Beyond the Valley of the Dolls Review
Somewhere in the Hollyood darkness, guests at a party crisscross the paths at the mansion of a rock producer. A Nazi runs out of the building and a shadowy figure enters a bedroom, holding a gun out in front of him. Approaching the woman sleeping in the bed, he puts in the barrel of the gun in her mouth, which she begins sucking. How did the Hollywood dream end with a nightmare like this?
Go back some months and Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers) and Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom) are the Kelly Affair, a rock band building something of a following in their senior prom circuit in their midwestern home but Hollywood is calling. Setting out in their camper van, they make for a jolly threesome with their manager and Kelly's boyfriend, Harris Allsworth (David Gurian), driving them. Calling on Kelly's aunt, the famous heiress Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), Kelly is awarded one third of the Lake millions, which would, had it not been for her early death, have been her mother's and not her aunt Susan's. With the money and aunt Susan's connections, the Kelly Affair are introduced to rock producer Ronnie 'Z-Man' Barzell (John La Zar), lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) and a coterie of sixties freaks dabbling in music, movies, fashion and 'happenings'. The Kelly Affair become the Carrie Nations and with Z-Man adding them to his management roster alongside The Strawberry Alarm Clock, they're soon assaulting the pop charts
Soon, though, the white-bread-and-apple-pie wholesomeness of the Carrie Nations turns into an 'anything goes' mix of free love, psychedelia and party going with Kelly, Casey and Pet burning out under the influence of Z-Man. Unfortunately, Harris is the least prepared of the four midwesterners for Los Angeles and as Z-Man's power over the group goes, so his lessens. Within the spiral of drugs, music and freak scenes, there can be only one winner and it's not going to be the innocent Harris. But is Z-Man all that he appears to be?
If Jacqueline Susann hated Mark Robson's adaptation of her Valley of the Dolls, she must have felt horrified at seeing Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Ebert describes the film as the moment the freaks took over the studios, when 20th Century Fox, confused by the success of Easy Rider, gave over the keys to their lot to a bunch of hippies who would, they hoped, loosen up the straights on the set with some fabulously happening movies. What they didn't bank on was just what their uptight executives would turn up. Even Peter Fonda must have drawn breath when Fox invited Gore Vidal and Russ Meyer on to their lot and announced that Myra Beckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls would be their response to the counterculture. Clearly not shrinking violets, Fox proved themselves happier to go further even than the bikers-on-acid movies of Roger Corman at AIP with Myra Beckenridge, where John Carradine chopped off Rex Reed's cock to become Raquel Welch. As for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, just what was the breast-obsessed Russ Meyer readying for release?
The answer to that is a more full-blooded take on the perils of fame in Los Angeles than was portrayed in Valley of the Dolls only a few years earlier. Where one was made before films began being rated - it would later be awarded a PG-13 - the other came out with an X, still the rating that, regardless of the presence of an 18 or whatnot, promises the most illicit of thrills. Even now, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls comes with an NC-17 rating, which, in an ocean of R- and PG-13-ratings, is an island of ludicrously naughty fun. There's a good deal of nudity, screwing in the back of a Rolls-Royce - "Better than a Bentley!" - transvestitism, sex changes, lesbianism, an abortion, a hookah pipe, a Nazi (who may be Martin Bormann), an attempted suicide and a beheading to the tune of the 20th Century Fox fanfare. Frankly, it's a film that, just when you've seen as much as it might offer, just pushes its story that little bit more. Indeed, any film that ends with a Nazi being skewered on a beach by a transvestite while being asked, "You beg for mercy, while the cries of six millions innocents still ring in your ears?" can't be all bad.
As Roger Ebert has often said about the film that he wrote - or typed as Russ Meyer has described it - there's an enormous amount of fun to be had with it. Much of this has to do with Ebert and Meyer satirising Hollywood and the music business, not so much with any insider knowledge, more a set of assumptions based on what they thought it might be like. Hence, a fashion studio like Susan Lake's being a place where telephone calls are taken from Mary Quant and where barely-clothed young women - who are a mite buxom for catwalk models - swing from the ceiling in wicker chairs. Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett) is probably not the last wannabe actor who's done a little time as a gigolo between gigs while Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams) is a starlet who's drifted into pornography, boasting how her latest movie has been banned in Cincinatti. The parties they attend feature every grotesque that Hollywood and the music business might throw up while Porter Hall is every sleazy Hollywood lawyer who beds a younger girl whilst still wearing his sock suspenders. Finally, while Ebert has even admitted to being inspired by Phil Spector when writing the part of Ronnie 'Z-Man' Barzell, even he must have been surprised at the madness in Spector's life - the guns being brought into the studio, the life size model of Spector that his wife had to drive about with in the passenger seat of her car and, in a case of life reflecting art, the shooting dead of actress Lana Clarkson at Spector's mansion.
