There are two girls; Nicky is a troubled street tough who wanders the seedy, decrepit back alleys of Times Square with her guitar. Angry and alone, she ends up in pointless confrontations and gets committed to the New York Neurological Hospital, as nobody can figure out exactly what’s wrong with her. At the other end of the spectrum is Pam, daughter of a rising political star who has hung his hopes on a campaign to clean up Times Square. Feeling empty and without meaning, Pam has fits that no one understands, and she too ends up in the hospital, sharing a room with rebellious Nicky.
There’s an instant connection between the two. Nicky is attracted to the quiet poetic spirit of Pam while Pam is in awe of Nicky’s aggressive ways, and is sickened by how the doctors treat the poor girl from the streets. When Nicky is released from the hospital she breaks back in, blaring I Wanna Be Sedated on her boombox until Pam, now placed in a private room, hears it and runs away with her. The two take to the streets, living in an abandoned dockside warehouse that Nicky knows, becoming blood sisters and promising to always be there for each other.
Over time the bond grows. The two girls live as scavengers on the edge of society, setting up Three Card Monte games and engaging in petty larceny, earning quarters cleaning windshields of cars stopped at lights. Pam’s fits stop and Nicky finds peace in herself. The warehouse slowly becomes a clubhouse and then a home, taking on the appearance of a really, really cool bohemian apartment. And although it’s never said out loud, the two girls fall in love.
But there’s another plot going on in the background. Pam’s dad is distraught, convinced his daughter has been kidnapped. And it just so happens that his biggest enemy, a late night radio DJ who considers Times Square his territory, knows about Pam. See, Pam has been writing him letters, explaining how sad and empty she is inside, how she’s become a zombie. And he realizes that the zombie girl is the same as the missing girl, who has become the center of much media attention. The DJ, Johnny Laguardia, reaches out to the girls over the radio.
The runaways become a niche pop culture sensation. They call themselves The Sleez Sisters, and they come on the radio and perform profane protopunk songs aimed at Pam’s dad and other authority figures that have been keeping them down:
As the Sleez Sisters they get the attention of a city full of disaffected young girls, doing stunts like throwing TVs off roofs. They hang at a burlesque joint called Club Cleo, where 14 year old Pam has a job has a topless dancer but refuses to take off her top. Her weird, unique energy is enough to make her a hit with the clientele, and then Nicky gets in on the act, performing her own protopunk song, Damn Dog, with the house band The Blondells.
More and more it becomes clear that the two girls are headed on different paths. Nicky wants to be famous, while Pam seems to have gotten what she needs out of her time on the street - a sense of herself and a sense of her own art. Nicky senses that and things begin coming apart at the edges; finally, just before everything implodes Pam sets up Nicky with a concert atop the marquee of one of Times Square’s grindhouses. The call goes out on the radio and hundreds of girls, wearing trash bags because society treats them like junk and wearing make-up raccoon eyes because the world treats them like criminals, converge on 42nd Street, rapturous at the site of the Sleez Sisters.
The film’s main weapon is Robin Johnson, a brand new actress who delivers a performance made up of sheer hellfire. David Johansen produced the soundtrack and does a duet with Johnson, which is fitting because she looks and sounds like she could be his daughter. Watching her keep doing the chorus in Damn Dog is great, because that joy at performance is real; Johnson tried to get a singing career going after the movie, but film producer and music industry hotshot Robert Stigwood, who managed her, dropped the ball. Johnson ended up becoming a traffic copter reporter in LA; eventually she moved to Florida where she supposedly now operates heavy machinery.
But within the film Johnson is perfect. She never feels like she’s acting, and she captures the manic, infectious energy of Nicky as well as the anger and sadness that feeds it. Nicky is one version of the ultimate punk prototype: misunderstood, even by herself, she lashes out in rage at everything around her. She doesn’t feel like she has a future, and she doesn’t feel like she belongs - until she finds other people as outside of everything as she is. The real punk doesn’t choose to be outside of society but finds something innate in him or herself that sets them there. Nicky isn’t looking for a scene, and that’s what allows her to create a real one. The scene that grows up around the Sleez Sisters is real, not based on promotion or hipness (or even very much music) but rather on a mutual sense of understanding. There are lots of other girls who feel like Nicky feels, and they hear in her voice their own voices. They’ve never heard that before.
