Taking a deep dive into the 1980 cult film’s epic soundtrack
In the 1959 music business satire Expresso Bongo, talent agent Johnny Jackson (played by the inimitable Laurence Harvey) quips, “All you need to succeed in this business is one success after another.”
It’s a patently ridiculous statement, and yet it’s hard to argue with his logic. It’s the same kind of logic that would power the career of the Australian-British impresario behind the Robert Stigwood Organization.
After making his mark in the worlds of music and theater, Stigwood turned to movie production, overseeing a string of hits, including Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Significantly, the double-album soundtracks to his back-to-back John Travolta vehicles became multi-platinum sensations that rank among the bestselling soundtracks of all time. Naturally, Stigwood hoped to repeat these successes, but 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band proved a notorious flop.
VIDEO: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band trailer
Stigwood was undeterred. For his next music-movie project, he turned to an unlikely figure: Alan Moyle (who would soon add a second “l” to his name), a Montreal filmmaker with one highly uncommercial feature, 1977’s The Rubber Gun, to his name. It was Stigwood’s first mistake, but it wouldn’t be his last. Not because Times Square is a bad film–on the contrary, it’s quite good–but because there’s almost nothing about it that spells box office hit, not even after Stigwood fired Moyle and made several cuts.
Just as he had capitalized on disco with Saturday Night Fever, Stigwood was aiming to capitalize on the burgeoning punk movement, whereas Moyle aimed to tell an intimate story about two lonely teen runaways who find each other, fall in love (in a chaste kind of way) and find their voices in the process. Moyle would even tell Prevue magazine in 1980, “Times Square isn’t a punk picture,” though that’s possibly more of a reference to Carly Simon songwriter Jacob Brackman’s script than to the soundtrack.
This time around, Stigwood eschewed stars in favor of Trini Alvarado, who had one feature (Rich Kids) under her belt, as Pamela, and Moyle discovery Robin Johnson, who had none, as Nicky. That left The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Tim Curry, surely hired for his marquee value, as DJ Johnny LaGuardia, but due to other commitments, he only had three days to film his scenes (in his 2000 commentary track with Robin Johnson on the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray, Moyle notes that Curry was “treated badly by the Stigwood organization”). Fortunately, Curry is such a seasoned pro that he makes every scene count.
As before, Stigwood was banking on a hit soundtrack, and executive producer Bill Oakes went all out to secure the finest punk and new wave acts of the day, from Patti Smith to the Cure. In the U.S., the double album peaked at 37 on the Billboard 200, which doesn’t sound all that impressive, except the album really holds up. In fact, I had the soundtrack virtually memorized well before I caught up with the film on DVD, because we had a copy at Whitman College station KWCW, and I’d play tracks from it on my radio show.
Times Square begins with Roxy Music’s “Same Old Scene,” lending an elegiac quality to a film that hits harder now than in 1980, since Moyle depicts a now-vanished version of the famed NYC intersection that existed before multinational chains replaced the funky mom, pop, and Mob-run businesses of yore.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Bryan Ferry laments as 16-year-old runaway Nicky makes her entrance, looking for all the world like a cross between Joan Jett and David Johansen with her leather jacket and Wild One cap (though Johansen doesn’t appear in the film, he duets with Johnson on “Flowers of the City”).
Nicky meets Pammy, daughter of a commissioner dedicated to disinfecting Times Square, when the two end up in the same psych ward. Pammy doesn’t want to return to her restrictive life, whereas Nicky doesn’t have a home to return to, so she convinces her ward mate to run away with her by blasting the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” on her boom box, and the two speed away in a stolen ambulance.
With a sympathetic eye, Moyle follows their attempts to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as Johnny, a big brother mentor figure, shares their adventures with his listeners and Gary Numan, XTC, the Pretenders, and the Cars soundtrack their every move. A highlight arrives when the girls, clad in thrift store finds, shimmy down the street to the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” as strangers join them for a step or two. Even David Bowie reportedly wrote a song for the film, but RCA nixed its inclusion.
