The Gong Show Movie

1980 existential comedy

Rating: 14/20

Plot: A week in the life of Gong Show host Chuck Barris.

This isn't the cult classic it could be, but maybe it's release on blu-ray will change that. I doubt it happens since there's really no reason for anybody to be thinking about Chuck Barris or The Gong Show these days. I'm not exactly sure what the studio expected when the concept for a movie based on this wonderfully unique and way-ahead-of-its-time train-wreck variety showcase, but I'm willing to bet it wasn't something this angsty. Barris, who does a great job playing an exhausted version of himself that is almost withering before our eyes, is self-loathing, and if the movie wasn't so messy, it would work as a metaphor that anybody stuck in a rut or trapped by his or her own life and lifetime of choices could connect with. The way Barris wears his hat, his quirky mannerisms, his shriveled posture, and his off-putting presence that makes you wonder who the hell decided he needed to be on a stage are all things anybody who watched The Gong Show (or caught the terrific Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) would expect. Combined with the behind-the-curtain existential caricature, there's an unexpected bleak murkiness beneath the chaos of the show auditions and performance montages. Barris is bombarded with The Gong Show, and it's become an unwanted extension of him, like an out-of control tumor that he desperately wants to lance. So frequently, the movie is more painful than it is fun which probably confused critics and fans of the television show at the tail end of the 1970s.

Of course, if you watch this, it's probably because you have fond memories or maybe just an interest in the craziness that was The Gong Show, a stranger precursor to America's Got Talent that could only have existed in the late-70s. When this goes into full Gong Show mode, it's a barrage of weirdness, just a chaotic collection of the talents of talentless human beings. You'll have bad jokes ("What do you call 250 Indian maidens without nipples?" being my favorite), bad dancing, bad singing, worse singing, worse dancing, and worse jokes. It's like the life of this very strange television show, a show that arguably survived more seasons than it should have, is flashing before our eyes, and although there are some moments you wish you could unsee, there's a lot of enormously fun bits, too.

And there's this:

After a while, you feel assaulted by these performances which I think is likely part of the point. Of course, those with a taste of this kind of odd stuff will be more comfortable with the more manic moments, but even those people might cringe a bit as this gets really insane. It all builds (or falls, depending on how you look at it) to an appropriately strange and slightly surreal denouement that somehow involves a horde of Gong Show contestants, a desert, and a marching band.

Chuck Barris, by the way, has a few country-rock songs in this. This guy really was something else.

Oh, and there's been a Vincent Schiavelli spotting! It's always a pleasure seeing that guy.

Robert Downey co-wrote this.

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