Every time I hear or read anything about Caitlyn Jenner, the first thing I think of is Can't Stop the Music. That's the disco movie extravaganza in which Olympic gold medal winner and Wheaties cover boy Bruce Jenner played their first, and last, film acting role. Timing is everything, and Can't Stop the Music didn't have it. It went into production in 1979 just as the disco craze was peaking, marked by the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago where a giant crate of disco records was blown up on the field, ushering in the "disco sucks" era.
By the time it opened one year later, it tried to play it safe by shedding its original title, Discoland: Where the Music Never Stops, but that didn't fool anybody. When I saw the film along with six other people in Manhattan's massive Ziegfeld Theater, we all knew it was DOA.
Can't Stop the Music was the gayest non-gay film I'd ever seen, like an issue of After Dark magazine come to life. It wanted to signify gayness to those in the know, but keep it all on the down low for unsuspecting straights. Where to start? "Y.M.C.A.," Village People's biggest hit, was given a full-out production number, with gymnasts, swimmers, and weight-lifters cavorting around Valerie Perrine, here reduced to the Jane Russell role in a replay of "Ain't There Anyone Here For Love," from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes -- only not as witty or well staged. And the men had as little interest in Valerie as they did in Jane.
Then there was Bruce Jenner dashing around the West Village in Daisy Dukes and a midriff top.
He was super cute, but I much preferred Jewish dreamboat Steve Guttenberg as Jack Morell, an Americanized version of Jacques Morali, the French songwriter-producer who masterminded the Village People. Representing a cross section of "macho" gay stereotypes (Cowboy, Construction Worker, Leatherman, Indian, Policeman, and G.I.) the group arrived in 1977 with their self-titled debut album. That first album, performed by studio session singers, was actually kinda hot, with its invocation of gay meccas like "San Francisco," "Hollywood (Everybody is a Star)," and "Fire Island."
They broke through with the huge mainstream hit "Macho Man" the next year, and when it came time to do live gigs, Morali's recruitment ads showed just the skill set he required: "Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Moustache." By the time they landed on American Bandstand, doing synchronized choreography behind mike stands, they looked about as butch as the Supremes. None of the clubs I went to played their records and for most gays the group was a kind of homosexual minstrel act. But everyone else loved them. I shouldn't have been surprised when I visited my family in the Midwest at Christmas in 1978 and found a straight family member playing "Macho Man" without irony on his car's tape deck.
Can't Stop the Music was supposed to be their big showcase, but instead it presented them as blank-faced chorus boys. (It was no surprise to see "Cowboy" Randy Jones a few years later as the Boy Next Door in a summer stock production of Meet Me in St. Louis.) The motley supporting cast was John Waters-worthy: Broadway's Tammy Grimes and Russell Nype (Ethel Merman's old co-star from Call Me Madam), "Dainty June" June Havoc, 50s leading lady Barbara Rush, 60s leading lady Leigh Taylor-Young, Sammy Davis, Jr.'s wife Altovise Davis, and Marilyn Sokol as the group's fag hag factotum. But wait--no one, including the Village People, was supposed to be gay, and the female dancers worked overtime lusting after them in the musical numbers just to make sure we got it. For a movie drenched in gay innuendo, it forced an army of men back into the closet. Arriving just ahead of Ronald Reagan's election as President and with the AIDS crisis looming, Can't Stop the Music now seems a disquieting preview of the decade ahead.
Now that we've been introduced to Caitlyn, the film assumes another dimension. It's not Bruce's good-natured awkwardness as an actor that's so striking. It's that Caitlyn's physical and emotional journey seems to mirror that of Bruce's leading lady. The film's plot centered on former model Samantha Simpson (Perrine), who helps her roommate Jack (yep, he's straight, too) launch a disco group called Village People while being romanced by Bruce's uptight lawyer. Samantha, or Sam, as she's called, has no previous experience in the music world, but nevertheless diligently begins recruiting members to the group. Thirty-five years later, Sam's single-minded pursuit would have earned her a reality show (I Am Sam, perhaps) and mirrors Cait's earnest embrace of the trans community.
Sam sounds like a PFLAG mom when she schools a squad of baby Village People, urging them to drink their milk so they can grow up to be one of the big boys. (This prompts the notorious "Milkshake" number, with the Village People in all-white versions of their Cops-and-Cowboys uniforms leading a chorus line in ghastly "get down" disco choreography.) On I Am Cait, Jenner's new reality show, the L, G, and B in LGBT are milkshake plain, strictly ho-hum, as Caitlyn focuses on the T, urging a group of trans teens to "hang out with the people that love you and respect you."
Sixty-five-year-old Caitlyn's presentation as an all-American glamour girl, a Social Security babe, has the same easygoing glamour that Perrine's Sam puts on or sheds as she chooses. Even Caitlyn's Versace gown at the ESPY Awards could have been worn by Sam -- if the film's costumes had been classier. Whoever would have thought in 1980 that Valerie Perrine's greatest contribution to show business might be as role model to her co-star, the future Cait?
By the time the Village People, now dressed in sequins, are joined by the supporting cast for one last line dance, Can't Stop the Music has jumped the shark so far that land is nowhere in sight. But what a difference thirty-five years makes! Village People are still going strong as a beloved oldies act. "Y.M.C.A." is a sing-a-long at weddings, office parties -- even baseball games. Bruce's uptight lawyer in the film now reads as a metaphor for the turmoil he went through to become Caitlyn. So here's a disco toast to a time capsule artifact, and to Caitlyn Jenner for making it more fun -- and much more complex -- than it was in 1980.