A Fail to the Left
The ‘Rocky Horror’ Time Warp We Never Needed
Sorry if you’ve been quivering with antici…pation for the new ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ Not even a spectacular Laverne Cox can rescue this sanitized update of the cult classic.
Fox would love to do the time warp.
Specifically, with its new TV movie of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, it would like to travel back to January 2016, when Grease Live! seemed to master the oh-so popular, but oh-so clumsy revival of televised musical productions.
Now, 10 months later, Fox is back on that cumbersome musical tightrope. This time it’s trying to toe it in some thigh-high red leather platform heels. It’s no wonder The Rocky Horror Picture Show tends to wobble.
The formula for landing a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show seems like it should be easy. Just a jump to the left. And then a step to the right. Star casting. Charming performances. A little audience interaction, a pelvic thrust, and, boom, we’ve all released the sweet transvestite within all of us.
But as this aforementioned musical revival has taught us, staging a successful one is anything but easy. And that’s something that Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, down to its alternately star-affirming and laborious lead performance from Laverne Cox, can certainly attest to.
The star casting is tricky to nail: For every David Alan Grier easing down the road as a transcendent Cowardly Lion or Vanessa Hudgens reinventing Betty Rizzo, there’s Carrie Underwood’s stalled Maria, spinning on a mountaintop with nowhere to go. And even when the performances are good, there’s the awkward challenge of staging the bigness of musical theatre for the intimacy of the small screen.
It’s hard to keep up the energy when there’s no break for applause or laughter—or no audience at all—removing some of that electric spark that makes these properties so beloved. And the often frantic camera direction required to translate the live staging to screen has made some critics wonder why anyone bothers doing it live at all. Why not film it like a movie musical?
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again enjoys the luxury of its predecessor’s lessons. It also suffers from the limited cult appeal of its source material, not to mention the lunacy of its plot. The result is a musical that’s pleasant, but hardly naughty—which, admittedly, may not be what you crave from a musical reputed to be so craven.
Case in point: Staz Nair, the beefcake Adonis cast as Rocky, the creation of Cox’s mad scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter, has an impressive singing voice and gets the goofy hunkiness of the part down pat. But when the iconic skimpy gold briefs are subbed out for loose basketball shorts, what’s even the point?
Elsewhere on the casting front, Laverne Cox is an inspired Frank-N-Furter. Does she compare to Tim Curry’s devilishly erotic star turn in the original? Could anyone? She does, however, do the next best thing, which is make the part the best showcase we’ve had for her actually rather particular, though radiant, talents.
It turns out that Cox is an extremely skilled character actress, making Frank-N-Furter her own unusual, but beguiling, creation. Because Cox is not a singer per se, she makes music out of the delivery of her songs, making “Sweet Tranvestite,” especially, a thrilling speak-sung acting performance. It’s a mannered performance, for sure, but one elevated by Cox’s legs-for-days dancing and the ravenous bite with which she eagerly chews the scenery.
There’s poignancy in the landmark casting of Cox, easily the most visible transgender actress working in Hollywood, taking on the part of the sexually ambiguous, gender-bending Frank-N-Furter. And Cox lends an elegant confidence to the role, where Curry’s cruder, grittier styling lent his turn a dirty danger. But then again, it’s that sense of dirty danger that’s missing in this entire production, for better or worse. (I’d argue the latter.)
Ryan McCartan’s adorkable Brad Majors will make the former Disney Channel star your new internet crush, and Nickelodeon vet Victoria Justice is a suitably annoying damsel in distress as Janet. The pair, as the newly engaged couple that has its buttoned-up world turned upside down after stumbling on Frank-N-Furter’s lair, are the only two performers with discernible chemistry.
That’s not to say that the other performers are bad. Reeve Carney and Christina Milian make a suitable Riff Raff and Magenta, though each appears to be acting in their own movie. It’s Annaleigh Ashford’s deranged Cyndi Lauper take on Columbia—wounded, histrionic, a blast—that explodes off the screen. Adam Lambert channeling Meatloaf for “Hot Patootie” is, well, read that sentence and you can pretty much imagine.
