever," Bryan Ferry sings over anxious drums and searching saxophone, "of that I'm sure."

With her Brando cap, button-bedecked jacket, and electric guitar, it's clear Nicky wants to rock, and when she smashes a car headlight, it's clear she wants to make trouble. With her full lips and New Yawk accent, she plays like a cross between David Johansen and Joan Jett, who was just starting to make her mark as a solo artist (Johnson possibly took cues from Johansen when they recorded his song "Flowers in the City" for the soundtrack). When cops come to arrest her, Nicky unleashes a string of profanities.

Her opposite number, 13-year-old Pamela (Trini Alvarado, already a seasoned actress, unlike the untested Johnson), enters wearing a prim school uniform and a grimace as her father, David (Peter Coffield), a city commissioner, gives a speech about the evils of Times Square. Pammy is a closet rebel who tunes in regularly to listen to DJ Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry) who plays all the latest punk and art rock from England. It's not hard to see the appeal, since the Times Square soundtrack is simply one of the greatest soundtracks in the history of soundtracks, but more on that later.

In a letter she writes to Johnny, that he reads on the air, Pammy describes herself as a zombie. He encourages her to take a leap into the unknown. She meets Nicky when they end up sharing the same hospital room, since they're both seeking help for the seizures they've been experiencing (this plot point goes under-explored; it mostly exists to bring them together).

Pammy finds her rebellious roommate fascinating. Once they acclimate to each other, Nicky admits that she doesn't think she'll make it to 21. "That's why I gotta jam it all in now, y'know?" With the aid of a boombox and a Ramones cassette--"I wanna be sedated!"--she convinces Pammy to run away with her, so they steal an ambulance and end up at an abandoned train station overlooking the Hudson River. Considering their youth, this all unfolds more comfortably on screen than it would have in real life.

Soon, they're stealing food, washing windshields, and even dancing for spare change. It doesn't seem too realistic that 13-year-old Pamela would get a job as a fully-clothed dancer at a Times Square strip club, but that's the sort of wish fulfillment-meets-gritty reality tone the film strikes. Writing about Times Square in 1981, Melbourne-based film critic Adrian Martin didn't find anything particularly punk or rebellious about it. As he notes in his review, "It is an antiseptic, middle class daydream." He's not completely wrong. It is a daydream, but why is that so bad? Two teenage girls aren't going to change the world, and they don't. What they change is themselves, and that can be pretty realistic--even if much of the rest of the film isn't.

On the one hand, the Times Square of 1979, when and where the film was shot, isn't cleaned up for the viewer's consumption, but Moyle isn't about to let these young ladies suffer the kind of indignities to which real runaways would likely be subjected. They're also presented as sexually ambiguous, which isn't so terrible, since they're 13 and 16, but it's not that simple. While they express no interest in men--or even boys, which the film refreshingly ignores--and seem plenty interested in each other, nothing happens.

The lesbian subtext is impossible to miss, but it's just that: subtext. Because Moyle doesn't give either girl a male love interest, it's easy to imagine that one or both of them could be gay or bisexual. Nicky, especially, reads that way. It's also possible that they're just not interested in sex yet, and don't even know where they fall on the Kinsey scale. Why we expect underage movie characters to have all this stuff figured out when we don't--or shouldn't--expect the same from real-life kids is beyond me.

Furthermore, just when it seems as if Moyle is going to reveal that Pamela has a crush on Johnny or, worse yet, that Johnny is preparing to put the moves on her when he visits the station, he doesn't. Johnny seems to genuinely care about the girls, even if his character is otherwise a muddle, saved largely by Curry's larger-than-life charisma. I kept waiting for their hero to reveal feet of clay, but he's neither hero nor villain; he's mostly just a catalyst. He encourages them to rebel and capitalizes on their rebellion, but he also looks out for them in a way Pammy's judgmental father doesn't.

The main thing here is the unlikely friendship that develops between the girls. While that can include physical affection, particularly in a film that wasn't aimed at such a wide audience in such a homophobic time, it shouldn't have to. Unlike Martin, I believe it's rebellious that the teens aren't sex-crazed at all, which was the norm for films about teens-gone-wild, both then and now.

But that doesn't mean Times Square isn't romantic. Pammy writes poetry, and she encourages Nicky to write poetry, too. In Nicky's hands, they come out sounding like songs, and so she's soon singing at the same club where Pammy dances. When Pammy briefly joins her act, they dub themselves the Sleez Sisters, but just when it seems as if the movie is going to morph into another Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, it doesn't. Nicky is the true musician, not Pammy. If the soundtrack features big-name artists, like the Pretenders ("Talk of the Town") and Talking Heads ("Life During Wartime"), Johnson's contributions, like "Damn Dog," fit in surprisingly well.

In the film, the ladies' favorite song is Suzi Quatro's anti-romantic glam-rock raver "Rock Hard" ("She never takes a chance / She doesn't need romance / She never takes a chance / She never dates or dance / Her love is rock hard / Rock hard / She's rock hard"). Johnson's voice is very much in Suzi's take-no-prisoners vein, so it's too bad her music career didn't advance much beyond this film, whereas 70-year-old Suzi is still going strong.

While Pammy and Nicky are having their adventures, David is trying to track her down. He's doing a lousy job of it, because she's pretty easy to find, and when Johnny invites the two on his radio show, she's pretty easy to hear, since they sing a song about how "Your Daughter is One," i.e. everything her father--or at least straight society--condemns. Johnny continues to broadcast their exploits to the world, presenting them as a punk-rock Bonnie & Clyde, a development that predicts Christian Slater's rebel DJ in Moyle's Pump up the Volume, which would see release 10 years later., by which time alt-rock had overtaken punk rock as the dominant college-radio mode.

By the end, Pammy and Nicky have figured themselves out, and the conclusion suggests they're going to forge very different paths in life. It's a happy ending of a kind, just not the kind where they end up together or go on to become music superstars, but they're better off than where they began. As Bryan Ferry forewarned at the outset, "Nothing lasts forever."

It isn't the most realistic story, and I'm not so sure that was the intent, but the friendship is what endures, and it's one of the reasons why people keep coming back to the film. That and the amazing soundtrack, of course.

*Alan Moyle would hereafter spell his first name with a double "l."

Kino Lorber released a new 4K restoration (from the original master) of Times Square on Blu-ray on May 24, 2022 with commentary tracks from Allan Moyle and Robin Johnson and Kat Ellinger and Heather Drain.  

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