Friday, 2 March 2018

Copacabana: The Movie

It should be enough just to know that a musical film exists based on Barry Manilow's 1978 disco-busting earworm Copacabana. When I spotted it in the BFI catalogue a couple of months ago I realised that my life could now be split into two distinct periods: ignorance of Copacabana the movie, and awareness of Copacabana the movie. The delight I felt knowing that my all-time favourite go-to karaoke standard is out there in expanded, visual form - with Manilow in the lead role, no less - could barely be contained. But humanity by nature is greedy, and I wanted more. I didn't just want to be aware of Copacabana; I wanted to see Copacabana.

Conscious of the fact that there was only one screening, I booked my ticket immediately, before it inevitably sold out and became the next Hamilton. By some miracle there were actually quite a lot of tickets available; perhaps the BFI's website had crashed under the sheer volume of traffic and I had somehow managed to head off the hordes of fanilows who had brought the site to its knees.
Priceless. (Actual price £9.00)

My natural assumption was that a 1985 TV movie comedy-musical, based on an unironically naff chart-topper by the maharaja of MOR and boasting his own hitherto (and, in all honesty, thereafter) undiscovered acting talent, might not be the Citizen Kane of under-appreciated cultural artifacts. And I'll be honest, the thought that it might just be absolutely, hilariously terrible filled me with even more glee. Sadly, this turned out not to be the case. Copacabana is, disappointingly, not rubbish at all. It isn't great either, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is agreeably sweet and occasionally quite mad, and therefore absolutely worth seeking out for fans of the song, i.e. anyone who has heard it. For the sake of context:

Copacabana (the song) is brilliant for many reasons, but primarily for the love triangle story that unfolds over just two narratively economical verses - with a tragic coda saved for the third - which evokes deadly, tangled lust in the nightclub underworld of the Caribbean. No doubt you're aware, even if you didn't just watch the above piece of Manilow magic, of Lola (showgirl, yellow feathers in her hair, dress cut down to there), Tony (always tended bar, worked from eight till four) and Rico (wore a diamond, escorted to his chair, went a bit too far). The tale ends with blood and a single gunshot, but Manilow leaves unanswered the crucial question of just who shot who. All we know is that thirty years later Lola survives, unable to let go of the past and drinking herself into madness.

Copacabana (the movie), then, takes these events as the bones upon which to add tasty, if somewhat cheesy meat: we learn about the characters' backstories, hopes, dreams, families, failures and quite remarkable costume choices. Peripheral characters and subplots are introduced (and occasionally abandoned), and a thrilling Havana-set rescue unfolds against the unlikely backdrop of a delirious pirate-based song-and-dance show called El Bravo.
Throughout all this, Barry Manilow - in the role of talented but frustrated songwriter and hero Tony Starr, naturally - is adorably goofy and charming. Gangly and awkward, he doesn't so much dance as clatter across the sets like a newborn giraffe, occasionally stopping to spread his jazz hands far and wide in his signature (and only) move. The peak of his performance comes as he attempts to hawk his new ditty to a series of unimpressed music moguls: each one demands he plays the song in a different style (in one of the script's scarce moments of genius, the song is called Changing My Tune), which he does with boundless enthusiasm and irrepressible charisma. Most of the time Manilow's acting is on a par with the average school nativity play, but given that we really just want to see him sing it hardly matters.

Initially dressed in conservative knitwear and bumblingly inelegant, Manilow plays Tony like Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent, which is appropriate given that Annette O'Toole - who was Lana Lang in Superman III just two years earlier - plays Lola Lamar. O'Toole is almost as delightful as Manilow, and clearly relishes vamping away in sleazy gin joints and bouncing about in the ridiculous outfits of her later career as the star of a Cuban cabaret. It's only in the film's bookend scenes (literal translations of that final, pitiful verse), where she's required to gaze at a comically ghostly Manilow, that she provokes unintentional giggles, but that's almost certainly down to the fact that she's buried under several strata of unconvincing old lady makeup.
Note yellow feathers in hair. Dress cut down to there just out of frame

What's perhaps most disappointing for a Barry Manilow-written musical is the forgettable roster of songs: only a couple - Man Wanted, sung initially in a sleazy jazz style by Lola before Tony sexes it up into a swing banger, and El Bravo, which accompanies the hijinks of the climax - really register. The big showpiece number Who Needs To Dream, with which Tony serenades Lola and magically transforms her initial dislike of him into unconditional love, is a saccharine dirge designed almost exclusively for Manilow to show off his vox chops. I'm sure I'm missing the point, but as someone whose Barry Manilow collection extends to that one greatest hits compilation you can find in any charity shop vinyl tub across the land, I'd have been much happier with a jukebox musical packed with all the hits.

There's plenty of fun to be had in the expansion of the song's story though, not least the discovery that the Copacabana club is located in Manhattan, revealing Manilow's claim that it's "the hottest spot north of Havana" as a barefaced lie: a cursory google reveals that setting it somewhere in south Florida would have been less geographically and meteorologically inaccurate. But it's great to see these characters in the flesh, particularly the dastardly Rico, gloriously described by a cop who's been after him for years as "the deadliest snake in the western hemisphere". That potentially exciting crime aspect is just one of the subplots that goes undeveloped, but if it's at the expense of the one in which Tony embarks on a jealousy-fuelled affair with a wealthy divorcée who shows him a world of champagne, caviar and double breasted blazers, then it's probably worth it. As for who shot who, well, that's a mystery you'll have to discover for yourself.
Look, the internet is not awash with hi-res production stills from Copacabana, OK

Tragically Copacabana remains the only entry to date in the MCU (Manilow Cinematic Universe). We can only dream of what might have been with movies of songs like Bermuda Triangle, in which Barry's woman mysteriously disappears with an alternate Barry in some kind of baffling space-time paradox, or Can't Smile Without You, in which Barry is doomed only to feel the emotions of others, feeling sad when they're sad and feeling glad when they're glad, or Could It Be Magic, in which Barry discovers that he's a wizard. Still, music and passion are always the fashion, so fingers crossed that somebody, somewhere, is ready to take a chance again*.

* Ready To Take A Chance Again is another Barry Manilow song

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