Trading Grit for Glitter—The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

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Film(/TV Musical): The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again
Director: Kenny Ortega
Writers: Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien
Primary Cast: Laverne Cox, Ryan McCartan, Victoria Justice, Annaleigh Ashford, Reeve Carney, Christina Milian, Staz Nair, Adam Lambert, Ben Vereen, Ivy Levan, Tim Curry
Original Air Date: 20 October 2016

Fox’s tribute to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) does disservice to Jim Sharman’s cult classic. Like some sort of malformed M&M, this Rocky Horror gives viewers a hollow, candy-colored shell completely devoid of anything dark and delicious for them to sink their teeth into. Despite catchy tunes and solid work from some of its cast, the show never manages to justify its own existence. Though it’s presented as a celebration of a film that audaciously embraces the weird and the freakish, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again is lamentably ordinary. The messy, the subversive, and the frighteningly sexy are nowhere to be found; in their place, the polished, the pretty, and unqueer all come creeping in.

Directed by Kenny Ortega, (Hocus Pocus, High School Musical), Let’s Do the Time Warp Again uses the same Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien script as the original, so its plot is essentially identical to the earlier film. Which is to say that it’s sloppy, that it’s frequently nonsensical, and that it runs of steam (while simultaneously falling off the rails) in its second half.

The story goes something like this. Shortly after they get engaged, a flat tire brings young sweethearts Brad (Ryan McCartan) and Janet (Victoria Justice) to a mysterious castle run by “transvestite” scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Laverne Cox). The innocent Brad and Janet are out of place among the punkier, gothier, and sexually uninhibited band of misfits who party and wait at Frank’s beck and call. While at the castle, the naïve couple witness the creation of a Frank’s Rocky (essentially, a living sex toy) and are seduced into giving themselves over to “absolute pleasure.” They also see a man die and only narrowly escape a confrontation among aliens—such is life inside the “science fiction double feature” and musical parody of B cinema that Rocky Horror is supposed to be.

“Supposed to be” and not “is,” because Ortega’s version isn’t true to its source. It uses the same disjointed script—part queer reimagining of Frankenstein, part alien invasion story, part pure pulp—but it does so without preserving much of what has enabled Sharman’s film to endure. The B films that Rocky Horror harkens back to aren’t subtle or tidy, and the horror and sci-fi genres that the original film engages are built on the confusion and transgression of fundamental boundaries. Sharman’s Rocky Horror is an exercise in excess, abandon, and subversion. For all its camp, humor, and titillation, it aims to shock and to challenge traditional notions of what people should be. But Fox’s “tribute” paints over Rocky Horror’s trashy, genre-specific roots with bright colors and perfectly applied makeup. Where the cult classic chooses grit, Ortega reaches for glitter. But in cleaning up and beautifying Rocky Horror, Ortega robs his creation of any allure or staying power.

This lack is especially clear in the show’s opening number. In the 1975 film, “Science Fiction/Double Feature” is sung by disembodied red lips. The image is ridiculous, sexy, and a little unsettling. More importantly, it immediately signals Rocky Horror’s interest in gender-bending and the blurring of boundaries. Lipstick is feminized, but without a face to connect to the lips, viewers can’t be sure whether they belong to a man, a woman, or to someone in between. The fact that the song is sung by Richard O’Brien—in a voice that could easily be associated with any gender—further adds to the confusion. Fox’s show does away with all this. Instead of garish red lips floating in the dark, Let’s Do the Time Warp Again opens with a beautiful blonde usher (Ivy Levan) singing in a movie theater. Where O’Brien’s voice is trembling, strange, and seductive, Levan’s performance is louder, more one-dimensional, and far less interesting. There is nothing challenging or even remotely freaky about such an opening, and nothing about Levan’s usher hints at aberrant sexuality or pushes the boundaries of gender—such problems consistently plague Ortega’s production.

