As seriously flawed as it is, I'm tempted to call "Times Square" (1980) a guilty pleasure, but the label doesn't really fit. Guilty pleasures are films that you know at heart aren't very good, but you love them anyway. For all its problems, "Time Square" has too much that is rare and wonderful to dismiss it with even mild, affectionate embarrassment. It has moments of joyful energy, emotional intensity and flashes of greatness that support its unsteady whole.
The Times Square shown in the film is very different from the tourist-friendly area that exists today in the wake of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's campaign to clean up the heart of Manhattan. The film captures a time when the neighborhood was filled with X-rated theaters and strip clubs and populated with more than its share of junkies, prostitutes and criminals.
Yet somehow the film makes this perilous urban hub a place of liberation for two troubled, adolescent girls. The depiction of Times Square is accurately described as "curiously unmenacing" in a negative blurb in "Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide," but the backdrop does somehow fit this unique coming-of-age story.
Fifteen-year-old Robin Johnson plays foul-mouthed, ready-to-rumble Nicky Marotta, a girl living on the streets and dreaming of rock and roll stardom. Thirteen-year-old Trini Alvarado is rich girl Pamela Pearl, living with the angst of a politician father who doesn't grasp her emotional needs. When the girls end up roommates in the same psychiatric hospital, a bond is forged. Soon they escape the hospital together and set out for an adventure in the Big Apple.
Pamela's disappearance becomes a major news story, fueled in part by fanciful reports from late-night D.J. Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry), who turns the rebellious girls into heroines for a desensitized city. Nicky and Pamela take on the moniker of the Sleaze Sisters and progress from merely evading the authorities to provoking them with acts of vandalism and Nicky's in-your-face rock and roll rants. Eventually though, Pamela sees the dead-end path they are on and the days of the Sleaze Sisters are numbered.
Curry gets top billing and he's quite good as the hipster, pseudo-poet D.J., but this is the girls' story all the way. Alvarado, who would go on to a moderately successful film career in features like "Little Women" and "The Frighteners," is effective as the gentle, good-natured Pamela, but Johnson dominates every scene with her aggressive yet tender, funny and heartbreaking performance as Nicky.
So what's wrong with "Times Square?" Plenty. The characterizations of the girls are rich and complex, but many of the supporting characters (particularly Pamela's father) are little more than stock figures there to move the plot along. The depiction of the inner workings of Curry's radio station shows the writers had little familiarity with real broadcasting. And while a big part of the film's charm is how it contrasts youthful naivete with the grittiness of real Times Square life, there's something just hopelessly warped about the clearly underaged Pamela going to work in a strip club. We are spared the discomfort of the barely teenaged Alvarado baring it for the cameras, but only through a plot point that seems utterly ludicrous: the club's manager allowing Pamela to dance without going topless because it will supposedly give his joint class.
It's also no surprise to learn that "Times Square" was a mutilated film. Music and film entrepreneur Robert Stigwood produced the film and saw it as a chance for another soundtrack tie-in blockbuster, in the vein of his previous smashes "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease." In the commentary track he shares with Johnson on Anchor Bay's "Times Square" DVD, director Allan Moyle explains how he lost final cut of the film when Stigwood felt the movie didn't include enough songs to warrant a two-record set. He demanded some extra scenes or altering of existing ones to cram more tunes into the film. Moyle refused and was replaced during the final stages of production.
Scenes were also reportedly cut that more strongly indicated a romantic relationship between the two girls, though apparently none of the excised scenes were overtly sexual. Still, even in its existing cut, there are enough sensual suggestions of attraction between the two leads to warrant its status as a cult film among lesbian viewers. Respectful of the insecurity and confusion of adolescence, the movie portrays a relationship of emotional intimacy that hints at a sexual awakening without needing to spell it out.
You can't talk about "Times Square" without mentioning the music. Songs by Patti Smith, the Ramones, XTC, Roxy Music, Lou Reed and others are featured in what may be the first mainstream movie in touch with the punk and new wave music explosion. Almost perversely, it closes with a sugary ballad by Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, an incongruous touch from Stigwood (the Bee Gee's manager) made after Moyle's departure. But even that can't diminish the elation of the scene where the girls dance down 42nd Street to the Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" or Johnson's show-stopping, Jagger-esque rendition of one of the film's original songs, "Damn Dog," which is so good she keeps it going even after one too many false finishes.
Moyle was reportedly so stressed out by the "Times Square" experience that he developed a condition that made all his hair fall out suddenly. In the DVD commentary track, he still sounds like a man deeply hurt by the experience, decrying every poor decision even as he admires the movie's better moments. Moyle would go on to an interesting if uneven career that includes a couple of beloved youth films, "Pump Up the Volume" and "Empire Records," both of which share many of the strengths and weaknesses of "Times Square."
Johnson is far more upbeat in her comments, even though Stigwood's company stalled her young, promising career. Signed to an exclusive contract, she was told she would be groomed as a female John Travolta. But the star vehicles never materialized and the contract kept her from working for others for two or three years. She did other work in film and television through the late '80s, but nothing after that and at last report she was working as a radio traffic reporter. Other than a bit part in Martin Scorsese's "After Hours," I've seen nothing of her subsequent work, but based on "Times Square" one has to wonder if her career, like the movie itself, isn't a case of the great one that somehow got away.
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