Times Square (1980): For Auld Lang Syne, My Dear…

Friday night, I pushed play on the recent Blu-ray release of the 1980 film Times Square and then, last night, pushed play on it again, this time with the commentary track with director Allan Moyle and star Robin Johnson turned on. It’s long been something of a cult (or is that kitsch?) classic for a variety of reasons, including its oft-perfect, pulsating New Wave soundtrack and the homoeroticism that accents the relationship between street urchin Nicky (Johnson) and runaway Pamela (Trini Alvarado), daughter of a New York politician, not to mention its portrayal of various New York City locales in all their grimy glory.

(Philadelphia Inquirer ad, 10/17/1980)

In a nutshell, the two teen girls meet while sharing a room in a neurological hospital where they’re being examined for mental illness. After Nicky is discharged, she returns to free Pamela and…off they go in a stolen ambulance! The film has something to say about the vagaries of psychological disorders, I think, but instead shows—in disjointed fashion—the two navigating the seedy environs of the Big Apple while gaining notoriety as the “Sleeze Sisters,” a punk-like band. The script, which was penned by screenwriter and occasional Carly Simon collaborator Jacob Brackman from an idea by director Allan Moyle and Leanne Ungar, would have benefited from a few more passes.

Character development, for instance, relies on archetypes and, too often, the story plays like a prosaic melodrama with comedy sometimes injected where it doesn’t belong. Nicky pushes Pamela into working at a topless club, for example, and though she doesn’t take off her top, the whole thing comes off as creepy. (In real life, if I’ve done my math right, Alvarado was 13 years old and Johnson was 16 at the time of filming.) And the idea that tossing TVs off of building tops would build a following…yeah, no. That said, other moments—such as an attempted mugging—are funny, the two dancing down the street to “Life During Wartime” ably captures a time and place, and a sequence scored by Patti Smith’s “Pissing in a River” is astonishingly affecting.

(Philadelphia Inquirer capsule review, 11/2/1980)

At some point during the shoot, the producers’ demanded that Moyle include more songs from the planned 2-LP soundtrack in the film. He pushed back, not wanting to sacrifice the story any more than he already had and, when he stuck to his principles, was fired. A Robert Stigwood Organization production, the money men saw the movie as a way to replicate the soundtrack successes of Saturday Night Fever and Grease; easier profits could be had, in fact, as most songs just needed to be licensed. That decision lends an MTV air to certain scenes and montages, though MTV had yet to debut; too, with Moyle off the film, the lesbian undertones between Nicky and Pamela are lessened through the slip-shod editing and several gaps in the storyline are introduced.

The movie faced serious competition at the box office upon its Oct. 17, 1980, release, including from The Elephant Man, Private Benjamin and Ordinary People, and the critics were less than kind. (Here’s Roger Ebert’s review, for those interested.) It promptly bombed. Worse films have done well, of course, but its R rating guaranteed that most of its target audience, teens, wouldn’t be able to see it. That audience included me, I should add, as the trailer (or possibly TV commercial) made it seem like a kinda cool movie.

(Philadelphia Inquirer synopsis, 11/1/81)

I wouldn’t see it for about a year, when it popped up on HBO and/or Prism (a Philadelphia-area premium channel) in the fall of 1981. I totally missed the lesbian undertones and found much of it hackneyed and cliched. My opinion hasn’t changed much—though I’d argue now, as opposed to then, that flaws and all it’s still worth a watch. The acting by the two young leads and Tim Curry, who portrays a late-night deejay, is mostly spot-on. For me, there’s also a sense of what could have been if Moyle had been given the chance, which was a serious social commentary on lost youth. (A dramatized Seventeen, if you will.) Plus, perhaps more to the point of this blog, the songs pumping from the soundtrack conjure the same songs—or many of them—pumping from my stereo back in the day. Watching it made me feel young again, if only for a night…

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