Unfortunately, the show’s poor decisions extend to the casting of Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black). Cox is gorgeous, and she can sing pretty well, but she’s no Frank-N-Furter. She lacks the vocal force and the magnetic presence of Curry, and her acting during non-musical scenes often falls flat. She speaks in an inconsistent accent, and she her costumes stand out much more than she does. Curry’s Frank-N-Furter is a larger-than-life figure who demands attention and dares onlookers to judge him. In comparison, Cox’s Frank-N-Furter blends into the crowd.

Cox is also too composed. Her outfits match perfectly. Her makeup looks like it was applied by a professional (rather than by her own hands). Even when she does finally rock black leather, it’s shiny and new rather than ragged. Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter conveys sex and danger, but Cox only brings beauty and fashion. This isn’t all the actress’s fault, but it deadens Fox’s tribute all the same. More importantly, Cox’s glossy, put-together appearance is indicative of an overarching problem with the show: visually, it’s all too perfect. The castle is brightly lit, there is nothing worn or sinister about the sets or costumes, there are no shadows hiding monsters, and the clothes fit their wearers like a glove.

Like the opening sequence’s usher, Cox’s casting also effaces the subversive nature of Sharman’s film. By casting a (trans)woman as Frank-N-Furter without altering the script, Fox robs a number of lines of irony and impact. When 1975’s Janet says to Brad that “the owner of that castle might be a beautiful woman,” the joke lands when the owner is revealed to be an attractive, gender-bending man instead. In Fox’s version, the owner actually is a beautiful woman, and Janet’s line loses a layer of meaning. Similarly, when Frank says, “I hope you’re adaptable, Dr. Scott. I know Brad is,” there’s nothing particularly queer behind her meaning, because, in sleeping with her, Brad hasn’t entered the world of bisexuality as he does in Sharman’s film. Furthermore, Frank’s sexual objectification of Rocky is also rendered unqueer; in this new version, a beautiful woman desires a conventionally attractive man—what’s so daring about that?

Other performances in the show are hit-and-miss. McCartan’s Brad has plenty of personality and charisma, and he sings the musical numbers with clear skill. Though he has large shoes to fill as Riff-Raff (played by O’Brien in the original), Reeve Carney (Penny Dreadful) steals the scenes in which he appears. Annaleigh Ashford also brings a welcome does of quirk and energy to her scenes. On the other hand, Justice’s Janet never rises to the occasion. Her singing is fine, but her voice lacks the wild, airy quality of Susan Sarandon’s. Justice’s acting is also weak, and she fails to convey Janet’s girlish naivete. For the most part, the rest of the cast—including the extremely talented Adam Lambert—are rather forgettable.

The songs in Let’s Do the Time Warp Again are the same ones that appear in the original. They are catchy, they are fun, and the show is at its best during them. That said, the music is drained of some of its rock and roll blood in this version, and the way the songs are sung isn’t always as dark or as raunchy as it should be.

When you strip Rocky Horror of its subversion, its dark style, and its raw edges, you aren’t left with much at all. Sharman’s film is alluring and repulsive all at once. Ortega’s show is neither. The director has made films and TV movies for Disney on numerous occasions, and doing so may have robbed him of anything that might resemble an instinct for transgression. Whatever his excuse, he has given viewers a Rocky of their own—a thing pretty and clean and utterly devoid of deeper thought or purpose. With its polished choreography, meticulous costumes, and too-perfect sets, Let’s Do the Time Warp Again was clearly crafted with great care, but there’s no reason it should have been crafted at all. It has no teeth or sex appeal; as such, it is unlikely to please existing fans. At the same time, the Fox show is so lifeless and misguided that it won’t convert non-fans either. Meanwhile, those with no knowledge of Sharman’s film will likely be left confused (and possibly, quite bored) by this soulless reincarnation.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again probably won’t be enough to kill the current TV-musical trend, but one can still hope that it’s at least left maimed by Fox’s efforts.

Until Next Time
Go see The Handmaiden. 

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