The Crap Movie Club: Robert Altman’s ‘The Room’ (1987)

Robert Altman, director of ‘Gosford Park’, ‘The Player’, ‘Nashville’ and ‘The Long Goodbye’, ‘doing’ Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter?

It could have worked. Two shrewder observers of human nature there have seldom been.

But Altman’s 1987 take on Pinter’s 1957 debut play ‘The Room’ was a bona fide stinker. A car crash. It doesn’t even warrant a single mention in Michael Billington’s rigorous Pinter biography.

Though a couple of Altman’s ‘80s films are well-regarded now (‘Fool For Love’, ‘Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’), the great director was mainly forced to scrabble around for one-off deals during this period, probably cursed by the critical mauling handed out to his 1980 version of ‘Popeye’ (Siskel & Ebert discuss Altman’s ’80s career in this interesting clip).

‘The Room’ certainly continued Altman’s reputation as a provocateur par excellence. In ‘Altman On Altman’, he claimed it came about when the TV network ABC offered him carte blanche to film any stage play he wanted. His choice of ‘The Room’ amazed, annoyed and confused them, as did his casting of Annie Lennox, Julian Sands and Linda Hunt.

The suits had a point. Hunt, best known for her Oscar-winning role in ‘The Year Of Living Dangerously’, is nothing less than a disaster in the film. Her London accent is appalling and she fudges the key line: ‘That’s this room.’ The emphasis should be on ‘this’, not ‘room’. You wonder why co-star Donald Pleasence didn’t raise any objection.

Lennox’s beauty beguiles but the Eurythmics star doesn’t deliver a classic performance. As for Sands, you only ever expect over-the-top weirdness from him and he doesn’t surprise here, suffice it to say that his Cockney accent is also a travesty.

Pleasence – predictably – is the only actor who emerges with any credibility, his turn a fidgety comic masterpiece. You wonder what he said privately about this mess to Pinter (they were good friends).

Altman shot ‘The Room’ back-to-back with another Pinter play (and equally appalling/must-see) ‘The Dumb Waiter’, starring John Travolta during his career doldrums. They were shown separately during the 1987 holiday season and then released as a double bill under the banner of ‘Basements’.

The lack of critical or commercial success didn’t surprise anyone. But Altman seemed to like it that way. He didn’t get out from under until 1992’s ‘The Player’. It was a long, cold 1980s for the great director.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood @ Wembley Arena: 35 Years Ago Today

35 years ago today, on 12 January 1987, Frankie played the first of two nights at Wembley Arena on their final European Tour.

It’s oft forgotten that, even at their commercial peak, they played live. A lot. In fact they were on the road pretty much non-stop between autumn 1984 and summer 1985. And, make no mistake, they were decent musicians.

It’s not surprising they were so eager to show that they could cut it live. ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ were mainly made in the control room by Trevor Horn and associates (Steve Lipson, JJ Jeczalik, Anne Dudley, Gary Langan, Andy Richards et al).

And vocalist Holly Johnson was getting most of the publishing royalties (fair enough, his Reagan-baiting lyric for ‘Two Tribes’ is brilliant: ‘Cowboy number one/A born-again, poor man’s son/On the air America/I model shirts by Van Heusen/Working for the black gas…’).

As Holly told NME in November 1983: ‘We were wary of being Trevor’s puppets at first but as soon as we met him that all went out of the window. He’s just a human being. He’s that little guy that used to be in The Buggles’!

So, initially at least, there wasn’t much bad feeling – they occasionally even let Uncle Trevor play live with them, as in this excellent performance on ‘The Tube’ from June 1984, augmented by Luis Jardim on percussion, a couple of keyboard players (wearing interesting shorts) and an extra guitarist (names please?):

According to (ZTT strategist/sleevenote-writer/A&R man) Paul Morley, Horn and his label boss/ manager/wife Jill Sinclair were convinced Frankie could break America, becoming something like The Village People! After all, ‘Relax’ made #10 in the US pop charts.

But surely the Sex Pistols is a better comparison (Frankie as punk’s last gasp? There’s a whole book there…). After all, Horn had just worked with – and hugely admired – Malcolm McLaren. For his part, Horn allegedly hoped the band would split up after ‘The Power Of Love’, their third UK number one in December 1984.

But Frankie didn’t split up. Instead, on their US tour of 1985, they would often open their set with Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’. In the new Bruce-obsessed/Reagan-blessed America, this didn’t go down too well…

By 1986/1987, the thrills and spills had gone but Frankie had drastically improved as musicians and became a very slick live unit. They toured second album Liverpool extensively, using a lot of pre-recorded backing tracks and retaining an extra keyboard player and guitarist.

The very good quality tape of the first Wembley gig is well worth listening to. The crowd seems made up of screaming teenage girls and there are excellent versions of ‘The Power Of Love’ and ‘Two Tribes’.

‘Maximum Joy’ becomes a whole new thing even if the rest of the Liverpool material doesn’t deviate much from the album. And it’s always a laugh hearing Holly’s laconic between-song banter.

Rumour has it that backstage after this first Wembley gig the band had the mother of all fall-outs. But somehow they got through their 1987 European tour, and found time to play again on ‘The Tube’ for the last time (Faith No More were definitely watching, at least from a sartorial point of view).

Maybe they could they have carried on but it didn’t seem enough to be a ‘good band’ any more – people wanted events, sensations. Also Holly was itching for a solo career, still smarting at the terrible deal the band had signed with ZTT.

Anyway, we hope Holly, Paul, Nasher, Peter and Mark are OK. And hopefully still playing music, in some form.

Did you see Frankie live? Leave a comment below.