Some of you who have been with the blog for the duration may remember I reviewed this gem of a movie a few years back. I'm doing an encore of the review as part of a program called Scanversations we have coming up at the Library for National Library Week starting this coming Monday. In a nutshell, everyone you see on staff will be wearing a badge with a QR code (readable by smartphone and portable device apps), which will go to a review written by that particular staff member of a book, music, or movie. Naturally I'm doing a movie : ) Since it will be an introduction of sorts to the Fantasmo blog for many, I thought I would choose a greatest hit review. And I'm a big fan of the movie so I couldn't resist! Speaking of Scanversations, if you come by the Library next week definitely participate. One of the staff members will be wearing a special badge that allows you to enter a drawing to win a Barnes & Noble Nook! So without any further ado, to all readers familiar and new, please enjoy the following observations about the masterwork of one Chuck Barris . . .
Chuck Barris has always been a fascinating character to me. As a kid growing up I loved The Gong Show. It was (and still is) some of the wildest television yet to grace the small screen. Of course Barris was also responsible for The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, but The Gong Show will always be his most well-known effort. But there's a lot more to this guy than The Gong Show would suggest. In particular he's written some very interesting novels (which masquerade as autobiographies) in the form of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Bad Grass Never Dies, and The Big Question. He has also written a "real" biography called The Game Show King which is fascinating, and serves as an excellent companion piece to The Gong Show Movie. The movie itself is a bit of cinematic genius, although it was universally dismissed by critics and audiences 31 years ago. No doubt this had a great deal to due with the fact that it arrived after the peak of the television show's popularity, as well as the unusual nature of the film. Instead of a feature length/R-rated version of the show, the film was an exploration of Barris's life and near nervous breakdown. Sure Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and The Unknown Comic make appearances, but this is nevertheless a dark ride.
The plot of The Gong Show Movie is almost non-existent. Essentially it depicts a week in the life of Chuck Barris. The film starts out with Barris watching some truly outlandish auditions (in part where the film earns its R-rating), and then proceeds to follow him doing everything from waking up in the morning to having dinner with his girlfriend. Most significantly we get to see how Barris is bombarded by people trying to get on the show, to the point that it becomes maddening. It's hard to appreciate now just how popular the show was, but Barris was a rock star in his day. Unlike being a member of The Beatles however, who had people hurling praise and adoration, Barris had loony folks coming at him from all directions performing impromptu auditions. According to the book The Game Show King it wreaked havoc on his personal life, until he eventually left the business and retreated to France.
While the film doesn't follow Barris to his final destination, it does protray a mental breakdown he has in the desert near the conclusion. Eventually he flees Los Angeles, but in a middle-of-nowhere diner he is still accosted. So he drives out into the desert to be alone, and is ultimately confronted by all the zany characters that have become a part of his life - on and off screen. The point is that the line between the two has become indistinguishable, and that he has to find some sort of acceptance of the situation or go insane. It's not played as heavy as it sounds, but there is a dark energy to the film that suggests the material is not as lighthearted as the comedic surface elements make it appear. In fact, the juxtaposition of the familiar trappings of the show with the darker thematic content makes for a sometimes uncomfortable viewing experience. In the end the audience is left wondering whether or not art is imitating the life of Barris.
The Gong Show Movie may not be an existential masterpiece, however there is far more to the film than its source material would indicate. It would have been easy for Barris to make a 90-minute, R-rated version of the show to satisfy fans and generate box office returns. Instead he chose to make an experimental film that defies categorization. This is further supported by the fact that original director Robert Downey Sr. gracefully bowed out so that Barris could steer the project. While Barris shrugged off suggestions of a deeper meaning to the film at the time, the end product doesn't support his protestations. Particularly when taken in context with his literary works, The Gong Show Movie plays as a trial run before his bigger success with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. And while the book is arguably more successful artistically, I'm still partial to the film. Writing a great book is certainly a noteworthy accomplishment, but the financial/career risks associated with a film are far more significant. Certainly that proved true with The Gong Show Movie, which was more or less the small/big screen swan song for Barris.
The Gong Show Movie may never be hailed as a lost classic, but it will always be a personal favorite of mine. It's an often bizarre, wonderful film that manages to capture the essence of the period, while also uniquely exploring the personality of a television icon in a most unusual way. It's a testament to the genius and artistic courage of Barris that he chose to take the road less traveled, elevating an outrageous game show to a cinematic treatise on the nature of celebrity. Now if only Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek would follow suit!