Freaks, Glam Gods and Rockstars superficially resembles punky verité: The Decline of Eastern Civilization, where civilization means the Village. But it’s more an underlit heir of Paris Is Burning: a talking head trip into the foreshortened demimonde of downtown performance, heavy on the Wigstock footage. A couple glam bands figure exactly insofar as they happen to be gendervexed, what with all that makeup. However, director John T. Ryan lacks Jennie Livingston’s narrative sense and eye for the seductiveness of The Other Life. Wandering from Kevin Aviance to The Lady Bunny to Jayne County, Freaks assumes its subjects’ inherent hipness and rolls tape. Unrestricted by idea, we get a prolonged restatement of fundamental structures: transgressive urge and ecstatic dream as pure performance, underwritten by everyone’s backstory as the small-town oddball who came to New York to be a star.
That’s also the deep grammar of Josie and the Pussycats. Ignored and reviled in Riverdale despite looking suspiciously like Hollywood starlets in leopard-ear tiaras, Josie, Melody, and Val make it big in New York. When they find out their record company is using their own music to subliminally market youth trends (and the government’s in on it!), they save the world from the forces of marketing and still manage to rock.
The movie is dizzying and claustrophobic; there are endless insides, but no outside. Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, and Rosario Dawson play a band based on cartoon characters based on a comic book; the excellently irrelevant music is played by excellently irrelevant real-life rockers. Alan Cumming plays Richard Grant playing the manager in Spice World. Parker Posey and Tom Butler play evil non-geniuses out to sell stuff through pop music, which means, I suppose, they are appearing as directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont. Motorola and Starbucks play products being sold through product placement. Questioned about her relevance, one side character says, “I’m here because I was in the comic book.”
It would be easy to note that this is all a money-making scheme playing a critique of money-making schemes, winkingly aware of its untenable position and peddling its ass anyway through the kicky vertigo of infinite regress. Consider it done. However, when on work release from the Von Trier festival, I like such cheap thrills. Especially when it’s lurid and energetic and spiritually bankrupt. The “critique” element is silly, but that doesn’t mean there’s no pleasure in recurrent scenes of zombified kids stalking the mall shrieking “Orange is the new pink!” It’s Dawn of the Dead with the allegorical element liposuctioned right out.
But it’s also a melancholy movie. It knows you can never again make a rock flick without the topic really being marketing. Hell, you can never again make a Hollywood movie without the topic being marketing. So what will turn out to be the new movie? What will let us out of the trap whereby we’re all here because we were in the Universal-Vivendi strategy memo?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 17, 2001