Movie Review: Times Square (1980)

times square

Seen: In 35mm at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

Set in that bygone era when downtown New York was overrun with punks and freaks and strip clubs and boomboxes and graffiti, Times Square follows the adventures of unlikely duo of Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado), a shy, lonely, wealthy 13-year-old girl, and Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson), an abrasive, anti-authority 15-year-old punk . They meet in a hospital where they are undergoing tests for seizure-related issues, but they soon break out together and decide to make it on their own in the streets of New York City. They move into an abandoned warehouse (or train station? or something?) and do well enough for themselves stealing food, taking clothes from some old trunks they found, and dancing (clothed) at a club. But Pam’s father (Peter Coffield) is a high-ranking city official and a media frenzy erupts after her apparent kidnapping and later admitted disappearance, especially after over-opinionated DJ Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry) dedicates his radio show to encouraging the girls in their break for independence. Eventually Nicky decides she wants to be famous, working with LaGuardia to form a punk band.

I’ve been trying to see this movie for years but haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy, so I was excited when the Brattle Theatre screened a print as part of their Girls Rule! series (though admittedly their copy was pretty red/faded). It is flawed, but decidedly fun and feminist. I love any and all movies about female friendship, and this is one of the best I’ve seen in that it offers a very positive and open portrayal of a close female relationship, fraught with clashing personalities and divergent goals, but tightly bound by shared hardship and mutual admiration. There’s a bit of lesbian subtext in there, too, which I fully supported. These girls have grown accustomed to no one listening to them, and the film is largely about them each taking control of their own voices, and how even that kind of agency can be co-opted. The two leads are phenomenal, playing their actual ages (which surprised me) and lighting up the screen with their musical and youthful energy.

Trini Alvarado captivates with her porcelain features and soft but powerful speaking voice, spouting lines of poetry and throwing looks of longing across the room. Robin Johnson is the true standout, every expression equally rife with vitriol, swagger, and self-loathing, imbuing the character with a delicate balance of vulnerability and extreme antagonism. And god, that smoky voice of hers just slays me. Tim Curry inexplicably plays a very New York dj but keeps his accent (I don’t think he can really do an American accent, it’s why he didn’t end up playing Brad Majors in the Rocky Horror sequel), and his character primarily functions as a foil for Pam’s straitlaced, career-minded dad. LaGuardia is similarly self-obsessed, but uses his position of power to extoll the grit and grime of Times Square, to encourage these teen girls to resist any and all authority, and to generally fuck things up for Mr Pearl, who plans to “clean up” the city. Curry is charismatic and funny enough to make the role work, though it is largely a satirical caricature.

Times Square does focus on the friendship between Pam and Nicky, and that is its main strength, but it is also an exploration–and memorialization–of the culture of the period, albeit a watered-down version. The girls rock out to Talking Heads, The Ramones, and Suzi Quatro, they mix-and-match vintage clothing, they sneak into strip clubs and adult movie theaters. They stroll confidently around the titular neighborhood, allying themselves with apparently unemployed, delinquent, and/or homeless adults who fill the streets. Most of these extras are played by black men, but few have any lines or names, acting more as set dressing for these rebellious white girls trying to carve out a niche for themselves. Despite their youth and naivete, Pam and Nicky never seem to be in any danger, and their punk lifestyle never derails into sex, drug use, or serious violence. It’s all a bit tame, but admittedly I was grateful for that given their very young ages. My biggest actual problem with them as characters is their misguided appropriation of racist and ableist slurs to align themselves with self-imposed outsiders. Maybe this is just period-specific thing, like Patti Smith using the n-word in 1978’s “Rock n Roll N****r” to celebrate outsiders, minorities, and rebels. It is an interesting way to call out Pam’s dad on his hypocrisy, since she claims they are terms he uses in private, but he is never called on it or seen to re-evaluate his obviously racist and ableist views. Mostly the whole scene is just a reminder that these girls–sympathetic and wonderful as they are–are kind of deluded, and ultimately more privileged than they’ll ever realize.

With its grungy sets, girl-power plot, talented cast, and cultural commentary, Times Square is primarily an enjoyable comedy-drama that makes me want to rock out with my best lady friends. It’s a bit clumsy at times (mostly because the producers shoved some random scenes in to add to the soundtrack, without director Allan Moyle’s consent), and overly simplistic at others, but I came out really loving it. I immediately went home and found the soundtrack so I could relive my favorite moments. Attitude, friendship, rock and roll, fashion, feminism, parents just don’t understand: Yes.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I feel like I could program a marathon around this movie, so many films came to mind that would go along with it. For blogging purposes I’ll limit it to three suggestions. For a fun, music-centric teen comedy with female leads, I do enthusiastically recommend Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. For a grittier exploration of teen girls forming a rock band, there is of course Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. And for more adult look at the fading-but-fascinating punk rock subculture of early 80s New York City, I put forward Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens, whose caustic main character actually reminds me a bit of Nicky.

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1 comment for “Movie Review: Times Square (1980)

  1. Wayne
    July 9, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    What an excellent review. I saw this in the early 80s and not again until last night. It has really stood up over the years, in fact, I think it might be better now than it was then.

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