Movie: Times Square (1980)

Automatic pilot and x-ray spex

We were kissing in the cockpit when the airplane wrecked

– “Dragon Lady”, The Geraldine Fibbers

“We’re going to crash somehow.”

“We will, but let’s go down flaming”

Times Square

I thought about music the entire time I watched this 1983 movie, and it wasn’t just because of a killer soundtrack, with music by (among others) Roxy Music, Joe Jackson, The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Pretenders and XTC.  It even has Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”.  The soundtrack alone is an embarrassment of riches.

This is a rare instance of a movie being worthy of such a collection.  For whatever reason, it seems the quality of movies from that era is usually inversely proportionate to their soundtracks.  That it was produced by Robert Stigwood especially gave me pause.  After all, this was the man responsible for the movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton as the title characters.  Turns out I worried unnecessarily, as it was a blast to watch.  

It starts with Robin Johnson wandering New York City streets at night with all her meager possessions in tow.  One of those items is her guitar and small amp.  In an alley, she starts playing along to “Same Old Scene” by Roxy Music which is on the film soundtrack.  Outside of musicals, I’ve never seen a character performing to music that isn’t in the environment of the scene we’re watching.  My word-a-day calendar tells me the word I’m looking for is “non-diegetic”, and I bet I’ll be using that again in a few sentences.

Johnson looks more than a little bit like David Johansen if he was a young woman.  She even has a similar voice and mannerisms.  I wasn’t surprised they duetted on a song on the soundtrack (though not appearing on-screen together). 

A random act of destruction leads to her arrest (the latest in a long series of them), but the first place she is offloaded is a mental hospital.  Her roommate will be Trini Alvarado, playing the deeply repressed daughter of a city commissioner.  There is obviously nothing wrong with her except she has a father that won’t listen to her.

Peter Coffield plays that commissioner, a bureaucrat staging an intense campaign to clean-up Times Square.  Dude, were you the person behind the eventual Disneyfication of the place in real life?  You asshole!  For most of the movie, he is more concerned about his image than his daughter, even when she and Johnson escape the asylum and go into hiding.

The friendship between the girls happens fast but in believable steps.  I especially like the scene where Johnson runs around the hospital, blaring “I Wanna Be Sedated” on her boombox.  Not only is that the perfect use for that song in a film, but I loved the use of diegetic music for it.  See, I just knew I’d get to use that word again!

Stealing an ambulance and driving the wrong way down one-way streets, Johnson is a whirling dervish—a true force of nature that sweeps Alvarado up in its wake.  They become a young queer Bonnie and Clyde, even if their attempts at significant crimes like robbery fail hilariously.

About that last statement: I may be a hetero CIS middle-aged male, but I think I can safely say these two are definitely in a romantic relationship, even if they never share a single kiss on-screen.  In a telling moment before settling down to play house in an abandoned waterfront warehouse, they become blood sisters by pressing their nicked wrists together and yelling out each other’s names as loud as they can.

Tim Curry is actually the headliner of the picture, but he is definitely a secondary character.  Playing a DJ operating out of a station overlooking the titular area, he becomes fascinated by the girls and their antics.  His role here reminded me a bit of Cleavon Little’s DJ in Vanishing Point, as he reads letters from them on the air and even acts as a sort of intermediary between them and the outside world.  A quote I love from one of those letters is, “I am not kidnapped.  I am me-napped.”

Things seem to get wobbly near the middle of the runtime and I started worrying it might go straight off the rails.  Fortunately, it doesn’t, but I was wondering what tone the movie was employing as Johnson’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and destructive.  I’m going to assume that tone was pure objectivity, and without judgment, once the girls start doing things like dropping TVs off of rooftops.  Nobody gets hurt, but somebody could have just as easily been.

All of the characters grow some with their experiences in the course of the film.  Even the father gains new facets, as he tries to converse to his daughter when possible, instead of simply demanding she come home.  The first place he finds he is in a club where she has started dancing.  The moment where Alvarado transforms from being cripplingly bashful to letting herself go is beautiful.  Johnson also learns to let her defenses down a bit, and even writes a pretty good punk song. 

There will be another punk song later and, if there is an elephant in the room regarding this movie, that would be this track.  It has a chorus with two racial slurs, as well as a homophobic one, and it is probably the only aspect of this production more shocking today than when it was released.  Around the same time, Patti Smith had a song with the N-word in the title (and repeated ad nauseum in the lyrics), so I can see what they were aiming for—even if I cringed to the extent of near physical pain the entire time.  I think both songs are more so about how “outside is society”, to quote the Smith track. But what do I know.

Instead of the paragraph of random musings I usually indulge in at this point, how about some more of my favorite quotes?  “Out of the frying pan and into the fire is where you go when you don’t want to be eaten for dinner.”  “I’m brave, you’re pretty.  I’m a fuckin’ freak of nature.”

Despite its moments of ugliness, or perhaps because of them, Times Square turned out to be far more beautiful experience than I anticipated.  Although the relationship between our heroines is too intense to last, I had a blast spending some time with two such high-spiriting young women, so alive and so in love.

Dir: Allan Moyle

Starring Robin Johnson, Trini Alvarado, Tim Curry

Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray