The Gong Show Movie (1980)
Directed by Chuck Barris
Judging by the late Chuck Barris’s prolific literary output, the former game show host lived to please an audience, be it with the possibly implausible (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, his dubious admission to being a CIA assassin) or intensely heartbreaking (Della, a recounting of his daughter’s life and death). But nobody, whether they loved or hate-loved his pioneering of amateur-heavy mainstream culture, could’ve anticipated Barris delivering the 8/ 1/2 of game show adaptations. The Gong Show, NBC’s hit talent show/tribute to cocaine’s clever powers, ceased syndication in 1980. Its simple premise—the more laughably horrendous the act, the more likely the panel judges were to bang the aforementioned gong—had drawn ire from critics as the epitome of low culture. Others stated, however, that Gong resurrected bygone theatre traditions for a post-Vietnam America, helping bridge counterculture and mainstream. In a fascinatingly bizarre—and ultimately doomed—way, the film, released mere months after the show’s cancellation, attempted to do the same cinematically.
For writing and directing help, Barris recruited—and later fired—his friend Robert Downey Sr., who gained underground notoriety for his satirical bite (Putney Swope) and formal disregard (No More Excuses) by cribbing from contemporary European cinema and American vaudeville. As such, The Gong Show Movie is a confounding whatsit: an existential navel-gaze that celebrates the show’s most popular—and most forbidden—moments while blurring life and fiction with an absurd “behind the scenes” narrative. Bored and burnt-out, Barris struggles to find peace and happiness while adrift in success, hounded by wannabe contestants and tight-ass execs. But it’s not just a song of himself; The Gong Show Movie is as much a tribute to the people that gave Barris a reason to not bottom-out, be it wife Robin Altman, bewigged pal Rip Taylor, or royal pain-in-the-ass The Unknown Comic. For a project that could’ve very easily just been a glorified highlight reel, Barris and company instead channel The Gong Show‘s anarchic and exploitative pleasures into an entertainment that’s surprisingly controlled and eminently rewatchable. Max Kyburz (May 17, 9:30pm at the Alamo Drafthouse)