1970's made-for-TV movies about high school teens embroiled in rock band drama have formed a sub-genre that holds immeasurable hypnotic powers over a lot of my generation. Worn videotapes and DVD-r copies of these types of movies are often traded amongst fans like rare gold (or drugs), usually years before they are officially re-released on DVD, or even widely known at all.
One rarely seen example in that particular library is Cotton Candy, a made-for-TV film directed by Ron Howard in 1978. The film spins the pimple-ridden rhapsody of a group of high school misfits who form a good-time bubblegum rock band, named Cotton Candy, and are thrown into direct, vicious competition with the "cool kids" crowd; their classmate's popular hard rock act Rapid Fire. The awkward-years war reaches it's apex during a "battle of the bands" competition, sponsored by a local mall on a Saturday afternoon, in scenes filled with screaming high school girls in designer jeans and winged-hair (perhaps the first concert film footage alternated with cutaway shots of Orange Julius and Spencer Gifts signage)...
Cotton Candy makes the "teen revenge enacted at the climactic talent show" formula its own by hemming it with overproduced, generic 70's riffs and ham-fisted rock cliches (Rapid Fire's performance actually features KISS-like explosions on the stage - right there in the a mall dude!). Ron Howard made the non-sterpiece (roughly his fifth) on his way to becoming a now respected director. The project was originally intended as a pilot for a television series, and it shows. Overcompensating for the usual weak plot mechanics and erratic editing of all boob-tube features - every line of the film is shouted, every action over-hashed, every sequence directed for maximum, squishy, melodramatic exploitation... a la Aaron Spelling. These characteristics have probably played a small hand in the fact that it has never been released on video or DVD, especially when you consider that Howard is now part of the Oscar vortex.
But that's no problem for bedroom-dwelling connoisseurs of such stuff! Fans of Out of the Blue, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, and Over the Edge have been trading blurry VHS copies of Cotton Candy for years. But don't get your hopes up too much. Cotton Candy is the lo-cal version of those films, but it tastes the same. Imagine if Rock 'n Roll High School had been rated triple-GGG. If Over the Edge is angst apocalypse... Cotton Candy is aw'shucks after school specialness. However, if you're a fan of those 70's gems, you'll find Cotton Candy extremely entertaining at the very least.
The songs in the film are no surprise, delightfully so. Cotton Candy have a few numbers that wouldn't sound out of place on a bad Carpenters LP, or a great Bugaloos episode. Rapid Fire seem to only play one song, a version of Eric Clapton's I Shot the Sheriff that is so bizarrely inept, it sounds like it could have been crafted by The Flying Lizards.
The film features Ron's brother Clint Howard (my other favorite film of his? Ice Cream Man of course!), as the band's earnestly nerdy manager. Charles Martin Smith stars as the band's scrappy, frugal lead ('...we'll buy our drums out of the Sears & Roebucks catalogue!') and Leslie King is of course great as the band's female drummer. All of them look a little too old to be high school students. The lead singer of Rapid Fire is played by actor Mark Wheeler (how 70's is that name?), but the actors who play the actual band of Rapid Fire were the members of a local Dallas band called Quad Pi, which was an early incarnation of the now fondly-remembered Dallas-area outfit Lithium Xmas.
Cotton Candy was filmed in my hometown of Dallas, Texas. The school scenes were done at Lake Highlands High School, and the mall scenes were shot inside (the now redesigned but still there) Town East Mall - one of the Dallas area's first (of eventualy 1,000,000) malls. I have a vague memory of when the filming actually happened. I was in grade school, and one day our teacher announced that one of our classmates had something to share. She made him stand up, and he told the story of how there was a production company making a movie in Dallas, and how he had been chosen for a part of the film. As he told the sappy story about how the filming was scheduled to take place the following weekend and how excited he was to be chosen, all the other kids yawned, fidgeted and picked their noses. But not me! I listened to his every word with my eyes the size of basketballs. I was in AWE! He was going to be in a ...movie? Like a for real movie, like the ones that they show in theaters and on TV, and that there are articles written on and pictures of in Dynamite and Bananas magazine and stuff? Ohmygod... can't... breathe... I remember I started secretly stalking this kid for a few days. The Monday after the reported filming took place, I immediately gawked to see what he would look like when he walked into home room. I guess I thought he would come into school with a new face lift or something. He looked the same. I approached him and asked him to tell me everything, he seemed really cross. He said "They paid me $25 to dance around like an idiot all day and my mom's real pissed" or something like that. Then he huffed away like he was angry and embarrassed that I even asked. Apparently they only needed him as one of the countless extras in the mall concert scene, which I guess had some little kids in the crowd. My Hollywood dreams, smashed at five years old.
So when it finally aired on TV, it was kind of a community thing. Everyone watched so they could see the inside of Town East Mall in a movie, on a TV screen, for real. My family and friends all watched, and we all gasped "Oh my God there it is!" when we first saw the mall's trademark "futuristic" tower - a gargantuan glass and steel monolith that towered over the outside roof, spiraled into the interior, and then gracefully segued into the ground floor food court. "The guy from Happy Days walked by that!" we all shouted at the TV. Can't... breathe...
As stated, Cotton Candy isn't available on DVD, or even video. I caught a showing of it on late night TV a few years ago, and found it to be just as fun as I remembered, if not a little more hollow. Someone named Robert (aka: Raunch77) has some very lengthy clips from Cotton Candy over on his YouTube page. Apparently he and his band are from the Dallas area, and are big fans of the film. By all means go check it out!