Throughout this essay I will be considering to what extent the Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS) relates to both the punk and glam rock sub-cultures, which occurred throughout Britain and America during the 1970’s. To investigate the association between the RHPS, punk and glam rock sub-cultures, several aspects of the production and both the sub-cultures will be considered. Some of the aspects to be taken in to account are; the clothing, styles, tastes and attitudes of all the people concerned in both the production and the sub-cultures.
In addition, the seemingly important features of the sub-cultures will be considered, such as a given definition and explanation of the term “camp” and how this has been linked with the RHPS and glam rock. Furthermore, there will be a consideration of how the film, in particular; affected, influenced and aided in creating a sense of rebellion amongst many of its audience members. There will also be particular focus given to how the Rocky Horror Picture Show relates to popular culture and how this relationship has altered over the years.
For the purpose of this essay and from further research, the term popular culture will be defined as being the lifestyle and preferences of the majority of any given human population, the trends set by popular culture tend to be quite commercially orientated. In comparison to popular culture, the notion of sub-culture will be considered as, “a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger [more popular] culture” (Oxford Online Dictionary, 2012, [online]).
To begin, a short history of the background behind the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s production could be helpful, so as to place the RHPS into context. The musical stage version of the RHPS, known simply as the Rocky Horror Show (RHS), premiered in June 1973 in a tiny theatre upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre near Kings Road, Chelsea, London. The show’s creator, Richard O’Brien (an English actor and writer), was interested in creating new and experimental theatre productions and could often be seen on Kings Road in London. This is where many believe the London punk movement originated, developed and became visible.
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The original stage production became a huge success in London and by 1974 it began to “attract popular culture luminaries including Mike Jagger himself, as well as David Bowie, Lou Reed and Tenessee Williams” (Weinstock,2008,4). From this growing popularity in England, the show moved to America, more specifically to Lou Adler’s rock club, The Roxy in Los Angeles, California. Due to the growing success in both countries, Twentieth Century Fox made the decision to “invested one million dollars on a film version” (Weinstock, 2008, 4).
The film version, named the Rocky Horror Picture Show, was released in 1975 and despite the success of the theatre production, the film was a failure. That was until it began to be played in many theatres across the country as a late-night feature, where fans would return again and again to see the film. The decision to introduce the late-night showings as well as various other factors, such as audience participation and the opportunity to interact with the film itself (through having a conversation with the movie), helped to create the films cult status which is still associated with the RHPS today.
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As mentioned above the show’s creator Richard O’Brien could often be seen on Kings Road, London and was also interested in creating new and experimental theatre. Scott Miller writes in Inside Rocky Horror (2002) that the “Royal Court [Theatre] was the centre of new work and experimental theatre in London”, he then goes on to state, about the RHS, that “Rocky was born out of the experimental theatre going on in London in the late sixties and early seventies, street theatre, guerrilla theatre, political theatre, confrontational, rule-breaking alternative theatre” (Miller, 2002, [online]).
In addition, as Richard O’Brien, and therefore the beginnings of Rocky Horror, could often be seen on Kings Road, where it is believed the London punk movement was first developed, many believe that the punk movement and the RHS are closely connected: “According to some accounts, Rocky Horror created the punk movement in London; according to other accounts Rocky merely helped fertilize the very earliest seeds of the movement” (Miller, 2002, [online]).
To investigate this further an analysis of Rocky Horror (the film version: RHPS), punk and another associated trend, glam rock, will be considered. The glam rock movement is often associated with the beginnings of the punk movement and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. This is for many of the trends set in the glam rock era, which occurred in England during the early to mid- seventies, when Rocky Horror and the punk culture were first emerging, can be seen within the production. During this time period glam rock became commercially successful and influential within he fashion and music industries. Glam rock has been “described by director and screenwriter Todd Hayes as ‘nothing short of a Camp attack on rock and roll’, glam represented a ‘queering’ of the masculine hegemony of popular music” (Weinstock, 2008, 35). As can be seen, glam rock is often described as ‘camp’ rock and roll, however, what is camp? Susan Sontag writes about camp in her essay Notes on Camp (1964), here she attempts to identify the values, practice and meaning of the term ‘camp’. Sontag begins by indicating that camp “is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such.
Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” (Sontag, 2001, 275). She describes camp to either be slightly naive and pure or altogether conscious, meaning whether a person or an object is either trying to be overtly camp or they are not necessarily aware of the fact that they are. She also mentions several fundamental factors as to what ‘camp’ is; for example, the spirit of exaggeration, the aesthetic and sense of style, the challenge of trying something extraordinary, the elevation of character and the refined sexual attraction (Sontag, 2001).
Throughout the time period in which glam rock was briefly successful many believed that this style and attitude was camp and asexual. This is for it challenged the views on gender roles; with men (such as the musicians David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury) openly wearing what was seen to be women’s clothing, such as leotards, tights and platform heels: “glam [rock] artists consciously blurred the lines between straight and gay, male and female” (Weinstock, 2008, 39).
Many believed some aspects of this style feed in to the punk movement, which adopted some of the performance and character creating trends, such as being outrageous and shocking through their choice of clothes or style and their alter ego and attitudes: “they did care about their look, because they cared … what their peers thought. As for what others thought, however, they gave not a damn”. It is also mentioned that “it was ‘the look’ that was the liberating factor, both for those that wore it as well as those who saw it” (Michaels and Evans, 2002, 17).
This type of attitude can be seen within many appearances of glam rock’s performer David Bowie, also known as Ziggy Stardust during this era. All the aspects mentioned above can be related and seen throughout Rocky Horror. The aspects of both glam rock and punk can be clearly seen in the shocking, self-assured and rule-breaking attitudes of some of the characters, especially in the form of Tim Curry’s portrayal of Dr Frank N Furter in the RHPS, for which he has been compared with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. The introduction of Curry’s character, Dr Frank N Furter, to the audience occurs during the musical number ‘Sweet Transvestite’.
In the film, Frank gradually descends in an elevator and appears into shot, with repeated framed close ups of his star, sequined patterned platform heels tapping to the beat of the numbers introduction. The shot pans out, until after Janet, the heroine, screams in shock cueing the shot to cut to a close up of Franks heavily made up face. Dressed in a long black Dracula styled cape, platform heels and a full face of heavy make-up, he struts down the aisle with self confidence, completely aware that he is the focus of everyone’s attention, including that of the camera.
The pinnacle moment of the performance “occurs when Frank discards his cloak, revealing his gender-bending attire” (Weinstock, 2008, 40): his leather corset, suspenders, ripped fishnet stockings and ‘boss’ tattoo hidden underneath. Julian Cornell writes in Reading Rocky Horror… (2008) that “Franks appearance is clearly meant to disrupt conventional notions of gender, as it is an amalgam of masculine and feminine, [also] his dress and manner eroticize his gender fluidity” (Weinstock, 2008, 40).
As can be seen from Frank N Furter’s introduction, his character is extravagant and charming; he is adored by the gathering of unconventional conventioners and his whole aesthetic and style is extraordinary or more specifically from another planet. Frank was considered by many members of the audience to be oddly exhilarating, sexy and inspiring, for he allows a large amount of his body to be uncovered, showing his defined muscles and manly body whilst still being visibly feminine in many of his actions. Although this is the case many did also find him excessive, arrogant and selfish, taking only what he wants.
It is clear from the description of Tim Curry’s portrayal of Dr Frank N Furter, that several aspects of both glam rock and the punk movement can be witnessed within the film production. To further investigate the relationship between the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the punk and glam rock sub-cultures of the 1970’s, the act of rebellion both within the production and throughout its audience members and society will be considered. When exploring the RHPS and the punk movement a subject matter that seems to feature predominantly is the act of rebellion.
Rebellion is “the action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention [for example, an act of teenage rebellion]” (Oxford Online Dictionary, 2012, [online]). There are several moments within the production itself that convey an act of rebellion. The Transylvanians dress code compared to the protagonist heroes Brad and Janet’s clean cut 1950’s style attire could be seen to be shocking. For example Frank N Furter wears a leather corset, suspenders, fishnet stockings and glitter platform heels, which compared to Brad’s clean trousers, tucked in shirt, vest and glasses appears outrageous and strangely erotic.
