Tuesday, 20 April 2010


The story of the movie "Times Square"

Times Square is one of my favourite movies.  It was an American film released in 1980 but I discovered it in the early 1980s.  It was released on DVD a few years ago complete with commentary by the director and lead actress, it's only available as a Region 1 DVD but it's still worth getting hold of.  It's the story of 2 teenage girls who meet up in a mental hospital and run away together.  Trini Alvarado plays Pamela Pearl, the repressed quiet daughter of a prominent politician who's engaged in a campaign to clean up Times Square.  Robin Johnson plays Nicky, a wild juvenile delinquent who wants to be a famous rock star.  The 2 girls call themselves The Sleez Sisters and gain a following among the city's disaffected youth for exposing the hypocrisy of society.  The girls are befriended/exploited by a charismatic DJ, Johnny La Guardia, played by Tim Curry.

Times Square was the first film Alan Moyle ever directed.  (He later went on to make Pump Up The Volume with Christian Slater).  He wrote the script after he found the diary of an unknown girl in a second hand sofa where she talked about her experiences of being a mentally ill teenager with nobody to talk to.  He'd also worked at St. Vincent's mental hospital in Manhattan and used the experiences of girls he'd known there.  The original story was called She Got The Shakes and was about a teenage girl having psychosomatic fits who meets another girl in a mental hospital. Jacob Brackman then revised it into the finished screenplay.

The original movie was intended to be a small scale production with a strong "downtown" punk ethos reflecting the sleazy location of Times Square.  (This was before the area was redeveloped and cleaned up).  Alan Moyle showed the script to various Hollywood studios who were interested in doing it but wanted to develop it further and tone it down.   Robert Stigwood (the producer behind Grease and Saturday Night Fever) somehow got hold of a copy of the script and pursued them.  Alan Moyle decided to go with his organisation because he thought Stigwood would remain true to the ethos of the film, especially the gay storyline between the 2 girls.

Trini Alvarado (then only 12) was cast as Pamela Pearl.  They auditioned thousands of girls all over America for the part of Nicky Moratta before Robin Johnson was discovered.  She was a 15 year old schoolgirl who was hanging out on the streets of Brooklyn when a guy came up to her and told her all about the film and gave her the number to call for an audition.  She had to audition several times as she was an unknown name who had never acted before she was given the part.  (Nobody ever found out who the guy actually was who discovered Robin).

Tim Curry also appears in the movie as Johnny La Guardia.  He shot all his scenes in 2 days and in the DVD commentary, Alan Moyle confesses that he feels he failed to truly exploit Tim's genius and that he was badly treated by the Robert Stigwood Organisation.   He wasn't the only one.

Alan Moyle had chosen songs that evoked the "downtown" feel of the movie and it was planned that these would be released as a soundtrack album.  But the Robert Stigwood Organisation wanted to do a double album and told Moyle to add another 7 or 8 songs.  He refused and was sacked from the movie.  The movie was then recut.  All traces of the gay storyline were cut including scenes that had already been shot such as one of the girls dyeing each other's hair or swimming in their underwear.  Robert Frank (who did the cover of Exile on Main Street) had offered to do the opening titles but the Robert Stigwood Organisation turned him down claiming he would be too dark.  A David Bowie song was commissioned but wasn't used.  The extra songs were all pop/disco numbers which gave the finished soundtrack a somewhat schizophrenic feel.

Robin Johnson was described as the lovechild of Judy Garland and Mick Jagger and even in this flawed film, she gave a stand-out performance that should really have led to more.  However, she signed an exclusive contract with the Robert Stigwood Organisation who were going to develop films for her.  She was asked to audition for countless films in Hollywood but had to decline them all as she was under exclusive contract.  When it finally ended, she was back to the start as an unknown actress because Times Square hadn't been a big hit.  She was in a couple of B movies and had bit parts in movies like After Hours before she gave up her acting career.  She was working as a traffic reporter for a Los Angeles radio station.

The finished movie was supposed to be popular and appeal to everyone but it ended up pleasing no-one and was a big flop.  However, over the years it has become a cult classic.
A couple of points of interest:
Many of the girls' costumes seem to echo Vivienne Westwood's Buffalo Girls collection, which I believe came out a few years later.
There is a scene where Nicky watches Pamela dancing in a strip club that is very reminiscent of Aerosmith's Crazy video.  A "butch" teenage girl in a suit watches her girlfriend dance (but not strip) in a packed strip joint to the approval of the audience.
Manic Street Preachers did a cover version of Damn Dog on their debut album, Generation Terrorists.  They also did a song called Roses in the Hospital which is a direct quote from the movie.

It has one of the best soundtracks ever featuring New Wave tracks from the likes of Patti Smith and The Pretenders.  Robin Johnson's songs are amazing and it's hard to believe she was only 15 when you watch her assured performances.  David Johansen of the New York Dolls (who did a duet with her that appears on the soundtrack but not in the film) told her that she had what it takes to be a great rockstar.  Her acting is so raw and spell-binding that Courtney Love cited her as a major inspiration.  Robin is amazing to watch although it's difficult to think what other roles she could have played without being typecast --- she was such an extraordinary performer.

I still think this is an amazing movie.  It has an incredible energy and moments of real genius.  It is a flawed film though --- some of it is hopelessly melodramatic and unbelievable and the editing has somewhat fucked up the story.  But despite all this, the essential spirit of the film shines through.  It is one of the few female buddy movies that ends happily especially for one based around the theme of mental illness.  Even the mental illness theme was unusual for the time especially as the movie tried to show the freedom and creativity and openness that could come with mental illness.

When I first saw this movie, it was a fucking epiphany.   I was 14 years old, hospitalised in a psychiatric unit and just getting into alternative culture.  Times Square was a revelation.  It showed you how exciting and chaotic the big city could be and how it would inspire and stimulate you as well as scare you.  That was my dream --- to run away to the bright lights and have my own creative renaissance and be discovered by some cool alternative media Svengali.  It seemed like Nicky and Pamela represented the 2 halves of my personality and my 2 possible futures.  Pamela was the quiet, respectable girl who longed for a normal, middle class life and Nicky was the wild, crazy genius who would burn brightly then crash hard.  This movie seemed like the only thing remotely resembling and evoking my mood and hopes and fears at the time.



NOTE:   Apparently they've now released a Region 2 DVD (although for somer reason it seems to have only been released in Spain)

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