If you thought you knew everything about the phenomenon that is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, you’re probably wrong, and even if you’ve been performing with the film for the last thirty-seven years, there are probably at least a few new tidbits of information in Dave Thompson’s well-researched, breezily written book on the subject, part of the Limelight Editions books under the “Music on Film” heading. From the cultural and musical atmosphere that led to its creation, on through the non-sequel sequel Shock Treatment and to the present day, Thompson puts this most original of cult films into context, tracing the influences that created it and tracing the influence it has had over the last four decades.
If you’re somewhat familiar with the movie, or even if you’re not, then you’re in for a treasure trove of inside stories and film trivia. For example, the original stage production, The Rocky Horror Show, happened because creator Richard O’Brien had a disagreement with the producers of Jesus Christ Superstar, in which he had been cast has Herod – he wanted to do it as Elvis; they wanted tap-dancing. He quit the show, but both Elvis (Eddie) and tap-dancing (Columbia) became an integral part of Rocky Horror on both stage and screen. The opening chapters of the book are a fascinating mini-history of theatre in the late 60s and early 70s, and the confluence of events that led to the stage show becoming an instant underground smash seem, in retrospect, almost inevitable. If it hadn’t been Rocky Horror, then it would have been some other gender-blending, transgressive glam collision of nostalgia for B-movies with science fiction, fantasy, and cross-dressing. The original stage show was really more in tune with the times than shocked suburban audiences of the movie might think, and that’s why it would up onscreen so quickly – producer Lou Adler was angling to get the movie made within six months of the show’s opening in a tiny, sixty seat theatre in London. Of course, when the early fan-base included people like Vincent Price and his then-wife Coral Brown, enthusiasm of the early supporters is understandable. As reported in the book, it’s to the film producer’s credit that they took the studio’s Option B – low budget, unknown cast. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened had they chosen Option A, which was big budget, big name cast – no doubt we would have been treated to David Bowie as Frank N. Furter, perhaps Elton John as Dr. Scott, with Raquel Welch and Jack Nicholson stepping into the Brad and Janet roles. It just wouldn’t have been the same.
If there’s a weak spot in the book, it’s right in the middle. The chapter on the songs from the show is rather light, with barely a paragraph or two on each number, and not much new – although Thompson does detail every single movie mentioned in the opener, “Science Fiction Double Feature.” There is at least one surprising bit of trivia – O’Brien wrote two of the show’s songs for other projects, and they were shoved in as the musical came together. I won’t say which two they are (except that neither one is “The Time Warp”), but one of them seems so much a piece of Rocky Horror that it’s hard to imagine for what other show O’Brien could have written it.
The latter half of the book details the back and forth of the film becoming a cult classic even as Broadway gives the stage show a less than warm welcome, leading up through the various anniversaries to the present day. Along the way, we meet the people involved in making Rocky Horror happen, and follow the sometimes rocky road in going from small show in experimental theatre to what is arguably the longest-running motion picture of all time – since its opening day in the UK on August 14, 1975, it has never been out of release. (IMDB does show that a remake is in development for the 40th Anniversary year in 2015 – let’s hope that, instead, the original is given a fully restored rerelease, perhaps in 3D.)
Thompson’s book is a breezy, easy, but informative read, and if it’s indicative of the entire series, then the other titles from “Music on Film” are well worth checking out. To date, they are A Hard Day’s Night, Amadeus, Purple Rain, Cabaret, Grease, This Is Spinal Tap, and West Side Story. Not bad company for a little cult classic about a mad scientist in fishnets and a teddy, eh?