Valley Girl (1983) Lookback/Review

Valley Girl turns 30 this year. Based on the Frank Zappa novelty hit that appears nowhere in the film, it lampoons the shallow consumerism of superficial teen love movies.

Valley Girl marked the end of the era of movies based on novelty songs. It followed the tradition of Sam Peckinpah’s 1978 adaptation of the C.W. McCall song, “Convoy.” Peckinpah abandoned development on the Ray Stevens 1974 hit “The Streak,” because Stevens was a major novelty hit-maker. The studio bought McCall a microphone for his CB. “I Dream of Jeannie” star Barbara Eden took parents to task in the movie made from the Jeannie C. Riley song “Harper Valley PTA” and Robbie Benson jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge in the movie version of the Bobbie Gentry song “Ode to Billie Joe.” “Torn Between Two Lovers” by Mary MacGregor was made into a novelty film. I’d make the same case for The Gambler, but I can’t tell which is the novelty. “Yellow Submarine” became an animated classic. Frank Zappa turned “Baby Snakes” into a filmed version of his 1977 NYC Halloween show at the Palladium. Zappa also made 200 Motels with Ringo Starr starring as Frank Zappa. “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” might have worked as a feature. I could see Nanook rubbing it.

Zappa thought it cute to put his daughter Moon Unit, all 14 years of her, onto disc doing her best impression of the “valley girls,” like, ya know? Gag me with a spoon. Fer sher. Totally tubular. And other pimply hyperboles. He put “Valley Girl” out as a single and on his 1982 LP “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch.” Frank was amused that the song became a minor hit. Valspeak captured the imagination of a generation and was quickly made into a film that didn’t have a note of the song. When Nicolas Cage made Peggy Sue Got Married, they included the Buddy Holly original. Not Frank Zappa.

Valley Girl isn’t really the story of the valley girl, it’s a nod to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (the valley duo pose in front of a theater marquee, in case you missed the point), or West Side Story without the snapping. It takes the bus with The Graduate (they throw in the “plastics” advice as foreshadowing) in an attempt to skewer the generation it was trying to herd into the theater. Directed by Martha Coolidge, Valley Girl is a social battle played out in a Disneyland punk underground. It is Revenge of the Nerds gone new wave. Skinny ties, pointy hair and a visible safety pin. Not a razor or a needle in site. LA looked really clean to eighties New Yorkers and the punk scene here. Punk is merely implied. It is the symbol of mass individuality. The soundtrack pushed a lot of songs into the hot 100. Dallas-transplant Josie Cotton created the LA prom queen perennial “Johnny Are You Queer?” I didn’t turn Modern English’s “I Melt With You” off the radio every time.

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Valley Girl was made fairly early in Nicolas Cage’s career. He wasn’t yet known as the whisper or scream actor, but if ever Cage had a whisper or scream role, shouldn’t it be as a social-status-conscious punk in LA’s netherworld? This is Cage’s first starring role after getting supporting roles from his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola. As Randy, Cage gives a subtly nuanced performance that says fuck you to the sadomasochistic punk world of the early eighties. He throws out a bunch of “fuck you”s but he is a nice guy under those highlights. Fred, his partner in grime, Cameron Dye, is positively cuddly.

Julie Richman (class symbolism?) is played by Deborah Foreman, who would brighten the under-appreciated comedy Real Genius (also directed by Martha Coolidge) by asking Val Kilmer if he could “hammer a six-inch spike through a board with your penis?” She would later star in Stanley Sheff’s 1989 B-movie spoof Lobster Man From Mars along with Tony Curtis. The prerequisite asshole boyfriend Tommy is played by Michael Bowen, probably best known for his portrayal of Danny Pickett in ABC’s Lost. Bowen also played in Jackie Brown, Magnolia, Less Than Zero, The Godfather Part III, Kill Bill Volume 1 and Django Unchained. The cloth James Dean denounces the chipmunk punky Randy with “This geek that she’s with will scar her for life.” The barely-one line character Low Rider, who almost gets into a fight with a drunk and dry-heaving Randy, was played by Ugly Betty’s dad, Tony Plana. WKRP’s Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) does a turn as the driving instructor who bails at the first sign of danger. Lee Purcell plays the flirty mom who walks in on her daughter and her bathing buddy. Julie’s hippy dad is played by Frederic Forest. Forrest started his acting career as a customer in the Blue Whale on the sixties horror soap Dark Shadows. He won a National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor for losing his head as Jay “Chef” Hicks in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

The most interesting character to me was Loryn. She’s the only one of Julie’s crowd that ponders her ambiguity. She gets used by the asshole ex-boyfriend and looks like she’s used to it. She is the only one of Julie’s friends who has any sense, but she still can’t help Julie make up her mind. She gets the best setup line in the movie, “No man can resist my, resist my, what do you call it?” “Tits,” her friend calculates. Loryn is played by Elizabeth Daily, E.G. Daily as she goes by today. Daily signed with A&M Records a couple years after Valley Girl and worked with Madonna collaborators “Jellybean” Benitez and Stephen Bray. She would go on to do the voice of Tommy Pickles in Rugrats. She also starred as the brawling, ballsy Buttercup in the clever animated superhero series, The Powerpuff Girls.

Valley Girl starts in the commercial universe of malls and credit cards and the film explores product placement throughout. Coke, Lay’s Potato Chips and A&M Records all get screen time. Julie’s health food hippy dad anticipates the solution to his daughter’s woes. “Take it back and get a more expensive one. The expensive ones always fit better,” but I can’t tell if he’s being ironic. This is the social battle between those who buy in malls and those who proclaim their individuality by buying in outlet stores. The two are only equal on the sand. Randy looks good enough on the beach in his shorts, it’s when he dresses up that he miraculously appears gnarly to the girls between the hills. The valley guys all look like they came out of a Loverboy video and that they liked it. Randy and Fred are supposed to stick out like sore thumbs in their matching red and black tops at the party they crash, but really, I couldn’t tell the difference in the fashion wars. Cage becomes the copy guy from SNL when he hits the streets of LA. He’s not particularly self-destructive, but everyone says he has a death wish. The posing comes on thick as Fred, who has run out of tired pickup lines, declares “this is called living on the edge.” The edge of what? The punk-light geeks get their revenge in the end with a prom night food fight, while Tommy does his best “Kung Fu Fighting” (which would have made a good kung fu Blaxploitation film) moves. I was rooting for Samantha (Tina Theberge) though.

Valley Girl hits thirty this year. MGM and Paramount Pictures say they’re going to let Clay Weiner remake it as a musical featuring an all 80s New Wave score. Probably no Zappa, though. Maybe Frank thought he did enough damage and denied the permission to further use his mockery to mess with young minds. Wikipedia kinda defines “valley girl” as a socio-economic stereotype of vapid white west coast materialism. Valley Girl pits the locals against each other. The haves and the have-mores. Hollywood High versus the Valley. Techno-rock versus new wave, although the song Randy swears he loves in the car sounds like one of those fake rock songs you used to hear in movies. Where are the Circle Jerks? I saw a poster in the bathroom, but couldn’t make out a note. To paraphrase the Simpsons, yet again, Valley Girls begins like Romeo and Juliet, but ends in tragedy. The tragedy is that no one gets killed in the end.


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Den of Geek Rating: 3 Out of 5 Stars


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3 out of 5