But holding a mirror up to Hollywood was likely never the intention behind Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Instead, this is a riotous movie from a few years in which Hollywood lost sight of its more traditional fare in favour of thrills of a more psychedelic nature. But what a time they had. Meyer looks to have been in commanding form of his talent while Meyer regulars Edy Williams, Erica Gavin and Charles Napier all look to be having a whale of a time, particularly Williams in both the front and back seats of a Rolls-Royce. Not even the indie explosion of the Miramax years can compare to those when, post-Easy Rider, the major studios all wanted some hippies on the board and a bunch of 'longhairs' in the audience. Probably the best film of that era, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is where anyone with an interest in Meyer should start but, equally, it's a great film from when Hollywood tipped over into an all-too-short period of joyful madness.
Like the release of Valley of the Dolls on the same day, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls looks quite wonderful, showing that Fox are taking as much care over their archive releases as have Warner Brothers in the past. Otherwise, the difference between the two films is obvious, even though they were released only a few years apart. Produced in the mid-sixties, Valley of the Dolls was more reminiscent of the rather dull fashions of the fifties with the very slightest of nods towards modernism. This film, on the other hand, was released at the tail end of the sixties - 1970 actually - and has a innate sense of the psychedelia of the years, with bright colours being favoured over dull browns and the guitars of the Carrie Nations being a lovelier sight than the beige walls of the backstage rehearsals of Valley of the Dolls.
The DVD rises to the occasion with a crisp image, excellent colour reproduction and very little trouble with the nighttime scenes that bookend the film. The various parties in the film, particularly that which sees Kelly McNamara being introduced to Z-Man by her Aunt Susan, are the highlight but the quick cutting in the Los Angeles montage is another. In both cases, the disc shows no signs of any problems with the main feature, which looks great throughout. Two English audio tracks are included, one stereo and one mono, out of which I preferred the latter. The stereo track sounded a little thin to me whilst the mono was fuller and more enjoyable. That said, there's little wrong with the stereo track, more that the fuzzy sound of psychedelia often sounds better on mono radios than on a stereo hi-fi.
With Russ Meyer having passed away two years ago, Roger Ebert, as the writer of the film, is an obvious choice for one commentary track It's still a surprise to hear him here, as though Rudy Behlmer had recorded a track for The Adventures of Dickman and Throbbin, which, though never likely to happen, would be fascinating. Ebert is superb throughout, bringing his usual thorough nature to the track whilst also having an in-depth knowledge of the production, from his writing of it through the production and on to its eventual release. On the second track, cast members Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, John La Zar, Erica Gavin and Harrison Page reunite but it's a good deal less interesting than Ebert's track. Whereas Ebert busies himself with the details of the production, the cast take a little time to gel before tending towards fondly recalling their favourite memories and moments in the film without ever really bringing the listener into their close-knit circle.
The second disc begins with an Introduction by John La Zar (1m26s), before Above, Beneath and Beyond the Valley (30m00s) opens as the first of five features on the disc. A fairly straight but very entertaining making-of, this interviews cast, crew and various Meyer experts, this looks at Meyer's years in the Second World War before such films as The Immoral Mr Teas saw him invited to the lot of 20th Century Fox. Roger Ebert is interviewed and offers a good many memories of the time as well as analysis of the movie but there's just as much fun to be hand with the various members of the cast who Fox have brought into the feature, including Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom and John La Zar.
Look on up at the Bottom (10m58s) is the next feature on the set, which looks back at the music with the help of composer Stu Phillips and the three members of the Carrie Nations. Not just about the rock music in the film, this lets Phillips talk about his score as well but it's really the music of the Carrie Nations that's the star here. This is followed by The Best of Beyond (12m21s), which is notable for having artist Coop say, "They should have given him an Oscar...or, better yet, two Golden Globes!" But good though that is, it doesn't compare to the lines that the cast and crew choose as their favourites, including "This is my happening and it freaks me out!" With lines out of the way, it's Best Breasts, Best Kiss and Best Death in this countdown of everyone's favourite moments from the film.
Sex, Drugs, Music & Murder: Sings of the Time, Baby! (7m34s) is a look back at the late-sixties and how the film is a perfect fit for the year in which it was made while the final feature, Casey & Roxanne: The Love Scene (4m19s) is a very short look back at the lesbian love scene that interrupts two periods of madness at Z-Man's mansion. With the help of the two actresses who starred in it, Erica Gavin and Cynthia Myers, there's memories of Russ' lack of involvement in it and a certain coyness about it from the two actresses.
In a section titled Z-Man's Far Out Party Favours, there are Trailers (12s, 2m30s and 2m03s) as well as Screen Tests for Michael Blodgett and Cynthia Myers (4m00s) and Harrison Page and Marcia McBroom (3m29s). Finally, there are six Photo Galleries of behind-the-scenes shots, promotional images and stills from the movie.
Even after a quarter of a century, this remains an odd film but a classic of trash cinema. Fox have, after a long time preparing for it, really started to deliver on their archive DVDs and, surprisingly, they've done just as fine a job on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as they did on their big-earners like The Poseidon Adventure. So leftfield even when it was made and with a skewed sense of being hip - the delivery is often right but the language falls over into parody - Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a film to have a good time with, being funny, sexy and with a cool soundtrack of psychedelic pop. Buy the DVD and argue, on any mention of Easy Rider, that the actual finest movie of the counterculture can be reduced to Nazis, drag queens, rock girls and big tits.