Friday, May 15, 2009

JAILBIRD ROCK (USA-Argentina-Panama; 1988)

D: Phillip Schuman
W: Edward Kovach and Carole Stanley (story by Eduard Sarlui)

In the frightening decade of the 1980’s there was an American television series called SOLID GOLD. This was a music program in which the top ten hit singles of the week were counted down between lipsync performances by actual best-selling artists.

As America had yet to want their MTV, the countdown segments on SOLID GOLD were boosted by sex-drenched interpretive dance routines performed by the Solid Gold Dancers, a collection of mascara-blasted, feather-haired showgirls in minimalist costumes, high heels and, when appropriate, leg warmers (say, while “performing” their interpretation of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” for example). There were also a couple of guys in the troupe, but enough about them.

In fact, the Solid Gold ladies were the only reason for any red-blooded, just-pubescent boy to even bother tuning in to SOLID GOLD, and probably the only reason the show lasted as long as it did. When I think back to the revolving door of hosts that included Dionne Warwick, Marilyn McCoo, Rex Smith (who?), Rick “Disco Duck” Dees and Wayland Flowers & Madam, for heaven’s sake, I’m absolutely convinced the dancers were the reason the show lasted so long. God knows they were the only reason I watched. You only needed to watch about ten minutes of SOLID GOLD to say you actually watched SOLID GOLD, and none of those ten minutes required a host. If you catch my drift…

Anyway, if the Solid Gold Dancers had made a movie, that movie would be from 1988. At least, if I had my way, it would have been. Because then it might have attracted some actual talent behind the camera, and the “all-tease” format of the released product would have at least been justified.

JAILBIRD ROCK is a piece of shit set to a grating synth-pop score. A Women-In-Prison movie with all the Women-In-Prison movie cliches—an incompetent warden, a lesbian head guard, pretty girls using dirty words, knife fights in the yard, catfights in the showers, fights with hot irons in the laundry room, homemade ’shine, toilet duty, solitary confinement and all-out interpretive dance competitions—yet not so much as a single exposed bottom or bared breast to place it in the pantheon of babes-behind-bars masterpieces. It comes so close though. Actually, on reflection, I did see a couple of bums, but that’s about it. And they’re the bums of extras, which is hardly the reason anyone watches Women-In-Prison movies.

But wait a minute, did I just say “all-out interpretive dance competitions”?

Yessir, I did.

You see, JAILBIRD ROCK, as the title might have already implied, is a musical. Well more of a dance-ical and quite frankly, when push comes to shove, the girls in this prison could give the Solid Gold Dancers a run in their nylons, once they sort out their differences, stop assaulting each other with hot irons, and learn to distinguish a chasse from a ciseaux. This last bit of education seems to occur mostly off-camera; despite countless "rehearsal" sequences, we're given nothing that anticipates the film's tightly-choreographed dance show climax.

But first things first.

After killing her raging alcoholic stepfather to spare her mother another beating, dance prodigy Jesse (Robin Antin) is sent to the Mierda Hoyo Prison For Wayward Girls in a part of America where the automobiles all look strangely South American and the cell doors are drapes, not bars. Once there, she immediately bunches up the panties of block leader Max (Rhonda Aldrich) and her second-in-command squeeze toy Echo (Robin Cleaver). Playing on Jesse’s team are mousy crybaby Peggy (Valerie Jean Richards) who’s also an easy target for Max, and brash Samantha (Jacqueline Houston), a black girl from the ‘hood who don’t take no crap from nobody, as illustrated by the scene in which she tells Max to “get your dick outta my face before you gotta pull it outta your ass, bitch!” Max, a lesbian, is holding a knife, so Samantha is speaking metaphorically, of course.

Political gamesmanship ensues, shivs are pulled, and everyone ends up in solitary, but Jesse’s lifelong desire to kick it on Broadway is a flame that won’t be extinguished just because Max makes her clean a clogged up toilet with a toothbrush, and so she organizes an all-singing, all-dancing Prison Girl Variety Show. The inept administration sees a wonderful PR opportunity, Max sees a chance to mount an escape (a plan that remains unsuspected by everyone in spite of the fact that she shows up for but never participates in the rehearsals!), and Jesse spends the next six weeks whipping society’s rejects into the best damned tushy-shakers this side of, well, SOLID GOLD. On the big night, the girls tie up their prison shirts, hike up their cut-off short-shorts and leg warmers and dance, baby, dance!

In fact, the final number, illustrated here and set to a screechy tune called “Gotta Move,” is the high point of the movie. All of these girls are phenomenal dancers, but director Phillip Schuman has no idea how to film and cut a musical number, let alone a movie, so we’re left to sort of extract the energy from his unimaginative camera angles and awkward cutting. Mind you, Schulman’s biggest credit before this was the X-rated (and somewhat famous, thanks to a screenplay by DR. STRANGELOVE scribe Terry Southern) RANDY, THE ELECTRIC LADY (1980), which actually makes the general sterility of JAILBIRD ROCK doubly frustrating: this guy worked in PORN and the one thing he leaves out of his Women-In-Prison movie is gratuitous nudity?

If anyone learned anything from this movie (and it certainly wasn’t Schulman, who never made another), it was leading lady Robin Antin, who would go on to found the popular Pussycat Dolls burlesque group, as well as find some success choreographing music videos, television shows and movies (which is exactly what her character Jesse ends up doing when she gets out of prison in JAILBIRD ROCK). Unfortunately her choice of projects (CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE) sometimes seems as dire as her choice of boyfriends (McG, the director of CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE)

So, if you crave a prison picture with all of the workup and little of the release, JAILBIRD ROCK might be worth a peek for schlock aficionados. I found mine rummaging through a box of two dollar VCDs in a Chinatown shop, so I consider it money well spent.