The Film: 3.5/5
Chuck Barris is one of the key figures in the evolution of television entertainment. He practically invented junk food that could be fed intravenously to millions of viewers through the warming cathode tubes and his most popular creations The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and the unclassifiable The Gong Show helped set the stage for the future emergence of The Jerry Springer Show, American Idol, and many other malignant growths on the soul of the medium.
The Gong Show gave C-list celebrities the chance to earn a month’s rent by mocking and passing judgment on show business wannabes who had often performed with plenty of heart but not much in the way of actual talent (with the notable exceptions of Paul Reubens and Oingo Boingo). Four years after the show made its debut, Barris attempted to expand his empire to the big screen. The result was 1980’s The Gong Show Movie, which he directed from a screenplay he cobbled together with the participation of counterculture filmmaking revolutionary Robert Downey (Putney Swope). Critics hated it and audiences who Barris figured might be interested in watching 90 minutes of uncut Gong Show mayhem that Standards and Practices couldn’t lay a condescending finger on stayed away in droves.
The Gong Show Movie follows Barris (playing himself) over the course of a single chaotic week as he attempts to balance his everyday life with his responsibilities to The Gong Show. Everywhere he goes when he’s not actually at the show, he is confronted by random strangers cornering him into watching their impromptu auditions. At work he has to oversee the production of five episodes of the show in a single day. The network president Buddy Didlo (James B. Douglas, who played the officious martinet Colonel Merrill in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H) constantly applies friendly pressure on Barris to tone down the show’s offensive content due to his baseless fears of ratings “slippage”. Barris’ live-in girlfriend Red (Robin Altman) tries without much luck to get him to take a permanent break from the show. The hapless host can’t even find peace and quiet in the middle of the Moroccan desert. The Gong Show might be Chuck Barris’ greatest creation, and it also might be the catalyst of an epic nervous breakdown.
Scattered throughout the movie are cameos from some of the show’s recurring performers and judges: Jamie Farr, Pat McCormick, Murray “The Unknown Comic” Langston, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, Rosey Grier, Tony Randall, and a breast-baring Jaye P. Morgan. Montages of uncensored, unbleeped clips from the show appear frequently, and eagle-eyed viewers will also be able to spot Kitten Natividad, Taylor Negron, Danny DeVito, Vincent Schiavelli, and even Phil Hartman as a gun-toting weirdo who tries to audition for Barris with a Mikhail Baryshnikov impression while they’re both stuck waiting in an airport ticket line.
Welcome to Chuck Barris’ nightmare. What started out as a harmless lark to amuse daytime audiences and give amateur entertainers a chance to prove their worth had mutated into a crass and unforgiving freak show that its creator could no longer control. Barris wanted out of the mayhem, and The Gong Show Movie spends most of its 89-minute running time devoted to the sobering truth that the show is sucking out every ounce of the man’s life, turning it into a loogie and hocking it right back in his face. Nothing but the sweet release of the grave will bring dear Chuck any lasting happiness.
Much like when the Monkees teamed up with Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson to give their own squeaky-clean image as poppy songsters in the mind-frying cult classic Head, Barris uses The Gong Show Movie as an outlet for expressing the helplessness he felt at having to plaster on a bemused smile and serve as master of ceremonies for a carnival of crudity and lousy taste that has grown beyond his control and is too popular to stop, in spite of what the haughty Didlo (his name a juvenile anagram for a sex toy – take a guess) might claim. Remember, we’re supposed to find this fun to watch.
Co-writer Downey was originally supposed to direct, but dissatisfied with the vision of the man who brought us such brilliant cinematic satires as Putney Swope and Greaser’s Palace, Barris ousted him and took over the job despite having no feature directing credits to his name. Downey could have made a real movie equally provocative for the intellectual and good-natured fun for the masses, but in the hands of Barris we’re given a feature-length argument for why The Gong Show is a blight upon civilization only to chicken out in the last ten minutes to say that maybe the show isn’t all bad and it can probably be a little bit better as long as its creator returns to see every episode through from the parade of auditions that begin each work day to the final taping.
It wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that Barris sees the error of his ways and gives up a life of self-imposed exile to reassume his rightful place back at the show. Whether or not this is a happy ending depends entirely on the viewer, but this is pretty much the story about how Chuck Barris learned to stop worrying and love the bane of his existence. It’s like All That Jazz, only weirder and made with less style. In fact, The Gong Show Movie was shot in a bland and inoffensive manner that makes even the wilder proceedings look flat. Maybe the intention of Barris and cinematographer Richard C. Glouner (The Dunwich Horror) was to emphasize the cold, stark reality that Chuck’s life and the daily talent-deprived carnival he held sway over were one and the same. If it was, mission accomplished.
I might as well note that the real ending to Barris’ story is that he sold his production company for $100 million and fled to the south of France to live out the rest of his years. You didn’t really believe what he wrote in his supposed “autobiography” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, did you?
Barris tapped Milton DeLugg, the musical director for The Gong Show and many other of his television endeavors, to provide his film with a rowdy and brass original score that turns the lunacy up a few notches more than necessary. He even gets a final reel assist from the University of Southern California’s Trojan Marching Band. Barris is natural and at ease playing an exaggerated version of his real persona and plays his cinematic counterpart’s increasing enragement and vulnerability convincingly. His former real-life spouse Robin Altman goes through the motions of playing the girlfriend part as the script dictates but she does it well and never comes across as an amateur. James B. Douglas makes a good comic foil for Barris as the fussy, flop sweat-drenched network suit who always worries that the show is going too far but understands the necessity of its very existence. Gong Show regulars get a little screen time away from the television soundstage that only adds to the padded feel of the final product.
Universal Pictures released The Gong Show Movie in theaters just two days after the nationwide opening of The Empire Strikes Back, so its box office failure was no real surprise. You could also take into account that the show itself had ended in first-run syndication around the time of the movie’s premiere and audiences more than a little fatigued by it all weren’t about to pass up another chance to stand in three-hour-long lines to watch Luke, Leia, and Han take on Darth Vader for the tenth time in order to witness Chuck Barris confront the void and scream feebly into its endless depths as it consumes his destiny. Maybe after thirty-six years of being ignored, insulted, and cast out into the cold night like so many of the contestants on the televised parade of kitschy craziness that inspired its making, The Gong Show Movie can finally get its time in the spotlight without being gonged after only ten seconds.
Ever since The Gong Show Movie bombed on the big screen it has been AWOL on VHS and DVD, thus making its Blu-ray debut something of a cause for celebration I suppose. Since no other home video edition is known to exist, the studio had to create a new high-definition master for this release (utilizing an interpositive or the original camera negative as a source most likely). The transfer is correctly framed in the film’s original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio and presented in 1080p resolution, with the majority of the scenes that were shot on 35mm coming out looking the strongest in terms of stabilized image and color timing. The video segments are also well-presented though the difference between the two elements can’t help but be noticed. Grain is minimal and details appear sharper than ever before.
The transfer has been supplied with an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that does an excellent of replicating the film’s original sound mix with audible dialogue and a vibrant showcasing of the DeLugg score and various songs penned and performed by Barris himself (my favorite being the opening tune, “Sometimes It Just Don’t Pay to Get Up”, which speaks volumes about the man’s state of mind and perfectly sets the movie’s tone). There are no lingering traces of distortion or damage to the soundtrack. In terms of overall presentation, this is the best this movie will ever look and sound on home video. English subtitles have also been provided.
There’s only one bonus feature, but it’s a good one: a fact-packed audio commentary with pop culture historian Russell Dyball that covers a lot of anecdotal ground relating to The Gong Show Movie and makes for a great companion to the film itself. The theatrical trailer wasn’t included but you can’t find it on YouTube.
The Gong Show Movie offers as much shameless, vulgar entertainment value as a typical episode of the actual show, but you approach it as a one-way portal into the soul of a television icon realizing too late just what freakish insanity he has unleashed upon the world and wanting out, you might find it a real kick. In any case, it lives again on Blu-ray that looks and sounds really good and has a terrific historian commentary to compliment the main feature. This sweet-natured oddity is worth at least one watch.