Release Date(s)1980 (March 29, 2016)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Shout! Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A
One of the holiest of holy grails for fans of offbeat cinema has finally hit Blu-ray courtesy of Shout Factory in the form of their new release of The Gong Show Movie, a one-of-a-kind, extremely underrated comic gem. Although far from the commercial flop many people wrongly remember it as – to the contrary, while not a hit it did make its money back and opened in the number 2 slot between The Empire Strikes Back and The Shining on its opening weekend in 1980 – it largely drifted into obscurity shortly after its initial theatrical release, surfacing only for occasional cable broadcasts and on muddy bootlegs. Never properly available on home video, it’s ripe for rediscovery; far from the crass commercial tie-in that one might expect, it’s a highly personal, surprisingly dark, and often hilarious cry from the heart from writer-producer-director-star Chuck Barris – it’s his Stardust Memories.
Barris, of course, was best known as the host and producer of The Gong Show, a hugely successful – and ruthlessly criticized – talent competition show in the 1970s in which contestants would perform a variety of odd, often lowest common denominator acts until judges “gonged” them off stage. Seen by many critics as an indication of the decline of western civilization, it was also decades ahead of its time, a program that looked forward to the boom in reality TV and talent shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent. Part of the appeal of the show was always its train-wreck quality – often we were laughing at the performers, not with them – but Barris was no vulgarian. At heart he was a sophisticated, thoughtful man, and as such seemed a little disturbed by both his own creation and others’ reaction to it. This led to a number of bizarre career choices, most famously his memoir Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (eventually adapted into a film by Charlie Kaufman and George Clooney), in which Barris claimed to have been a government assassin in order to expose the hypocrisy of his critics.
The Gong Show was already at the end of its run in 1980 when Barris collaborated with his friend Robert Downey (the iconoclastic auteur behind Putney Swope) to write the screenplay for The Gong Show Movie, which incorporated footage from the show (some of it material that had been kept from air by the censors) into a narrative in which Barris, playing himself, dealt with his ambivalent relationship to fame. Downey was set to direct and did so for a while, but ultimately Barris’s ego led him to take over the project. He claimed to have directed the second half of the movie while Downey handled the first half, but the result is fairly seamless – it feels to be the result of a coherent voice, partly because Barris and Downey had such similar maverick sensibilities to begin with and partly because Barris is such an overpowering personality he can't help but dominate every frame of the movie. “Overpowering” may seem a strange word to describe him, given that he spends most of the film slumped over and exhausted, but there’s no denying Barris’s star presence – he’s endlessly fascinating on screen, and a damn good actor playing this variation on himself. The movie mostly consists of scenes in which Barris struggles with the question of why he produces The Gong Show at all – all it gives him are awkward encounters with fans and critics, inane orders from network executives, and a strained personal life.
The sense of self-revelation here is complex and, in its own way, as riveting as that in Bob Fosse’s similarly themed All That Jazz from the year before. Barris lacks Fosse’s mastery of film form, and The Gong Show Movie doesn’t even attempt to operate on as many levels as Fosse’s classic, but there is the same naked combination of self-loathing and aggrandizement, leading to one of the weirdest yet most satisfying climaxes in any film of its era. The Gong Show Movie doesn’t have a very good reputation – mostly thanks to the assumptions of people who have never seen it – but it’s a terrific movie, and it’s been given the treatment it deserves by Shout Factory. The crisp transfer reveals that Barris was more of a visual stylist than he was ever given credit for; while the video footage from the show looks appropriately crappy, the linking material has texture and tonal range comparable to that of Cassavetes’ studio work of the same period. Shout has provided one outstanding extra feature too, a commentary track by pop culture historian Russell Dyball that expertly contextualizes The Gong Show Movie within Barris’s career, film history, and American culture in general. Those of us who caught and enjoyed The Gong Show Movie when it came out (or in one of its rare cable airings) can now finally have the movie on our shelves; those who have only heard about it, whether positively or negatively, are in for a real treat. In its own way, this is one of the great home video releases of 2016.
- Jim Hemphill