But performances aside, what are the other lessons gleaned from this TV musical glut that Rocky Horror attempted to stitch together, Rocky style, in this new Halloween-timed production?
For one, this takes the “why not just film it?” argument literally. It’s the first non-live production in this musical renaissance. And while Grease Live! quite successfully solved the audience problem by making a live audience part of the staging, Let’s Do the Time Warp Again was faced with a different problem.
More than the 1975 The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it’s the act of watching the film that has become a phenomenon. Audience participation screenings populated by cult fans—featuring retorts to the dialogue, props, and tongue-in-cheek ridicule of the material—have become the entire point of the film.
Occasionally, the Fox production’s director Kenny Ortega will cut to an audience ostensibly watching this Cox-led version in a movie theater, engaging in a handful of those midnight screening antics. But, as with most things about this production, they’re just not having as much fun.
“Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” is kind of madcap and silly, but neither grand nor scrappy. It suffers a similar fate as production numbers from live versions of The Wiz or Peter Pan. Filmed on a soundstage, it falls kind of flat.
That’s actually something that could have ostensibly been used to Rocky Horror’s advantage.
The gritty low production value of the original lent it a seediness that spoke to a subculture that relished in its almost DIY revelry. Barry Bostwick’s Brad and Susan Sarandon’s Janet doubled as our own stand-ins: pearl clutching and morally appalled when entering this world, but eventually seduced by Frank-N-Furter and the depravity. Caution is supposed to give way to ecstasy and desire, yet a precision and polish plagues “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.” Even Janet’s “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me” is too polite to be carnal.
You might notice that our recollection of the film is listed by performance and song, because that’s honestly all there is to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Its plot is nonsense. Or is there a plot?
I have seen Rocky Horror close to a dozen times and still require a Wikipedia cheat sheet to decipher what’s going on. A criminologist—in this version, a very welcome Tim Curry—narrates the tale of Brad and Janet’s encounter with Frank-N-Furter, Rocky, and the servants. Frank has created Rocky using part of Eddie’s brain. (Eddie is the Adam Lambert/Meatloaf cameo, a former lover of Frank and Columbia’s who arrives by motorcycle, sings a song, and is then killed by Frank in a jealous rage.)
A Dr. Everett Scott, whom Frank suspects is a UFO investigator for the government, comes searching for his now-dead nephew, Eddie. As it turns out, Brad and Janet also know Dr. Scott, who is a former professor of theirs. Suspecting that the couple is in cahoots with Dr. Scott, he freezes them with a Medusa Transducer, only reanimating them in drag clothes to perform a live cabaret that Frank leads.
And if any of this still makes any sense, then that all goes out the window when Riff Raff and Magenta interrupt the performance, reveal that they are aliens from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania, kill Frank and Rocky, and return to their home planet.
The storytelling, clearly, isn’t the point. It’s about the feeling of Rocky Horror and, as the film took on this cult second life, the audience who is feeling it. But with this Fox production, it’s unclear who the intended audience is.
Rocky Horror is a time relic, which Cox has been dutiful to point out in defending the dated “transvestite” language, which was acceptable at the significantly less “woke” (though remarkably progressive) time. But “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” won’t satisfy the purists who are devoted to that relic, who will be miffed by the broadcast TV sanitation and shine of it.
Younger audiences, presumably wooed with the Disney/Nickelodeon casting, will likely find it just plain weird, and the millions who have flocked to the event status of these TV musicals won’t be as jazzed for family time watching Rocky Horror as they were for Sound of Music night, that’s for sure.
“It’s not easy having a good time,” Frank-N-Furter laments near the end of the musical. “Even smiling makes my face ache.” Let’s Do the Time Warp Again certainly isn’t painful. But it’s further proof that a good time just ain’t easy.