Nowadays the Village People are treated as something of a joke, as if they’d never been any more than a novelty act. It seems strange in retrospect, but for the couple of years following the break-up of Abba, the People were the top-selling pop group on the planet. Not just in the handful of floor-filling singles we remember today, either, but with a string of hit albums – Cruisin’ is perhaps the best known, but the connoisseur should seek out Live and Sleazy, which does what it says on the tin.
But what I want to turn my attention to is the Village People movie, Can’t Stop the Music, one of those films that was embarrassing for maybe twenty years but has vastly improved with age. Probably that has to do with a modern audience being more tuned in to its camp sensibility, maybe too with the anti-disco sentiment of the 1980s having died down.
We don’t need to bother too much with the plot, a heavily fictionalised account of how songwriter/producer Jacques Morali formed the People based on the fashions (I use the term loosely) he’d seen around the gay clubs in Greenwich Village. Here, struggling songwriter and DJ Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg, who would go on to star in scores of Police Academy movies) and his platonic girlfriend Samantha (Valerie Perrine, generally seen in eye-popping profile shots) want a group to perform Jack’s songs, get some friends together, hold auditions to make up the numbers, then launch the Village People on an unsuspecting world.
Well, so far so straightforward. The film is a bit too long, at nearly two hours, and it takes quite a while to get to the group’s formation, but the song-and-dance numbers come at fairly frequent intervals, the camerawork stands up pretty well and the camp humour is, well, not uproarious but it does the job. (The period feel makes the campery much funnier today.) Plus, I can predict at exactly what point the first-time viewer’s jaw will hit the floor. That would be at one hour seven minutes, when the Leatherman sings “Danny Boy”, rather well as it happens, and your jaw will remain on the floor as this scene is rapidly followed by fun in the showers at the YMCA, and then the stunningly tacky “Milkshake” sequence.
The sexual politics of the movie have also improved with age. At the time, a lot of gay activists reviled CSTM as dishonest for failing to make any overt reference to homosexuality, indeed with stereotypically gay characters acting straight. The trouble with that is, the script is positively dripping with gay innuendo, so much so that nobody, except maybe those Midwestern farmers who still wonder why Will and Grace never got married, could fail to get the references. Another interesting point is that, as there was only one gay in the Village People (it was the Indian, since you’re asking) we’re arguably dealing not so much with gay characters being presented as straight (if you ignore the innuendo) as with straight performers camping it up in a celebration of the gay disco culture.
Yes, layer upon layer of sexual identity. Freud would have loved this one.