History has a way of righting itself
when it comes to the arts. Sometimes it restores clarity and reminds us
of the great things out there we had forgotten and sometimes things are
going too well so it’ll regurgitate something we tried to forget. But
there’s usually some sort of balance.

Occasionally something falls through the cracks.

Like Times Square.

I still see a lot of cult love for director Alan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records, yet few seem to even remember his first major music-soaked effort.

Written by
Jacob Brackman (who also produced) and Moyle, and released in 1980, Times Square centers on Pamela Pearl (The Frigtheners‘ Trini Alvarado), the meek and unhappy teenage daughter of a rich politician, who meets her polar opposite in Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson), a fiery teen runaway who wants to be famous, while both are being examined for mental illness in the hospital. Like Peter Pan, Nicky whisks Pamela away, escaping the hospital and shacking up in an abandoned building where they live out a punk rock fantasy as street scamps. Pamela’s disappearance makes headlines, and the two girls start up an unlikely relationship with Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry), a subversive radio disc jockey. The girls form a “band,” The Sleaze Sisters, and LaGuardia airs their rebellious music and messages for all of New York to hear. The girls immediately become legendary, but their vagabond lifestyle and personal issues soon catch up with them.

I am not surprised Times Square has been forgotten by the general populace. It’s ridiculous, over-the-top, raw, corny, melodramatic, and messy around the edges. What does surprise me is that the film doesn’t have a larger shrine in fan-land (I know it has a small following). The very attributes that prevented it from being a mainstream hit are the exact same things that should have made it a major cult fixture, especially among teenage girls. I mean, Pamela asks for a job at a strip club but refuses to strip – and they hire her anyway! Gold. I’m surprised I don’t see hipster gals wearing “Go Sleaze” T-shirts, or see this costume…

…routinely popping up every Halloween. I’m surprised there aren’t midnight screenings full of girls screaming the lyrics to “Damn Dog” and “Your Daughter Is One” along with the film.

Most surprising of all though is the trajectory that Robin Johnson’s career took after the film. A classic Hollywood discovery tale, Johnson had no acting aspirations before a casting director literally plucked her from the street to audition for Times Square. Following this film she had a light smattering of roles throughout the 80’s (including a bit part in After Hours) before dropping out of the scene after 1988’s Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan thriller, D.O.A. She then became a helicopter traffic reporter in Los Angeles. Now she lives in Florida. It is a crying shame that Johnson did not have more opportunities. She had an intense, natural sense about her, and a clear proclivity for the art of acting. And though many jokes are cracked about how ugly she is in Times Square, her husky voice and attitude make her rather sexy. There is a great moment in the film where Nicky storms into LaGuardia’s radio
station, drunk, and demands to be put on the air to play some music, but
ends up breaking down midway through her song. In this moment you can see that Johnson had “it,” that she could have continued to grow and had the kind of career that nabbed Independent Spirit Awards, and under the right circumstances, maybe even an Oscar. Alas.

The other acting delight in the film is Tim Curry; his smarmy, lip curling power still at the height of its game. LaGuardia is an interesting character, a crusader against the establishment whose subversiveness ultimately starts to feel nihilistic. He’s a boat rocker with no true agenda.

As I said, the film is messy. That may turn others away – there is a decidedly b-movie feel here – but I think that is what makes the whole thing work. Moyle has a good eye for chaos and reigns things in when they need to be. Most importantly he gets great performances from our three leads. A punk rock movie can’t have polished edges. It needs to be punk too.

Also notable are the setting and the soundtrack. As the title should imply, the film takes place in Times Square, and was shot entirely on location. It thus serves as a grand and dirty time capsule of a bygone era, before Rudy Giuliani cleaned up the joint. The soundtrack is great, featuring tracks from Talking Heads, The Ramones, XTC, The Cure, Lou Reed, Suzi Quatro, Roxy Music, Marcy Levy, Patti Smith,  and The Pretenders. Plus some comically out of place Bee Gees, added against Moyle’s wishes by producer Robert Stigwood, who wanted to emulate the success of Saturday Night Fever.

Go Sleaze!