The Gong Show Movie (Blu-ray)
(Shout! Factory, 3.29.2016)
For those of you who aren’t up to speed on your ’70s cult variety shows, The Gong Show was a true oddity of its time, a kind of warped variation on American Idol -- if the performers were far more imaginatively irritating. A talent show for people with little discernible talent, this series became a surprise hit, giving just about everyone in the United States a platform for their mandatory 15 minutes (or seconds) of fame. As a result of this success, Chuck Barris found himself accosted by “future stars” (aka weirdoes) wherever he went, resulting in irritation that slowly mutated into self-loathing. You can see this experience recreated -- with extreme creative license -- in 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (an adaptation of Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography”) or you can go straight to the source by watching the movie Chuck made while this phenomenon was coming to an end.
As pop culture historian Russell Dyball explains on this disc’s audio commentary, The Gong Show had already been pulled from the air (in spite of strong ratings, Barris decided it was time to move on) before TGSM hit theatres. For obvious reasons, the movie -- which combines highlights from the show with exaggerated dramatizations of Barris’ day-to-day life -- made little impression at the box office and quickly disappeared into obscurity. As Dyball sees it, a screening of The Gong Show Movie is like a Bigfoot sighting: even if you swear you saw it, almost no one will believe you. If nothing else, this disc should correct that, finally rescuing Barris’ one big screen star vehicle from obscurity.
Neither a triumph nor a mess, The Gong Show Movie is an intriguing curiosity about a largely forgotten chapter in pop culture history. In spite of the aforementioned self-loathing, Barris had enough ego to fire his co-writer/director Robert Downey Sr. -- the anti-establishment auteur behind Putney Swope, a film that has been cited as a formative influence for both Paul Thomas Anderson and Louis CK -- in the middle of the shoot, taking the reigns himself. In addition to being an undistinguished actor, Barris has no idea what he’s doing behind the camera, but the film is never less than watchable, particularly if you have a high tolerance for the excesses of late ’70s/early ’80s comedy.
If you’re the kind of person who is likely to watch The Gong Show Movie with a certain level of academic distance, you might want to go straight to the commentary, which offers a lively history of the movie and the show, including anecdotes about key regulars (the Unknown Comic, the Bate Brothers), the involvement of future celebrities (Paul Reubens, Kevin Spacey), and even a conspiratorial look at the Danny DeVito cameo that probably never happened. The pleasures of this Blu-ray may be reserved for comedy historians and obsessive fans of The Gong Show, but if you fit either description, this disc qualifies as a minor treasure. -- Jonathan Doyle