A week has gone by since Fox’s Rocky Horror remake, and in the first few days after the airing, I found myself liking it less and less. Fox’s continued pimping of the show, “Stream it online at Fox.com! Buy the soundtrack!” didn’t help much. So before moving on (and after watching the songs from the original on YouTube to cleanse my freak palette, my final thoughts on the remake…
Taken from a purely visual perspective, the costumes and sets were pretty nice. Superficially, they should have worked. However, that’s precisely why they didn’t. They were too pretty. Too sparkly. Too bright. Too perfect. They cleaned up a movie that is, at its heart, not about mainstreaming or prettying things up, but about letting your freak flag fly.
The music didn’t escape this sanitizing and softening effect either. It often felt like Glee does Rocky Horror in the “pop”izing of the “rock”ier (pun intended) original soundtrack.
The Audience in the Theatre Device
Okay, I said I liked this last week, and if I put on my fan studies hat and look at representing audience and fans and pulling them into the narrative in a very literal way, I can still admit it’s clever. However, if I tilt my head and look at it from a different angle, like the costumes and sets, it misses the mark, the heart of the fan experience. In that, fans are participating, not simply performing. The audience was performing participation instead of participating. Which commodifies and somewhat invalidates the participation. It makes participation a job, not a calling.
The Band/Background Singers
Since I’m talking about performance, the band and background singers in Frank’s castle felt off in the way the audience in the theatre was off. They emphasize that what we (and by extension Brad and Janet) are watching is a performance. As such, it robs those scenes of tension and edge.
And yes, I realize the whole is a performance, but there’s a difference between watching a performance, and seeing actors perform. Between seeing an actor embody a role and seeing them perform a role. The latter, at least for me, pulls me out of the narrative.
The softening I mentioned in my first point is perhaps nowhere so apparent as it is in the character of Frank-n-Furter. I was not enamored of Cox’s performance. Her singing wasn’t great, and she often felt like she was off in her own little world vogue-ing her way through each scene without truly connecting with it or with her fellow actors.
She also decidedly lacked any of the edge of danger and menace and carnality that just oozed from Tim Curry’s Frank. Cox’s Frank takes a knife and stabs Eddie a few times before he takes a tumble out a window, disposing of the body. Curry’s Frank takes an axe to him and stands next to a small stream of blood that is running down from the body after Eddie bites the dust.
Because I never really saw Cox’s Frank as gleefully predatorially sexual as Curry’s scenes like the seductions of Brad and Janet and the “In Just Seven Days, I Can Make You a Man” song after Rocky was born came across as funny. I didn’t believe them. Not even in a comic sense.
At the heart of Curry’s dark magnetism and menace is the fact that despite the pearls and corset, despite the cosmetics and fishnet, he was an alpha male (of a sort). He was unhinged in delightful ways, but he was in command, used to others bowing to his desires. One could argue, this is one of the reasons Riff Raff wants to kill him rather than taking him home.
I’ve read articles weighing in on both sides of the issue of whether or not casting a trans woman as Frank was groundbreaking genius or a bad call that reinforces stereotypes that transwomen are men in drag. Whether it takes gender and sexual identity to new places or blurs the distinction between them and fetishism. There’s lots of cyber-ink spilled on either side, so feel free to Google and enjoy if you’re so inclined.
For me, having a woman play Frank made for some uncomfortable shifts in some scenes. The scene between Frank and Janet at the dinner party during the “You Better Wise Up, Janet Weiss” song where a woman is bitch-slapping another woman for making the moves on her man made me frown and feel uncomfortable.
And while one article went on about how wonderful and edgy it was to show a trans woman seducing a straight man, is that more transgressive than the original with a bisexual man with a straight man? And what does it say that the focus is on discussing the seduction scene with the man (Brad) versus the woman (Janet)?
The Sexy Factor
Perhaps this says too much about me, but I found the original Rocky Horror a hell of a sexy film. Tim Curry owns a lot of that, but so do the rest of the cast. I can honestly say, the only time in this film I thought, “Hmm, that’s kinda hot,” is when Brad was all done up in his gold corsetry for the floor show at the end of the film. Not even Adam Lambert (who I think would have made a better choice for Frank in terms of performance and singing) managed the sexy.
In looking back over what I’ve written, I think the single word that could best sum up how I feel about the Fox remake is superficial. It’s like the people producing this version understood what was happening at the surface level of the film, and they decided to upgrade those things, add more sparkles and lights, for their audience. In that, they did have some success.
However, their lack of deeper understanding about the film and why it resonates with its audience and why it endures was lost. It’s freaky, transgressive soul was hollowed out, mainstreamed. Lost. Rocky Horror should be something you watch at midnight in a theatre (or at home, unedited, on a movie channel), not in primetime on a major network.