The Film: Tapeheads (1988)

The Principles: Written by Bill Fishman and Peter McCarthy. Directed by Bill Fishman. Acted by John Cusack, Tim Robbins, Katy Boyer, Junior Walker, Sam Moore, and a slew of other amazing folks.

The Premise: Ivan (John Cusack) and Josh (Tim Robbins) get canned from their gig as security guards for staging an impromptu music video shoot on the job. While Josh is ready to wallow in unemployed self-pity, the business-savvy Ivan sees their recent termination as just the push they need to try their hand in the music video production business. Under the moniker Video Aces, the duo start out with small jobs like chicken & waffle commercials before working their way up to videotaping living wills and funerals. Through equal doses of chance and dumb luck, Video Aces become the hottest music video production company in L.A.! Now, “let’s get into trouble, baby!”

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Is It Good: This movie is a party you never want to stop. Created when artists and directors were pushing the boundaries of the music video, Tapeheads is a look at the art form while also addressing the value of integrity in the scum-ridden music industry. More than anything though, the film is straight up one of the most fun cinematic experiences in existence. At least in my book it is. And if you think different, I don’t think we can be friends anymore. Please leave.

Who couldn’t love a movie where John Cusack plays a rabidly ambitious swindler with slicked-back hair and a used-car salesman mustache. And who wouldn’t flip over Tim Robbins playing an oddball video freak with a single-minded DIY passion. These are rhetorical questions – that’s why I didn’t use a question mark.

The backdrop of music video production is used as an excuse to set up a series of hilarious shoots with various bizarre fictitious acts. Like Cube Squared, a band of Swedish hunks who lyp-sync along to a cover of  Devo’s “Baby Doll.”  Or the metal band The Blender Children, who get killed by a crashed spy satellite, which, in true rock n roll fashion, makes them post-mortem chart-toppers. Kinda like how in UHF Weird Al spoofs a grip of films, Tapeheads does the same with music videos.

Speaking of Weird Al, Mr. Yankovic makes an ultra-brief but entertaining cameo as a cranky version of himself. There are heaps of cameos throughout the film, including Doug E. Fresh, Ted Nugent, Soul Train legend Don Cornelius, a shockingly tame Bobcat Goldwaith, Martha Quinn, Mike Nesmith, and Texas blues singer King Cotton as a rapping spokesman for a chicken & waffles joint. Usually the whole “white-people-acting-like-how-they-think-black-people-act” is pretty irritating, but King Cotton is ridiculous enough to get a pass. He scratches a waffle on a turntable, for chrissakes!

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Producer/genius Mike Nesmith (Repo Man, Timerider) helped pioneer the whole music video phenomenon in the early 80s after leaving his Monkees days behind. Some even credit him as creating the music video as we know it. A lot of this has to do with his award-winning 1981 video collection Elephant Parts, which combined music videos and skits. That same year, Nesmith sold his TV show PopClips, the predecessor of MTV. So yeah, it’s safe to say Nesmith conceived the genre of music videos. It’s more than fitting that he produced Tapeheads.

The super cute Katy Boyer plays Belinda, the boys’ loft-mate and Josh’s love interest (although he’s painfully ambivalent to her attraction [until he’s drunk]). She has a great fight scene against a leather-clad, nunchuck-wielding music journalist named Samantha (Mary Crosby). In an earlier scene, Samantha gives Ivan a blowjob in a cemetery, which is more hilarious than sexy. She’s working both sides between the Video Aces and Norman Mart, a knucklehead presidential candidate who we first see on a PSA, putting cigarettes in the mouths of children.

See, the Aces incidentally filmed Norman at an orgy, being spanked by Courtney Love and having peanut butter rubbed all over his face. Seriously, Courtney Love is the woman spanking Norman in the tape.  So there’s a whole subplot about Norman’s muscle trying to steal the tape back. Because nobody wants to admit to having anything to do with Courtney Love.

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Ivan and Josh are ambivalent to Norman’s threats. They’re more interested in using their new-found funds and network connections to shoot a comeback concert for their idols, the Swanky Modes. When they were kids, Ivan and Josh became obsessed with the Modes, a two-man soul group who had one hit single, “Ordinary Man,” and then faded into obscurity. But Ivan and Josh never let go of their love for the group. Several times throughout the film, the duo throw in a Modes cassette and dance their cares away, which make for some genuinely joyous moments.

Beneath all the madcap set pieces and strange music video shoots, Tapeheads is a film about friendship and integrity. Like their idols the Swanky Modes, Ivan and Josh don’t quit when the going gets rough. Sure, they’re usually stumbling ass-backwards through the rough, but they’re doing it together. Cusack and Robbins are damn perfect in their roles. Their energy helps the film achieve this kinetic pandemonium that not once lets go of your dopamine valve.

Is It Worth a Look: It’s worth like a million long, hard looks. For a good time, buy it from CHUD! The DVD comes with a bonus Swanky Modes CD!

Random Anecdotes: Norman Mart’s wife is played by Lucille Bluth herself, Jessica Walter.

Jello Biafra makes a cameo as an FBI agent. In his one line of dialogue, he name-drops Jello Biafra.

The Swanky Modes are played by real-life soul musicians Sam Moore and Junior Walker. And hot damn these boys can howl. They even appeared David Letterman in 1989 as the Swanky Modes to promote the film!

During press interviews for the film, Cusack and Robbins became notoriously uncooperative. According to director Bill Fishman, the two saw publicity as a bunch of sell-out bullshit, so they intentionally goofed off during interviews. A USA TODAY reporter stated that he would never interview them again. And when the boys appeared on Good Morning America, they were more interested in talking about their hair than the movie. A spokesperson for the show bitched, stating “They were obnoxious. The interview was horrible.” (info courtesy of film journalist Steven Paul Davies’ terrific liner notes included in the Anchor Bay DVD release)

Robbins and Cusack actually read for the opposite roles, but Fishman stopped them halfway through and asked them to switch. He described their approach to the characters as “experimental and motivated.”

Cinematic Soulmates: UHF, Elephant Parts, Kentucky Fried Movie