If Joan Didion is to be believed and the 1960s ended with the Tate-LaBianca murders, then Allan Carr’s Can’t Stop the Music ripped the needle off the record that was the ‘70s when it was released in the US on June 20, 1980.
For those who remember, Can’t Stop the Music, starring the Village People, was the box office flop that hammered the nail in disco’s coffin. But as queer films go, it serves as another cultural milestone: Demarcating where the civil rights era that began with Stonewall ended and where the era of AIDS began. No scene embodies this pivot more than when Glenn Hughes, the leatherman from the Village People, stands on a piano and performs “Danny Boy,” the Irish hymn of longing, sung at funerals and when young men went off to war.
The song is sung during a particularly implausible scene in a movie that is made of implausible scenes. Not satisfied with four gay stereotypes, the movie shows the Village People holding a casting call for two more singers. The audition quickly devolves into a Cirque du Soleil of gay men in short shorts and gym socks vying for the band’s attention. Then enters Hughes, wearing head-to-toe leather and looking for an extension on his income tax.
Hughes’s performance is notable for how well he sings the song, and for its prescience. A year later, on June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report would publish the first five cases of AIDS. One of the film’s screenwriters was already presenting symptoms of the disease during the shooting of the film.
Can’t Stop the Music is many things: an over-the-top origin story of the Village People, an homage to Busby Berkeley musicals and a time capsule of pre-epidemic queer culture. But viewed even through the lens of camp, it fails miserably as a musical. Whereas Xanadu, the other disco fantasia of 1980, boasted a chart-topping soundtrack, Can’t Stop the Music is so bogged down in its own hubris it never manages to feel like anything more than a TV variety show without the laugh track. The film was so bad that its director, Nancy Walker (yes, that Nancy—Rhoda’s mother), refused to watch the film at its New York premiere.
No person personified the film’s cast of dreamers and risk-takers better than the film’s producer, Allan Carr. Overweight and gay, Carr was a man who made a career by augmenting reality to mirror his imagination. Carr’s genius was his ability to take his haters’ prejudices about his size and sexuality and turn them into assets.
Riding on the coattails of Grease, then the most successful movie musical ever, Carr deluded himself into believing he could force-feed his gay aesthetic to America’s Bible Belt like it was cocaine on the dance floor of Studio 54. Look no further than the musical number for “Milkshake,” a $2 million product placement for the American Dairy Association that feels like a photoshoot from the movie, Eyes of Laura Mars.
If Carr’s intention was to take gay culture mainstream, he had the perfect vehicle in the Village People. The band was conceived by music producer Henri Belolo and his gay producing partner, Jacques Morali, one night at a New York disco as they watched bartender/dancer Felipe Rose, who was wearing a loincloth and headdress in honor of his Lakota heritage, attract the attention of a man dressed as a cowboy. According to Belolo’s obituary in The New York Times, the band members were meant to romanticize American male archetypes—like the Marlboro Man and smoking.
From Steve Guttenberg roller skating through a parade over the film’s opening credits and Mae West references to Caitlyn Jenner’s midriff, the film is stuffed with Carr’s and Morali’s gay aesthetic like the bulge in a pair of too-tight jeans. Every scene and every song in the movie feels like the set up in a Falcon video. The sets look fake, the dialogue is wooden and almost all the musical numbers are dream sequences that do nothing to advance the plot, including the showstopper “YMCA.”
Filmed in a New York YMCA, the scene is an homage to “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and is dripping with weightlifters, swimmers, wrestlers and gymnasts. According to the biography Party Animals by Robert Hofler, Carr intended the scene to be a “parody of a parody” and personally spent days of production hours scouting Los Angeles area gyms to find “250 specimens of absolute masculine perfection” to appear in the four-minute sequence. By Hofler’s account, Carr sat in a director’s chair during the filming demanding more takes after every dive, jump and bench press, screaming, “Boys, let’s see your muscles, let’s see your body!”
And though “YMCA” is the best thing about the movie, the characters never actually stay there as the song suggests.
The film’s greatest paradox is its wide-eyed optimism for the ‘80s. From the film’s idealistic perspective, the ‘80s were meant to be “new and different,” and you were “going to do a lot of things you’ve never done before!” The film was right, just not in the light-hearted, campy way it envisioned.
The despair of the ‘80s is foreshadowed in the scene where the Village People perform the gay anthem “Liberation” for a record producer like it’s the greatest thing since tanning spray. When they’re finished, the producer tells the band’s manager, “They have very little to offer to very few people”—an echo of the message from newly-elected President Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority that put him in the White House.
Which brings us back to “Danny Boy.” Performed at funerals, the song is an ode to a life nipped in the bud. Sung before battle, it’s the promise of a home to return to. And though there were more funerals for gay men in the ‘80s and ‘90s than any of us care to remember, Carr and the Village People would again find a home with mainstream audiences.
Carr bounced back from Can’t Stop the Music with the Broadway musical, La Cage Aux Folles, which spawned the gay anthem, “I Am What I Am.” The song “YMCA” is now performed at celebrations across the world, regardless of age, language or sexuality. U.S. President Donald Trump uses “Macho Man” as one of his campaign songs and draws criticisms; having borrowed their gimmick from gay archetypes, the Village People became the standard bearers of them. All the members of the Village People who starred in Can’t Stop the Music are still living, with the exception of Glenn Hughes, who died of lung cancer and was buried in his leather.
For all the movie got wrong in its execution, it did get one thing right: You can’t stop the music.