It appears in this situation that the Transylvanian’s, Frank and also in some hidden way Magenta and Riff Raff, are rebelling against the restrictions created by the conventional society to which both Brad and Janet belong, in order for them to feel liberated and in control. This sense of rebellion can also be seen in the musical number ‘Hot Patootie’, where Frank’s old sex interest before his creation of Rocky, Eddie, “enters on a Harley, clad in leather and blue jeans… ,love and hate tattooed across the knuckles of his hands” (Weinstock, 2008, 43).
In this scene Eddie disrupts Frank’s grand moment after the creature Rocky is revealed. It can be said that Eddie’s attitude, his self- confidence and slight arrogance, mirrors that of the youths involved within in the punk movement. It has been said that a large majority of the film reflects the essence of rebellion, no other scene more than the moment in which Frank’s ‘Transylvanian servants’ Riff Raff and Magenta revolt against Frank’s power, control and eccentric sexual experiments.
In the last fifteen minutes of the movie, Riff Raff and Magenta appear clothed in futuristic alien tunics and underwear, giving the audience the impression of their apparent non-human qualities: “we have to wonder if Frank and his fellow aliens’ strange appearances are because [they have] learnt about earth only through old sci-fi and horror films, … and photos of [1970’s] glam rockers and punks” (Miller, 2002, [online]).
In the end they kill Frank in an act of rebellion and as a means of liberating themselves from his ideologies and control, in killing Frank they are able to gain control and return home to their planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania. As has been mention earlier, the RHPS became popular and the movie began gathering a cult fan club when it was played in theatres as a late-night feature: “Rocky Horror is almost universally hailed, as Danny Peary puts it in his book Cult Movies, as ‘the undisputed king … no queen of the midnight movie circuit’ and as ‘the very definition of the term cult picture’” (Weinstock, 2008, 3).
Peary also “asserts that Rocky Horror is the ‘one film that cannot be discussed without mentioning its fans’ and characterises the movie as the ‘ultimate audience participation film’” (Weinstock, 2007, 32). With this in mind there is a lot to be said on this subject. For this essay, some of the aspects of audience participation will be taken in to account, such as the audience responding to the action happening on the screen, the props used and costumes worn and finally the movement, singing and dancing during the musical numbers, especially during the ‘Time Warp’.
To see Rocky Horror in a movie theatre is a unique experience in the nature of the famous audience response and involvement throughout. The audience are often referred to as the ‘shadow cast’ for they shout responses back to the screen in the gaps between the spoken text. They also interact with the onscreen action through the use of props, which they bring along to the theatre, for example they throw rice during the opening wedding scene and they also squirt water guns, whilst the rain falls onscreen.
Most famously the audience members will tend to dress as characters within Rocky and sing along to the songs. Even more specifically, they will stand and participate with the dancing during the ‘Time Warp’. It has been mentioned that the RHPS has changed the behaviour for many filmgoers of a particular generation, for Rocky allowed the audience the opportunity to rebel against the social normalities of conventional viewing, where people will sit quietly and absorb the film (Weinstock, 2007).
The Rocky Horror Picture Show also seemingly embodies the rebellions that were occurring during the time period of its creation, for instance in the late sixties and early seventies the political and sexual revolution occurred. This rebellion gained women more power (women’s liberation movement) and both sexes more freedom to experiment and act more on their own impulses and sexual needs, couples would have swingers and wife swapping parties; people were also more open to the idea of casually sleeping around.
Jeffery Weinstock writes in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (2007) that the “RHPS celebrates sex. It is about the liberation of sexuality – not love or romance- but pure unadulterated sex. And not only sex, but transsexual, heterosexual, homosexual and transvestite sex” (Weinstock, 2007, 56). The RHPS is a fantasy, a tale which has been told many times, a tale regarding the loss of innocence, although there is a 1970’s twist concerning the introduction of B-movie style aliens, the Transylvanians; Frank, Riff Raff and Magenta.
During the movie two mottos are used to support this sexual rebellion and the idea of fantasy, these are ‘give yourself over to absolute pleasure’ and ‘don’t dream it, be it’. Many of Rocky’s audience members, including members of the punk movement, hung to these words and lived by them to gain a sense of freedom and control (Miller, 2002). In terms of the RHPS and culture, as mentioned earlier in this essay, the film and stage production are believed by some to have been the catalyst of the punk movement during the 1970’s, where as others believe it was merely a part of the build-up to the punk culture that occurred.
