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April 25, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

by NIR SHALEV

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. What more was there to life during the swingin’ ‘60s and rockin’ ‘70s? Well plenty, actually. But Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (BTVOTD) chooses to focus on an all-girl rock group (that’s rather progressive for its time), their trip to L.A., and the consequences of becoming popular, ingesting lots drugs and alcohol, making friends and enemies, and eventually making lots of terrible mistakes.

Here we have a life lessons type of film that disguises itself as a groovy fun time. There’s hip music a-plenty, terrific amounts of nudity and sexual endeavors, dancing, drinking, and the lot. It’s colorful, it’s hip, and it’s a sharp satire of the times.

Director Russ Meyer satirizes his own style of films by doing the exact same thing here, except this time there are lessons to be learned and consequences to all of the actions depicted. And what better way to have fun with the material than to crank it up to 11 and add soap opera elements? Russ Meyer has fun with this material and so does the audience.

We follow Kelly MacNamara (Playboy Playmate Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Playboy Playmate Cynthia Myers), and Petronella “Pet” Danforth (model Marcia McBroom) as they take their rock ‘n’ roll band, The Kelly Affair, to L.A. and immediately immerse themselves in the lifestyles of celebrities, musicians, and other crazies. They make friends with Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John Lazar), a teenage, flamboyant, millionaire record producer loosely inspired by Phil Spector, and they soak up their new life styles.

Z-Man turns The Kelly Affair into The Carrie Nations and as a result they grow popular in the music industry. However, their friend and ex-band manager Harris (David Gurian) has a jealous bone to pick with Z-man and a love triangle forms between them and Kelly, for he believes that Z-man is out to exploit her.

Early in the film there is a lengthy party scene that introduces all of the key supporting characters who will come and go as the film progresses, including Z-Man. That scene reminds me of the early scenes in Casablanca (1942), those taking place in Rick’s Café Americain, in which we are introduced to all the “players” in that story. It’s no coincidence* and it works terrifically. We meet Ashley St. Ives, a famous porn star; the tall, blonde, and handsome Lance Rocke; the bus boy/law student Emerson Thorne; Roxanne, busty lady who takes an interest in Casey; and a slew of others that come and go as they please.

Lance hits it up with Kelly; Emerson with Pet; and Roxanne with Casey. But fame, hard drugs, and alcohol are then introduced into their individual stories (needless to say, there are no attempts to seek treatment for their addiction to drugs and alcohol), turning Kelly into a snob and a slut, Casey into a recluse, and Harris into an alcoholic. Only Pet briefly comes out on top, getting engaged to Emerson. But she also slips up and no one is left out.

The film is cheesy, groovy, terrific fun, and remarkably quotable. And I love it.

BTVOTD is purposely superficial, shiny, colorful and happening, casting Playboy Playmates instead of sleazy porn actresses. The end result is that the film doesn’t come off as sleazy or filthy but rather pretty, albeit fake looking or superficial. Fake smiles, fake promises, and drugs and alcohol. That’s what it all comes down to and it’s painted in a satirical fashion. The editing is quick and sometimes erratic, channeling directly from the groundbreaking editing montage style of the French New Wave (and Eisenstein, if you really want to go back far enough), cutting out all of the bull and unnecessarily long takes. The film is quick paced and still manages to clock in somewhere around 110 minutes. That there tells you that there’s plenty of content.

Now you’re probably wondering why I’ve chosen to review a Russ Meyer film and present it as the DVD of the Week. Right? Well, it’s simple: I’m doing so in memoriam of the great Roger Ebert, a titan in the film journalism industry and a tremendous influence on me throughout the past decade plus. In 1969, he took a leave of absence from the Chicago Sun Times film criticism column and flew to L.A. in order to write the screenplay to BTVOTD. He and Russ Myer became great friends and as a result, they made one of the best films of the 1970s, in my personal opinion. Well, actually Richard Corliss of Time Magazine thinks so, too.

I’d read Roger Ebert’s film reviews and essays for over a decade, making his works my own personal religion. I sometimes, still borrow from his various writing structures and also sometimes the way in which he phrases sentences. He is an important figure in my life and his work is, honestly, one of the only things that I’d been reading online throughout the past several years; even if I disagreed with some of his opinions.

Roger Ebert fought a decade long battle with cancer and finally, wearing a smile on his face, he closed his eyes and joined his pal Gene Siskel in the great film theater in the sky. They will always be terribly missed. Watch Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But don’t do so out of respect; do it out of sheer curiosity and because it’s a legitimately good film.

*Most if not all DVD and Blu-ray iterations of Casablanca have a commentary track by Roger Ebert.

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