This past weekend delivered unto the world "Joyful Noise,"a movie in which Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton explore the fraught interstices between "Glee" and "The 700 Club." Right? (Related: I will never actually see this movie.)
Met with fairly universal revile, this two-hour exercise in singin’, praisin’, and raisin’ came in fourth at the box office, wrapping its first week in release at a nearly $14M loss. And, for this, all parties involved should be heartily congratulated.
You see, this business of making movies starring musicians (even ones who act as much as Dolly and Academy Award-nominee The Latif do) has never been a predictable one. For every "Desperately Seeking Susan" or "A Hard Day’s Night" there’s a "Shanghai Surprise," a "Burlesque," or a "Son of Dracula." And the thing is, even the movies that do come off and eke out serviceable box office receipts don't always deserve to. ("Crossroads.") With notable exceptioins, it seems, most singer-as-actor movies are terrible.
Which brings us to my favorite singing-person-acting-on-a-screen movie: 1988’s "Vibes."
A starring vehicle for Cyndi Lauper, whose only prior "acting" credit was her involvement in the then-WWF’s "Rock ‘n’ Wrestling" crossover event, "Vibes" is a kooky romp with an oddball sensibility seemingly tailor-made for this troubadoyenne in her commercial prime. And guess what: Jeff Goldblum is the romantic lead!
"Vibes," of course, was a critical and commercial Hindenburg. Boasting a solid 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and netting just under $2M at the box office, this is a movie that will never not be considered a flop. It wasn’t until 2009 that it saw a DVD release, and even then it was part of Sony’s (admittedly genius) "Martini Movies" product line, where middling stinkers become trifles for ironic consumption, packaged with cocktail recipes. A "Criterion Collection for the Insanely High," if you will.
Nevertheless, "Vibes" remains a favorite of mine, and marks a definite moment in badass rock history.
I think we would all benefit from giving it another shot.
Directed by Ken Kwapis (formerly of "Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird") and cowritten by Babaloo Mandel ("City Slickers"! "Parenthood"! "A League of Their Own"!), "Vibes" seems to be operating under the tenet of “If we’re going to make this movie, by God, let's make it a weird movie.”
Had the spirit of New Wave music more thoroughly proliferated film in the ’80s, this would no doubt stand as one of the period’s greatest triumphs. "Vibes" subverts the gee-whiz B-movies of yore with a rough sensibility of decay and irreverence. Were it not a film, it could easily have been a B-52’s song.
Cyndi Lauper plays Sylvia Pickel (pronounced pick-EL, thankyouverymuch), a trans-medium with a side-talent for astral projection (that's the art of allowing your mind to leave your body, wander off, and do fun stuff without you), whose constant companion is her spirit guide Louise.
At a study run by NYU’s Department of Paranormal Studies (naturally), she meets Nick Deezy (Goldblum!), a "psychometrist" who can divine the entire history of an object by touching it. Brash Sylvia and square Nick butt heads almost immediately when Louise prompts Sylvia to reveal to Nick that his girlfriend Hillary (Karen Akers, slumming) is “playing bouncy-bouncy with another guy.”
Turns out: it’s true! Revealed when Nick removes Hillary’s panties and senses another man has touched them, no less.
Sylvia’s not having the best time, either. From her first lines it’s clear that this broad is unlucky in love. “You’re fabulous!” one of the researchers enthuses over her psychic skills. “I’ve been told that before,” she laments, “then they never call.” One of these bozos is Baby Steve Buscemi (slumming, even pre-Buscemi Glory Days) who has a penchant for losin' dough at the racetracks. He has no problem finessing the number of the winning horse out of Sylvia before bounding off with another dame. Some noive. The director of the studies at NYU (Julian Sands, maybe slumming it) also seems to have no interest in her.
Good thing Sylvia comes home to find Harry Buscafusco (Peter Falk, megaslumming) rooting through her fridge. He explains that he needs her help: His son has disappeared in the mountains of Ecuador, you see, and he’ll pay Sylvia fifty grand if she’ll go down there and find him. It's basically "Jurassic Park 3" with psychics and the benefit of Jeff Goldblum. And no dinosaurs. Otherwise, identical initial premises.
Sylvia pulls Nick into the scheme and they head off to Ecuador.
What ensues is a weirdo romp full of double-crosses, rival psychics (Googy Gress, not slumming), knife-wielding femmes fatales, Julian Sands snarls, and romantic warmings-up between Sylvia and Nick. It comes out in the wash that Harry’s “son” was actually a rival colleague who disappeared while looking for Incan treasure. Still with me? Of course you're not.
Things get a little convoluted and silly, aspects of the plot are sometimes resolved a little too easily with the help of psychic powers, and the eventual revelation of the "Incan treasure" is a little hmm.
That said, the real appeal is the chemistry between Lauper and Goldblum. Sylvia is no more than an embellishment of Lauper’s own persona. She’s so unusual -- there's really no one like her and there never will be again. I will allow the notion that her acting isn’t Streep caliber, but let’s not forget that real tear at the end of the “Time After Time” video, or that Emmy for "Mad About You." Goldblum isn’t doing much dramatic flexing either, which of course makes the proceedings exponentially better.
When these two are playing off of one another, it’s clear that everyone is having a good time. The undeniable highlight is the scene in which they almost, um, vibe but don’t, which begins with Sylvia climbing into Nick’s tent and cutely, casually saying “Hi! Nice legs!” The nervous flirting (especially on Nick’s part) is adorably real. Also:
Nick kisses Sylvia.
How’d that happen?
It just happened.
Is it gonna happen again?
Shut up, Louise.
Yeah, Louise, shut up.
Perhaps between any other actors, and maybe even on paper, this wouldn’t work. But Lauper and Goldblum? I’m squealing and Care Bear staring and popping a bottle of Cook’s and no one can stop me! When Nick and Sylvie finally reach their (Spoiler Alert!) happy ending, I’m a satisfied customer.
The only misstep "Vibes" makes is in the music department. Scored by moody South American-inspired pan flutes (courtesy of James Horner, slumming), there isn’t a single contemporary jam during the movie itself. In a CYNDI LAUPER MOVIE. How is this possible?
Lauper does, at some point, warble a Swedish(?) lullaby, which, nice as it is, is no “Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China).” That modern masterpiece is saved for the end credits, and that is a horrific shame. I’m typically the first person to scoff at superfluous singing in movies (cf. Lindsey Lohan in "Mean Girls"), but why couldn’t Sylvia have been a struggling psychic lounge singer and not a psychic aspiring hairdresser? Surely an impromptu rendition of “Insecurious” would be a handy way to get out of some obstacle somewhere in the plot.
But I digress. Pan flutes and all, this remains a neglected rock gem that commands rewatching. So come on: settle in, fix yourself a Sony-approved "Abracadabra Martini" (yep), put your hands on my hands, and feel the vibes.