Tapeheads: The Cult Movie That Tried Too Hard

1988’s Tapeheads tried just a little too hard to be the next big cult sensation.

Cult movies have been with us for a very long time. As a cultural phenomenon, they really began to emerge on college campuses in the mid-’60s. Difference back then was, those films which earned themselves a small but rabid following weren’t intended to be weird or quirky in any way. Most of them had been released initially with a solidly mainstream audience in mind.

Fortunately or unfortunately, they were the products of screenwriters, directors or cash-strapped producers working under the mistaken impression their sensibilities were completely in sync with those of the American public in general. For the most part they were quickly and savagely reminded how very wrong they were about that, and their films disappeared until some dorky 22-year old film geeks dug them up and dusted them off. As a result, we ended up with the rediscovery of forgotten gems like Freaks, Reefer Madness, and Plan 9 From Outer Space.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, young filmmakers (many in the Corman school) who’d seen those rediscovered and newly-christened cult films began making their own deliberately anarchic comedies, off-balance sci-fi movies, rock operas, and films that were simply weird for weirdness’ sake. The one common element was that they were deeply, even shockingly subversive and didn’t stand a whiff of a chance of making it in mainstream theaters. So by the late ’70s, midnight screenings of Rocky Horror, Eraserhead, Pink Flamingos, Rock’n’Roll High School, and El Topo had simply become part of the American cinematic landscape.

Then a funny thing happened.

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I’m not sure what it was. Maybe a reaction against Reagan and the Moral Majority, maybe the emergence of punk rock, maybe an insidious government plot involving airborne mind-altering chemical agents. Or maybe it was just another cynical corporate effort to co-opt a potentially profitable grassroots scene. Whatever it was, starting around 1981 we were suddenly greeted with a slew of movies, indies and studio productions alike, which arrived as fully-formed cult films.

Normally it took a picture years, even generations, to develop any kind of measureable cult status, but this new lot here had a very self-consciously cult status straight out of the box. They were deliberately weird and quirky and funny, the plots tended to be convoluted, they usually focused on some subculture or another, they had hip soundtracks, they were packed with quotable lines and social satire, and were directed with a manic cartoon energy.

Most also involved some kind of alien creatures.  So over the course of just a few short years we got Liquid Sky, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Bad Taste, Night of the Comet, Return of the Living Dead, Forbidden Zone, Neil Young’s Human Highway, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Repo Man, and even Blue Velvet, River’s Edge, and Brazil. Shocking thing was, even though so many of them were so consciously aimed at the midnight movie market (a film could play a helluva lot longer as a midnight movie than as a standard theatrical release), a lot of them quite accidentally became big mainstream hits, immediately entering the collective consciousness.

Ignoring the straight to video market, the era of the pre-packaged cult film was about over by 1987. From a studio perspective it was just too big a financial gamble, hoping some multi-million dollar weirdie number would somehow tap into the 16-to-25-year-old geek demographic. The general mainstream mindset as a whole was shifting (with rare exceptions like Twin Peaks) away from the “quirky” and back to the expected and the comfortable. The mainstream American movie-going public wanted to see Meryl Streep and easy-to-understand action film sequels instead of some low-budget crackpot mess about, I dunno, brain damaged podiatrist midgets. 

In 1988, former Monkee-turned-movie producer Michael Nesmith, who’d done okay for himself with a few off-kilter comedies, received the script for something called Tapeheads, co-written by music video director Bill Fishman. Perhaps he just wasn’t aware the cult film era was over, or perhaps he was just hoping he might be able to recreate the success he’d had producing Alex Cox’s Repo Man

That late in the game the pre-packaged cult film formula was well-established, and this Tapeheads had everything in place—wacky humor, music, kitschy cultural references, Reagan jokes, visual gags, a conspiracy, everything but aliens. Even the title itself, a nod back to that King of the Midnight Movies, Eraserhead, showed this Fishman knew exactly where he was aiming the project.

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When John Cusack’s agent called Nesmith a couple of days later to say Cusack was interested in making something like Repo Man, and moreover would be bringing his friend and Sure Thing co-star Tim Robbins along with him, well, everything just came together.

Before the first day of shooting with Fishman at the helm, Tapeheads had everything going for it and everything going against it. The script, as, mentioned above, had all the necessary elements to guarantee midnight movie supremacy. By that time punk was pretty well dead and MTV was defining youth culture, so the film would satirize the ridiculous music video industry. That’s hip and subversive, right?

