Bowie and the Death of Rock: A Review of the Rocky Horror Picture Show


On the extreme ends of the spectrum, there are possibly two kinds of moviegoers: those who watch a film for fun—taking it at face value; and those who watch in silence and appreciation of the deeper art—dissecting every bit of the picture to pieces until nothing is left for consideration. There is simply nothing wrong with leaning with either the former or the latter because both are part of the experience. Rocky Horror Picture Show engages this duality: one can either enjoy the music and pay no mind to the nonsensical plot or uncover the layers of allegory hidden underneath.

Rocky Horror Picture Show

Magenta (left), Dr. Frank-N-Furter (center), and Riff Raff (right) performing “Sweet Transvestite” (Image courtesy of Collider)

The film by Jim Sharman is an adaptation of the musical stage play, The Rocky Horror Show. The musical is a comedy romp of outrageous proportions. Newly engaged couple, Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), experiences a car breakdown in the middle of the rain. Meeting a dead-end and having passed a mansion, the two decided to turn back and ask for a telephone call. Their demure, country demeanor, however, is no match for the surprises that lie therein as they then subsequently meet a series of colorful characters, including the handyman Riff Raff (Richard O’ Brien), the domestic Magenta (Patricia Quinn), the groupie Columbia (Nell Campbell), and the mysteriously weird Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). The couple is just in time to witness the unveiling of Dr. Frank’s creation, Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood), who is basically a man in a very suggestive state of undress. What follows next is a sequence of musical numbers and outlandish story twists-and-turns, including the murder of Eddie (Meat Load), an ex-delivery-boy-slash-former-creation, and the arrival of Dr. Everett V. Scott (Jonathan Adams), a rival scientist. The movie ultimately leaves the audience with a what-in-the-freaking-hell-did-I-just-watch sort of reaction in the end.

Yet despite being outrageous, Rocky Horror Picture Show still engenders a feeling of uncertainty for the discriminating moviegoer. There is simply something behind all the silliness.

I say that the plot bears no sense because Rocky Horror Picture Show does not center on storytelling but rather on, upon closer inspection, a more meaningful secret. Of course, all movies have a story to tell. Rocky Horror Picture Show, on the other hand, basks in the bombast of its narrative with allusions to the era’s pop culture. It is by no means a bad thing but rather a clever ruse: hiding music history in a musical drives the audience’s attention to the pomp—or even discordance—of tunes, which often is the motivation of making musicals. The devil indeed lies in the details.

Right from the start, the disembodied lips singing “Science Fiction/Double Feature” provide an overview of what is about to come: an unfolding of something that must hearken to Hollywood’s science-fiction heydays. The song is filled with mentions of iconic sci-fi cinemas, from Forbidden Planet to The Day the Earth Stood Still. Then it opens to a wedding in front of an American Gothic parody—a parody of the parody of the humdrum rural life, which essentially reflects on Brad and Janet. The ennui is further emphasized in the contrast between Brad’s and Janet’s lively “Dammit Janet” and the lifeless deliveries of Riff Raff, Magenta and Columbia (posing as somebody else) interjected into the lyrics. The transformation of the hero and the heroine from boring to hip will not start until “Time Warp.”

The movie was released in 1975, during the height of glam rock. Before Lady Gaga, there was David Bowie or, to be more specific, Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy was, in all sense of the word, bizarre but his appeal rested on his mystery and otherworldliness. Dr. Frank is very much the same. He is a cross-dressing alien, both figuratively and literally, from Transylvania, as per his opening number “Sweet Transvestite.” He is also a scientist who happens to have created a man, named Rocky Horror. Rocky and Eddie, Frank’s previous creation, embody the rivalry of the time between rock-and-roll and glam rock. Eddie questions in “Hot Patootie—Bless My Soul,” “What happened to Saturday Night, when you dressed up sharp and you felt alright?” Indeed, the entrance of a new form of glittery rock was an altogether radical and sharp turn for music. From being laidback, everybody was suddenly entranced with the “cosmic light” of glam. And the fact that Eddie is a partial brain donor for Rocky certifies that Rocky is, for the genre’s fans, an enhanced derivative. Rocky’s version of rock is sexier and more sensual than Eddie’s muscle-challenged naiveté. As a result Frank murders Eddie, signifying the annihilation of the rock.

Hence also is the importance of Brad’s and Janet’s transformation. The new initiates are thrown in a frenzy of sexual encounters, most notable of which is discernible in Janet’s “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me” wherein she expresses her surrender to the intimate and animalistic allure of the newfound experience; she “has tasted blood” and hungers for more.

The movie culminates in the “Floor Show.” Columbia, lovesick from Eddie’s death and disillusioned by Frank’s glamour, screeches her dislike for the new Frank; Rocky Horror embraces his birthright, that is, of “an orgasmic rush of lust”; Brad warbles his confusion; Janet asserts her sexual empowerment; and Frank encourages everyone to “don’t dream it, be it.” The four, Rocky, Brad, Janet, and Frank, eventually consummate their desires of “absolute pleasure” with an orgy while Dr. Scott implores everyone to escape from Frank’s licentious web “before this decadence” robs them of any sanity.

Yet as with everything else in this world, all good things must come to an end. Riff Raff and Magenta overturn Frank’s control, accusing his lifestyle of being “too extreme.” Ziggy became too big for Bowie, so he decided to kill him. Those caught in the whirlwind rise and decline of glam have nothing left to do but to question what happened. As with “Super Heroes,” Brad, Janet, and Dr. Scott share such confusion. It is the job of the Criminologist (Charles Gray) to pick up the pieces. But even he reaffirms the reality that the human race is “lost in time, lost in space, and meaning.” Sometimes there is nothing more to do than charge everything to experience and move on.

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