Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, 1970.
Directed by Russ Meyer.
Starring Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, John LaZar, Duncan McLeod, Michael Blodgett, Erica Gavin, Phyllis Davis, Edy Williams, Harrison Page, David Gurian, Jim Inglehart, Charles Napier.
An all-girl rock band arrive in Hollywood with dreams of stardom but find themselves sucked into a world of decadent and debauched behaviour.
The 1960s is a decade that many films have depicted in various ways, thanks to the transgressive fashions, politics and art that made the era what it was, but all too often these are films that were made afterwards that look back through rose-tinted glasses. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls went into production in the closing weeks of 1969 and neatly summed up a time, place and attitude that reflected the whole decade, beginning with the innocence of youth and good intentions before sinking into the depravity of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, and then taking a dark turn in its final act as the hippie dream turned into a murderous nightmare.
Female rock group The Kelly Affair – featuring singer Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), bassist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers) and drummer Pet Danforth (Marcia McBroom) – and their manager Harris (David Gurian), who is also Kelly’s boyfriend, jump in their van and move to L.A. in search of fame and fortune. The band make contact with Kelly’s estranged aunt Susan (Phyllis Davis), who is the sole heir to her family’s million-dollar fortune and also part of a swinging social scene, and are introduced to flamboyant music producer Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John LaZar). Z-Man makes the band perform at one of his wild parties and immediately sees potential in the innocent girl group, changing their name to The Carrie Nations and becoming their manager, much to the annoyance of Harris, who has problems of his own trying to fend off the attentions of nymphomaniac porn star Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams).
Once introduced into the groovy lifestyle of the rich and famous the band soon lose their innocence, with all three girls falling into some sort of peril. Pet begins a relationship with law student Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page) but finds the attentions of World Heavyweight Champ Randy Black (Jim Inglehart) too much to resist, Casey discovers that the rock n’ roll lifestyle may not be for her and embarks on a lesbian relationship after discovering she is pregnant, and Kelly, having moved on from Harris and on to the edgier and more deviant Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett), also has to battle against Susan’s old-fashioned and very greedy lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) who is dead against Susan’s promise of giving her niece a percentage of the family fortune. And as the sex and drugs begin to overshadow the rock n’ roll, the increasingly deranged Z-Man invites everybody over to his place for a psychedelic party to end all parties. It can’t end well…
And much like the 1960s, it doesn’t. Directed by notorious cult filmmaker Russ Meyer and written by celebrated film critic Roger Ebert, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is the most authentically 1960s movie it is possible to see. Unusually, for a Russ Meyer movie, the film is relatively light on nudity (don’t worry – there is still plenty of it but compared to Meyer’s other works it feels a little restrained. However, it is all the sexier for it) and bounces along from one scene to the next with an energy and playfulness that glosses over the fact that this is a fairly badly acted and messy story that leaps about all over the place with the same sense of recklessness as its main characters. And it is this wild abandonment and absurdity that is at the core of the film, because if you aren’t on board with the wacky and often offensive humour then Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is going to come across as a straight-up bad movie about dumb kids wanting fortune and glory and doing anything to get it. However, once you fall under its spell and are hip to its charms then it is a wonderfully silly and enthralling good time that is only improved by the bubblegum pop soundtrack that the lead actresses unconvincingly mime to.
With 25 minutes to go the film takes a turn towards the darker side of the hippie dream as Z-Man hosts his psychedelic party, dressing up in costume and trying to seduce Lance before a disturbing revelation pushes the insane music mogul over the edge and things get bloody. It’s a radical shift in tone that reflects the so-called death of the hippie era thanks to Charles Manson and his ‘family’ of followers – something that Ebert and Meyer were all too aware of – and it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the film but, when put into context, it feels like the only way all of the previously seen excess could have ended; tragedy strikes, the good times are over and it is time to move on.
With a clean and sharp HD transfer making the film look fantastic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls also comes with a bumper load of goodies, including commentaries from the late Roger Ebert and actors Erica Gavin, John LaZar, Cynthia Myers, Harrison Page and Dolly Read, featurettes about the music, the making of the film and an interesting little piece about the film’s place in the social context of the era that touches on the Manson murders (interestingly, singer Lynn Carey provides the singing voice for Kelly MacNamara in the film and reveals in the interview that she was dating Manson victim Jay Sebring and was invited to Sharon Tate’s house on the night of the infamous murders but luckily didn’t go), as well as many other juicy extras. The package also includes a DVD of Russ Meyer’s film The Seven Minutes, a drama about an erotic book that was seized by the authorities and the shop owner who sold it sent to trial. Featuring many of the stars of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (plus a very young Tom Selleck), The Seven Minutes is a far more serious take on the then-topical subject of censorship and obscenity that isn’t exactly essential viewing but for a bonus on top of what is already an excellent presentation of a fantastic film it’s a welcome addition.
As Arrow Video are one of the top cult movie labels in the business and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls pretty much defines what a cult film is then it goes without saying that this is one of the best and most enjoyable packages that the label have out. Yes, it’s nuts and totally out there but it is also tremendous fun and essential for anybody who calls themselves a film enthusiast, especially if schlocky trash is your thing.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★