The stars, Cusack and Robbins, had already established themselves as respectable box office draws among the youngsters with comedies like Better Off Dead and The Sure Thing. The real kicker, though, was the supporting cast, which had an unbeatable cult film pedigree. There was Clu Gulager (Return of the Living Dead), Doug McClure (Humanoids from the Deep), Sy Richardson and Zander Schloss (Repo Man), Susan Tyrrell and Connie Stevens (well, everything), and Bobcat Goldthwait. Even Courtney Love (who’d had a cameo in Sid and Nancy) had a cameo. 

Beyond that, though, thanks both to Nesmith’s connections in the music industry and the serious subcultural impact of Repo Man, everyone in any way connected with American popular music at the time wanted to be in Tapeheads. Barely a scene goes by without some notable cameo from across the musical spectrum. So you get Jello Biafra, Doug E. Fresh, Ted Nugent, Weird Al, Fishbone (who both wrote the score and play a country band), MTV’s Martha Quinn, Soul Train’s Don Cornelius, Stiv Bators, R&B legends Sam Moore and Junior Walker, King Cotton of the Bone Daddies, members of DOA, a bunch of Stax studio musicians, hell, you go see who else you can spot yourself. Even musicians who don’t appear in the film, like Bo Diddley, recorded new songs for the soundtrack.

Fishman wanted DEVO to appear in a particular scene as a young unknown band, but they didn’t want to be in the movie. He still wanted to use their song, though, so after rewriting the scene to involve a Swedish synth pop trio instead, Fishman had the song translated into Swedish, which DEVO then recorded for the movie. Now, all that is very cool and fun and makes cameo spotting a central part of the viewing experience. So far, so good, with that cult hit status looking more certain all the time.

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The plot centers around two childhood pals now in their early twenties (Cusack and Robbins). Robbins is a video editing genius with no self-esteem, while Cusack is a go-getter trained in the Dale Carnegie self-help school of business success. They form a music video production company and, through a series of misadventures, climb their way up from nothing to the top of the industry. Along the way they run afoul of a right-wing presidential candidate (Gulager) and take it upon themselves to revamp the career of their childhood heroes, an R&B act called The Swanky Modes (Moore and Walker) by introducing them to a new young audience. There are myriad other subplots and hijinks, as well as some sharp media satire (the highlight being their commercial for Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles), but that’s pretty much the core of it.

Here’s the problem, though. Nesmith’s hip indie cred aside, the film was financed by NBC as an NBC project, so any indie cred goes straight down the crapper right there. The much bigger problem is that earlier cult films from Freaks to Glen or Glenda? to Eraserhead to Female Trouble to, yes, Repo Man arose organically from filmmakers with an adamantly independent sensibility, unpolluted by any dominant cultural trends. Structurally and aesthetically they were completely divorced from anything being produced by mainstream Hollywood.

Tapeheads, in contrast, tells a standard, boilerplate Hollywood rags to riches story, complete with a “don’t give up on your dreams” message and a happy ending (despite the closing joke of a twist). Looking at it again today, it’s really just half a step up from the teen comedies Cusack had been making with director Savage Steve Holland just a couple of years earlier, but not nearly as radical.

So what it is the same, safe, non-threatening Hollywood crap disguised with a smattering of cult film trappings scattered over the top. It’s a cult film in form but not content, a would-be cult hit designed by aging studio executives trying really, really hard to tap into the hipster market without really understanding what it takes. As a result, amazing and talented and unexpected as the cast is, it’s a film that reeks of desperation.      

I saw this in Philly when it first opened in 1988, admittedly buying my ticket solely on account of the Jello Biafra cameo. I left the theater thinking, “Man, they were trying WAY too hard.” I wasn’t the only one who thought so, and the film quickly disappeared after grossing a paltry $350,000. It was all but completely forgotten for almost two decades.

Then, yes, a funny thing happened. Like those early cult films which were re-discovered after floundering in oblivion for so long, the youngsters began slowly rediscovering Tapeheads, and it finally started to develop that hip cult following it had so desperately and cynically chased all those years earlier. Taken out of the context of the pre-packaged cult film era, this new audience saw it for the trappings and that great soundtrack and little else, and interpreted it, as nobody had at the time, as a wide ranging satirical skewering of the 1980s.

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I still maintain it was just a slick corporate attempt to co-opt the youth market by given them what they thought they wanted.  It failed miserably then because we saw through the scam and the bullshit and the cheap disguise. Given that today it seems the youth market has been completely and unapologetically absorbed and defined by corporate sensibilities, well, maybe it all makes sense and Tapeheads was simply ahead of its time.