Homeless teenager Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson) gets arrested and feigns a neurological disorder to get out of jail. While the hospital runs tests on her, she shares a room with the quiet Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado). Pamela’s there because she gets the “shakes”… most likely caused by anxiety about her phony dad (Peter Coffield), a city commissioner who wants to clean up Times Square. They can’t find anything wrong with Nicky, so it’s off to juvy for her… except she escapes, and entices Pamela to run away with her. With the police looking for them, the two hide out in the streets, and their cause is taken up by DJ Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry), who brands them the “Sleez Sisters” and helps promote Nicky’s aspirations to be a punk singer.
I’m having a difficult time organizing my thoughts on this movie. My thoughts — like the movie — are all over the place. But I’ll try. It was written and directed by Allan Moyle. Moyle later did Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records. The first is merely lousy but the latter might get my vote for the worst movie ever made. Both would lead you to believe that Moyle’s secret plan is to make you hate teenagers, because even though the films appear to hold them up as heroes, they’re all so annoying and self-satisfied, and “edgy” in only the safest ways.
And at first, I thought this movie was also trying to make me hate teenagers, with Nicky’s pointless, idiotic brand of rebellion, basically just making a nuisance of herself and being a brat. And Pamela just seems like a foil for Nicky’s streetwise shenanigans. And Johnny LaGuardia (oh god that name) is perhaps a prototype for PUtV‘s “Hard Harry”, a smug, pompous voice dropping little turds of would-be wisdom on the airwaves, and patting himself on the back for breaking all the rules. When Pamela’s dad calls him a “self-righteous, obnoxious little son of a bitch”, I was right there with him. Oh and speaking of Mr. Pearl, he seems like such an easy target, the authority figure we’re all supposed to instantly sneer at.
But then, well… the movie lets the characters out of their boxes. Nicky isn’t just a rebel hero, she’s angry and suicidal. And Pamela comes into her own, and calls Nicky on her bullshit. David Pearl is gradually portrayed as sympathetic, a father rightfully and reasonably concerned about his daughter. Even LaGuardia manages to drop the smugness for a while and come off like a nuanced character. And for a while you’re dealing with something that feels like honest teenage drama with real people. But then now and then the characters slip back into shallow archetypes.
The disjointed, schizophrenic nature of the film no doubt has much to do with the fact that Moyle was kicked off the movie before it was done. You see, the producer was Robert Stigwood, the man behind Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease and Saturday Night Fever. These were bajillion-selling soundtracks, and Stigwood wanted more music in the film so he could sell a double album. So he fired Moyle and added more scenes where he could stick some songs. In the process, he also completely removed everything that referred to the lesbian relationship between Nicky and Pamela. You can tell it’s there, though. There’s no way you can come away from this movie without thinking that the girls were romantically connected.
As for that soundtrack, Stigwood and/or Moyle doesn’t really understand punk. It ends with a Robin Gibb song, for fuck’s sake (after a climax that includes, like Empire Records, a concert on top of a marquee). There’s a Patti Smith song and prominent use of The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”, but it’s mostly new wave. I’m not complaining. Talking Heads, The Cars, The Pretenders, Gary Numan, Joe Jackson, XTC, The Cure, Roxy Music. It’s a really great soundtrack. But there’s a good movie hiding in here, and I can’t help but wonder what it would have been if Stigwood wasn’t intent on cramming more songs into it. I should also mention the two songs performed by the “Sleez Sisters”. “Damn Dog” is pretty good, kind of a lite version of The Stooges. “Your Daughter Is One”, on the other hand, is pretty terrible. It’s another example of how this movie is good and bad at the same time.
Johnson is bad in a few scenes, but most of the time, she’s good. Like, really good. Two years earlier, another Brooklyn teenager made an impressive debut: Linda Manz in Days of Heaven. Neither one ended up with the rich careers that their promising starts hinted at. But Johnson’s perfomance here is excellent, often well above the material she has to work with. The movie is sometimes very fake (if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I mean when I cite Pamela’s “stripping” career as an example) but Johnson almost never is. In the moments when I wanted to walk away from this messy film, it was usually Johnson who got me to stick around. Rating: Good (70)