AUDIO: Suzi Quatro “Rock Hard”
Naturally, the girls have their own song, Suzi Quatro’s rousing “Rock Hard” (“She never takes a chance / she doesn’t need romance / her love is rock hard”). When Pammy, a poet, encourages Nicky to put pen to paper, her poetry turns into song lyrics, which she performs at the Cleo Club, where Pammy has been dancing, and on Johnny’s radio show as a duo, the Sleez Sisters, with Pammy. Though fans at the time expected Robin Johnson to release an album on Stigwood’s RSO, which had her under contract, it never happened, and that’s too bad, because “Damn Dog” is particularly good in a Quatro-meets-Iggy Pop kind of way–so good that Manic Street Preachers covered it on their 1992 album, Generation Terrorists.
For all the terrific music, though, the film suffered by including too much of it. Brackman intended his script to accommodate an album’s worth of songs, but Stigwood stipulated a double-album release some time after production began. When Moyle refused to cut scenes to squeeze in more music, Stigwood fired him, ordered reshoots, and made cuts to keep the film under two hours. It’s a miracle that it all still works, though it’s unfortunate that Moyle has taken heat over the years for continuity inconsistencies over which he had no control. Sadly, his firing also negated the possibility of a director’s cut, though the new Blu-ray boasts a sparkling HD master and a new commentary track from Kat Ellinger and Heather Drain.
After Times Square failed to make the intended impact, Moyle and Stigwood parted ways, and the director took a 10-year break before making eight more movies, starting with Pump up the Volume in 1990, the second in his unofficial pop rebellion trilogy. The third, Empire Records, would arrive in 1995.
For all his difficulties with RSO, it seems masochistic that Moyle would return for more record company grief, but the theme of music as a liberating force runs through all three movies. In Times Square, Nicky and Pammy make music, though only Nicky plans to make a career out of it. In Pump up the Volume, Christian Slater’s Mark, aka “Hard Harry,” combines alt-rock with Johnny LaGuardia-style exhortations to his disaffected audience. If the Sleez Sisters “rock hard,” Harry encourages his listeners to “talk hard.”
VIDEO: Times Square trailer
In Empire Records, the rebellion revolves around a record store’s efforts to prevent a chain from taking over their independent operation. It’s no spoiler to say that they succeed, though it seems unlikely that their store would still be standing in 2022, not when so many of the nation’s finest music retailers, from New York City’s Other Music to San Francisco’s Aquarius Records bit the dust years ago. Nonetheless, Empire Records ends, much like Times Square, with a rooftop concert, this time featuring Renée Zellweger’s Gina who, following in Nicky’s footsteps, has decided she wants to become a rock star.
Unfortunately for Moyle, Pump up the Volume and Empire Records wouldn’t catch fire with paying audiences either. Though MCA and A&M issued single-album soundtracks, which seemed ubiquitous at the time, Pump Up the Volume peaked at 50 and Empire Records at 63. As with Times Square, both movies lost more money than they made, though all three have remained in the cultural conversation, a trajectory that only seems likely to continue as the current nostalgia for all things ‘90s accelerates.
Aside from the higher chart position, the Times Square soundtrack stands head and shoulders above the others. The primary problem with Pump Up the Volume: some of the best songs are missing, presumably because the various record companies involved, like Columbia, nixed or asked too much for tracks, like Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will” and “Everybody Knows,” Hard Harry’s theme song. The Empire Records soundtrack suffers from the same problem, since it lacks all of the best songs, from the Flying Lizards (“Money (That’s What I Want)”) to the Ass Ponys (“Little Bastard”). The result is a lot of long-forgotten bands and unremarkable tracks that sound like they were generated by corporate algorithm.
Now 75, Moyle would make four more features before packing it in. It’s now been 15 years since his last one, and it’s unlikely he’ll make another, due primarily to health reasons. Robin Johnson left acting behind in the late-1980s, while Trini Alvarado still acts on occasion, most recently in HBO Max’s The Staircase.
For all its production problems, Moyle, Johnson, and Alvarado made for a great team. It’s hard not to root for Nicky and Pammy, no matter what they do, and Moyle never forgets that they’re kids, not miniature adults. They make mistakes, but they learn, grow, and end up in a better place than where they began.
As much as Stigwood interfered with Moyle’s vision, he made the whole project possible, so it’s hard to resent him too much either.
Well, except for “Help Me,” the Robin Gibb-Marcy Levy duet that concludes the film (Roxy Music plays over the end credits). Stigwood famously managed the Brothers Gibb for years, placing their songs everywhere he could, to great success in Saturday Night Fever–and considerably less in Times Square.
As Moyle puts it in his commentary track, “God, this song’s lame.”
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