Of course there are a ton of movies set and shot in New York City - heck it's the big screen that made dream of moving from my sleepy Colorado suburb to the hustle, bustle, and grime of the "real" city. But there are two films that really captured my imagination as a youngster and, I think, are ultimately responsible for me moving here. No, they weren't Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy. Nor were they Ghostbusters and Splash. They certainly weren't Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally. Nope, they weren't even silly cheese fests like Desperately Seeking Susan and Night Shift.
These are all movies I absolutely loved growing up (and still just a fraction of the NYC set movies that I absorbed), but the two that really made me want to move here are the decidely lesser known Times Square (1980) and Shakedown (1988).
Why these two movies? Well, it could be that they both prominently feature the character of the Deuce - that lovely strip of sleaze and movies that New York City lost in the early 90s, transformed into the hideous eyesore called The New 42nd Street.
Times Square is the story of two runnaway teenaged girls, one a street-wise punk (Robin Johnson) and the other a rather innocent rich girl (Trini Alvarado). Together they live in the abandoned Chelsea piers (the long-gone Pier 56), roam the dangerous city streets, form The Sleez Sisters - a primitive punk band who mostly play strip clubs, and become cult heroes thanks to the on-air rantings of a late-night disc jockey (Tim Curry). The movie has a lot of flaws, but most of them were caused by the studio's intervention. Director Allan Moyle found his own screenplay truanced and was ultimately fired from his own film, and the studio proceeded to take out all the harsher elements of the film. Lesbian subtext was removed, scenes of drug abuse cut, and nudity refused.
But Times Square manages to transcend all that for a few reasons. One is the performance from 15-year-old Robin Johnson, who was found by a casting director smoking a cigarette in front of a Brooklyn high school. She has a real-deal downtown street sass and attitude, and gives a really amazing performance - especially when busting out the rock songs. Her musical coach for the role was none other than David Johansen, and she inhabits his spirit so well that, heck, I'd love to see Johnson out on tour with the New York Dolls.
Update - One comment below mentioned Robin's solo song "Damned Dog", which is actually better (and was covered later by the Manic Street Preachers). Archive link (Realaudio)
And speaking of music, the double lp soundtrack is legendary (probably because producer Robert Stigwood, who previously made Grease and Saturday Night Fever, was much more interested in selling soundtracks than in making the movie), and contains everyone from Roxy Music to Patty Smith to XTC. The soundtrack is long out of print, and probably won't be coming back because of all the licensing fees, but you can make your own - here's the track listing.
Then there is Tim Curry. His performance as late-night DJ Johnny LaGuardia is a bit over-the-top (the fact that his character's chronic cocaine habit was edited out of the film helps to better explain his manic behavior), but here was a DJ who really connected with his audience, and at the same time also broke all the rules and lived for the moment. Again, the drugs helped. The fictional radio station, WJAB, was high atop the gorgeous (and still standing) Candler Building, and featured a scenic overview of the whole sleazy Times Square scene.
Which brings us to one final thing that pushes Times Square from mess
to success: it is a time capsule that joyously captures the anarchistic
spirit of late 70s New York City. The ending scene alone - with the
girls and their band rocking out on the marquee of a 42nd Street
theatre to a throng of look-alike fans - is a celebration of the seedy
side that can't help but make one feel nostalgic. Even if, like me, you
weren't living anywhere near New York City at the time.
As a teenager, I ran to the theater to see Shakedown because I was a huge Peter Weller fan. Okay, I'll fess up, I was actually a huge Buckaroo Banzai fan, but whatever. This rather ridiculous movie still has some of the best stock characters, plot set-ups, bogus tough-guy dialogue, and impossible stunts in all of 80s action movie-dom.
stars as a rock-and-roll hipster lawyer who uncovers a gang of crooked
cops with feathery mullets in the New York City police force. He
enlists the help of a renegade undercover cop (Sam
Neil Elliott, duh), who seems to
live out of the bathroom of a 42nd Street movie theater (the Lyric).
Together they find the link to a ruthless drug dealer (Antonio Fargas)
who controls the legal system, runs a swanky secret crack nightclub for
yuppies, and arranges impromptu drag races on the city streets. Yup,
this guy is a bad-ass!
The jaw-dropping plot and characters alone are worth watching Shakedown (originally titled "Blue Jean Cop"), but it is also filled with so many iconic "only in New York" moments that I don't even know where to begin. The Deuce's New Amsterdam theatre - now Disney's Broadway flagship - is not only converted into a sleazy sex hotel (with Rockets Redglare manning the door), but the gorgeous marquee leads to some appropriately dare-devil stunts. A chase scene on Coney Island culminates in a fist fight aboard the Cyclone, which leads to a roller coaster car leaving the tracks and smashing a concession stand (Cop on the scene: "Oh, Jesus. Better get a shovel."). An excitable immigrant cab driver aides in a cross-town chase, which ends in a ride on a crane and a crash landing on the court-house steps (just in time, of course). And then our hero cop almost brings down the bad crack dealer by making him crash his plane...into the World Trade Center.
Director James Glickenhaus cranked out the kind of grindhouse fare that 42nd Street made famous - films like The Exterminator and The Soldier. In a way this is his love letter to the final days of those glory years, and a tribute to the sleazy, dirty city. He then went on to make a billion dollars on Wall Street, and just made the news for spending 3 million dollars on a custom Ferrari.