5 / 5 stars
I still recall the first night that MTV hit the airwaves. Although most footage at the time was merely from old concerts, it didn’t take long for the music video format to take the record business by storm. Fueled by the visual rather than the aural, MTV successfully shifted the culture into focusing on artists who looked stylish and exciting rather than those who may have been more musically talented. One of the great cult films satirizing the then-new art form of the music video is my choice for this month’s Quirky Queue, the 1988, rollicking little-known comedy, Tapeheads.
Produced by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees fame, Tapeheads is the tale of best friends Ivan (John Cusack) and Josh (Tim Robbins) who dream of hitching their wagon to the MTV star and making it big in music video production. They seem to be the the perfect pair for it: Ivan is the slimy, no-nonsense businessman complete with slick hair and pencil-thin mustache; Josh is the introvert, a thoughtful, would-be artistic genius. After hilarious run-ins with European pop bands, fast food moguls, and corrupt record executives, the pair inadvertently reach success and are given the opportunity to produce a live concert of 80s boy band Menudo. However, they have different plans for the show, seeing it as an opportunity to reintroduce audiences to their favorite soul / R&B duo, The Swanky Modes (played by real-life music greats Junior Walker and Sam Moore).
Tapeheads is a bizarre, laugh-out-loud, scathing look at the pitfalls of the entertainment business, and perhaps the first film to really poke fun at the music video generation, just when it was beginning to take itself too seriously. Both Cusack and Robbins are fun and appealing in their naive, childish excitement as they attempt to gain respect as artists instead of sell-outs.
The two stars are strongly supported by a chock full of veterans including Connie Stevens, Doug McClure, and Clu Gulager (Return of the Living Dead) as a riotously perverse and corrupt politician. Don Cornelius pitches in as the smooth-talking, scamming record producer Mo Fuzz. And topping it all off is an abundance of cameos featuring the likes of Mike Nesmith, Ted Nugent, Weird Al Yankovic, and Jello Biafra, playing (what else?) an FBI agent. The energetic final musical number by Walker and Moore is pure excitement, and on par to any of the famed numbers in The Blues Brothers.
Tapeheads is simply one of my all-time favorite cult films from the 1980s. It does occasionally reach some heights of silliness, but go ahead — take a chance and check out this once-hard-to-find film, now newly re-pressed on DVD. Let’s get into trouble, baby.