Pam is the other version of the ultimate punk prototype. As played by Trini Alvarado (who would go on to be the love interest in The Frighteners*), she’s a well off, smart girl who finds that her life of means is meaningless. And what’s worse is that she finds it full of endless bullshit and falseness; part of what seems to attract her to Nicky is Nicky’s ability to sniff out and call out bullshit. Pam is looking for purity in the world, and she finds it in one of the world’s least pure neighborhoods, Times Square. A pubescent Patti Smith, Pam finds honesty in the filth and grime, and she finds her art there as well.
Alvarado is drowned out by Johnson; there’s no way that any actor could have stood against the sheer fury of that performance. And Pam is also more uptight than Nicky, giving Alvarado less room to be big and playful. That said, when Pam starts dancing at the Cleo Club Alvarado has a chance to really let loose; Pam is a poet, but she finds that the words of her free verse translate just as well to free movement. She’s not a good dancer, but she expresses feeling when she moves, and Alvarado comes alive in these sequences.
The trouble spot for me in Times Square is Tim Curry. Johnny Laguardia is such a New York name, and his obsession with his dominion of Times Square, which he can see from the ledge outside his studio, is so New York. But Curry’s accent is amorphous and often wanders directly into British; I suppose that’s okay because most New Yorkers are surely not from New York, and I’ve found that many of the people most invested in the squalor of the Times Square that was weren’t New Yorkers at all. But there’s another level to Curry that vexed me throughout the film, and kept me always at a distance from his character - he’s creepy.
That’s on purpose; I don’t want to sound like the guy who didn’t get the character. Laguardia is motivated largely through his own self-interest and by the way he believes in his own mythology. He’s one of those old school late night DJs who delivers breathy ‘deep’ thoughts about life in between songs, and he’s supported by a cadre of guys who think he’s a genius, and he’s listened to by an army of restless school girls who think he’s dreamy and dangerous. The tension in Johnny Laguardia’s place in the movie is that he gets what makes the Sleez Sisters special, but he’s also attempting to use that for himself. And he might also want to fuck Pam; there’s a really disturbing sequence where he brings vodka over to the warehouse and the two lay in bed and talk into the night.
Mostly though I find the character to be kind of a douche. I suspect that you’re supposed to root for him on some level - he’s the guy who is against the coming Disneyfication of Times Square, he’s the guy who is giving some semblance of hope to legions of anonymous listeners, and we keep coming back to him throughout the first act as though he’s one of our leads. But every time he’s on screen I find him endlessly full of shit, so when his later film comeuppances and position changes roll around I didn’t care much at all. I wasn’t shocked that Johnny treated Pam’s upset dad like shit, and I wasn’t shocked that he ended up being kind of a coward.
New York City is the fourth lead in the film. Moyle couldn’t have known that what he was filming would, in a few decades, be just the hint of a bad memory. Times Square today is an open air mall where you can buy overpriced board shorts and eat at an Applebees, but in the late 70s and early 80s it was a place of endless danger. Watching this film, though, reminds me of my own experiences with pre-clean up Times Square in that the danger is only there for those who aren’t part of that world. Don’t get me wrong - junkie-fueled crime could hit anyone, and getting into trouble in the old Times Square was easy enough for anyone who just happened to be in the wrong place. But it was its own weird society of freaks and scumbags, and if you walked its streets like they were your streets - as the Sleez Sisters do - the sea of petty criminals would open up before you. I traveled to Times Square just a few years after this film came out to see weird movies and to buy ninja stars at Playland (my friends were buying fake IDs, but I had eyes only for shuriken and nunchuks) and yeah, it was scary but it was also a place that could be navigated.
The girls navigate it, and they tap the energy of it. At the end of the film, as 42nd Street clogs up with garbage bagged pubescent girls, you can see the titles of the movies playing in theaters once dedicated to the high society and now serving the lowest. It’s grindhouse heaven up and down the street, with every theater that isn’t playing pure porn showing a movie that would be completely worth seeing (and at least one poster set me off on a new film hunt; here I come Cry Rape, aka The Brutes). Almost every shot of the movie offers some tantalizing New York of the past sight to be quickly glimpsed, and I found myself trying to pay as much attention to the street settings as the main action.
Moyle is unhappy with the finished film, and has all but divorced himself from it. The film’s final song, a bad Bee Gees number, was placed on the picture by producer Stigwood, who managed the pop act. The rest of the soundtrack - Gary Numan, The Pretenders, Suzi Quatro and others - fit the film and the setting perfectly. The Bee Gees are totally out of place, although the fact that they come up right at the end does make it easier to stomach.
