Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: The three girls who make up rock band The Kelly Affair head to Los Angeles with the lead singer’s boyfriend and heads full of dreams.  However, the reality offered by LA impresario Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell is a dangerous mixture of drugs and debauchery from which no-one will emerge unscathed.

Hey, man! You dig that girl band The Kelly Affair? Manager Harris (David Gurian) certainly digs on singer Kelly (Dolly Read), and she digs him back; but although Harris is happy making out and picking up the cash for playing at schools, Kelly has bigger plans.  She convinces bassist Casey (Cynthia Myers) and drummer Petronella (Marcia McBroom) to try their luck in LA, where by happy coincidence Kelly has a rich Aunt Susan (Phyllis Nelson) and (she discovers) a share in a million-dollar fortune, though Susan’s square lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) has serious misgivings. Susan also offers an introduction to music impresario and all-round fixer Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John Lazar) at one of his wild parties.

The meeting has profound implications for all the new arrivals: for a start, the band is renamed The Carrie Nations; Ronnie usurps Harris’ place as manager and gold-digging actor/gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett) steals Kelly’s affections; Pet bumps into waiter/law student Emerson (Harrison Page), but a one-night stand with James Iglehart’s heavyweight boxer causes all kinds of ructions; and quiet Casey turns to drugs, though Sapphic fashion designer Roxanne (Erica Gavin) keeps a close eye on her. Harris, meanwhile, fails to satisfy voracious porn star Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams), gets walloped by Lance, and recklessly takes advantage of Casey’s vulnerability, leading him to make a dramatic cry for help on live television. However, the increasing craziness around the group is as nothing compared to the violent events of Z-Man’s last, and wildest, party.

It’s entirely possible to see Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as a snapshot of what went wrong with the Summer of Love, the ideals of free love distorted by drugs and sex into a lurid soap opera of bed-hopping and murder in an ultra-seedy Sin City (a fleeting shot of the grubby Hollywood sign tells you everything you need to know about late ’60s/early ‘70s Los Angeles). This is particularly true of the dialogue, peppered with hippy clichés and phrases that sound ridiculous now, and probably did at the time: ‘This is my happening and it freaks me out!’ yells Barzell over the strains of the Strawberry Alarm Clock.

Yet if the burnt-out hippy vibe were all the film had to offer, it would be nigh-on unwatchable forty years on (for some reason, Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels comes to mind).  Somehow, BVD’s faux-morality tale of Innocence, or rather Idealism, Lost manages to engage the viewer, and on more than a visual level.  It wouldn’t be right to call the movie a spoof, and satire would praise it too highly, but it’s certainly aware of its bombastic excesses and high camp dialogue. The filmmakers let you know that they know they’re serving up overripe, over-the-top trash, and invite you to sit back and enjoy it.

Which brings us to the film’s notorious director, Russ Meyer, and his fondness for the more (ahem) generously-proportioned lady. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls saw Meyer employed as hired hand for 20th Century Fox and it’s obvious that – even allowing for numerous naked couplings – his style has been toned down considerably.  However, it’s equally obvious that most of the female cast have not been cast primarily for their acting chops: Cynthia Myers is quite affecting as shy, misused Casey, but she’s no Hepburn; and cute though Dolly Read may be, she struggles to fit in with the over-charged atmosphere (much like her chest, her English accent keeps popping out). There’s inevitably a big dollop of gratuity involved in the movie, but it never tips over into pornography since the story always takes precedence. Meyer always films women beautifully, too; not only do they look good, but they also have strong personalities and there’s never any suggestion that they are merely the playthings of men (indeed, it’s usually the other way round).

Moreover, though he broadly deserved his nickname ‘King Leer‘, it unfairly overshadows Meyer’s talents as a director; for example, see how he gives us snippets from the climax under the opening credits, to let us know that something will go horribly haywire without giving the game away. His kinetic editing style is also in evidence, the attention always shifting without ever becoming disjointed or distracting. He also uses the band’s perfectly bearable songs to good effect, though I imagine they are unlikely to be to many people‘s tastes these days. Meyer and fellow writer Roger Ebert (yes, that one) also create a truly fascinating character in Z-Man: loquacious, articulate, charismatic and mad as the proverbial box of frogs.

Unsurprisingly, not everything works. The whole business with Porter’s devious machinations and Kelly tricking Porter into a compromising situation is actually quite tiresome (Read’s assets can only get her so far); and who knows what happens to Kelly’s insistence on having her share of the money, or why Charles Napier turns up at all. But in general, the film’s overwrought drama easily holds the interest, right up to its perfectly bonkers climax at Ronnie‘s Superhero party and the absurd moralising that follows.

You probably wouldn’t want to watch Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with your church group or your mum. Neither, actually, do you need to watch it too often, for while it’s not simply a time capsule, the incessant hippyisms can wear you out. What you should do, assuming you’re of an age to do so, is give it a watch. Then you can decide for yourself whether it’s a worthy of the name ‘cult classic’ or just titillating trash. I’m genuinely undecided.


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