Don’t dream it, be it as we time warp back to 1975 with Dr. Frank N. Furter and friends
If Richard O’Brien had managed to find steady work, Rocky Horror might never have come into existence.
But being unemployed is a common state for the working actor, which is what O’Brien was in early 1970s London. And after being kicked out of the role of Herod in a West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar (he’d wanted to play Herod as Elvis), he found himself with some extra time on his hands. So he began toying with an idea he’d had for his own rock musical, provisionally entitled They Came From Denton High.
Then, in 1973, he caught a break. While appearing in a production of Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand (perfectly cast as “Willie, the Space Freak”) at the Royal Court’s experimental Theatre Upstairs, he mentioned his musical to the play’s director, Jim Sharman. Sharman was intrigued by the unfinished piece, and told O’Brien that if he could complete it, there was a six-week gap in the summer schedule at Theatre Upstairs, and the show could be staged there. O’Brien duly took up the challenge, fine tuning the songs and finishing up the dialogue. And by opening night, June 19, 1973, O’Brien’s creation also had a new name: The Rocky Horror Show.
VIDEO: Rocky Horror film trailer
Rocky Horror spoofed sci-fi and horror films with a raucous rock ‘n’ roll score and a gender-bending twist; mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter boasted of being a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania,” and his creation of the muscle-bound Rocky Horror was for reasons other than scientific. Hitting a midway point between glam and punk, Rocky Horror perfectly captured the liberated zeitgeist of the era. It quickly moved to larger theaters, and then overseas, where the first U.S. production, which opened at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles in 1974 (produced by music mogul Lou Adler), was equally successful.
A film was planned. It seemed an obvious move. Rocky Horror’s story had its roots in the movies after all, and half of the cast from the original UK stage show (including Tim Curry’s star turn as Frank N. Furter) would appear, giving it an additional sheen of authenticity. But The Rocky Horror Picture Show tanked on its initial release, and seemed headed for obscurity. Until, like any movie monster worth its salt, Rocky Horror rose from the grave, returning as the mother of all cult films, generating a fervent following that dressed up in costume, shouted lines at the screen, and brandished props at appropriate moments. Pre-pandemic, you could still find midnight screenings of Rocky Horror around the country.
And it’s the cult phenomenon that’s been the focus of Rocky Horror stories ever since, of audiences tossing rice during the wedding scene and prancing around in fishnet stockings while miming the film’s songs. These elements are now so much a part of the Rocky Horror experience, it’s forgotten that there was a time when the show wasn’t tied to obligatory audience participation. But take the time to listen, and you’ll find that The Rocky Horror Picture Show still stands as a first-rate addition to the canon of rock movie musicals.
The film gets off to a good start with the nostalgic “Science Fiction, Double Feature,” which namechecks a litany of Sci Fi/horror films (The Day the Earth Stood Still, When Worlds Collide, Forbidden Planet, et. Al.). In the stage show, the number was performed by an usherette, who later transforms into the sloe-eyed domestic Magenta. But O’Brien took it over for himself in the movie, his high, reedy voice giving the song a wistful, bittersweet melancholy, set against the quiet guitar strumming of the verses and the soaring strings of the chorus (though the lips seen miming the song in the opening credits are those of Patricia Quinn, who played Magenta).
VIDEO: Patricia Quinn performs “Science Fiction Double Feature”
The next two songs move the plot along; the cute “Dammit Janet,” in which the straight laced Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) pledge their troth to one another, and “Over at the Frankenstein Place,” which in the wrong hands could’ve turned into a power ballad. Thankfully, Richard Hartley’s arrangements avoided such traps (Hartley, who played keyboards, had been with Rocky Horror since the original London production).
The lighter stuff lays the groundwork for the explosion that’s to come, when the “Old Dark House” of horror film lore turns out to be a rock palace extraordinaire. First, the spooky servant Riff Raff (O’Brien) leads the charge into a participatory dance called the “Time Warp,” followed by the grand entrance of Dr. Frank N. Furter, who bedazzles everyone with his party piece, “Sweet Transvestite.” It’s the moment when the movie pumps up the volume and shifts into overdrive. The tight guitar riffing (courtesy of Count Ian Blair) is straight out of the new wave playbook later plundered by the likes of Blondie and the Cars, and the wild sax (played with insinuating fervor by Phil Kenzie) adds to the throbbing energy (Blair and Kenzie were also veterans of the London show).
Curry’s other standout moment is the dramatic torch song — every musical needs one — “I’m Going Home.” Elsewhere he oozes over the muscle man he created in the strutting “I Can Make You a Man”; snarls at those who would dare get in his way in the tart “Planet, Schmanet, Janet”; and induces his minions and captives to give themselves over to absolute pleasure in the extravagant “Floor Show” medley, which is by turns sultry, serene, and frantic. His is the film’s tour de force performance, and though his mannerisms sometimes drew comparisons with Mick Jagger, even from the days of the London stage show, Jagger never had this much fun camping it up (or looked as fetching in a corset and fishnets).
The movie’s other bravura rock ‘n’ roll moment is “Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?,” as performed by Meat Loaf. Yes, that Meat Loaf, who first played the part in Los Angeles, and was a natural for film, making the most of his all-too-brief appearance, full of sweat and swagger, as much a ’50s rocker as he is a proto-’70s punk.
VIDEO: Meatloaf arrives in Rocky Horror
The remaining songs keep the plot moving. “Toucha-Toucha-Touch Me” is a frilly song chronicling Janet’s sexual awakening, that misses an opportunity to parody girl groups like the Shirelles or Crystals. “Eddie’s Teddy” is a catchy group number that fills in some of his raunchy backstory, and “Super Heroes” is the mournful conclusion, reminding you that all parties come to an end at some point. Later editions of the soundtrack add “The Sword of Damocles,” with Rocky expressing misgivings about his existence, and the bonus track “Once in a While,” ultimately cut from the film, in which Brad tries to come to terms with Janet’s infidelity while conveniently overlooking his own.
Later editions of the soundtrack, like 25 Years of Absolute Pleasure (2000) drop in snippets of dialogue as well, but that actually proves to be rather distracting; the songs are more than capable of standing on their own without the additional window dressing. It should also be noted that Rocky Horror was a true rock musical, during an era when shows like “Godspell” and “Grease” were misleadingly slapped with that tag. But accept no substitutes.
Rocky Horror is the kind of blast from the past that never wears out its welcome, ever ready to lure you into its palace of delights by whispering those five little words in your ear: Don’t dream it, be it.