What really upset Moyle is that a more explicit love affair between the two leads was cut from the film. They’re both very young girls, and the on screen action never went beyond some necking, but Moyle feels that tears the heart from the picture (it also apparently eliminates a couple of plot points; the film’s middle section has a very loose feel, probably because a couple of moments of plot clarification were cut). I can see his point, but the love story remains; there’s no getting past the fact that Pam writes love poems to Nicky and that Nicky’s most emotional scene is a cry for help to Pam, where she apologizes for never telling her how she felt. The romance exists, and I almost feel like it’s all the more romantic for being never quite being fully formed. It’s a young love and an ultimately unconsummated love - as so many young loves are.
Beyond the romance Times Square captures the feeling of being young and in the city more than almost any other film I can name. In fact the movie I kept coming back to was The 400 Blows; if that entire movie was about the relationship between Antoine Doinel and Rene the films could be mirror images of each other separated by an ocean and a few decades. The friendship between Pam and Nicky is so real, so filled with actual chemistry, that sometimes the film almost feels documentary. And the way they make their way through New York is very much like the experience most kids have growing up there, playing around in the sleaze and flirting with being bad.
The emotions of these girls are completely true as well. Again, Johnson just kills it in her biggest scenes. Painting a bandit face on herself, Nicky tries to drown herself in the river but can’t pull it off; wet and with the makeup running down her face like black tears, she breaks into the radio station and demands that Johnny Laguardia put her on the air so she can talk to Pam. It’s wrenching, and Nicky’s breakdown - which doesn’t go out over the air because Johnny is kind of a douche and doesn’t seem to think that this outburst is hip enough to broadcast - is real and heartbreaking and true. It’s one of the best scenes I have seen on a movie screen in years.
Sometimes movies just seem to slip through the cracks; at the time of its release Times Square didn’t really do much business, but it became a cult hit, especially among gay and lesbian crowds. The soundtrack gained some appreciation, with The Manic Street Preachers covering Nicky’s song Damn Dog at one point. But it was Moyle’s later films, Pump Up The Volume and the generally odious Empire Records, that seem to have stuck with people. I hadn’t even really been aware of the film until earlier this year, to be honest.
I can see why the movie doesn’t work for everyone. It takes a long time to get started, and the film is hard to pigeonhole. The musical element that feels like it should be central never is; the Sleez Sisters stuff really only becomes important in the last act. There’s a lack of urgency in the middle of the film that might put some folks off, although it was part of why I loved the movie - the story unfolds at its own pace. I like that the film isn’t afraid to be dark (Nicky’s back story in particular makes some of her earliest lines in the film much darker in retrospect) but is also unafraid to find hope. The movie doesn’t avoid the squalor of Times Square, but that isn’t what it’s actually about.
Most of all I love the way that the film shows a cultural movement springing up in a real way. Moyle did this again with Pump Up The Volume, but somehow this feels more organic. Maybe it’s because the Sleez Sisters don’t deliver sub-Eric Bogosian radio rants, or maybe because Times Square is less rigidly structured. Again, nobody talks about punk rock, but this is a movie about how a punk scene is formed, with outsiders and the disaffected banding together. The music, honestly, is secondary. And it’s something that could only have truly happened in this moment of time. People today forget that the generation that was coming of age at the end of the 70s had grown up in the shadow of nuclear annihilation and seen the collapse of the hippie dream; these kids had watched the world begin to wind down and saw recessions and gas shortages and watched Russian tanks roll across borders. Punk nihilism was an almost perfectly rational response to state of the world, but what’s great is that the nihilism gave way to a sense of community, which is what the film shows.
Times Square is no longer in print on DVD; the 35mm print I saw projected is the only known one in the wild. Which is too bad because this is a film ripe for rediscovery. The world, the music, even the ragamuffin fashion these two runaways create for themselves, resonate in the new century. There are a lot of kids growing up right now in a world gone off the rails, feeling angry for reasons they (and their prescription happy doctors) don’t really understand, and there are kids growing up with everything they need except for a sense of meaning to their lives. They would look at Pam and Nicky and really understand where they were coming from, and just maybe they would strap on some garbage bags and paint their faces and sing about how they’re a damn dog now.
* Rambling side note: Alvarado’s character in The Frighteners has the last name Lynskey, which was the last name of one of the stars of Peter Jackson’s previous film, Heavenly Creatures. Heavenly Creatures is an almost perfect double feature film with Times Square, as it is also about two girls who create their own world together; Jackson’s film has less of a happy ending than Moyle’s, though. I wonder if Jackson ended up hiring Alvarado because Times Square influenced Heavenly Creatures, or if the movie was brought to his attention after he made his film. And if naming the character Lynskey wasn’t a sort of apology to Melanie Lynskey.