Sue Blane, the original costume designer, states that in her opinion it would be quite wrong to say that Rocky Horror itself was the reason for punk. Although it is her belief the Rocky was defiantly a big part of the growth of punk culture and maybe some aspects were taken directly from and accredited to Rocky Horror, “for instance, ripped fishnet tights and glitter, and the funny-coloured hair” (Michaels and Evans, 2002, 103). So, from this, how has the relationship between the RHPS and culture or popular culture changed, if this is the case, over the years?
To begin, although the RHPS is not necessarily considered high art or even popular art, the movie and lyrics itself give reference to both genres of art. Weinstock states that “Rocky Horror, it must be acknowledged, is the oddest of things: a relative low-budget gender-bending mish-mash of genres that somehow manages to provoke a response” (Weinstock, 2008, 2). With this in mind, Rocky Horror is essentially a 1970’s version of the science fiction B-movie’s of previous decades.
To introduce the movie the song ‘Science Fiction/ Double Feature’ describes the classic science-fiction story, whilst making reference to several Science-fiction B-movie titles, such as King Kong and Forbidden Planet. Throughout the movie and musical numbers; numerous films, works of art (such as De Vinci’s Mona Lisa and The Last Supper), stories (Frankenstein, Dracula and Shakespearian plays) and more recent popular cultures (Steve Reeves and Charles atlas, muscle man) are referenced. Scott Miller writes in Inside Rocky Horror (2002), that “Art is not for the elite, Rocky tells us; it is for everyone.
And everyone should not be passive, it also tells us; it should be active. And so Rocky Horror the film transforms from simple entertainment into ritual and public event” (Miller, 2002, [online]). Here it can be seen that the audience without even realising it is being influenced by what is being played onscreen before them, it seems that the audience themselves are a member of the cast, as several of the characters, especially Frank N Furter and the Narrator, speak directly and interact with the camera.
This allows the audience to become and feel more involved with the movie, thus creating the audience participation and cult status which famously surrounds the RHPS: “the audience is fully part of the cinematic experience and it transforms Rocky Horror from forgettable film into exhilarating event” (Weinstock, 2007, 109). So as time passed Rocky Horror reached its commercial and successful peak during the early 1980’s, when around two hundred copies of the film were in constant circulation, but then the fascination and interest began to fade, until only special Halloween showings were the highlight of the year for many Rocky Horror fans.
Although, in the absence of the films showings and the audience participation, legends grow. It seems, according to Weinstock, that “it may always have been the case that people loved the idea of Rocky Horror more than the movie itself” (Weinstock, 2007, 112). From this it can be said that the Rocky Horror Picture Show is seen by many as either a nostalgic desire or a rite of passage for many of the younger generation.
The younger generation may feel as though Rocky Horror is a film in which should be seen at least once in a lifetime, although many it would seem know some aspects of the film, such as how to dance the ‘Time Warp’ even without seeing the movie or even knowing where it originated. Rocky Horror is no longer seen to be edgy or pushing boundaries, both within society and within the art world, for what was seen to be edgy at its premier is now considered reasonably acceptable (Weinstock, 2007).
To conclude, I believe that from what has been discussed, The Rocky Horror Picture Show grew alongside the London punk movement, with some influence and inspiration given to its audience members. There are throughout both the stage and film productions, clear glam rock and punk influences that can be seen; influences such, the style of the attire worn, the attitude of the characters, the music, and the lyrics and even in the effortlessness of the choreography. This is especially seen during the ‘Time Warp’ when the participants are clearly old what to perform during the songs chorus, “It’s just a jump to the left and a step to the right” (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975, [DVD]). So, in my opinion The Rocky Horror Picture is a reflection of both and era and a past culture. As Scott Miller states: “Just as Chicago’s central themes and its satire rest entirely on the time period in which it’s set, so too is Rocky’s satire inextricably linked to the [1970’s]. The show is satirizing events of the 1970’s, so to take the [1970’s] out of the show emasculates it” (Miller, 2002, [online]).