I'll be upfront here: Every Which Way But Loose director James Fargo's 1985 sci-fi jukebox musical Voyage of the Rock Aliens is a supremely annoying movie. It's got it all: annoying fish-out-of-water jokes, annoying robot jokes, annoying gay panic jokes, and most of all, annoying Eighties ear-worms. (The earworms are no joke.)
In fact, the trailer (featured in Drafthouse Films' Trailer War!) offers a pretty accurate sample of the movie as a whole. Imagine that level of annoying energy for 96 minutes, and you've about got it.
The title isn't even accurate: the story takes place entirely on Earth, the rock is mostly performed by the bad guys, and the aliens aren't very alien. Portrayed by techno band Rhema, they come to the town of Speelburgh seeking the source of rock music. They find it in Dee Dee (Pia Zadora), her asshole boyfriend Frankie (Craig Sheffer), and his asshole band, The Pack (Jimmy and the Mustangs). The aliens' leader ABCD falls in love with Dee Dee, of course; there are also subplots involving a battle of bands, a lake-dwelling tentacle monster, and a gun-obsessed town sheriff. Put it this way: Rock Aliens' most honest storyline consists of a romance between Dee Dee's best friend (Alison La Placa, giving the one believable performance in the movie) and a chainsaw-wielding asylum escapee played by The Hills Have Eyes' Michael Berryman. This is a really stupid movie that barely hangs together narratively, and that offers exclusively surface-level entertainment, and not even particularly good surface-level entertainment at that.
Here is Voyage of the Rock Aliens' best joke:
Frankie: Did you polish my car yet?
Mouth: I couldn't find a rag.
Frankie: (tears Mouth's shirt off) Use this.
Mouth: (amazed) Wow, I was wearing one all the time!
Most of the cast were selected not for acting prowess but for musical ability. Former Santa Claus Conquers The Martians child star Pia Zadora is the most prominent, here at the zenith of her brief dalliance with popstar fame. Zadora is pretty hopeless when acting, but carries herself well in the song-and-dance sequences, some of which are genuinely lots of fun. That's good for Zadora, because much of the movie consists of music videos for her own tracks. Many of the film's songs are taken directly from her album Let's Dance Tonight, and their visual treatments conceived, shot and cut like music videos, as opposed to "proper" musical numbers. More perplexingly, the film opens with a literal music video for Zadora and Jermaine Jackson's "When The Rain Begins To Fall". It's dropped in with no connection to the story (Zadora plays a different role to her character in the rest of the movie), a naked marketing opportunity for Zadora's music career.
Meanwhile, Oscar-winning actress (and three times Oscar-nominated writer!) Ruth Gordon also turns up to lend some legitimacy to the film, but she spends most of this movie, one of her last, engaging in pratfalls and stupid-old-person acting as the Magoo-esque, open-carry advocating town sheriff. Some of it is even shot in fast-motion to make her seem even more stupid. It's a full-blown insult to one of the greats. Rock Aliens was also one of the final outings for its cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, whose insanely accomplished résumé also includes A Hard Day's Night, Dr. Strangelove, Frenzy, Repulsion, The Omen, Dracula (1979), and Star Wars. One can only imagine what ran through Taylor's head as he framed up for a shot of a fire hydrant peeing on a dog.
Of the cast, only Craig Sheffer emanates a modicum of musical-cinema presence, playing asshole Pack frontman Frankie with smouldering intensity. His big song "Nature of the Beast" is a highlight: an obviously overdubbed pop anthem featuring terrible choreography, outdoor shirtless push-ups, and surprise big cats. That Dee Dee and Frankie end up together at the end is one of the movie's more curious narrative turns He's a complete dick, and basically remains unredeemed at the end, but Dee Dee chooses to stay with him rather than face an emotionless, sexless life in the stars. A total asshole is better than no hole at all.
I swore I'd never watch Voyage of the Rock Aliens again after the first time I saw it at 4am one morning, but after revisiting it for this article, I'm actually kind of glad I did. Not only is it slightly more palatable in the light of day, but it actually has an interesting background similar in some respects to Last Action Hero's. Originally intended as a straight-up spoof of B-movies, it was meant to mash up genres as if the audience was jumping between TV stations. That was original writer James Guidotti's Attack of the Aliens script, but under the guidance of producers Edward Gold and Charles Hairston, it gradually morphed into the full-blown musical that came to limited release in 1985. The B-movie influence is still there - you can see the inspiration from (and even love for!) sci-fi movies, beach party movies, juvenile delinquent films, monster movies, rock'n'roll flicks, slashers - but it's buried beneath a slick pop-music veneer and the dumbest of dumb Eighties comedy. Though abrasive and barely watchable at times, if you look closely, you can still appreciate the intention behind the madness.
Voyage of the Rock Aliens is one of those movies where watching it makes you acutely aware of your finite hours on this Earth. Fans of Eighties musicals may glean some enjoyment from it, but ultimately they'll go back to the much, much better The Apple. Looking back over the various decisions I've made up until this point, I probably should have written about that movie instead. But such is life: sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes you watch Voyage of the Rock Aliens twice and then write a thousand words about it.