Roller Boogie (1979) -**˝
Sure— what the hell? We’ve already had a roller derby exploitation movie, so why not give roller disco its fifteen Warholian minutes of big-screen attention, too? Put Linda Blair in the starring role while you’re at it, and I’m definitely sold. I don’t know why, but there’s something about these 70’s fad movies that I find irresistible, even when— as with Roller Boogie— they’re not enormously entertaining. Maybe it’s the spectacle of people who don’t understand how out of touch they are scrambling to make a buck off of the youth market at the very time when a monolithic Youth Market was effectively ceasing to exist. By the second half of the decade, the tribalization of adolescence (and post-adolescence, too, for that matter) was rapidly gathering momentum, but the captains of the culture industries kept right on searching for the biggest, most universally appealing bandwagon, oblivious to the fact that bandwagons in general were downsizing at least as rapidly as Detroit’s contemporary automotive offerings.
If we may judge from Roller Boogie’s opening scene (which, really, we probably may not), there is nothing the kids in whichever Los Angeles beach community this is supposed to be love more than rollerskating. Seemingly every third storefront offers skates for sale or rent, and the boardwalk is a hazardous environment for pedestrians who lack the added speed and maneuverability conferred by sets of chunky rubber wheels. (Remember, this was back when skates still used the car-like quad-roller/toe-brake configuration, and when wheels were cylinders at least as deep as they were broad.) The hottest hangout is the rink owned by retired roller derby star Jammer Delaney (Sean McClory, from Valley of the Dragons and Body Bags), and the biggest event of the year is Delaney’s annual Roller Boogie skate-dancing contest.
One of Delaney’s regulars is a boy named Robby James (Jim Bray), widely regarded to be the best skater on the scene, and more or less exactly interchangeable with John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever character. Note that this requires us to accept that LA’s ethno-social landscape in 1979 is more or less exactly interchangeable with Brooklyn’s, and although I wouldn’t pretend to know for sure, I don’t mind telling you that I’m highly skeptical of that premise. Robby has big dreams. Delaney’s dance contest is fun and all, but he has his eyes on the Olympics next year— which raises yet another questionable premise. Are ice skating and roller skating really that similar, or was roller figure skating actually slated to be an event in the 1980 Olympic Games? (Of course, Robby’s hopes are destined to be dashed either way, due to the American Olympic boycott that year. Who knows, though— maybe in the Roller Boogie universe, Robby James went on to achieve lasting cult fame in later years as the star of 1985’s non-smash non-hit, Rollerkata.) Most days, you can find Robby down on the boardwalk, skating around with his pals, Hoppy (James Van Patten, later of Saw IV and The Killing Jar), Gordo (Mother’s Day Massacre’s Albert Insinnia), and Phones (Stoney Jefferson, from Streets of Fire and Human Desires), and that’s just where Terry Barkley (Linda Blair, of Savage Streets and Repossessed) does find him on a morning far more fateful than either one of them could yet guess.
Terry is a Beverly Hills chick, the daughter of high-powered attorney Roger Barkley (Roger Perry, from The Thing with Two Heads and Count Yorga, Vampire) and high-indolence housewife Lilian Barkley (Beverly Garland, of Swamp Women and The Neanderthal Man). She’s also a “musical genius” whose parents are packing her off to a conservatory in New York to study the flute once the summer ends. Terry is not very happy about this. Sure, she appreciates the opportunity to hone her natural abilities under the best teachers that money can buy, but the conservatory gig is her parents’ plan, and lately, Terry has been feeling like her whole fucking life has been her parents’ plan. Take Franklyn Potter (Without Warning’s Chris Nelson), for example. Franklyn is the son of Lilian’s best friend, and everybody just assumes that he and Terry are destined to be a couple, but the truth is, Terry can barely stand the whining little weasel. The fact that Franklyn is as sex-mad as any teenage boy, and has been conditioned all his life to expect his family’s wealth to get him anything and everything he wants, only makes matters worse. Consequently, when Terry and her friend, Lana (Kimberly Beck, from Massacre at Central High and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), go down to the boardwalk to skate, encounter Robby practicing the moves he hopes will win him his ticket to Moscow next year, and find themselves fending off advances from him and the other West Coast Sweathogs, it begins to occur to her that here is something that definitely has no place in her parents’ plans.
