A couple of years ago, I went with a group to see Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Despite the thuddingly bad writing, we’d giddily wonder what ABBA song the filmmakers would shoehorn into the next musical number. I remember my pal Dennis seeing those platform soles stepping out of a helicopter and loudly exclaiming, “F*ck yeah, it’s Cher!” as the camera tilted up to reveal the pop icon. We sat there exhausted and bewildered as the end credits rolled when our friend Steven yelled across the row to us, “That was terrible…and great!”
I brought that memory to my viewing of the musical remake of the Martha Coolidge 1983 classic Valley Girl, which made a star out of Nicholas Cage and launched a killer, wall-to-wall soundtrack. It starts with a fun conceit. Teen movie legend Alicia Silverstone, as the older version of Julie from the original, sits her wayward teen daughter down for a talk about how things were when she was her age. Unreliable narrator that she is, she imagines her younger years as a bubblegum musical. This gives the film free reign to do whatever it pleases, resulting in something that resembles the orgy-driven lovechild of Glee, High School Musical, and Rock Of Ages as they tag-teamed Gillian Armstrong’s 80s new wave film Starstruck.
When we flashback to the 80s, we meet young Julie as played by Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day), who is 32 in real life but adheres to the Stockard Channing in Grease requirement of playing a teen. Still, she’s cute as hell and sings like an angel. Julie and her posse of fellow upper middle class valley girls spend their days ogling boys, shopping at the mall, or tanning at the beach. It’s a that beach where Julie meets Randy (Josh Whitehouse, all loose and fun instead of Cage’s too cool for school approach), a scrappy punk from the dangerous Hollywood side of Los Angeles. Faster than you can say “Gag me with Romeo and Juliet!”, the pair fall in love, starting what results in a cultural war between the haves and the have-nots, but with bright, catchy 80s cover songs!
Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg knows what she’s doing, staging the numbers with flair and fluidity. Yes, it’s a jukebox musical, but the songs often move the story along instead of feeling wedged into the screenplay. Early on we’re treated to We Got The Beat as the girls skip through the Galleria and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” for their day at the shore, both of which set the stage with high energy choreography. I loved Mae Whitman’s perfect introductory song, Bad Reputation as she plays Jack, Randy’s lesbian BFF. Obnoxious YouTuber, Logan Paul, who plays Julie’s awful jock boyfriend, gets his big first number, Hey Mickey at a pep rally, which seems to exist so that we’ll learn his name. OK, that one’s a little too convenient, but it made me grin. Occasionally, Goldenberg and her writer, Amy Talkington use slow motion, such as with Kids In America, to isolate Julie in a scene and allow us inside her head. Despite being used to better effect in the I Wanna Hold Your Hand scene in Across The Universe, it gives the film more emotional heft than one would expect.
A film like this, however, would disappoint lovers of camp without that one bonkers sequence. Fear not, because you’re in for an aerobics scene which crazily mashes up Depeche Mode, Madonna, Hall & Oates, and Soft Cell as the girls put on their best Jane Fonda tights and leg warmers and send this film into the cuckoo stratosphere. Had there been more scenes like this, I’d be five-starring this puppy all day and night. Most of it, however, sticks with the formula, giving Gen Xers a nostalgia trip and their children a new mix tape to savor. After a while, despite a never flagging pace, I got tired of it, knowing full well it was sticking to the script of a “will-they-won’t-they get together?” by the time we get to the big prom finale, which of course features the iconic I Melt With You from the original.
It’s cute as hell, but hell is still hell! Most of the characters get one single trait and some of the cover songs pale in comparison to the originals. It’s all very surface level, much like Silverstone’s own hazy memories of her teen years. One big exception is the Under Pressure scene. Gloriously sweeping all over the city to feature our entire cast, the Queen/David Bowie classic gets repurposed in part as a women’s empowerment anthem as some of the girls feel that pressure to have sex on prom night. It’s here where the female driven creatives on this film really shine. More of that please!
Oh, how I wish the gang could have gotten together to watch this movie in a theatre. Its thrills, and yes it has some, just aren’t the same when watching in self-isolation. Without a pack of like-minded pals to laugh and groan in equal measure, the experience resulted in something neither terrible nor great. Simply just OK.
Glenn Gaylord’s 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE: Valley Girl gets a 30 out of 50. The campy tone and pops of color already make it pretty queer, but Mae Whitman’s believable characterization of Jack, despite being given very little to do, still gives this somewhat bland film a shot of butch energy.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Valley Girl is now in select drive-ins and on digital.