Death in Winnipeg

Crazy Horses of the Apocalypse: Inside the Osmonds

Merrill and Wayne Osmond slump down depressed in their red-sequin-appliqué jumbo-spandex lobster suits while buoyant brother Donny touches his toes for no other reason than to thrust out the saddle-cut rear of his gaudy pantaloons, and in so doing, inflames an already sorry sibling situation. More later.

Winnipeg, November 2000. All is enveloped in a sad atmosphere. My city is plunged in the perpetual night of its notorious winter, lugubriously ice-encrusted, bedecked with crystalline stalactites and crosscut by great white ways of snow banks, all arrayed behind an intricate scrimshaw of frost. The city is a bleak and wind-buffeted Luna Park carved from a glacier—an Expo of melancholy. Here, we throng no midways, cavort in no pavilions. Winter pedestrians are less common than wild dogs.

Winnipeg is a Siberia, a skagway, a vast plain of ice. Its only hill is a mountain of garbage—50 years' worth of civilian refuse—which in the winter children use for toboggan sliding. But sledding can be dangerous, for from this hill the permafrost pushes up odd items buried by our ancestors; I was once impaled there by the very same stag antlers my father had thrown out two decades earlier.

It is onto this drear landscape that ABC has descended to shoot Inside the Osmonds, its sweeps-week biopic (airing February 5), which follows the soaring and crashing fortunes of America's favorite Christian rockers from 1970, the moment they cut the Andy Williams umbilical cord and went on to record 23 gold records, through to the early 1980s, when the family was pushed to the verge of bankruptcy beneath a darkling cloud of suspected unhipness.

Why come to such an arctic outpost to shoot a script set almost entirely in California? Probably has something to do with the tax credits we Canadians use to steal film work from Americans. But also, I'm told, because of the near-Branson-like proliferation of theaters here in Winnipeg, many of them deserted and available as dirt-cheap locations. Or perhaps because we have living here the "secret shag man," who has been hoarding rug for half a lifetime, and could carpet all the highways in Canada with that deep-piled floor covering needed in daunting profusion by the Osmonds art department.

Whatever the reason, I'm thrilled ABC is here. As a filmmaker myself, I have my own mission of mischief. Having been given permission to hang around the set by Richard Fischoff, one of the show's preternaturally gracious producers, I intend to conceal a Super-8 camera on my person and shoot my own subversive version of the script. While ABC's camera rolls, so will mine. Simple. I get a $200 version of a $5 million movie. My secret filmography is bulging with projects exactly like this.

I'm also thrilled most of the shooting will be done within five blocks of my home, meaning I can still have lunch with Mother every day.

On the first day of shooting, I visit Winnipeg's International Inn, which is today doubling as a Las Vegas nightclub where the legendary Osmond prodigies hone their act for a smattering of bored drunks. As I stretch in indolent repose at one side of the set munching a strawberry, I notice how remarkably the actors resemble the Osmond Brothers as I remember them. Being the same age as Donny, I remember them well, especially those fluorescent Chiclet teeth all loaded with Osmond DNA.

The fine young artificial brothers, looking warm and cozy beneath period-perfect wigs, are power-chording unplugged guitars and lip-synching to "Crazy Horses," one of the Osmonds' zestiest sorties into Mormon rock. These early-'70s proto-mullets are so natural I'm no longer self-conscious about my own new toupee, which I'm debuting on this occasion. Clad in buttery-soft, fringed white kid leather with matching macramé belts and white platform boots, the five counterfeit siblings retrace to perfection the famously wild and white choreography unleashed on a semiotics-ignorant public almost 30 years ago. These osmonoid performers are really caught up in the song's feral rhythms, rudely beating on brazen vessels, bellowing like stags, and harmonizing like horny barbers: "What a show, there they go, smokin' up the sky-y-y-y-y-y—yeah!!! Crazy horses, all got riders, and they're you and I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I—I!!!" When the number is over, I forget myself and—this is inexcusable for a supposed filmmaker—applaud wildly, actually ruining the take, because the cameras are still running, and the sparse audience in the scene is supposed to be apathetic. Sheepishly, I promise to stopper my fervor. Fortunately, the next take is the keeper.

I'm astonished to find myself a fan of this music. I decide that this song wasn't ready back in 1973, but it's exactly the right vintage now!

After this scene I'm feeling not quite canny—perhaps a winter flu is coming on—so I wend my way to the washroom to shiver awhile astride a urinal in hope of restoring my comfort and vigor. Suddenly, a beaded leather bullwhip lashes my backside and wraps itself around my midriff. No, it's not a whip after all, but just the long leather bugle-beaded fringe from the vest of one of the young Osmond clones—Donny it turns out—who has run in with fringes flying and now stands beside me, racked with shivers of his own.

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