Terry and Robby meet for real that night at Delaney’s, when the boy bets his friends that he can get her to skate with him even despite the vast socioeconomic gulf that separates them. The way is smoothed for Robby by the fact that Terry has only recently taken up skating; she wants someone to teach her how to do more than propel herself from point A to point B, and she sensibly figures she might as well learn from the best. Robby overplays his hand at first by trying to kiss her, but she’ll become more receptive to that sort of thing later, after she’s had a chance to spend some time with Robby, and to figure out that in sharp contrast to Franklyn, she actually likes this guy, misplaced Brooklynisms and all. Eventually, Terry conceives the idea that what she really wants to do with her last bit of freedom before the conservatory is to compete in Delaney’s next Roller Boogie, regardless of (if not indeed because of) her parents’ rapidly escalating disapproval of her newfound affection for skating, disco music, and mooky working-class boardwalk kids.
Now at this point, it looks like Roller Boogie is shaping up to be the Don’t Knock the Rock of roller disco, and a lot of youth-culture exploitationeers would have been perfectly content with that mission. Not this bunch, though. No, Roller Boogie soon reveals its intention to be roller disco’s answer to Black Belt Jones as well, for Delaney is being harassed by a crooked real estate developer called Thatcher (Mark Goddard, from Blue Sunshine and Strange Invaders), who covets the ground on which his roller rink sits. Just like Papa Byrd’s karate dojo, Delaney’s is smack in the middle of a big parcel of land that Thatcher hopes to buy up and put to much more lucrative use than a place for teenagers to spend their minimum-wage Burger King earnings. By a fortuitous coincidence, Thatcher and a couple of his goons are in Delaney’s office leaning on him when Robby, Terry, and Phones come looking to replace the broken axle on one of Terry’s skates, and they overhear the whole conversation. Furthermore (although none of the kids yet realize this), a second fortuitous coincidence involving Phones’s ever-present boombox causes them to catch it on tape when Thatcher threatens to sic an arsonist on Delaney if he doesn’t agree to sell the rink within 48 hours. Nevermind the injustice of the situation; nevermind the impending loss of the boardwalk crowd’s favorite hangout; that 48-hour deadline would force Delaney to sell out before this summer’s Roller Boogie! No, we fucking well can’t have that. Awfully fortunate, then, isn’t it, that the new girl on the scene happens to be the daughter of the scariest lawyer in Beverly Hills? Well, maybe not. You see, there’s just one little problem with Terry’s scheme to use her father to even the odds between Thatcher and Delaney— Thatcher already has Roger Barkley on retainer!
The mob real estate angle is what really makes this movie. It adds an extra note of desperation— not in the intended sense of raising the stakes for the story, but in the much more entertaining sense of exposing the filmmakers’ fears that the old generation-gap routine wasn’t going to be enough in a movie about so innocuous a phenomenon as roller disco. Those worries were well founded, too. Sure, Roller Boogie tries gamely to keep the “parents just don’t understand” ball in play by harping on the divergence between Terry’s classical music studies and the disco sound beloved of the boardwalk skaters, but given how much classical instrumentation— strings, horns, woodwinds, and yes, even flutes— one hears in the background of all but the most rock- and/or funk-oriented disco material, it’s never terribly convincing. Nor is it persuasive when Roller Boogie halfheartedly frames Mr. and Mrs. Barkley’s objections to Terry’s new friends in terms of “These kids today, with their so on and so forth,” rather than on the class basis that would so obviously be the real sticking point. Meanwhile, if you don’t actually like either roller skating or disco, there’s sure to be a definite limit to your tolerance for the film’s endless depictions of young people in ugly clothes coasting up and down the boardwalk and twirling each other around on the floor of Delaney’s embattled rink (although it is both unexpected and fascinating when the course of events brings Robby and Terry to a skate park, fully modern in every respect except that the customers are zipping around the bowls and halfpipes on skates instead of skateboards). Once Thatcher shows up, though, things turn positively giddy, in a way that greatly enhances Roller Boogie’s amusement value. Kids on skates getting their freak on to Bob Esty’s imitations of Donna Summer and the Bee-Gees are one thing, but kids on skates being chased around the streets of Los Angeles by a limousine full of mobsters is something else altogether!