The Rocky Horror Picture Show:
Or How I Taught My Friend Annie To Do The Time Warp
Ok so I need to explain alittle of why I'm doing this first, as you all know, its Halloween time here in America, and that ofcourse leads to many a thing, office pranks, long drawn out discussions about what each of your friends is gonna dress as, incessant whining by people that aren't dressing up because its silly or stupid, the debate that Batman really is just a middle aged man in a halloween suit, guys marveling how its the one time a year all your female friends you wish should show off the goods, show off the goods, and ofcourse, the greatest tradition in american halloweening sense giving candy to little kids wearing a mask and a teeshirt that says the name of the person the mask is on it, I'm speaking ofcourse, of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film and tradition that I was amazed to discover that my friend Annie, my authority on musicals, dance, and all things theater, had never heard of in the country she lives in, and though I understand that traditions and cultural things that are common place to us here, I felt it'd be fun for me to kind of write up abit about this Grindhouse classic, and the traditions around it that we Americans love and cherish.
So Annie, this one's for you, welcome to the grindhouse...
The Rocky Horror Picture Show started out in the early 1970s in England as "The Rocky Horror Show" an early outsider alternative theater production aimed at the British counter culture that was starting to rise out of what was the rebellious youth culture that was the hallmark of the late 1960s in The UK. The Rocky Horror Show had elements of all the things hallmark of this rise, drugs, open sexuality of all sorts (Heterosexuality, Bisexuality and Homosexuality), cross dressing, rebellion against the older ways, and ofcourse, rock and roll just to name afew of the themes deemed controversial by mainstream society, which ofcourse, for all of these reasons, shunned and defamed it in the general media of the time. It became sort of a cult theatrical event, large groups going on a Friday or Saturday night to a midnight or late evening showing, which would later spin over into the midnight showings of the film combined with the stage show.
The film, much like the play, really isn't a super complicated or tightly held together plot, its been called by many "barely coherent" and "almost non-existent at times", among other things, but what I don't think many understand is, the play, and the film, though obviously an allegory for its creator, Richard O'Brien's inner and outward mental struggle with his own issues with sexuality, its played out over the background of the classic sci fi and horror films that are referenced almost constantly with in the film's soundtrack and feel, with opening theme "Science Fiction Double Feature" referencing many characters, actors, directors and actual films themselves spanning from the 1930s to the 1960s, and "Don't Dream" is an ode to actress Faye Wray wrapped in a song about coming to terms with gender confusion and sexuality. Its brilliant on O'Brien's part really, to create a masterpiece that expresses what he is feeling and grappling with inside, as well as a love letter to the old world style of sci fi in hollywood, and if you look at the play, and the film as this, then you will come away with a true understanding of what this story is really all about.
For those that don't know, here is the plot of the story, with out really giving away all that much of it; it all begins at a wedding, where two uptight young lovers, Brad Majors and Janet Wiess, have just seen their friends go off to a life of married bliss, overcome with emotion and feeling finally brave enough to do so, Brad, in song ask Janet to marry him, she happily and gleefully accepts in song ("Damnit! Janet!"). They decide to drive back to thank the man that was the cause of them meeting in the first place, a former teacher named Doctor Scott. As they're driving to visit said doctor, it starts to rain, they, as happens in old films, break down in the rain, and decide to ask those who live at a nearby estate if they can use their phone, in song ("Over At The Frankenstein Place"). From there, they're taken into a strange and confusing world thats completely unknown and unlike anything they have ever come close to understanding in their sheltered little lives, its a sort of a mix of Frankenstein, Dracula, and just about every mad scientist movies ever made, each scene designed to show their minds twisting just abit more, ofcourse all done in song, and by the end, you never really know if you've truly understood what you've just seen, or if you ever will, but all you know is, you rather liked it, because deep down, you wanna be dirty.
The story though, is never really why we all clammer to watch this film, its ofcourse the music, the music and the characters. From Riff Raff the creepy hunchbacked Butler, to his twincest-y sister Magenta, to the strange flapper girl talking chorus girl dressing Columbia, to Eddie Scott the motorcycle riding greaseball that Columbia is fixated on, to Brad and Janet, and ofcourse Dr. Frank N Ferter, the bisexual transsexual transvestite mad scientist from transsexual Transylvania, and his tragic creation, the title character himself, Rocky Horror. We all understand that O'Brien wrote them to all represent parts of himself and in turn parts of all of us (O'Brien himself always playing Riff Raff), and we all love them all for that very fact, and they stick with us for years after watching the film, they've all become parts of pop culture in their own right, just as, if not bigger then the film itself in the case of atleast Frank N. Ferter, and some could argue that Brad and Janet could be the archetype of most nerdy, clueless, sheltered younger people in most movies and television shows.
And as much as we love the characters, still we all love the music just as much if not more. A simple search of any of the songs from the film will turn up many many covers of them, the most iconic song is ofcourse "The Time Warp", you haven't been to a wedding in America in the last 35 years and not either done, or laughed, or watched on in horror as your friends and loved ones all did the time warp (again!), and you can't go to a drag queen show with out seeing a dance number or fashion show to "Sweet Transvestite", often sung in the outfit of Frank N. Ferter. And though you don't really hear them as much, the most covered songs from the score are, ofcourse the theme "Science Fiction Double Feature" (my personal favorite), "Don't Dream It, Be It", "Superheroes" and now and then, if you come across a band with a sexy female lead singer, you'll find a sexed up cover of "Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me" that can be either really really good, or really really bad. All of these facts, and just that its just amazingly catchy and at times seen as the perfect soundtrack (if I remember I ranked it number three of all time on my list), make this story one that has been fused into american pop culture for 35 years.
So the final question is ofcourse, the tradition itself, well see, as amazing as the film is, when it first screened here in america, it was a bomb, we're talking on the level of such bombs as Ishtar, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glitter, and just about anything made by Uwe Boll, one enterprisingly smart theater owner in New York City decided for the fun of it, to air the film as one of his weekend midnight showings, and thats where it all began. See, there were, until atleast the mid 1980s, what were called "midnight movies" at most grindhouse theaters, alot of the time this is were you'd see the films that are more drug, sex, shock value or violence oriented, alot of theaters would also air the films of of the young (and oddly at this point seen as art house) pornographic film industry as well. As the film's cult following grew, other elements would become added to the tradition of the midnight showings, the "shadow players" who would act out the play on the stage below the movie screen in perfect sync with the film, and ofcourse, audience participation and cosplay as the characters would soon become added to the way the film was viewed, though sadly, given the damage and clean up that audience participation brings with it, many theaters these days do not allow for it, but still still show it, its not the same, but, its still a fun show, even if you don't get to toss toast and rice at people or aim your water guns at the most well dressed, or dressed in white, woman in the theater for the rain scene.
But in either event, have a happy Halloween.
Oh and just for the fun of it, here's my favorite song from the film, the great ode to old world sci fi, "Science Fiction Double Feature".